Mekong

Thursday, May 29th, 2014

After staying out late the night before, the early morning bus trip into the Mekong Delta came far too early.

We were on the bus and ready to go at 7 a.m. When we got on the bus we realized we were part of a large tour group that would likely result in a highly regimented and overly touristy trip through the Mekong Delta and into Cambodia. While this was exactly what it turned out to be, there probably isn’t a better option to travel from Saigon to Phnom Penh via the Mekong Delta without a lot of additional transportation planning.

Our guide had terrible jokes, many if which he repeated over and over again throughout the journey.

One the first day we traveled from Saigon to Can Tho with stops along the way for short boat rides through narrow creeks, lunch on a small island and a short trek through a fruit plantation.

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Our day ended in the town of Can Tho, where we were left to our own devices to explore and find a place for dinner.

After dinner we browsed through a few of the town’s underwhelming markets, which we stocked full of cheaply made clothes and trinkets, before making our way back to the hotel excited to see the Mekong’s largest floating market the next morning.

Friday, May 30th, 2014

Once again our day started bright and early with breakfast at the hotel before we set out with the group for the river dock in the center of Can Tho. Our entire group quickly boarded into a long narrow boat and we set off down the river toward the much anticipated market.

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The market was promised as a significant part of the tour and we were expecting to spend quite some time cruising back and forth between the many boat stalls purchasing fruit and veggie snacks. Of course, like many of these organized tours we only took one quick lap around the market before they quickly hustled us on to the next scheduled group toilet break.

From the market our boat headed deeper into the delta and we stopped at two more destinations nestled back in some of the small canals connected to the larger river.

The first stop was at a small family workshop that produced rice paper. We were able to spend about 15 minutes watching this local family work during the mid-day heat over burning ovens. It was actually a really cool process to see in action.

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Our second, and last stop, before returning to tour buses was at a small riverside village. Upon arrival we were able to rent pedal bikes and take a quick ride along the banks of the various canals, peaking into the lives of small homes and shops lining the water’s edge.

At the conclusion of the bike ride, we all piled back into the boat and set our course back to Can Tho and the awaiting tour buses.

The early afternoon was spent sitting on the bus as we made our way toward Chau Doc near the Vietnam-Cambodia boarder. En route we stopped at Tra Chu Bird Sanctuary, a flooded forest and swampland that is home to a wide variety of birds and other wildlife.

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We toured the mangrove forest in a bunch of small row boats and saw countless storksand other birds as our boats slid through the still, quiet waters.

By the time we returned to the bus from the sanctuary dusk was already beginning to set in. It wasn’t too long before our bus pulled up to our hotel in Chau Doc for our last night in Vietnam.

It took us quite a while to find somewhere to eat, but we finally found somewhere amenable and then finished the evening walking along the river bank.

Saturday, May 31st, 2014

We woke up on Saturday morning ready for our slow boat ride to Phnom Penh.

The day started as expected. We boarded a boat and visited a small fishing village before heading up river toward to Cambodian boarder.

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It was when we arrived at the boarder control after only 30 minutes in the boat that things took a turn for the worst. After passing through immigration we learned despite the fact we purchased a “slow boat” ride from Chau Doc to Phnom Penh, the “slow boat” portion of the trip was only from Chau Doc to the boarder. From the boarder we were expected to ride in a tiny minivan the rest of the way to Phnom Penh.

Although the boat was not supposed to take us all the way to Phnom Penh, it was supposed to take us to Neak Leung, with a mini van ride the rest of the way.

After a massive argument with the captain of the boat and a phone call to TNK Travel, we were unable to resolve the issue.

“It’s not a slow boat then, is it? It’s more like a slow bus.”

Frustrated and annoyed we piled into the minivan and drove the rest of the way to Phnom Penh and the Funky Monkey Hostel.

 

 

Border Crossings and Jail Threats

Thursday

We departed from Chiang Mai around 9 a.m. on the shuttle headed for Chiang Khong. The driver stopped halfway into the five hour ride somewhere in Chiang Rai to give his ankle a break from violently sealing the pedal to the floor for the past couple hundred of k’s.

The stop ended up being a pleasant surprise. We were given permission for a quarter of an hour to explore the White Temple, Wat Rung Khun. The buddhist temple was blinding and absolutely stunning, like a bridge in a crisp white wedding gown that indecisively chose to decorate herself with too many jewels so you couldn’t decided what to focus on.

I felt like I was walking around the set of The NeverEnding Story. 

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A few hours later we arrived at Chiang Khong. Chiang Khong doesn’t exactly have a lot going on, which was fine because we were only in the mood to stroll around in the sleepy town. We went out to dinner with Jackson and Lyndsey and called it a night before our border crossing and slow boat the following day.

Friday

This particular morning was pretty crap.

That might be because we were told to be up and ready by 8 a.m. and at 7:15 a.m. our idiot guide was slamming on my door telling me to get in the truck. Thanks to him putting us up in the wrong hotel, we need to be at breakfast somewhere else without more than a 2 second notice.

He was furious with me and I can’t say I was very apologetic for his own idiocy. Sorry dude. I’ve dealt with elite scamming scum likeminded indiviuals the past three months; and this particular morning I wasn’t in the mood to spend the next 12 hours half-showered still in my pajamas.

While trying to find a quiet spot to enjoy my powdered coffee and my own miserable company, this same guide decided to set up his folding table scam shop just outside the reception of the hotel we were supposed to (and already paid for) have stayed at…also the one I could be enjoying a shower and a change of clothes that very same moment.

He carried on, ripping off every poor budget traveler with every opportunity he could. He was charging for coffee (that was included in their package), transfer to the border (also included), and offering up exchange rates that even a Zimbabwe bank wouldn’t accept in exchange for their once existent currency.

By the time I tasted the undissolved sand in my coffee, I was fully aware that this guy sucked, and I was confident that his ego was so inflated that his feet didn’t even touch the ground.

Next up, it was our groups turn to deal with him. We forked over our transfer tickets and exchanged some baht into kip. He told us Laos had locked currency and it would cost $20 to get anything out of an ATM, regardless of the withdrawal amount. James handed him 3000 baht and the sucky man handed him back the equivalent of a quarter of what it was worth in kip. With my XE Currency app in hand, I immediately called him out. He didn’t appreciate me one bit as he had already decided he didn’t like me earlier that morning. We asked for our money back and he handed us exactly half back, claiming that is all we gave him. He flat out just pocked half of the money we had handed him seconds ago.

“Very funny. The rest of our money?” We said loudly.

We weren’t impressed with the magician and probably shouldn’t have put ourselves in that situation. Our voices were raised and obviously inflated with anger.

I think we forgot we weren’t in India – the land where screaming gets you further in life.

He didn’t respond well and immediately morphed into a crazy raging defensive lunatic. Long story short, he threatened to call the police, send us to jail, and in the end our bags were thrown out of his truck and we hung off the back of another pickup to get to the border crossing into Laos.

The border crossing was pretty hellish. Still pissed off, I apologized to the Laotian border control for sticking my ass in the air while repeating down dog and sun salutations in attempt to chill the heck out.

By noon we were finally on the slow boat.

The slow boat is primarily a tourist boat that takes travelers down the Mekong River. It shouldn’t be called a slow boat. When everyone said ‘slow boat’ I imagined we would be crammed into a little wooden row boat with a man dressed in a two tone onsie, a variation of a sailers hat, smoking a pipe while playing an organ and intermittently paddling us down the Mekong.

It’s not slow. It is fully equipped with a roaring engine that has some serious guts.

The whole trip has the potential to be quite boring.  If you have good company, some cash for onboard beers, snacks and playing cards then this is easily an enjoyable way to spend a day (well, two).

The scenery that passes by is a sweet green hazy welcome into Laos.

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We moored at around 4 p.m. and found a hotel to make home for the short night in Pakbeng.

Pakbeng was surprisingly sweet. There were several options for eating and drinking, but besides that there wasn’t much to see or do so that’s how we spent our evening.

Saturday

We boarded the boat around 9 a.m.

Unfortunately we chose seats wrong and there was a very sick, maybe dead body that was brought onto the boat about 45 minutes into the ride so James and forfeited our seats and shared the stairs as a seat for the eight hour journey. It wasn’t necessarily a fun day but it sure beat any day in India.

We arrived into Luang Prabang and I have to say I was a bit nervous. I wanted badly to love everything about Laos, particularly Luang Prabang.

The first impression one receives after walking up the stairs from the dock might not be the best, but oh how quickly one can fall in love with Luang Prabang!!

 

Last Week in Goa – Goodbyes, Anjuna Market and Overnight Train

February 9-12th 

Our last few days at Mandala flew by. Actually, the whole five weeks flew by.

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

Anjuna market

Jackson, Lyndsey, James and I all piled into a cab at about 8 a.m. and headed to Anjuna market. None of us had been before and since we all had the morning off, decided this would be the day to do it. The market is sprawling over a main road and creeps right up to the shore.

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Its spacious, open and going in the morning is a brilliant idea. Just briefly we wandered into the ‘hippie’ zone, but since everything there was basically the same as the local stuff, we decided the inflated price and attitude didn’t deserve our limited time.

That said, without a budget I would have bought this 5,000 rupee dress in a heartbeat…Okay and realistically these gold pendants too…

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The market was beautiful and I do believe is one of my absolute favorite markets so far!

Perhaps it was that I was thinking about how I would need to pack my backpack that evening, but I ended up leaving with only a handful of things. I got an elephant printed toe ring, a ganesh incense holder and an emerald bead to create something for later.

While Jackson and Lyndsey decided to be smart and head back to the cab waiting in the parking lot, I convinced James to make use of every spare minute and all of the sudden I realized those pretty detailed ceramic looking piles of things definitely needed to come home with us.

So we went on the 2 minute search for drawer knobs. Drawer knobs? I’m kidding right? Nope, the Martha Stewart in me is back in full swing.

You bet I had a blast digging through the brightly colored options searching for ‘the’ drawer knob that I will someday put to beautiful use.

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Thursday, February 13th, 2014

It was our last day at Mandala.
Looking back, this place was exactly what we needed and wouldn’t exchange it for anything different. Having Jackson and Lyndsey arrive was a godsend, a good reminder to get excited about this adventure rather than focus on the things we miss.

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These things will be there when we are ready to return to them.

So we spent the day happily reflecting. We finished a load of laundry, packed our bags, said some goodbyes and made one last walk to the beach.

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Sitting on the beach, we both became silent and began to reflect on what has happened and what is about to come. As much as we may have wanted to be on auto-pilot and take a reset break during our 5 week volunteer vacay in Goa, I think it’s safe to say I learned a few things.

There were some interesting personalities along the way here, and how we chose to (or not to) deal with them was an entertaining experiment. I continue to learn how to deal with personalities I likely wouldn’t encounter in my normal world at home.

So for these introductions, I’m grateful. It tests my patience, BIG TIME. Getting to work with locals inside of a business operating in India was a treat. I learned a lot. I was warned that my way of thinking of the why and how things are done would be challenged.

Whomever it was that warned me, thank you.

The whole five weeks has been inspiring thanks to three individuals: Manoj (29), Ramit, and Netish (19). These guys are smart. Dang, are they smart. Netish can speak Hindi, Nepali, and English. While he writes in the first two, he very quickly learned how to do the last. Ramit went to school and studied language. It is amazing but not surprising then that overnight he went from being nearly mute to engaging in long, fullfiling conversations. He is brilliant.

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Manoj. Oh Manoj. This boy has a heart of gold. He smiles. Always. He works so hard and takes pride in every gram of work he puts onto a plate. If you ask him for something and he doesn’t want to do it, he will look at you with his kapha eyes and say “Sure, why not? No problem.” Having these three guys around everyday was a gift from someone somewhere that knows dang well what’s best for me. I truly wish the best for these three.

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I asked James, “When were rich, can we come back and get these guys?” James delivered a smile that meant he would let me believe that forever, but realistically this would be the last day I would say goodmorning and goodnight to these boys. I wish there were more people like this on the planet. The world could use them.

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We cleaned up and packed up and sat in the restaurant for one last time. I listened to the sound of the propane flame and Hindi laughs float behind the curtain. The smell of spices stained the air. More than any other moment I appreciated this place more than I ever had.

Funny how that works right? In every relationship, vacation, celebration, good meal, I always become flooded with gratitude and can clearly identify what I found happiness in the very second before its over.

That’s life right? Maybe the humble ones see this from the start. Who knows.

We said our goodbyes and took a cab to Thivum train station.

Friday, February 14th, 2013
Our train was delayed an hour. It was of course a gorgeous night so we hung out next to the tracks before we realized one hour meant two. By 7:30 p.m. we switched platforms and jumped on the train.

We had 2AC tickets (meaning there are two tiers of bunks per berth). It was a massive car with two levels of beds lining the hall and then four places together in one cabin separated by curtains.

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Despite the fact that I was on bottom next to the car door and the man selling chapati needs to scream to the Himalayas that chapati and chai are for sale every 15 minutes, I slept like a rock and we were ready to roll the next morning to explore a new southern city.

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I was up around 7 a.m. and hung out the side of the train watching green and orange scenery pass and people getting an absolute kick out of running and jumping on and off the train.

By 9:30 a.m. we were at Kochi station. We waited 45 minutes for our rickshaw driver. He took us out of the industrial area towards Fort Cochin where we would spend the next two nights.