Shortly after we left Luang Prabang, and although the time left on our visa was diminishing quickly, we decided to see a little bit more of Laos while we still could. We headed north to the town of Nong Khiaw, from which we took an hour boat ride to Muang Ngoi Neua, a tiny village located on a river peninsula and cut off from civilization by steep mountain ranges. Its isolation means it remains very small and has absolutely no motorized traffic. We got a thatched bamboo bungalow above the riverbank for $1 a night. We spent the next day hiking to caves in the area, and ran into a wedding in the middle of the town. This turned out to be very interesting, as the participants waved us over and offered us rice wine. We enjoyed the reception for a while, drinking wine and eating sticky rice and laap, raw meat salad, with our fingers. The bride and groom wore elaborate costumes that looked as if designed with Indian influences in mind.
After Muang Ngoi Neua, our trip turned into one long bus ride. We traveled to the junction town of Udomxai, where we had a miserable stay in a mosquito infested room with dirty sheets. Good thing we have our silk sleepsheets! The next morning we hopped on a bus to Luang Nam Tha, where we arranged our final Lao transportation to the Thai border. We knew this ride would be a bad one. The road is so bad that buses won't even attempt it; only 4WD pick-ups make the run. We secured our tickets and grabbed a seat in the back of the truck; the front was already taken. It soon filled up, mostly with tourists, and a few Lao. These trucks are found throughout SE Asia, and are called songthaews, which means "2 rows." The bed of the truck is lined with 2 benches, and they squeeze in as many people as possible, so there are always an unlucky few hanging off the back
. This was definitely the worst ride we've endured thus far. Of course the road was unpaved, and extremely dusty. The bed of the truck has a ceiling but no walls, just metal bars, kind of like a cage. We were all covered in as many pieces of cloth that we could find. The road was so bumpy that if you were a pregnant passenger, it would function not only as a bus ride but as a $6 abortion. It was so dusty that by the time we arrived at our destination, even all us tourists looked Lao. But we finally made it and in good spirits. We had one last BeerLao and crossed the mighty Mekong to Thailand. And we forgot to mention, this was New Year's Eve day. We passed out in bed by 9:30 pm. At 12:30 we woke up and wished each other a happy new year.
So here we are, back in Thailand, and it sure feels nice. Cars, 7-11s, Burger Kings everywhere, it feels just like home. Or, it feels like discovering an advanced civilization after spending months with savages. We spent one day in the city of Chiang Rai, and then took a bus to our present location, Chiang Mai, the capital of the North. It is the 2nd largest city in Thailand after Bangkok, and is viewed very sentimentally by most Thais. It is often believed to lie on a sacred site, and contains over 300 Buddhist temples. The old city, where we are staying, is surrounded by a 6 km square shaped moat, which has a unique gate at the center of each side, and fortified corners
. You can almost imagine the ancient Thai soldiers fending off the Burmese, who wanted to steal their beloved capital. It is definitely one of our favorite places thus far, despite the traffic and pollution. Northern Thais are the friendliest people we have come across yet, and their hospitality definitely makes this a lovely place to be. On my birthday, Jack and I rented a motorbike and drove up Suthep Mountain, right outside of the city. This particular mountain is seen by many residents as a guardian of the city, and holds Wat Phra That, the most important Buddhist pilgrimage site in the north of Thailand. It was built in 1383. This was an interesting place, mainly because there were more Thais there than western tourists, which is a rarity this time of year. We watched quietly as pilgrims offered roses and candles to the numerous Buddha images. After this, Jack dropped me off at a spa for some pampering, where I got a facial, manicure and pedicure, all for under $12!! He picked me up and we stuffed ourselves at a middle eastern restaurant on a homemade cheese plate, and falafel. The cheese plate was a real treat, as it is very difficult to find even real milk in this part of the world.
The next day we began a 5 day cooking course at the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School. We both already make Thai food at home, but our knowledge is limited and we wanted to master the basics
. The class turned out to be very worthwhile. Each person had their own cooking station, and after we watched the teacher explain each dish, we went to our stations to make our own creations. We made on average, 7 dishes per day, which of course we were expected to devour. Each class also had its own theme, such as vegetable carving, and our favorite, making your own curry paste. That day was very tiring, as making your own curry paste involves a lot of pounding with a stone mortar and pestle. The results were delicious when we used our own curry paste to make Paenang curry. We were also taken to the local market, where the teacher explained all of the local ingredients. No need to tell us, we know you all expect some Thai cooking when we get home. We had our last class yesterday.
So here we are now, not knowing what to do. Jack got bit by a dog the other day, and tonight has to get his last rabies booster. We are a bit behind our itinerary, so are deciding between doing a motorcycle tour of northern Thailand or leaving Thailand and heading for Burma. We'll let you know.
Happy New Year! Sorry for not writing sooner, but we haven't had much to say. December was a bad month for us, and so far the new year is progressing in a much more positive light. Just to recap for those of you who don't know, these are the things that occurred during our travels in the month of December: Jack got violently ill from food poisoning, and upon recovering we both came down with wicked colds; our hard drive crashed, forcing us to reformat it, and causing us to lose all of our recordings, music, but thankfully not our pictures which we had backed up the day before; on Christmas day we found out our favorite little cat Squirrel had been missing since Thanksgiving; and at Christmas dinner Lauren chipped a tooth. On Christmas Day we had a free roast beef dinner at our favorite little coffeeshop, run by "a Christian guy", as stated on the invitation. We spent the evening chatting with a lovely Canadian couple and then raced to the center of town to call our parents. This made them and us very happy, but cost more than 2 nights of accommodation!