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Kouang Si Falls

We enjoyed a few amazing days taking in the laid back vibe of Luang Prabang. It is a lovely place to wander the markets, cruise around on bicycles, or just relax in the surprisingly modern and trendy restaurants and cafes. But the real highlight of our stay in Luang Prabang was a visit to Kouang Si Falls.

Biking around Luang Prabang

Wats on bikes

All the tuk-tuk drivers in town fight for your business to take you out to these falls. We were lucky that we were able to wrestle up a group of people which made it much less expensive, and lot more fun (yep, friends from the slow boat). After the negotiation was settled and we’d piled into our snug transport, we had 30+ minutes of windy, bumpy roads to get out to the falls. When we arrived, hot and sweaty from the cramped conditions and the general steaminess of the country, hanging out by water sounded like a pretty fantastic idea.

The gorgeous drive up to the waterfalls

On the short walk through the woods to get to the falls, we were greeted by the completely unexpected opportunity to see dozens of bears living in a protected (and fenced) area of the forest. I believe they were rescued bears and though they looked like our black bears, they were in fact Asian black bears! Regardless, they were a quite a surprise that we very much enjoyed.

Asian Black Bear!

Bears of the world

So just when we thought it couldn’t get any better than randomly seeing bears on our hike in, we arrived at the first set of falls. Now I’ve seen a lot of waterfalls in my life, but there aren’t too many that can match Kouang Si for water color. These falls were the most amazing blue-green and the best part is, they are perfect and inviting for swimming. Within minutes we had left our hot, sweaty selves behind and plunged into the beautiful turquoise blue. If swimming and floating was too boring, there were the options of rope swings and cliffs to dive off of.

So inviting...

Layer after layer of blue-green falls

Prepping for a rope swing

Our friend, James, heading for a face-first impact

From where we swam, it was just a short walk up to the source of the falls – an incredibly tall and impressive main fall. If you are feeling particularly ambitious, you can hike to the top of that as well but luckily Ted (who likes to climb to the top of everything) had just broken his flip-flops on the mini-walk to the source of the falls, so I got out of a longer excursion that day.

The upper falls

As the afternoon clouds rolled in and rain seemed evident, we managed to pull ourselves away from the amazing oasis, said goodbye to the bears, and piled into our rickshaw back to town. It was a pretty fantastic day.

Eating Our Way Through Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is a lovely little town in Laos that is unlike anything we expected to see in one of the world’s poorest counties. Once upon a time, Laos was a French colony and the French colonial legacy is very much alive and well in this little place along the Mekong River. Though it’s most notable in the architecture, you also can’t help but notice that some of the most popular street foods bought and sold are freshly-made baguette sandwiches. Mmmm!

French-influenced architecture

And speaking of surprising food encounters, we had quite a few unique and unexpected eating experiences in our few days there. For instance, just around the corner from our hostel we stumbled upon the welcome oasis that is JoMa Café. Now, JoMa is nothing more than a coffee shop – a traditional, run-of-the mill American-type coffee shop. But please remember, we are in a developing country that didn’t reopen to foreign tourists until 1989. It was pretty remarkable to go in and order a bagel breakfast sandwich and a latte and enjoy life’s little luxuries in air-conditioned comfort while reading the newspaper! Though expensive and far from an authentic cultural experience, we loved our little JoMa Café and found ourselves there most mornings.

JoMa java!

To counteract our unadventurous breakfasts, we had some pretty traditional dinners – including at the night market. Luang Prabang’s night market is incredible. Yes, it’s a tourist market and not a local hang-out, but the variety of products and the vibrancy of colors is something to behold. I challenge you to walk through it and not buy something. And Laos is home to non-aggressive salespeople, which was a welcome relief to us after time spent in other countries. From umbrellas, to shoes, to wallets, and artwork – we definitely had to find more room in our backpacks after this spot.

Luang Prabang's night market

Colorful umbrellas at the night market

Colorful patters

The night market also features amazing eating that entices travelers with such deals as $1 for everything you can fit on your plate. Remarkably we turned that down and opted for Mekong fish-on-a-stick. We wouldn’t have picked it ourselves based on sight, but after being treated to a bite by a friend from the slow boat, we were sold. And we topped that off with these delicious coconut rice cakes that just melt in your mouth.

Mekong River fish-on-a-stick!

All-you-can-eat for $1!

Delicious coconut milk rice cakes

On another evening away from the night market, we ate some BBQ. Laos-style. This involved a bucket of coals brought to our table, covered with an interesting frying apparatus that allowed for simultaneous cooking of soup, noodles, veggies, egg, and three different kinds of meat! So there we were BBQ-ing our own meal at the table – very unique, and delicious, indeed!

Multi-function grill!

Excited for this meal! Lao Lao Garden BBQ

From fancy coffee shops where you least expect them, to fish-on-a-stick that exceeds all expectations, we learned that our presumptions about this quiet little Southeast Asian country were continuously going to be turned upside down.

The Slow Boat

Though we weren’t quite ready to leave Thailand yet, we’d worked ourselves up to the northern border with Laos, so we decided to cross it.

After a quick boat across the Mekong River from Thailand to Laos (and our first of many baguette sandwiches – a culinary staple left from the days of French rule), we had another much longer boat ride ahead of us – from the border town of Huay Xai to the French colonial city of Luang Prabang. Until very recently, the only way to travel between these two cities was by boat. However, there is now a new highway connecting the two places providing a faster (10 hour overnight bus ride vs. a 2-day boat ride) and more financially intriguing option. But though the highway certainly has some factors in its favor, the boat ride is a helluva lot more fun.

River-cruising slow boats

So that is how we found ourselves on the “slow boat” with 68 other travelers and 5 locals heading down the Mekong, the largest un-dammed river in the world. There is indeed a “fast boat” alternative, but people are regularly killed on these dangerous journeys. One must wear a helmet while the driver dodges rocks, rapids, and whirlpools, and they are so incredibly fast and dangerous that the guidebooks strongly advise against them due to the frequency of accidents. Ummm…no thanks.

One of the five locals on our boat

We looked something like this as we cruised down the river

As the slow boat is no longer the fastest or least expensive option, the appeal is the experience itself. The two-day boat ride with an overnight stop in the remote village of Pak Beng was quite a treat. It is pretty fantastic to be cruising along one of the world’s most famous and mighty rivers with nothing to do that day but appreciate the scenery. On the boat, we cruised through dense, lush, green forest, witnessing fantastic unique-shaped mountains, temples built into sheer rock walls, remote villages inaccessible by road, and even elephants coming down to the river to drink! It was a great way to get introduced to the landscapes and the pace of life in Laos.

Mekong River vistas

Wicked cool mountains along the Mekong

Cruising the river

Though this may all sound idyllic and serene, what I have yet to mention is that the average age of our fellow boat riders was approximately 23, and having two days to cruise down a river is an excellent opportunity to drink a lot of BeerLao. So as you can imagine, the slow boat became a bit of a booze cruise as the day went on. The good news is that we both like to drink beers too and the great part is that we met incredibly fun people from all over the world that we proceeded to run into throughout the rest of our time in Laos. Even if we didn’t say a word to one another on the boat, recognition of being on the same vessel was grounds for striking up a conversation when we crossed paths 2 weeks later!

68 of our new best friends

Partying with our new friends

When we rolled into Luang Prabang late in the afternoon on our second day of cruising, we felt like seasoned riverboat travelers. The slow boat was certainly an experience – definitely not a cultural one nor necessarily one we’d need to do again – but ultimately a great time.

Village Life

After the urban metropolis of Bangkok and the happening university town of Chiang Mai, we were off to see the quiet side of Thailand. Thanks to our good friend Mark, who spent 8 months living in the region, we got to spend time in a rural village that does not see many Westerners (with one significant exception). You see, the connection goes beyond Mark – his travel buddy Matt stuck around after Mark returned, and ended up marrying Nat, a girl from this little village. So, after a series of emails with Matt, we were connected with Nat’s lovely Thai family that lives in the tiny, rural village of Maetachang.

A couple hours north of Chiang Mai by bus, we were the only passengers to be getting off at the sleepy town of Mae Suai, a short drive from the sleepier Maetachang. We didn’t travel with cell phones and were told the family didn’t speak any English, so we were hoping that the message had been relayed correctly and that someone would be there to meet us. However, there was no need for us to worry as we easily stood out and our host’s grandson, Pong, had no trouble finding us.

The truck ride from Mae Suai to Maetachang

The pretty rural Thai countryside

Pong became our friend and quasi-translator for the next two days. Though raised in the village where we were visiting, he currently attends university at the next big town up the road. He is the only one from his town attending university and he was nice enough to come home from school over the weekend to show us around. His English was very limited but as our Thai was non-existent, we were nothing but grateful and impressed. In fact, even if we did speak Thai, the family we stayed with spoke a local dialect so we still would have had difficulty communicating!

Our hosts were extremely generous and accommodating and though we certainly regretted not being able to ask more questions or properly express our thanks, I hope they were able to tell how much we appreciated them opening their home to us.

We were visiting during a quiet time as far as work in the surrounding rice fields were concerned but we no problem finding fun things to do.

Sarah plays frisbee with Pui

Ted jams with Pong

A guided tour through town and the surrounding hills

Ted gets a REAL Thai massage

Our iPod touch was the hit with the local kids

Pui harvests fresh fruit for us

And delicious is was!

We ate our meals together, gathered around a small table and sitting on low stools to enjoy some wonderfully flavorful soups and stews – always served with lots of rice. We got to explore Maetachang and nearby hills by foot, asking Pong a lot of questions about life in the village and about his time at university. When Pong had to return to school, his adorable young cousin, Pui, stepped in to serve as our guide. Pui was 9-years old and didn’t speak any English, yet he happily picked up where Pong had left off by walking us into the nearby hills and taking us to scenic spots along the river.

Dinner with Nat's family - Sarah, Baht Yee, and Pong

Pui leads us on a hike

Though a short but sweet peek into village life, we were very happy to have visited Maetachang and left wanting to learn more.

Thai Markets

I would like to take a quick moment to mention the impressiveness of the Thai markets. You can buy anything you may ever need or want at markets. Just as we shop at grocery stores and shopping malls (which you can also do in Thailand), the majority of business gets done at the local markets. Of course the market in Chinatown selling everything from fresh octopus to gold jewelry is very different from the tourist market selling beautiful scarves and local artwork, but the point is, they are both fascinating, diverse and a wonderful places to visit.

It is very hard when you are traveling for 10+ months and you want to buy lots of things that you see but you ultimately know you can’t the stuff in your backpack. However, even when you have no interest in buying bundles of red hot chilis, or fish on a stick, it is quite entertaining to wander the isles and try and figure out exactly what you are looking at.

Chilis galore

Spices and grains

Seriously, fish on a stick

One of my favorite markets was the night market in Chiang Mai. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of stalls lining the streets at night and catering their wares to tourists. Ted scored a “Billabong” swimsuit for about $6 and I got some “Ray Ban” sunglasses for $3. However, if shopping is not your thing, nearly all markets have a food area where you can get delicious, piping hot food for very very cheap.

Chiang Mai's night markets

Knock-off designer brands for cheap

Stall after stall of clothes, textiles, food, and jewelry

For shopping, eating, exploring and people-watching – it’s hard to beat a local Thai market.

Happy Anniversary to Us

While in Chiang Mai Ted and I celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary. If someone had told us in 2006 where we’d be five years later, I’d hardly have believed them. However, I would have been thrilled to know that we were actually doing our round-the-world trip that we were already dreaming about back then!

We had a lovely day, beginning with delicious fresh-fruit smoothies from the best juice lady in town. After an awesome yoga class taught by our new Mexican friend Poncho, and lunch with fellow yogis Juanse and Clari from Puerto Rico, we spent the rest of the afternoon digesting in preparation of our Thai cooking class.

This lady made the best fruit smoothies in Thailand!

Juanse and Clari after yoga class at Namo studio

Lunch with our yoga crew

We had such a fantastic time at our Indian cooking class, that we decided another class was in order, as Thai is up there with Indian food as one of our favorites. Unlike India where things were more informal and where we literally cooked in our teacher’s kitchen, the Thai cooking class was a very neat and orderly operation on a large outdoor patio where we each had our own wok and cooking station. We lucked out and had the owner, Gayray, as our instructor so we got to learn from the best (our expat friend Chad turned us on to Gayray’s class – there is quite the cooking class culture here, so we were thankful to have the excellent recommendation).

Gayray explains our options for cooking class

We were in a group with four other people – 3 fellow Americans and 1 Canadian. Our not-so diverse group had to decide which types of food/courses we wanted to learn how to cook and we selected: appetizers, noodle dishes, soups and curries. As you can imagine, there was plenty of food to go around.

Ted mans the wok

Sarah grinds with the mortor and pestle

Group shot with Gayray

The next few hours flew by. Before we knew it we were cranking out spring rolls, pad thai, tom yum soup and massaman curry. There is a surprising amount of overlap between dishes so once you have the base of your soup made or your chili paste mortared and pestled, you can easily make several different delicious options quite easily. We learned about the importance of fish sauce, oyster sauce and oil to nearly every dish and it was fun and surprising to learn about the different items used to make dishes sweet, salty, spicy and sour.

Yeah, we made that! Tom Yum soup

Khao Sawy, a northern Thai speciality

Needless to say we had a memorable and fun 5th anniversary dinner, and I look forward to finding out where we will be celebrating in another five years.

A Wat with a View

One of our favorite days in Chiang Mai was to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Though quite a mouthful, this wat is particularly unique because it is set in the forest-covered hills overlooking the city. While it was hot and sticky walking around town, it was breezy and pleasant as we cruised on our motorbike up the windy road to the base of the temple 15 miles outside of town.

The entrance to Doi Suthep

According to Lonely Planet, the location of the temple “was ‘chosen’ by an honored Buddha relic mounted on the back of a white elephant; the animal wandered until it stopped (and died)” and a temple was built in that spot to preserve the relic. It’s pretty fantastic that the poor elephant died in such a lovely spot. Literally thousands of people make their way to this sacred temple each day.

To get to the temple required a pretty intimidating set of stairs, but it was totally worth it. The inside of the wat was spectacular too – literally covered in gold.

A grand entrance, and a lot of stairs

A beautiful wat!

A visitor pays respects

Colorful statues

Ornate entranceways

After the temple, we continued on up the road and saw the Thai King’s summer residence. Thai people are fanatical about their royal family – if you wanted to become immediately unpopular as a foreigner, insulting the King would be the first thing you could try. Everybody in the country is required to have a photo of the King somewhere in the house, and it is actually illegal to step on money in Thailand because the King’s image in on all coins and bills! We passed on touring the residence and instead continued on our motorbike to a nearby Hmong village further up the road.

Views of beautiful Chiang Mai from above

Road trip on the moto!

Our day-trip on the motorbike was a great success. Ted was an excellent driver, I was a happy passenger and the road trip was just what we needed to escape the heat and rejuvenate!

Wats and Monks

Chiang Mai is known for its hundreds of different wats. Wats are Buddhist temples and are incredibly impressive both outside and in. We had a great time motoring around on our little scooter in Chiang Mai and popping into various wats that struck our fancy. Each wat is a little different, but what they all have in common is a lot of love for Buddha. Sometimes Buddha is covered in gold, sometimes he is reclining. Sometimes Buddha is short and fat with a big belly, sometimes he is tall, skinny and regal. Sometimes he has his eyes closed and sometimes he has them open. But regardless of what Buddha is doing, he is the man. Or the god. Whatever.

Reclining Buddha

Fat Buddha

Wat Chedi Luang

Wat U Mong Klang Wiang

Sarah admires the many Buddhas

Wat Phra Singh

Wat Phra Singh

And where there is a wat, there will be dozens of monks in their distinctive orange robes. Some men have dedicated their lives to Buddhism and Buddha’s teachings, however, some monks are only in robe on a temporary basis. Though perhaps outdated in the cities, in many parts of Thailand every male is expected to become a monk for part of his life. Often this commitment is little more than three months, however, it is of great honor to the family when a son “takes robe and bowl”. Other families opt to send their young sons off to be monks because they’ll be exposed to greater educational opportunities than their small village could provide. Regardless of the reason, Thailand has a lot of monks – young and old – and you get used to seeing them everywhere!


Young monks

More monks!

One of the most memorable wats we visited in Chiang Mai had a sign that advertised the opportunity to attend a monk chat. Though we didn’t attend one, I kinda wish we did. It is a pretty unique experience to have access to a Buddhist monk and ask him any question you can think of about religion, life and even afterlife. Apparently it is also an opportunity for monks to practice their English. A win-win for both parties!

Advertised in English!

Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is a wonderful little city and one of our favorites stops of the whole trip. North of Bangkok, we traveled to Chiang Mai via night train. Not only were we quite impressed with the space and cleanliness of the train compared to our experiences in India (not to mention the guy that came to make our beds for us!), we also had the opportunity to meet two guys named Chad from the United States. One of the Chads had been living in Chiang Mai for nearly two years and it was great to be able to ask him some questions about Thai culture and what we shouldn’t miss on our visit to his adopted city. We later met up with the Chads several times over our next few days in town and got a little insight into (and visits among) the ex-pat community – which is thriving in Chiang Mai, and quite intriguing!

Meet Chad and Chad

This jazz bar is a popular ex-pat haven

After the business and chaos of Bangkok, Chiang Mai felt like the perfect spot to spend a few days and relax. And relax we did. We met some great fun people, did a couple amazing yoga classes, ate lots of amazing Thai (and Burmese! And Mexican!) food, and cruised the whole city on our rented motorbike.

Cruising Chiang Mai on our moto

Northern Thai specialties Chad introduced us to at his favorite local digs

I don’t know what it was about this little university town, but we grew to love Chiang Mai in a few short days. It was culturally exotic and rewarding while also feeling livable and comfortable. We had never imagined ourselves seeking out the opportunity to live in Asia before, but if we were to do it, Chiang Mai would be at the top of our list!

Melting Hot in Unexpected Comfort

Bangkok was HOT. I mean, very hot. I mean, about as uncomfortably hot as we’ve ever been. We would be sweating within minutes of leaving our air-conditioned hotel room. In fact, this was the first time we had needed an air-conditioned hotel room, and it was worth every extra penny. Our room/cool box was a welcome and needed relief and we found ourselves making forays out into the sweltering city but only for short stints at a time.

Melting on Khao San

We spent a great afternoon at Chatuchak Market – a massive market for both tourists and locals alike. They have a gigantic selection of everything from clothing, to housewares, from puppies to souvenirs, and of course delicious Thai food. It’s torture to visit a place like this and know that you don’t have enough extra room in your backpack for all the things you want to buy, especially when they are so cheap!

Chatuchak Market

Seriously, puppies at the market

We also ventured into China Town to check out more street vendors and stores selling anything and everything you could imagine, and when we were sufficiently over-heated we headed to one of Bangkok’s many state-of-the-art malls to cool off and see a movie. Bangkok’s malls are incredibly impressive – they are some of the biggest, most modern and architecturally impressive malls that we’ve ever seen. They are definitely a place to see and be seen as we saw thousands of Thais wandering the 10 or so floors, chatting and texting on their fancy smart phones. We don’t have malls this nice in the US.

Chinatown in Bangkok


What's this?

Meat, cooked and raw

Made in Thailand

But mostly we just enjoyed the creature comforts of a developed city and looked forward to our next opportunity to eat yummy and amazingly inexpensive Thai food. Coming from India and Nepal, where everything from purchasing bus tickets, to driving 20km on a hellish road could take hours – Thailand was a dream. Air-conditioned taxis with leather seats; multi-lane highways where people followed traffic rules; customer service agents at the train station to assist travelers with their bookings; excellent English everywhere. Bangkok was a nice and easy place to spend a few days and we made sure to appreciate it!

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