Saturday, November 20, 2010

A "Lake," Elephants, and the Mekong

After bidding Liz and her village goodbye-for-now, Court and I headed across the country towards the Burma border to Mae Hong Son, to be followed by Pai and a short sojourn into Laos to renew our visas (I've quickly discovered that visas are the BANE of my existence). We stopped over for a few uneventful hours in Chiang Mai and discovered our careful plans of NOT catching the local bus and GETTING the neat little vans were thwarted, and sure enough, we got on an overnight bus that resembled a school bus, rather than the "classy" ones with seats that only recline at an awkward angle and the A/C is fully blasting you in the face all night (yes, the school bus was worse).
The night was...long. Thankfully, it was dark, so we only felt the 1800-some(no joke!) turns that the mountainous road to Mae Hong Son is famous for, rather than saw them with our terrified faces.
We did get there in one piece, and even got a little bit of sleep, but were again slightly dismayed when we were dropped off at the worst hour of the day: 4 a.m. Nothing is open, no one was awake expect our tuk-tuk driver who dropped us off in front of a closed hostal. Luckily, being bright resourceful young women, we made good use of our time by wandering the streets, peeing in the lawn of what possibly was an official building (when nature calls...) and outrunning the local dog pack.
We also found the famed lake of Mae Hong Son which is, well, kindly, a "lake" as it's smaller than our neighbor's glorified pond. But, at least it was pretty and provided some seating to a couple of freezing girls! :)
Mae Hong Son was spent walking around, getting lost, discovering the glories of the Asian night market (oh boy!) and planning our trip to Pai, where we headed the next day. This bus station was a little more successful: we snagged one of the neat little vans and met an original hippie who introduced us to his pal in Pai.
Pai immediately struck me as a fun little hippie town, full of tourists--we even spotted our first fellow Americans, a couple of drunk boys trying to beat up a scarecrow, so proud--and full of fabulous, if pricey, shopping. We were still naive little travellers and got sucked into too many pairs of fisherman pants, but it was fun nonetheless.
Our first day in Pai, we also had our first encounter with the art of Thai massage. Let me just say, it was...interesting. We picked a random shop on the street, and immediately it was different from the massages I'd gotten in America--no music, no quiet atmosphere, and we changed into clothes they provided (although I convinced my cousin we both needed to keep our shirts off and get under the blankets, which resulted in hilarity from both of our massueses...whoops). They also BEND you around and crack your back and push painful veins (mine shoved her fingers in my armpits for the longest, most painful ten seconds of my life) but we felt pretty dang good, and sore, afterwards. And don't worry, they definitely were NOT "happy ending"massages. :)
Pai was also the sight of one of our most epic adventures yet--elephant riding!!!!!!
Take a moment for !!!!
I love those elephants. I pretty much filled up a memory card on my camera with elephants. If you saw them, you could not blame me!
We started out fairly early for Thom's Elephant Camp, meeting two pairs of German/Swiss girls traveling the world, and proceeded to meet our lovely elephants. Ours, a subdued little girl, was named Bom Pen, which means...well, our guide didn't know, but we still loved her!
The elephant guides are like acrobats, leaping up and down and climbing up the trunk, while I could barely swing my leg across, my thigh-area is still sore, and I was clinging for dear life to the rope/elephant head to avoid falling...and it's pretty far, cause elephants are, you guessed it, TALL!
The ride was nice, through the beautiful hills around Pai, and just as I was getting really sore, we came to a river and swam with our elephants! It was so fun, they clearly love the water and were splashing us and each other, and one even rolled over, dislodging his riders and leaving them hanging on to avoid getting rushed down the river (and even though I loved this part, another part of me remembered how all the pipes in Liz's village dump right into the creek). After a little while longer with our Bom Pen, we utilizied the camp's hot springs. Mmmm sooo good...especially after we discovered we'd been sitting in the cold pool for ages and found the nice surprise of the hot pool, three inches away.
After another trip around Pai's night market, we hit the road the next day, bound for LAOS!!!
The scenery on the way to Chiang Khong (the border town) via Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai was quite beautimous. Lots of curves, hills, mountains, mist...then rice and corn. One thing I noticed on the bus was this young woman, probably younger than my ripe old 23, cuddling her little baby, who was seriously adorable. The Thais, I have observed, really love their kids. Everyone dotes on the children, and we have seen fewer children working than I noticed in countries like Peru. We have also seen so many kids with dads, even being taken to work with their dads, and I find this heartwarming, too.
Enough random information, or else this blog, like the other one, will never end!!
It was a long day to Chiang Khong, where we were thankfully met by another Peace Corps friend of Liz's, another Josh. Josh gave us a taste of some Northern Thai curry (delicious and spicy) and gave us a tour of his town, where we got our first glimpse of the MEKONG and LAOS, right there, right across the river!!
The rest of the night involved drinking at a bicycle-themed bar with an Ethiopian and a Swiss, a couple of guy travelers, and then a cold night on Josh's floor, all before crossing the border the next day.
Once again demonstrating the ridiculous generosity of the Thais, Josh's neighbor/landlord dropped us off personally at the border with fruit and smiles.
So we began our first border crossing...we hopped into a little boat, zoomed across the river, filled out paperwork for awhile, got our passports stamped, and got completely ripped off for an evening ticket to Luang Prabang. (Border towns are expensive--even my pomegranate was twice as much! Pshaw).
Another looooooong night bus later, 15 hours complete with flat tires, pit stops on the side of the road, and views of villages with one T.V. (although it was kind of cool to see the entire village crowded around a T.V. cheering and laughing) we arrived in the French colonial city of Luang Prabang!
Luang Prabang is one of the prettiest cities we have seen so far. Giant wats everywhere, surrounded by two rivers--one of them the Mekong--and filled with crepes. I was a pretty happy camper for the few days we were there!
They also have an incredible Hmong Night Market. I've been interested in the Hmongs ever since reading "A Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down," and it was great to buy some of their handicrafts.
Laos went by in a whirl of monks, crepes, baguettes, shopping, interesting Lao food, including some kind of "river vegetable"and lots of lemongrass, Beerlao by the Mekong at sunset, and walking a lot. It was a fun little trip, but it was also good to be back at Liz's village, which now felt almost like home! :)

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