I watched the sun set…twice

I’m officially back on American soil, and I have to admit, it feels pretty great. However, the 23 hours it took to get us from Chiang Mai to LA were less than great. About 2/3 of it was spent in the air, the other 1/3 in airports. But one fun fact, we went back in time when we passed the International Date Line. Which means, essentially, that I got to watch the sun set on the same day twice. Once flying over China and the other flying into LA.

But that’s hardly the most interesting thing that’s happened in the last week. Chiang Mai experienced two festivals from November 5-7: Loi Krathong and Yi Peng. We got to participate in similar festivals in Luang Prabang earlier on this trip, but to a much smaller scale.

Loi Krathong is celebrated by floating boats (made of banana trees, leaves, flowers, and a candle) down the river, which symbolizes letting go of negative thoughts, actions, and karma. It’s essentially a request for a fresh start.

On Yi Peng, swarms of Lanna-style paper lanterns (made of rice paper, bamboo, and a kerosene soaked disk) are released into the sky. A tangible way of sending your wishes into the universe.

In northern Thailand, these festivals coincide on the full moon of the twelfth month (Thai calendar) and second month (Lanna calendar). Many cities have massive celebrations – Sukothai, Ayutthaya, Bangkok, and Phuket, but no one does it like Chiang Mai.

Celebrations started on the 5th of November this year and officially went through the 7th, but the holiday spirit could be felt for days before and days after. The first “official” event that we went to was the Hot Air Balloon Competition.

It’s not hard to see why the balloon below was my favourite – The Little Mermaid, anyone? And it was icing on the cake that when the rockets were launched from the balloon, they looked like a giant octopus.

Hot Air Balloon 1

Hot Air Balloon 2

After that we wandered around the city, taking in the various sights and decorations. We made our way through Talat Tonlamyai, the flower market, and past tons of temples, all of which had put up numerous lanterns.

The city was packed with people from all around the world and we were just two in a crowd of thousands.

FlowersPaper Lanterns

But that night was when the real magic happened. Despite the ban on lanterns before 9 pm, the second that sun set, the lights started rising one by one. An hour later and the sky was covered in lanterns that shown like diamonds in the night sky. Luang Prabang was just a teaser, because I’ve never seen anything like this before:

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Phuket: Time for another change in our itinerary!

At no point during this trip have we felt like we needed to stick to any sort of concrete schedule (airport days aside!), so when we cut the bottom half of Laos, we decided to do our second trip to Thailand in reverse: south to north.

We were going to start in Bangkok, make our way up through Ayutthaya to see some temples, move on to Sukhothai for yet more temples, then head to Chiang Rai for – you guessed it – another temple, before ending our trip in Chiang Mai for the Yi Peng and Loi Krathong festivals.

We knew each of these cities was going to be amazing, but let’s face it, at the end of a three-month journey, there’s only so much you’re still craving to see. So we decided to leave a few temples for the next time we find ourselves in Thailand and we began purchasing flights instead of bus tickets!

Of course, we still spent plenty of time in Bangkok, and we still popped up to be wowed by Ayutthaya’s sites, but after that, we decided to fly down to Phuket for a week before flying up to Chiang Mai.

Let me tell you – a week on a beach was exactly what we needed! Sunset after beautiful sunset…

Sunset 1

Sunset 2 And we couldn’t have picked a better beach for the week. We decided to bypass the craziness that is Patong Beach (Phuket’s main beach), choosing to head just south to the quieter Karon Beach.

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Thailand: The second time around

It’s been 95 days since I left home to begin this journey – and it’s not a home I’ll be going back to. I hopped in a friend’s car at 6:30 am on July 31st and have been slowly making my way east ever since.

It’ll take me another 29 days to reach the place I used to call home, Minneapolis. But for the first time in months, it finally feels like I’m coming to the end of things. All my flights have been booked, all my days have been planned, and I’m seriously looking forward to seeing my sister’s face at MSP International Airport on December 2nd.

At the same time, it feels odd to remind myself that this trip isn’t finished. I’m not hopping on that plane tomorrow – well, I am hopping on a plane tomorrow, but that’s to Chiang Mai! And I have to admit, I’m beginning to lose steam on these blog posts.

We’re spending more and more time in each place we go (nine nights in Bangkok, two in Ayutthaya, seven in Phuket), but I’m finding that I have less and less to say. Guess that’s how you know you’ve planned a trip a little too long! Because it’s certainly not the fault of anyplace we’ve been – Bangkok is easily one of our favourite cities (throughout this trip we’ve spent a total of 16 nights there).

For these ten days in Bangkok, we did a lot of shopping, mostly at Siam Center, Siam Paragon, and Siam Discovery. What can I say? After two years in Ethiopia, we both needed serious wardrobe upgrades.

We then spent the rest of our days wandering around the area near Koh San Road (though avoiding the road itself!), eating cheap pad thai, drinking fresh pomegranate juice, and stocking up on real books to read during our upcoming beach days.

Then, we took a quick trip up to Ayutthaya. Many do this as a simple day trip, but we decided to spend a couple of nights in the town. We didn’t even bother to leave our hotel, Tamarind, that first night (with the exception of grabbing dinner at the night market down the street).

We purchased some street popcorn, corn on the cob, waffles, cantaloupe, and a Coca-Cola to split and settled into this room to enjoy our spoils and watch The Shawshank Redemption:

Tamarind Guesthouse

The next day we were rested up and ready to check out the ruins that make up Ayutthaya’s UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ayutthaya was a Siamese kingdom that existed from 1351 to 1767, when the Burmese army destroyed the city, effectively collapsing the kingdom.

We started at the sites closest to our hotel and worked our way out. First came Wat Ratchaburana. Founded in 1424 by King Borommarachathirat II, it was built on the cremation site of his two older brothers. The two brothers had fought to their deaths in a duel for the royal succession to their father.

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I’m too old for this shit

I’ve heard people lament and complain about how touristed Thailand has gotten. Even Vietnam and Cambodia, to some extent. But everything I’ve heard and read about Laos claims it still feels like the promised land. Uncorrupted locals, an authentic way of life, gorgeous scenery…

Do you know what Laos reminded me of? Ethiopia.

In the sense that someone once told them, “Hey, you should try out this thing called tourism,” but they haven’t quite figured it out yet. Luang Prabang is an obvious exception, but I don’t feel like Vang Vieng or Vientiane (Laos’ capital) are.

My last post was filled with reasons why Vang Vieng wasn’t the place for me, but I was surprised to learn that neither was Vientiane. We checked into Sihome Backpackers Hostel and immediately felt out of place. Now, I know I was never enough of a “people person” to really feel at home in a hostel (we had a private room here, by the way), but this was more than that – they made me feel old. But in a good way.

I’m sure the hostel was fantastic for 18-to-21-year-old, socially apt people, but for a 24-year-old nearing the end of a 3-month trip, it was rough. Everyone around me was young, loud, and forgive me if I sound rude, but a little bit ignorant. The things they loved about Laos were the very things I struggled to cope with in Ethiopia.

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I went to Laos and all I got was bacterial conjunctivitis

Well, it didn’t take long for the Laotian feel-good vibes to fade. Actually, that had already started in Luang Prabang.

You see, what I only slightly touched on in my last post was that while we loved the festival and the people we met, Luang Prabang was damn expensive. Like, not slightly more costly, colossally more.

The room at our guesthouse was barely lit, we shared a bathroom with seven others, the walls were paper thin, and it was still one of the most expensive places we’ve stayed during this trip. The owners were quite lovely though, so we didn’t feel too grieved about all that.

Let’s move on to the food. Nowhere is as cheap as Bangkok, we learned that the hard way, the day we left, but food had steadily been costing more, the less developed the areas we went to. The all-you-could-fit-on-your-plate in Luang Prabang was a good deal, if you prefer your food cold, but restaurants were pricier than we were used to.

And then the souvenirs/knick-knacks…you don’t even want me to get started on those. The Handicraft Night Market had good prices, but the shops themselves were atrocious! We watched a woman pay $130 for two small figurines (and that was after bargaining!). We’ve long since learned that if we’re being quoted in dollars, they’re trying to rip us off.

Anyway, we’d heard Luang Prabang might be a little more upscale, so we were looking forward to chilling in Vang Vieng for a few days before moving on to the capital. Only, I woke up around 3 am on the morning our bus was to leave with pain in my eye that felt like a rock was in it. And not a little pebble either – I almost shouted at Chandler (after I had woken him up – I know, I’m a terrible girlfriend), when he couldn’t find anything in my eye.

About an hour later I fell into a fitful sleep. When our alarm went off a short while later, I awoke to the same pain. After Chandler did some more digging around in my eye (stupid on our part, in retrospect), he voiced his fears: pink eye. I immediately thought of the snot-nosed kid downstairs and started cursing.

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A first glance at Laos

It was a crisp, clear evening, not a cloud in the night sky. And while the boats, covered in candles, sparkled down the Mekong river, hundreds of paper lanterns were released into the sky.

Foreigners and locals alike participated in the tradition of Bun Awk Phansa…

Paper Lantern 1~*~              ~*~              ~*~              ~*~              ~*~              ~*~              ~*~

A few days earlier, we had flown into Luang Prabang just after 6 pm to find the entire airport shut down. Luckily, the guesthouse we were staying at – Manichan Guesthouse – had a pickup service. We saw the sign with “Ashley Tangerine” and heaved a sigh of relief.

After dropping our stuff in our room for the next four nights, we decided to venture out and get our bearings. We wanted to check out the local handicraft night market and find something to eat! It worked out well that we had no money on us, otherwise I’m sure we would have purchased everything in sight. Instead, we made our way to our much beloved Joma Bakery – figuring we’d be more adventurous foodies on another night.

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The following day we decided to further our wanderings through the Buddhist temples and monasteries that make up the UNESCO World Heritage Site in Luang Prabang. Our first stop was at the National Palace Museum (just a note, make sure to arrive early, they close 30 minutes before they say they do both in the morning and afternoon! It took multiple trips before we finally had time to see everything).

The temple outside the museum is pretty cool, and there’s a collection of vintage cars as well, but there’s not a lot worth seeing inside the museum itself. That is, until you get to the final room…it’s filled with gifts that have been given to Laos over the years and contains four moon rocks, given by President Nixon (it was shocking to see his name in a positive light, after seeing so much anti-American propaganda in Vietnam!).

Royal Palace MuseumLater on that day, we weaved in and out of temples – Wat May Souvannapoumaram, Wat Sensoukaram, and Wat Pahouak were some of our favourites – before coming to the most famous of them all: Wat Xieng Thong. Each village in the region has a temple in Luang Prabang, explaining why there are so many of them!

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A sunset inside Angkor Wat

The day before had started at sunrise, and this one was going to end at sunset. We passed through Angkor Thom’s southern gate shortly after 7 am and headed straight for Bayon.

Bayon is comprised of 54 Gothic-style towers that are decorated with 216 smiling faces – all of which are an odd amalgamation of Avalokiteshvara (a Buddhist deity) and Jayavarman VII (a king who wanted to be seen as a demi-god). The only temple more visited than this is Angkor Wat itself, and even just driving up to it, you could see why.

The sun was rising, and while many recommend this time to view Bayon, I found the sun to almost hinder getting a grand look at the temple. Instead of enhancing the faces, the sun (and the shadows it created), made it more difficult to discern fine details. It wasn’t until we were underneath the faces, on the first level, that we were able to get a good first look.

Bayon 1But I can’t bemoan the timing too much, once again we had arrived before the large tour buses (they showed up right as we were walking out, over an hour later!). Bayon isn’t a particularly large temple, but there’s so much to look at, from the bas-reliefs on the first floor to the faces on the third.

Everywhere you turn…there’s a face staring back at you. Built in the late 12th century or early 13th century, it’s sort of amazing that so many of these faces are in such good condition.

Bayon 2It’s hard to get across, with either words or photos, just how large these faces are. So I’m including the following photo to help give perspective. Keep in mind – at 5′ 6″ (1.68 m) I’m not a particularly large person.

Bayon 3After Bayon we made our way to Baphuon. This temple is awesome because it’s comprised of 300,000 stones that were at one time all disassembled. Records were made, of course, but they were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge and the temple had to be reassembled without them.

I’d say they did a pretty good job – though when you’re up close, it’s obvious what was an exact match and what was just an approximation!

BaphuonNext we weaved our way around and on top of the Terrace of Elephants. I have to be honest, you get a better view of them by simply driving past. We also went to the Terrace of Lepers, which I found to be much more interesting – especially the carved walkway.

And then…it was time for a BREAK! After three temple days, we decided to take a break between the big ones. We went back to the hotel (read: took a nap) and then grabbed a quick lunch.

At 3:45 pm, we started making our way to Angkor Wat. Only, on the way, our tuk-tuk kept breaking down – which meant I was freaking out. I wanted to watch the sunset from inside Angkor (which happens at 5:46), but we still needed to look around the temple first. Luckily, our driver eventually figured out the issue and we were only 15 minutes later than planned.

We arrived at the gate and my heart sank – “Angkor Wat: Open 5:30 am to 5:30 pm.” Didn’t they know that that was before sunset? I couldn’t believe it. And at 4:15, there were already dozens of people lined up to watch the sunset from outside the main gate. So we decided to go inside and make the most of our time there.

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