February 28, 2014

Northern Laos: Luang Namtha & Nong Kiauw

Oh my, as I think back to our 18 days in Laos, I realize it was filled with so many things: drinking with fellow backpackers at the Thai-Lao border with a view of the sun setting over the Mekong, mountain biking through rustic Lao countryside, partying at a Lao village party (which was amazing!), chilling out in Nong Kiauw (and dodging the dodgiest scam we've ever encountered!) and eventually heading down south to Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng. 

As we've learned in SE Asia, sometimes not everything goes by the plan. We crossed the border to Huay Xia with our minds set on taking the 2-day slowboat to Luang Prabang. One thing led to another and after the sixth Beer Lao with a traveling Dutch couple and a solo Canadian, we decided to ditch the boat and head up north to Luang Namtha and Nong Kiauw instead. And we're so glad we did.

In Luang Namtha we kayaked down the Namtha river, biked through dusty villages and ricefields, and eventually got invited into a village party. Beers were poured, Christian danced with the Lao ladies, beers were poured, smiles and hand signals were the language of choice, beers were poured, we were the only foreigners and even more beers were poured. It was such a unique experience and one of the highlights of our time in Laos. If it hadn't been at the urging of Denis that we "just go check it out" then we never would have known how hospitable the Lao people were (and such party animals!!).

A few days later we braved a rather bumpy ride through the mountains to Nong Kiauw. Once again we biked through the mountain roads (and Christian got a flat tire but Lao motorcycle guy came to the rescue together with an audience of Lao kids) and joined a kayak trip (which is where the scam came in and uggghhh it's such an annoying, long story but on a positive note: we didn't fall for the scam. Just trust me when I say don't join any tours with Jewel Tours anywhere in Laos!). 

Christian and Denis got up bright and early one morning to hike to the viewpoint over Nong Kiauw but I just couldn't peel myself out of bed and opted for a solo sunset trek up the mountain instead. First ever solo trek and quite a difficult one (especially after being lazy on the Thai beaches for so long!) but I made it up just in time to snap some pics and start my descent as the forest around me got dark and I turned on the flashlight. It felt really good to do it on my own.

And it was a very sweet surprise to see Christian pacing at the bottom of the trail for my safe return :).
{Our magic bus to Nong Kiauw...and quite a bumpy ride}
{Viewpoint at sunset}
{Delicious Laos laap}
{Biking the back roads of Nong Kiauw}

{Action pic courtesy of Denis!}
{And a Lao guy shaming Dutch bike repair ;)...he changed the tire in about 40 seconds flat}

February 26, 2014

Pai, Northern Thailand...it really is a hippie heaven!

Back in Chiang Mai, we had plans to head east to Laos for a couple weeks, pick up Burmese visas in Vientiene then hop on a train to Bangkok to catch a flight to Myanmar. 

On our last day in Chiang Mai, our travel buddy Denis had to get some stitches the day so at the last minute we decided not to cross the border and hang out in Northern Thailand until the stitches could come out. 

One night we met crazy nudist Nancy from New York who said Pai in Northern Thailand was amazing. Our Finnish friend Jussi and his brother just got back from motorbiking around Pai too and they said it was awesome. Hmmmmm...interesting...

If traveling in SE Asia has taught me anything, it has been that plans can change fast...really fast...so flexibility really is your friend. One night we were thiiiiis close to booking a flight to Myanmar and the next second we're coming up with Plan B.

We were bummed we couldn't explore Myanmar but we were pleased to see that motorbiking in Pai for a few days (before crossing over to Laos) and lounging on the beaches in Palawan, the Philippines, for 10 days fit into the Myanmar gap verrrrry nicely. So Pai and Palawan it is!!

Thanks to Jussi and crazy nudist Nancy from New York for the Pai recommendation and a very big thank yooooou to Denis for getting a few stitches that sidelined our plans for Myanmar but meant we could motorbike around the lush hills in Northern Thailand for a few more days (and added the beaches of Palawan to our itinerary!).

If you head up to Northern Thailand, keep going north! Pai was one of the highlights of our time in Thailand :)

P.S. It's worth the extra effort to find the Pai hot springs which are a bit farther away (and cheaper entrance fee). And who doesn't love hot springs in the jungle populated with only a handful of other tourists? (And a crazy local Thai guy sipping on some moonshine).

Looking for a cheap central place to sleep? We walked into Pai Walking Street Backpackers Guesthouse and got a cheap room with a front row to the nightly food market.

{Life is more fun in a pod :)}

{Delicious eats at the Pai nightly market}

February 22, 2014

Motorbikes, Waterfalls and a Cooking Class in Chiang Mai

Our 5-6 days in Chiang Mai were plagued with a bit of bad luck for our travel comrade Denis. After a few setbacks, we ended up staying in Chiang Mai a bit longer than planned and delayed our crossover into Laos (but we did get to spend some time in Pai! Which was awesome. More on that later.).

Chiang Mai was way busier than we expected. Lots of traffic and it really lacked the 'Thai' character we had experienced nearly everywhere else in Thailand. Maybe we set our expectations too high...all I read was how much backpackers loved this place. 

Ok I admit it, I didn't like Chiang Mai that much. There were two great things about it. The first was our highly recommended Thai cooking class at Basil Cookery. The second was hopping on a motorbike and getting the hell out of Chiang Mai. The hills around Chiang Mai are lush and beautiful...and, even though the water is pretty chilly, I swam in a waterfall :).

Oh and how could I forget the skewered garlic cloves I saw at the local market? GENIUS.