Playing Forest Gump in Laos

Up to this point on my Southeast Asian Adventure, I had been sick on a motorbike, on a cliff, and on a speedboat. Thanks to the adverse side effects of malaria pills, I soon added a longboat and a bus to the list after I crossed over the Mekong into Laos. This time it was a normal bus, no tranny bus stewardess or “Best Friend Companion” snack boxes or bathrooms for me. Just 8 painful, winding, bumpy hours before I arrived in Luang Namtha, where I expected nothing more than a place to stretch my legs and rest my head.

Stopping off at a Roadside Market on the Long Journey

I was making my way to Luang Prabang to do some trekking, so despite my uneasy stomach I decided I needed to get out and get some exercise before another full day of travel. Some friends were renting bikes to go check out a nearby waterfall, so I decided I would run and meet them there. (I got hoes in different area codes. Except, well, our relationships are purely platonic. And they are not hoes. I’m sorry I said that. That’s offensive.)

Now, I don’t know what you know about Asian cultures, but I can tell you this much: people don’t often run, casually, just for the hell of it. Me being tall, fair-skinned and blonde running through this village was a bit like me heralding my own parade. Despite the fact that this casual run turned out to be 6 miles, I was loving every minute of it, exchanging “Sabadei!”s with various villagers as I struggled up hills on rocky terrain on my way to the waterfall.

I don't normally smile when I run. Then again I don't normally run.

On my way back, I passed a group of girls who just couldn’t contain their giggles at the sight of me running past them. Now I’m not sure if they were mocking me or just trying to see where I was off to in such a hurry, but after I passed them they started running after me, gathering more and more kids as we made our way down the dusty village road. It was the Laos version of the scene in Forest Gump where he runs across the country with hundreds of hippies following him just to figure out why he was running. I might not have noticed they were behind me for a while, but luckily a friend was biking back from the waterfall and was able to capture this shot.

Just like Tom Hanks

It wasn’t long before I could tell the kids were getting tired, so I stopped to smile and laugh with them, as our words were meaningless to each other. I tried to motion to “high five” one of them, but not understanding she adorably clapped her own hands together. Once I showed them what I meant, you would have thought I had just given them the best present ever as they squealed in delight, repeatedly high-fiving each other and me until they were shaking the sting from their hands. I had not expected much to happen in Luang Namtha, but more than all the big adventures, it’s the tiny, unexpected moments like these that keep me on the road.

Thailand Part 2: Elephant Treks, Whitewater Rafting, and More Ladyboys

Riding an elephant is one of those iconic activities for most visitors to Southeast Asia, and while I really wanted to do it, it was important to me to make sure my money did not end up in abusive hands. In the past, most elephants were used for transportation of people and goods as well as for logging. With the government ban on rainforest logging in 1990, thousands of elephants in Thailand were left unemployed.

Elephant Logging

Needing new ways to feed their elephants, many owners saw the continuous increase in Western tourism as a perfect opportunity to make some money. Unfortunately, this has led to many elephants being overworked and exploited. I do not need to see an elephant paint me a picture or dance in a stupid costume, chained at the ankles and addicted to drugs. There are companies out there that fight against this however, taking great pains to ensure the well-being of the endangered species while still providing tourists the opportunity to spend time with the majestic beasts.

After doing some research, I found a place I was comfortable with and figured what better way to celebrate the birthday of the King of Thailand than to ride his elephants and white water raft his rivers? He’s in the hospital so I’m sure he appreciated the thought, yanno, since he obviously couldn’t do it. Now, as exciting as riding an elephant may sound, I have to admit, the novelty wore off about 10 minutes into the ride, at which point I sort of just thought, “Wow, this thing moves reeeaaally slowly.” Seriously, who gets bored riding an elephant?

Elephant Ride along the Water

I thought maybe I was just too comfortable sitting on the chair up on my elephant’s back, so with the encouragement of the mahout (elephant master) I decided to crawl off my chair and climb down to ride bareback. As the chair was taking up all the space on its back, I essentially had to ride on its neck, holding onto its ears for stability. With every step he took I thought I might slide down onto his trunk (at which point I’d suddenly be wearing a leotard and someone would cue the circus music…or at least that’s how it played out in my head). Maybe not the most comfortable way to ride an elephant, it certainly kicked up the excitement level. We first mounted the elephants from a platform, so it wasn’t until I actually stood on the ground and looked up into those giant marble eyes that I really appreciated the beauty of these gentle giants.

Showing my Elephant Some Love

After the elephants took us to the water, we began the rafting adventure. I was doing the trip with the Australian boys I had zip lined with as well as a few girls I had met along the way. For one reason or another the chubby Thai guide in our raft took a disliking to babyfaced Jason (perhaps because he kept “forgetting” to paddle), and mocked him relentlessly throughout the trip, calling him a “ladyboy” and constantly trying to get him to fall out of the boat. When we finished rafting, our guide must have mentioned something to his coworkers because they all swarmed our raft, pointing at Jason saying “which one ladyboy?? you ladyboy? ahahaha ladyboy ladyboy!!” Poor Jason is probably scarred for life.

Because it was the King’s birthday, the markets that night were even busier than usual, swarming with vendors selling everything from mystery foods to tortoise shell guitars.

Night Market Stall

Chiang Mai Night Market

Handmade Soaps

In celebration, people were lighting giant paper lanterns which created trails of golden orbs as they floated off into the sky. The lanterns are meant to bring good luck to whoever releases them, or at least that’s what they tell the tourists.

30 Bhat for a Wish

After another day browsing the markets of Chiang Mai, I headed towards the border to Laos, passing through Chiang Rai to visit Wat at Rong Khun, or White Temple as it’s more commonly referred to. This stunning Buddhist temple is the work of a man named Chalermchai Kositpipat, who funded the temple himself so that he could take creative liberties where he pleased. I was a bit surprised to be standing inside a Buddhist temple and find that in the eyes of the giant devil painted on the main wall were none other than Osama Bin Laden and George W. Bush.  <<cue Team America puppets>> “America..f*ck yeah…”

Wat at Rong Khun

Aside from visiting temples and riding elephants, I ate as many (authentic!) Thai curries as I could stomach before I hopped on a longboat in Chiang Khong, waved goodbye to Thailand, and headed for Laos.

Where I arrived two minutes later…

Adventures in Chiang Mai Part 1: “Ladyboys” and Rainforest Ziplines

With only 3 weeks left in my trip, I decided to bypass the beaches of southern Thailand and head straight for Chiang Mai in the north. I was afraid if I went south that I would encounter the oh-so-troublesome “I’ve seen better” syndrome that is an unfortunate side effect of regular travel. I had just recently visited some hard-to-top beaches around Australia and Indonesia and figured I’d see what else Thailand has to offer.

Whitehaven Beach of The Whitsunday Islands

Bali's Bingin Beach

I flew into Bangkok, the massive, hectic capital city famous with backpackers for the mental, non-stop parties found on Khao San Road.

Massive and Manic Bangkok

My flight arrived late at night, and I got to the airport and realized I hadn’t really thought about where I was going to stay or how I was going to get there. After about two hours spent wandering the airport investigating different transportation options, I finally got on the newly built Skytrain and reluctantly headed towards Khao San because I knew I’d have no trouble finding a place to stay.

Khao San Road at Night

The next morning I made my way past the Zombies still wandering the streets at 6 am on my way to catch my train to Chiang Mai. Due to the flooding, they had to re-route transportation and my train ride turned into a bus ride. I had heard horror stories of friends traveling Asia and getting stuck on long, hot, crowded bus rides with upset stomachs. I was dreading this 10 hour trip, expecting it to be smelly and run-down, and picturing myself getting a sick stomach again and being trapped.

I could not have been more wrong. What I got was the flashest bus ride of my life. I had a super comfortable seat that reclined almost 45 degrees with more leg room than an exit row. It had all the amenities of an over-seas flight, with built in adjustable head-rests, a pillow and blanket waiting on my seat, and in-drive entertainment. Already impressed, I was shocked when a transvestite bus stewardess started her rounds, bringing snack boxes, iced coffee, and cold cloths for our faces throughout the journey. To be clear, I was not shocked about the tranny (“ladyboys”, as they call them, are infamous in Thailand), I was shocked by the fact that my bus had a stewardess. And he/she was bringing me snack boxes labeled “Your Best Friend Companion”  with sugary treats and buns filled with a confusing yet delicious green or purple paste/jelly hybrid substance. Then about ten minutes into the ride I was wondering how the person behind could be kneeing my seat with all the legroom we had, at which point I realized oh, that’s just my massage chair. Casually.

But then it got better. I’m not sure if I was more excited about the massage chair or the fact that there was a toilet. A real toilet, with a seat, and a flush, and, oh it was almost too wonderful for words…toilet paper!!! I almost didn’t want the ride to end, but I arrived in Chiang Mai ready to have some adventures.

Night Markets of Chiang Mai

The next day I headed out with a group of Australian boys from my guesthouse to do something called “Flight of the Gibbon.” It’s 2km of zip lines broken up by 18 treetop platforms through the rainforest. Quite a change from the overly cautious safety regulations you’d find on trips like this in the West, we were quickly strapped into harnesses upon arrival, received a safety briefing that went something like “lots of safety, lots of funny” and then ran after our guides to the start point where they literally grabbed our carabiners and pushed us off the first platform before we could say “Sawatdee kaa” (hello in Thai).

Flight of the Gibbon

Chiang Mai was off to a flying start (I couldn’t help myself). I had so much zen time in Indonesia I was craving some adrenaline, so after spending the day being thrown off treetops 1300 m above sea level, I was still just getting started on the adventures…