Thursday, December 1, 2011

Visas in Vientiane

Fellow adventurer.
With a solid suntan on our bodies and the Family Guy theme song ringing in our ears we head off for the capital of Laos, Vientiane.  Originally we had planned on skipping Vientiane all together; the travel guides don't make too much of it and we hadn't heard anything amazing from other travelers. But since it would be the easiest place to get our Vietnam visas taken care of (which you have to get in advance of crossing the border) we tacked it on to our itinerary. Another couple days in Laos? Could be worse.

We had hoped to make more of an adventure of it--some companies in Vang Vieng offer a kayaking trip to Vientiane--but unfortunately the river was running too strong and the trip was cancelled.  So we hopped another minivan for the 4 hour journey.  When we arrive it takes a little while to secure a reasonable guesthouse.  The cheap ones downtown seem to be sold-out, and the slightly more expensive ones don't seem to be worth it.  We get tired of lugging our bags around and settle on one that's about 90,000 kip (about $11.25) which is way more than we'd usually spend.  But we shrug it off, drop our stuff and head off on foot for the Vietnamese embassy.

Vientiane sits on the Mekong River, about 18km from the First Friendship Bridge that established an easy place to cross into Thailand.  As the biggest city in Laos, it's also the economic center of the country.  But it doesn't show it's size: the traffic is mild by SE Asian standards and the air is breathable.

Typically, we find ourselves hiking the city streets in the midday sun, but we catch our first glimpse of the Arc de Triomphe-style Patuxai (Victory Gate) and arrive at the embassy thankful for their blasting AC and free water.  After a little paperwork we fork over $40 a piece (they only accept US cash) and are told to return in 2 days to pick up our visas.

Patuxai (Victory Gate)
Back out in the heat we slowly make our way back to the guesthouse, strolling through the park surrounding the Victory Gate and just generally soaking up the city's atmosphere.  Another sign of the French colonial influence--all the street signs are posted in Lao and French.  It's actually kind of refreshing after 6 weeks and nothing but indecipherable characters.

That evening we hit up a rooftop bar along the river for one of the most beautiful sunsets of the trip so far.  I nearly drop my iPhone four stories down off the ledge while snapping a picture, but Sadrah miraculously saves it.  After that scare we stroll the market below in the waning twilight, find a place for dinner and head back to the guesthouse for the night.

We spend the next morning trekking out to the COPE Visitors Center. COPE is a non-profit organization that works to provide access to prosthesis, wheelchairs and physical/occupational therapy for those who cannot afford it. While the scope of their work is not limited to people who are injured by UXO's (unexploded ordinance) it is a clearly a big part of what they do.

Before entering the museum we're greeted by a wonderful young man who calls himself Small Kim. He is receiving care at the center and has been given the job of greeting guests to the museum.  He's blind and has lost both his hands, but the strength of his spirit is immeasurable.  We talk with him for a good 10 minutes, in awe of his eager questions. How do we like Laos? Have we been to California? How many people live in California? He has a friend in Colorado. How big is Colorado? Do we know Michael Jackson?  He tells us all about the English parents who have (we think) adopted him--he named himself after his adoptive mother, who he calls Big Kim. His smile and energy are just amazing.

COPE Center
Inside we have our first real look at the horrors our government wrought on the Lao people during the Vietnam War.  The US dropped what are called cluster bombs: massive 600lb. bombs filled with little "bombies" all over the Lao countryside. In mid-air the cluster bomb opens and the bombies are dispersed.  Each bombie, about the size of a tennis ball, is designed to explode on impact sending shrapnel (often tiny ball bearings) in every direction.  Unfortunately, many didn't explode on impact.  They estimate that of the 260 million bombies dropped in Lao PDR during the war, 80 million did not explode.  These UXO's are still injuring around 300 people a year in Laos--farmers can't clear their land, roads can't be built, children can't play in their yards.  It's devastating and sad, and as Americans we can't help but feel a little guilty.

Bombie art.

No one should use these things again, ever. Go here to learn more about the campaign to ban the use of cluster bombs.

After the museum we're content to skip out on any more sight-seeing, so we while away the afternoon at a community pool. Lots of chlorine, lots of kids, lots of sun.  So we catch up on our books, soak up some rays, take a dip and repeat.  

Swimmin' hole.
That night we dine at Makphet, a training restaurant run by a charity called Friends International.  All the staff are former street kids who will hopefully use the training they receive in the restaurant to go on to careers in the hospitality industry. It's an interesting, alternative way to give back--offer conscious travelers great food and a chance to support an organization that's making a difference you can see up close.  Even though we unknowingly show up right before closing time, the staff is polite and our food is delicious--probably the best meal we've had in Laos so far.

The rest of our stay in Vientiane is marked by postcard mailing and unmistakable smells of freshly-baked bread. I couldn't resist, and clearly I'm quite happy about it. There is not alot of good bread in Thailand.

We've also become completely sick and tired of the gigantic Lonely Planet's Southeast Asia on a Shoestring that we have the wrestle out of my bag every time we need to check an address or scan a map.  So, we pick up a bootleg copy of a Lonely Planet's (would've bought another brand if we could've found one) Vietnam travel guide for a whole $5.  This should do for the next leg of the trip--it's probably a little older than the most recent version, but for 1/5 of the original price it'll do the trick.

Our visas are ready to go by mid-afternoon on our 3rd day in Vientiane, so we decide to save some time and grab an overnight bus to our next destination. I know I'm never going to get a true night's sleep on an overnight bus (unless it's a sleeper) but sometimes it's a good idea when it saves valuable time and the cost of an extra night's stay in a guesthouse.

We certainly did not get the sleeper bus--not that there was one available to get. We also did not get the AC bus we were promised.  But in exchange, we did get the 2AM "dinner" stop bus. Nothing beats a bowl of mystery stew and an energy drink at 2AM right? Well, nothing except a 3:30AM bathroom stop in the middle of nowhere.  Men and women alike empty off of the bus in complete darkness, wander 10 or 15 meters in all directions and take care of their business.  Arrive groggy, we will...

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

In the tubing

After the early-morning collection of alms by the monks in Luang Prabang, we board a minivan for the 5-6+ hour ride to Vang Vieng.  The road is bumpy, twisting and mountainous--not exactly ideal for those prone to motion sickness.  But at this point in the trip we seem to be getting used to it. Pop in the headphones, relax and enjoy the scenery.  In Laos, you quickly learn to go with the flow. There really is no other way.

River bar - note the beach pails.
Once little more than a rural village, Vang Vieng has exploded into a backpacker must-do on the Pancake Trail of Southeast Asia. Most of the draw centers around "tubing," which is essentially the act of floating down the beautiful Nam Song river in a gigantic truck tire inner tube.  What started as an innocent way to relax has grown into a Spring Break-like free for all. A few miles up from town the river is lined with simple bars set on flimsy platforms just above the river's rushing water. They pump loud music from around 11AM and sell Beer Lao and buckets by the hundreds to young Western travelers eager for dancing and debauchery. Oh, buckets--an amusing and perhaps unfortunate mainstay of SE Asian travel.  Take one brightly colored plastic beach pail, fill with your choice of cheap liquor, usually Tiger Whiskey (about $1-2/bottle) and a mixer (often the extreme Thai version of Red Bull, M-150) toss in a handful of drinking straws and there you have it: a kitschy recipe for disaster.

Our little minivan arrives in town that afternoon. We're immediately greeted by an English-speaking, Western "tout" trying to get us to stay in some guesthouse he's been living in "for the last 2 months." Now that's a first! Thanks, but no thanks. So, after securing another guesthouse we walk the streets for a few hours, soaking up the vibe of the town.  Street-side sandwiches are cheap, "In the Tubing" t-shirts and dry bags are plentiful and kids are drunk or high, barefoot or bandaged--often all of the above.  The streets are also lined with "TV bars" where bleary-eyed travelers plop down behind low tables, prop themselves up on pillows, and stare blankly at endless reruns of Family Guy and Friends. It's an odd place.

Less beer, more scenery.

The next morning we get started around 11AM, which is relatively late for us. After a quick bite we hit up tubing central, where several surrounding villages have formed a cooperative business renting tubes to travelers. Sign up, pay up, grab a life vest (which most people don't) and go. It's surprisingly organized for Laos, but I can't really blame them for getting on top of things and making the most of all the tourists dollars that are flowing in.  So we rent our tubes and head off in a songthaew with a handful of other travelers. 

Soon we find ourselves a few miles upriver, ready for some tubing action.  Much to our surprise we seem to be the first group on the river, but that turns out to be a blessing in disguise.  We have a few beers, try out a gigantic, two-story slide and surf on the back of old doors--all without the crowds or much fear of injury.  The scariest thing is the speed of the current in the rainy season, so we make sure it keep our wits about us whenever we dip into the river again.

After clearing the glut of bars at the beginning of the trip, we drift relaxingly, soaking up the sun and the scenery with big smiles on our faces.  The beautiful karst cliffs rise up to our right, towering over us as the sun shines brightly overhead.  It's no wonder adventure sports like rock climbing are also becoming popular in this area.

Luckily we started early enough to squeeze in a 2nd trip down the river after lunch.  By this time the whole scene has morphed into a full-on party extravaganza. Dance parties are erupting, kids are playing soccer in the mud and spray painting one another with raunchy slogans.  People are headed down the slide 2-3 at a time, not giving the bar employees enough time to reel them in with life preserver or ropes with plastic bottles tied to the end. Remember the current I mentioned? In only a few minutes we see several people quickly drift 100 ft. or so down the river, sans tube. Once drifting they're left to ride the current to the next bar or grab some branches and pull themselves out of the river.  It's easy to see how people get hurt or even killed which sadly happens every year.

Get some!

We hang out for a while, just to observe the insanity. Then, after another leisurely trip down the river we drop off our tubes and head back to the room, sun-baked and ready for a nap.

So, is Vang Vieng far from that "real" Lao experience that some travelers are craving? Absolutely. But as a glaring example of this countries struggle to grow and define it's tourism industry, it's definitely worth seeing firsthand.  And we certainly can't deny the natural beauty this part of country has to offer. 

Tomorrow morning we head for the capital city of Vientiane to get our Vietnam visas all squared away.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

All The Young Monx

Like a French provincial town transplanted to tropical paradise, Luang Prabang sits nestled between the Mekong and Nam Kam rivers in north-central Laos, about 475km. north of the capital Vientiane. After walking the jungle and tasting rural and small town life in northern Laos, we step into the "big" city (all of about 100,000 people) to find all the comforts of home--or at least those of Thailand. Modern coffee shops, bakeries, diverse cuisine...and unsurprisingly a bevy of Western tourists. Fortunately they haven't quite yet ruined the charm of Luang Prabang.

Luang Prabang's status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site has helped to preserve the crumbling, French-influenced architecture that lines the city's streets. It also allows the local government to ban trucks and buses from barreling down the main streets, a welcome break for any traveler using their feet as a main means of transport. The city is teeming with young monks walking in small groups to and from the many temples and monasteries, tucked under matching orange umbrellas and smiling gently as we cross paths. We find it all fairly charming, the slow pace and friendly people adding to the relaxing atmosphere.

Monk laundry.
Every night the main street shuts off traffic and fills with a market brimming with souvenirs. It's a great place for a slow wander and a snack. We manage to find the vegetarian food stalls on a side street off the market, where for 10-12,000kip (about $1.50) you can load your plate with an assortment of veg and tofu goodies. The quality is nothing stellar, but its good for a quick, cheap meal. 

The Lao have this great saying: "Same, same...but different!" and it perfectly encapsulates many of the goodies on offer at this market. Little old ladies, many from nearby tribes, one after another, selling the same t-shirts, trinkets and sarongs as the next one down the line. But we still manage to find a few gems--some little bottles of locally made Lao Lao whiskey for me and a cute dress for Sadrah that she negoitated down to a fair price.

It rains quite a bit over our first few days in town, so we take it easy--get some laundry done, chill out over coffees and pastries, poke into shops and visit a few temples between the raindrops. 

Making paper.
When the weather finally breaks we rent bicycles and venture out of the city into some of the smaller villages where women weave silk garments for the night market stalls on giant looms. An older woman is kind enough to let us into her home for a few moments to observe the lengthy, tedious process. She and her friends speak no English, but the kindness in their smiles is more than enough communication. Later we stumble upon a collection of shops selling handmade paper products. We stop for a minute to watch a women making paper by hand.

We also enjoyed some great meals in Luang Prabang. Twice we were stuffed to the gills with Lao barbeque, a do-it-yourself tabletop feast. The waiter removes a tile from the center of our table and places a stone bucket of hot coals in its place. On top he sets a metal dish. In the raised center we grill slices of tofu while around the edges we pour a soup broth and fill it with tons of fresh vegetables and noodles to cook. We add garlic and chilies to the broth, and coat the tofu slices in a tangy barbecue sauce. In the end it's more than enough food for at least 3 people, probably more. At 50-60,000 kip for a massive meal, it's a great value.

Lao barbecue.
We had another dinner at a great restaurant called Tamarind (which offers training and education in hospitality and restaurants for street children) where we were able to sample some of the traditional local specialties. It can be tough to eat like a local in these parts when sticking to a vegetarian diet, but the sampler platter and meuyang (a wrap-your-own mix of noodles, herbs, pastes & vegetables) turned us on to some great flavor combinations. It was definitely a "classy" night out for our budget, but it's worth the splurge every once in a while to try out some really tasty food and support a good cause!

On our last day we organize a ride to Kuang Su Waterfall about 30km. outside of the city.  We take a few hours to explore the crashing falls at the top and several pools that form below that are great for swimming.  We even try out the rope swing.

Every morning just before sunrise, in every village and town in Laos, monks leave their temples to collect alms from the local people. With the number of temples concentrated in this small city, the sheer volume of monks is quite striking. Hundreds of monks fill the streets, each carrying a basket which the local people along the street fill with a handful of sticky rice each. Although it seems a bit like charity, they give alms as a way of gaining merit in their faith. "It is closer to a symbolic connection to the spiritual and to show humbleness and respect in the presence of normal society. The visible presence of monks and nuns is a stabilizing influence. The act of alms giving assists in connecting the human to the monk or nun and what he/she represents." I stole that from Wikipedia, but it was the easiest way to describe the ritual.

Unfortunately the photo-op has become quite a tourist draw, as the streets teem with barefoot monks in dark orange robes walking in silent procession in the light of daybreak. Thankfully, the government has gone to great lengths to make sure that  tourists are observing the ritual respectfully. On our last morning in town we rise in complete darkness and head for the main road near our guest house. We make sure to keep our distance, observing as men and women emerge from their homes with big baskets of sticky rice and kneel on mats along the sidewalk. Soon rows of monks appear out of the darkness, seeming to come from all directions.  They collect their daily alms in a barefoot procession silent but for the soft padding of hundreds of feet, and the whole ritual is over in a little over 20 minutes. 

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Slow ride, take it easy

There are several ways to make the long journey south from the more remote regions in the north to the cities of Laung Prabang and Vientiene in central Laos.  Trapped on a bus, fearing for your life on a speed boat...hitchhiking perhaps? Take your pick. But one of the most popular modes of a transport is a "slow boat" ride down the Mekong River.  Two lazy days drifting down the river sounded pretty good to us, and although we'd heard mixed reviews on the experience, but we decided to give it a go anyway.

Day one starts in Huay Xai with an early breakfast and transport to the boat launch at the north end of town. We hop aboard one of many large longtail boat along the shoreline and settle into a couple repurposed bus seats (always the inventive recyclers!) near the front of the boat as our packs are stored below deck. In typical Lao fashion we hang around for another hour so, periodically loading new passengers until all the seats are full.

The boat is pretty simple but functional: four seats wide, with two on each side of a reasonable isle down the middle. At the front of the boat there's a small enclosure for the captain and at the back a small "shop" for snacks and a clean enough bathroom.

Photo hijack.
We'd heard rumors of a party boat-ish atmosphere, and although the boat is filled with mostly twenty-something backpackers, they're hardly rowdy. A few beers are downed here and there by some, but generally the ride turns out to be a peaceful, relaxing affair. The scenery is gorgeous and the fresh, exhaustless air is more than welcome in our lungs. It's also nice to be able to get up and stretch your legs or use the bathroom whenever you feel like it, unlike a typical bus ride.

(Later, in Luang Prabang we cross paths with the four girls from Norway who were with us on The Gibbon Experience. They decided to take the bus from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, which turned out to be a joyous, 17+ hour journey.  Their trip included: two flat tires, getting out to help push the bus and late night mosquito attacks. Not to mention the hour the driver spent teaching his protege how to park the bus on the side of the road. Needless to say, we're certainly glad we opted for the boat.)

riverside 7-11
The two day trip is broken up with a night spent in the small riverside town of Pak Beng. Essentially a small, rural village, any tourist industry here has sprung up solely around the daily deposit of slow boat passengers and their basic needs.  You know, the basics: snacks, western breakfasts, drinks, drugs...maybe even a place to sleep for a few hours.  Before our bags are even off the boat we're assaulted by all manner of salesmen touting their guesthouses, and more importantly their ability to procure you marijuana.  We manage to slip away and wander along the main road until we find a tolerable room for the night.  It was a bit dingy, but at least it was only 40,000 kip (8000 kip = $1) for the night.

Views from the boat.
With our new friend Fran, a sweet middle-aged teacher from France who took the room next to ours, we wander the streets for an hour or so, chatting and exploring past the guesthouses to catch a glimpse of real life in this riverside village. Most of the homes in Laos have a very wide, open floor plan, so it's often possible to sneak a peek at the going's on around the home.  Sometimes the little moments you glimpse in this way are the most interesting of the day.  After our walk we grab a nice dinner with Fran at an Indian restaurant and then head for bed.

Did I mention our boat was also a submarine?
In the morning it's breakfast and back on the boat by 9AM.  The 2nd day's boat is a bit smaller and considerably more cramped.  Especially for the hungover late-comers to the pier who are forced to sit in the very back of the boat, nearly on top of the roaring engine.  For us it's just fine--we grab two seats up front, and aside from a bit of rain the trip feels rather short and sweet.  We arrive in Luang Prabang around 4PM with no place to stay.  Bags strapped to our backs, giant, attention-grabbing travel guidebook in hand, and sun blaring down on us we set out to find a place to lay our heads.  You know, just another typical day...

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

We go zip!

After an extra day in rainy, gray Huay Xai to recharge our batteries and update the blog--which is, incidentally, several weeks behind--we head out with a small group on The Gibbon Experience. As part of a conservation project in Bokeo National Reserve in northwest Laos, The Gibbon Experience bills itself as a great example of responsible ecotourism. The guides are all from local villages in or around the reserve, and A good portion of the income generated by our trip goes toward reforestation projects (many of the local farmers still practice slash and burn agriculture which is terribly inefficient and leads to erosion) and protecting the forest wildlife from poachers. The namesake of our adventure is a monkey that lives mostly in the forest canopy, swinging great distances from tree to tree in search of a life-long mate.

In keeping with the gibbon's airborne, treetop existence, we spend the bulk of our two days riding zip lines high above the forest canopy and trekking through dense jungle. It's both breath-taking and exhausting, with some zip lines crossing 6-700 meters from one high point on the ridge to another.

All geared up.

Zipping to the tree house.

In the mid-afternoon of the first day we reach our accommodation for the night--a three-story tree house built 200ft. up around a massive old tree. The tree house is beautiful, comfortably sleeps eight people with soft mattresses, warm blankets and mosquito nets.  It even has running water and electricity! Here, perched above the forest canopy, we have an amazing view of the surrounding landscapes. The bathroom is perhaps the most amazing part of the whole place, with an open 180°+ view of the jungle. It's probably the most beautiful shower I have ever taken.

I spotted a gibbon.

Our tree house suite

After a strenuous morning and afternoon we spend the remainder of the day snacking, relaxing and getting to know our group. Our guides zip a hearty dinner over from a kitchen somewhere on solid ground just as a torrential rainstorm rolls in. For a few moments the winds howl, the rain spits and the tree house sways...but thankfully it's all over rather quickly. After the storm subsides we share a glass of Lao wine with our guides as the darkness settles in and the sounds of the jungle grow in volume and variety.  It was especially fun getting to know our young, energetic guide and teaching him the proper way to use a double-hinged cork screw.  

Gorilla in the mist.

We rise just before 6AM for a morning of zipping around the jungle.  We return to the treehouse briefly to collect our things, down a hearty breakfast and begin our trek back Huay Xai.  After five hours of trekking, zipping and considerable sweating--with a quick lunch thrown in at the hut of a forest guard--we pick up our transport for a bumpy ride out of the jungle.  It's tough to imagine how they ever manage these roads deeper in the wet season. Only in the last hour or so of the trip did the leeches finally show their blood-sucking little faces, but thankfully for us we escaped unscathed.  However I can't say the same for some others in our group. Perhaps it was the Deet in our bug spray?  We heard somewhere that is was good for deterring leeches.

Sticky rice goes with everything.

We return to Huay Xai thoroughly exhausted but completely satisfied with our trip. We check into a guesthouse for one more night and book tickets on the slow boat to Luang Prabang for the morning. A relaxing ride down the mighty Mekong is just what the doctor ordered...

Pai in the sky

From Pun Pun we headed northwest to the hippy/expat enclave of Pai, a small town nestled into the northern mountains. Arriving in the off-season we found Pai to be very quiet and relaxing, but we were assured that a Khao San Rd-like atmosphere explodes in the high season. Lucky for us we missed that. We took it easy for a few days in, enjoying complimentary coffee and bananas from our guesthouse in the mornings, exploring some of the sites & attractions later in the day and lounging in cushiony bars with free mojitos at night.

Thai curry paste
Chef Sadrah
We took an excellent Thai cooking class from a very friendly, extremely thankful woman @ the Red Orchid and finished the day full of knowledge and even fuller of delicious food. First we visited the local morning market to shop for all our ingredients for the day. We were finally able to put some names to mystery vegetables we'd been spotting along our trip so far. Then we learned to cook five different traditional Thai dishes each, including a lesson on how to make Thai curry paste with mortar and pestle. Needless to say it's quite a workout. Thanks again to the low season we were the only two people in the class, so we got lots of personal attention.

Unexpectedly tough ride to the hot springs...on rickety cruiser bikes

Some other highlights: we rented bikes and took in the scenery on the way to visiting some local hot springs, hit up a in-ground pool/bar, sampled some tasty teas, coffees and pastries, wandered the night market along the main road and checked out open mic-night. Perhaps Pai was a bit touristy all and all, but we enjoyed it.

After a few days in Pai we rented a motorbike and made the 45km journey over the mountains to Soppong and Tham Lod Cave. It was rainy and cool at the top, but there were spectacular views of the valleys below. Surprisingly the ride wasn't much of a challenge after our last motorbike jaunt. Sadrah's becoming quite the road hog!

The view from Pai to Soppong
We arrived a few hours later and took a bungalow at The Cave Lodge. A cozy outpost complete with food, lodging and a multitude of tours to offer. Cave Lodge is built into a hillside overlooking the river that runs through the cave and its front door is just a short jaunt from the entrance to Tham Lod.

That evening we hiked a short distance to the cave exit for the infamous bird/bat show. Every night hundreds of thousands of swifts fly into the cave to eat and sleep for the night while all the bats fly out of the cave. We witnessed and endless stream of birds circling above the entrance to the cave and then spiraling down and inside for the night. We watched mesmerized for nearly 40 minutes as the steady stream of birds showed no signs of letting up.

The next day we both started to come down with something and opted for the more basic cave tour run by the forestry office down the road from the Cave Lodge. We rode into the cave on a bamboo raft, our guide lighting the way with a kerosene lantern. We visited several caves off the main river which housed huge and varied rock formations, sink holes and mysterious ancient coffins. Even in our sickly state (heightened by the overwhelming ammonia stench of bird/bat guano), and with our guides very basic English (she could only really point out rock formations that look like animals), it was all quite interesting.

After the tour we managed the motorbike ride back to Pai and fought through the fever and nausea to board a late night minibus to Chang Khong, a small Thai town along the Mekong River and the border with Laos.

After what amounted to a very easy and uneventful border crossing the next morning--except for the guy at the border bragging about his photo with Steven Seagal--we found ourselves in Huay Xai, Laos--a bit weary but excited to explore a new country. But first we found a decent guesthouse and slept most of the day away, hoping to recover quickly from whatever ailed us.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Road to Pun Pun

It's possible that we could have happily spent more time in Chiang Mai. It's easy to while away an afternoon strolling the streets and checking out the goodies for sale or plopping down at a curbside cafe sipping on fresh coffee and participating in one of my new favorite activities - monk spotting! But it was time to move along. Thai cooking courses are a very popular activity for Farang visiting Thailand and prior to leaving the States, I sought out an organic farm and vegetarian cooking school located a few hours from Chiang Mai.

We email them about our visit and are informed that the cooking class isn't being offered in the slow season but we are still welcome to come and visit the farm and volunteer in the kitchen to pick up a few tips and pointers. We decide to give it a go--but first we had to find it.

The directions on the website read more like steps in a scavenger hunt. 1.  Find the Warowot market (we opted to take a sweaty walk there rather than a tuk-tuk) 2. Once at the market find the river, turn left and walk 100 meters. 3. You will see a phone booth and a parking lot, walk past the parking lot and turn left down an alley where you will find a row of white trucks 4. Skip three strides then hop twice and you will have arrived.

 In reality it is far easier than the instructions make it sound and we arrive early enough to peruse the market. This is probably the first true local food market we've seen so far on this trip, full of live eels and turtles waiting to become someone's dinner as well as some unlucky frogs on skewers. It seems everything comes on a skewer in Thailand and I have no complaints about that! We pick up some fresh rambutan and passion fruit as well as a few fried bananas before we hop on the truck.

As with most businesses and modes of transport in this part of the world our truck was dual purpose. In addition to carrying us and a few Thai women, our truck also acts as a supply transport making several stops to unload various goods (bicycle and motorbike tires, cases of condensed milk, potted trees) to small villages and homes along the way.

Our ride ends about two hours later on the side of a dusty road. The driver motions us toward a muddy path that puts our balance to the test. We traverse rice paddies and makeshift bridges and feel pretty good about our successes thus far, but when we arrive at the farm there was no one in sight.  We knew that Krit, the man we emailed, would be in Chiang Mai until the next day but were told that other members of the community would be expecting our arrival. We ditch our bags at what looks like the main dining building and go for a walk around the grounds hoping to encounter someone.

All of the buildings are earthen structures, made of some combination of raw wood, bamboo, mud and clay and are in varying states of upkeep.  The paths are a bit overgrown and everything looks slightly neglected.  We poke around a bit and having still encountered no one head back to where we stashed our bags.  Out pops a head with long hair and a longer beard from the previously unnoticed 2nd floor of the main building. His name is Botash and he is from Hungary. He speaks English well and we ask him some questions about the farm but he seems to have about as much info as well do.  We sit with him for a while lounging about and reading a bit, waiting for anyone else to arrive.

The famous Botash.
Bamboo fixin'
Eventually some women and a young man come around. No one speaks more than a few words in English. A young kid leads us to a small earthen structure a short walk from the main building but we are given no more instruction.  We wander back to the kitchen and find a group of women preparing fresh bamboo shoots.  We stand around for a while watching and trying to communicate that we want to help.   Eventually we either picked up a shoot or were given a shoot to peel.  The process is like this: Young bamboo shoots are picked when they are about 6" long, the tough base is trimmed and then the outer sheaths of the shoot are peeled away until the green part is all stripped and nothing but a long thin white cone remains. We help peel bags of them and then wait for the next step. But there is no next step. Finally we are told to go take showers and return at 6 for dinner. 

It's more like 7:30 when dinner is served. Botash, Mike and I eat and chat while the sun sets and then creep very carefully back to our hut as I'm terrified I'll step on a poisonous snake.  Our hut is filled with critters but mostly just lizards and we are more or less become accustomed to them by this point.  Despite the confusing day we were still quite content to be under our mosquito net with the jungle sounds lulling us to sleep.

Our humble abode.
We meet Botash for breakfast around 8 and try to milk him for more info on the farm's daily activities in Krit's absense. Mostly he just said he helps planting rice every day from 9-12 and that's about it. With that said, he departs to go do just that, leaving us to try and figure out what to do. We try again to approach the ladies about working in the kitchen and were told, 'nothing to learn.' With the whole day in front of us we decide to get geared up to hit the rice paddies as that seems to be where all the action is. I find a safari hat with a neck flap and Mike ends up with a very large and very Mexican looking sombrero (sorry we have no photographic evidence of this). We head down to the paddies and quickly find that rubber boots are useless and get stuck with every step.  So there we are, barefoot and calf deep in mud planting rice transplants with a Hungarian and a bunch of Thais. We slosh around for a while, bent at the waist with sun on our backs and the mud squishing between our toes which seems to help regulate the brutal Thai heat.

If you were ever curious about how rice is planted it goes like this.  Rice is started from seed and when the rice plants are about 6-8" in height they are gathered and bundled together into a little bunch about 4 inches in diameter.  These bunches are brought to the rice paddy where they are transplanted into the mud. They are seemingly planted at whatever distance and spacing you want.  We tried to figure out some sort of standardization but realized that when you've got at least 3 or 4 people working on one square paddy with everyone starting at different places the spacing will inevitably not line up. You grab about 3-4 transplants in your hand and push them down into the mud about 2-3 inches being careful not to snap them.  And repeat. It goes rather quickly since there is not need to dig holes or make orderly rows and the mud is super soft and malleable.

When we've all finished planting we take a walk with Botash to a neighboring community called the Panya Project.  They are bustling with activity and were finishing up a permaculture certification course, something Mike and I might have been interested in doing if we had found out about it sooner. At dinner that evening we have a chance to chat with Krit who has returned from Chiang Mai.  He gives us some insight on how the growing season works in Thailand and about the current action on the farm.  It seems like this time of year it is all rice all the time and although we enjoyed our experience today we didn't feel like doing it again tomorrow...and the next day. So we decide to arrange a motorcycle and sidecar taxi for the morning and make our way to the small hippy enclave of Pai.