Traveling Days…

a personal photo blog of my worldy travels

Country Roads Take Me Home December 6, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — tlsimm @ 9:11 am

And now it is the beginning of the end.

Its December 5th, around 2:45 in the afternoon and I have successfully crossed back into Thailand from Laos. Time is a funny thing out here, it really is of the essence and how you make use of it. According to native North American seasons, no time has really passed at all, it is still exceptionally warm; the sun never ceases to shine and burn my delicate, well now a little tougher, skin if I am exposed for too long.

Laos was yet another beautiful country, with lush green mountains with visible sedimentary rocks, cut through by the massive Mekong River. It is filled with caves, waterfalls, and many another natural beauties all tucked away but will be gladly exposed by a number of tuk tuk drivers for the appropriate fee. Lao is a very conservative country; with typically all women wearing long traditional skirts, even as the little girl’s school uniform! Most countries in SE Asia are conservative in dress, but Lao was by far the most, everyone wearing long sleeves at all time as well. It was the only country to have signs posted at the border and in tourist areas asking for people to please be respectful and cover up. I found the Lao language very soothing, almost sing-song in tones, but I might have an affinity for the Lao people due to how underdeveloped the country was and how much was left in its natural state, which I enjoyed in contrast to the bustling nature and grime of the big cities.

Noah and I spent some time in the quaint town of Luang Prabang; serving as a tourist destination but all in all a very pleasant place. Chaing Mai (Thailand) and Luang Prabang are examples of popular tourist sites that provide an easy and maneuverable and very  Westernized atmosphere as well as  all the information and transport to see the “real” countryside. Countless travel agencies line the streets in between handicraft shops and cafes that offer many 1,2 and 3 day package trips to visit local hill tribes, bathe and ride elephants, and trekking. It was an ironic thing to me that everyone would come to these towns just to get on a bus and leave them every morning, to whatever excursion they so desired. Noah and I tried to explore the towns on our own and by asking locals. It definitely made the event more difficult and cumbersome at times, but we felt better at being more independent (and saving money!). We visited Pak Ou cave, located along the Mekong and is filled with thousands of Buddah statues. It was used to religious ceremonies and celebrations, serving as a destination for the local villages during their religious holidays. Included in the drive to the cave, we got to visit a small village where they make rice wine, made from red and white types of rice, as well as whiskey infused with cobras, centipedes, and scorpions. They gave us samples of the wine and offered us the whiskey, explaining that it made you very strong, but I had to refuse. The labels even advised that you drink it twice a day, before a meal for the best benefits….uhh I guess?! Since all of the creatures fermenting inside the alcohol are poisonous, I thought it against best judgment to try it!

Coincidently, my friend Kim whom I met up with in Chiang Mai a few weeks ago, was also in Luang Prabang at the same time! Kim amazingly offered to treat me to a traditional Lao cooking course she and her cousin were taking, so I took her up on the offer and had a great time! We were first taken to a local morning market where most vendors get their vegetables and meats for the day, and our guide informed us about many of the popular items such as banana flowers, spices, herbs such as kefir lime leaves, lemongrass, mint, and basil, regular rice and sticky rice, palm oil sugar, rock salt, chilis, and yes, MSG. I have never seen MSG in its true form, and certainly not bags upon bags of it, looking just like bags of sugar. He said that in the U.S. we have signs promoting “No MSG” as a good thing, but he said if Laotian people saw that sign, no one would eat there. Pretty funny.  We headed to the cooking school after wandering through the market, where all of our ingredients looked extremely fresh and sterile after being the grittiness of the market. We were taught how to make 5 different courses, some vegetarian and some meat, buffalo is very popular out here, and the best part was that was got to eat all of our creations! Most foods, vegetables and meats, are seasoned with herbs that have been ground into a paste with a mortar and pestle. They were all very easy to make and extremely flavorful and I can’t wait to try some recipes at home! My favorite, which I was actually introduced to when I was on the farm, is a roasted eggplant sauce, full of garlic and chilis, eaten with sticky rice.

As great as this little French town was, we wanted to see more countryside so we got on a bus to take us to the village of Oudomxay, approximately four hours North West. It is along the only road that leads to China from Laos, and serves as a stopping point for many coming from and heading to China, being only 100 km away and has thus merged cultures in one little town, filled with Chinese restaurants and signs in Chinese.  We were dropped at the bus station of the town after hours of treacherous turns up the winding mountainside; and for the first time in South East Asia, no tuk tuk drivers were anxiously waiting for us and providing us with information on places to stay. So, we loaded our backs with our gear and began walking and soon realized in how small of a town we were in, and barely anyone spoke any English at all; I thought it was great to be away from all the tourists! We found a small, cheap guesthouse along the main road figuring it didn’t matter too much where we stayed because everything was in walking distance. We dropped off our backpacks and began exploring the town and found it to be a great little village with lots of families, farms, and wildlife. We heard a beautiful sound coming from one home and walked towards it, and saw a man blowing into a peculiar wind instrument, so large and with 5 pipes it had to played in a sitting position balanced on the ground. He motioned us over and spoke to us in Lao with a big smile on his face even though we couldn’t understand him or respond, and offered the instrument to us to play. Noah, (being a French horn player for many years) immediately made a great sound and when my turn came around, I could only made a sad little toot. Everyone laughed (by now his whole family was watching). We thanked him and continued on and all the little children would smile and say “hello!” very excitedly to us, and we realized not many “farang” (white people, or people of European descent to be more politically correct) come through this town at all. We had read one of the features of this town was a herbal sauna, and we were on the hunt for it. A few locals, young men who were students and eagerly wanted to practice their English with us, came up to us and we asked them about it, but no one knew what we were talking about. We have gotten very used to the reaction of “uhh…I have no idea” and so we continued back to the main road to our guest house. I quickly saw the sign for it and we decided to treat ourselves that evening!

When we began walking over to it a few hours later, it was almost dusk and we have noticed the custom, mostly in smaller villages, this is the time to blast traditional music, burn your garbage, and have a few beers with your friends. Usually the men are partaking in the drinking and the women are frying up various meats on sticks, but everyone is very happy and relaxed and singing along to the music. We walked though this happening on all sides of us and walked up the hill to the sauna, not exactly sure what to expect. We were greeted by a few women who asked if we wanted a massage as well, and for the price (totaling $5 for an hour massage and unlimited sauna use) we decided it was a great idea! We were given sarongs to change into and went into a bamboo hut where mattresses and two women were waiting for us. We lied down and the women began slathering a tiger-balm-esque solution all over us, giving a great and tingling massage. After they finished, they quickly got up and left, and we decided we better hit up the sauna. It was separated for men and women, two little rooms that are heated by a huge wood fire with a massive cauldron of herbs constantly being boiled, seeping into each room. Like the sauna on the farm, it was a little overwhelming at first but after a few minutes and the sweat began to pour, it felt very relaxing. All the women were massaging each other and chatting away and would smile at me and I made little conversation with some. The women would slather their skin with evaporated milk and even yogurt, I believe to give lots of moisture but at first it seemed very strange to me! Once you’ve had enough of the steam, usually about 10 minutes, you step outside and are greeted with an amazing view of a river and rice paddies, completely surrounded by mountains. Hot tea is also constantly being brewed on the raging outdoor fire as well, so I downed several glasses of the delicious herbal tea before returning back to the steam room.

The sauna was great because it was so simple, just a small wooden structure, nothing fancy, and right in the middle of a beautiful location. Everyone was very relaxed, all hanging out in their sarongs, sweating like crazy and drinking tea in between sweat sessions. We even saw the pickup truck deliver the herbs, probably from a very close location. After about an hour of intermittent sauna-ing, we thanked the employees, who had started cooking some rice and meat, and headed off to shower.

The next day we decided to do an excursion, since we were in the middle of the best waterfall location, and headed to the tourist office but found it to be closed for the weekend! That’s how we knew of how small of a town this was, usually most places will provide tours all day every day of the week. We asked many locals and got a driver to take us to the local waterfall, basically a private tour, and had a great time. We enjoyed the sauna so much we treated ourselves again, knowing it would be the last time we would have an opportunity like this! We headed back to Luang Prabang the next day, which now seemed like a huge city after 2 days in Oudomxay and got to relax and walk along the river and had a great dinner right at the water’s edge. Every year a bamboo bridge is built to cross the Mekong to get to a restaurant and a neighboring village, but the rain has been more frequent this year and actually destroyed it while we were there! Knowing this was the last part of our trip before making our 2 day journey back to Bangkok where we will depart from South East Asia for good, we did some great shopping at the night market and found some very unique and actually handmade items. We are really loaded down now with luggage, but I just have to make it on the airplane and I’ll be home free (the whole packing/unpacking and lugging my life around with me is definitely getting a little tiring).

We took an 11 hour bus ride from Luang Prabang all the way to the border of Lao and Thailand, stayed in a room for the night and headed across the border bright and early this morning, taking about 5 different buses and tuk tuks necessary for every part of the crossing experience, and got a great bus earlier than we expected heading to Bangkok. Since the trip is another  10-11 hours, we were fortunate to find a bus early in the morning and I felt so happy that everything went off without a hitch (normally things do not go this smoothly); we got good prices on all the transport, no lines at either border, and a bus leaving at a great time. After about two hours however, the bus suddenly stops (not that unusual) but doesn’t start up again, and we realize its totally broken down. Two incredibly hot and frustrating hours of waiting along a dusty highway (many people got their luggage and caught taxis to who knows where), and with incredible patience from Noah and lack of patience from me, the bus drivers actually fixed the problem and we are back on the road! We have about 7 hours left, and hopefully will arrive to Bangkok before 11 pm, whew, what a way to end the trip!

I will spend 3 more days in Bangkok where my epic journey ends and I must make my final farewells with being abroad (for now). I have had such an amazing time; saw so many sites and met a lot of great people in this 4 ½ month, 9 countrywide adventure. I am really going to miss the heat and the warm rain, the beautiful green mountains and winding rivers, as well as all the sounds, smells, and tastes that are so prevalent the moment you step outside, but I am so happy to be coming on home.

I hope my pictures give you a glimpse of my time abroad and I am so glad I could share it with you! Thank you so much to everyone who has been following me, it makes it worthwhile to have continued writing throughout my trip, and makes it feel like I have taken some of you along with me! I love you all….and “I’ll be home for Christmas, you can count on me. I’ll be home for Christmas….(not)if only in my dreams!”

THE END.

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Four months and counting…. November 27, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — tlsimm @ 8:27 am

Well hello! Its been quite a while and I’ll have been in three countries again by the time this is posted. I’ve been through Cambodia, back to Thailand but this time up in the north region of Chiang Mai and the little farming village of Pang Turm, and over the Mekong river into Laos!

To finish up my Cambodian adventures; Ankor Wat was absolutely stunning, amazing, and genuinely awe-inspiring. The place was huge! Its an complete city tucked away in the jungle and can’t be seen in its entirety in just one day, even if you do have a personal driver (which we did!) When we arrived in Siem Riep, we got a tuk tuk to our guest house and our driver offered to chauffer us around the Wats (temples) for the day for an extremely inexpensive rate. We had heard this was the best way to see the most in a short time, so after some deliberation on pricing (bargaining is incessant in SE Asia) he agreed to pick us up at 5 am the next morning so we could arrive by sunrise and have the best views with less people. That alarm clock buzzed too soon and before we knew it we were zipping along in the dark through the jungle to the once lost beloved city of temples. We arrived while it was still dark but soon we were able to make out the jagged profile of the peaks, beginning to shimmer on the water that surrounds it. It was so beautiful, and I hope the pictures can do it SOME justice. The sun came up very quickly after that with full force and we were very thankful to have someone drive us to each location (we ended up going to about 5 temples in 5 hours I think) also because they are several kilometers apart from each other and it would be impossible to see more than 2 in a day! The temples themselves were amazing but also the way the trees and greenery had grown in among them and around them was so interesting and really added to the beauty. We got to see the “Tomb Raider” temple (our driver’s favorite) made famous from the video game and the film starring Angelina Jolie. It was a popular one and had a very Indiana Jones feel to it, with all the vines hanging down and the tiny stone corridors leading you through a maze of steps. I enjoyed the smaller, more serene temples, with less people and more manageable size. It seems hard to believe the large ones were actually used on a daily basis; they are the size of a small village themselves!

Anyway, Angkor Wat is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful manmade wonders of the world and I feel so lucky I was able to witness it; everyone should check it out, and the city of Siem Riep was great as well!

We were sad to leave Cambodia, but excited for our new adventures to come back in Thailand so we boarded a bus which was supposed to arrive back to Bangkok in about 6 hours and we were stoked, everyone was going smoothly. Once we hit the border of Cambodia and Thailand just a short 2 hours later, the drivers announced we needed to unload our stuff head through customs and they would be waiting for us on the other side; all with smiles on their faces as they tagged us with red stickers, identifying we had paid for our transportation. We headed into the stuffy room and waited in a 30 minute line and soon realized we needed to go through Thailand’s customs as well. We walked across the border (filled with casinos since they are regularly illegal) and saw the line for the Thai visa…..it was a 5 ½ hour standing/sitting session directly in the sun. We thought our trip would be 6 hours total which quickly just about doubled! At least everyone was in the same situation and made the most of it and we got to talking to a lot of different people from around the world. We finally saw our drivers were actually waiting for us on the other side (I really wasn’t sure what was going to happen) and felt bad we had to wait for so long; they assured us it wasn’t typical to wait more than an hour..hmm..but we were separated into a few groups and were whisked away in the most dangerously fast van ride of my life into Bangkok, but we made it!

After one quick night back at our home base in Bangkok (we have stayed at the same place all three times and are close with the owners now) we boarded another bus to Chiang Mai, and all 11 hours went perfectly great!

Chiang Mai is the 2nd largest city in Thailand but has a much smaller look and feel. It has quaint little alleyways shaded by trees and actually reminds me of Berkeley very much. The old city is surrounded by a mote; about 3 square miles and remnants of the stone gates at each corner are still in place. Coincidently my  brother’s  and my friend Kim and 2 of her relatives were staying a few blocks away at the same time! We met up every day for three days and had a great time exploring the city and chatting about home. It was so nice to see a familiar face and have great conversations with someone you know after so long. We knew our time was brief in Chiang Mai, and got ready to head to our new volunteer job of the “Happy Healing Home” or “H3”, a few hours up north in the farmlands.

We took the “yellow bus” which is actually a tsongtow (basically a truck with a covered bed which has been converted into a seating area) for 2 hours up the winding jungle roads with stunning views. Everything is so green and lush surrounded by mountains and red dirt along the roads. Another couple from London got on the bus that were doing the program as well and it turns out none of us knew what to expect! We were dropped off on a small dirt road and were told to walk up the hill and soon enough we saw a little wooden sign surrounded by flowers and we knew we were in the right place. The first thing I noticed were the sounds, or lack thereof. After being in bustling metropolitan areas and the back of a truck for a few hours, you forget how loud and noisy things are. This farm was so quite and peaceful with just the sound of numerous chickens and ducks aimlessly squawking and walking around. We were greeted by another volunteer who introduced us to Pinaan (pronounced pee-non and is a term of respect) Jim, and Pinaan Tea, the Thai couple who run the program and the farm. We quickly realized the concept of this program is to do as you please, ask for anything you want or want to do/learn about and work together as a team. With four of us arriving in one day, there were 11 volunteers total and we all stayed in bungalows Jim and previous volunteers had built out of bamboo right out of the forest next to their home. The land consisted of farm, different bamboo bungalows, a river, and pond for fishing (I caught about 5 fish that we cooked for dinner one night!), a secluded meditation spot high up in the hills, and even a working hot stone sauna.

Meals were prepared and cooked by Tea with the help of volunteers (we mostly just did the chopping of the vegetables most of which were unknown to us!) three times a day, and for the rest of the day we worked on the farm making beds (rows of dirt for seeds), planting, building structures out of bamboo, and any other project you wanted (mostly consisted of art projects). The work was hard in the garden, especially when it was hot but Tea was so sweet and always told us to come in when it was hot and not to go back out till it cooled off. Noah and I really took to the gardening as well as picking flowers to dry for tea and harvesting coffee beans!

The first day I attempted to help with building structures out of bamboo, but with the lack of experience of an axe, saw, machete, and basically any sharp tool; I was nervous and felt more of a hazard than a help. But it was great experience and I learned a lot about the building process which was awesome. Since the food took 1-3 hours to prepare, and we had 3 full sized meals every single day, a lot of time and effort went into the food and it was so fun learning new recipes and trying yet even more types of food. Jim asked me one evening if I would do the honors of killing the chicken for dinner, and I absolutely had to refuse. I caught many fish but couldn’t even bear to take their wriggling bodies off the hook let alone hang a chicken. I watched through my fingers, intrigued but disgusted at this time- old tradition of chicken slaughtering and it was actually very simple but slow for my taste. He just rigged a small noose from a bamboo strip (bamboo is used for absolutely everything) and slipped around the chicken’s neck then the other side around a low tree branch, and just let go and let gravity do the rest. It was extremely sad but you have to eat and this is the cleanest way to do it, and is Lanna tradition…and it tasted great!

Once the food was prepared, we would all sit in a circle and Jim would give us each a dish with freshly prepared sticky rice and then we would all spoon the various dishes laid out before us into our bowl. We all got to know each other very well and meal time was a great way to relax and get to know each other. After everyone was finished, we would take turns doing the dishes in the outdoor sink and then get back to our projects or relax and read or give each other much deserved massages! Jim has been a monk for 16 years but is no longer practicing and prefers to teach those interested in Buddhism in the relaxed environment of his home. 15 minutes of meditation was held every night before bed, and you could participate if you liked. The last day, a volunteer from Lithuania fixed the tarp covering the sauna and we decided as a goodbye we should all have a go. Jim helped us heat up the hot stones in a fire and stuck them into the pit one by one once they were glowing fiery orange. We got into our bathing suits and sat in a circle around the blazing stones and closed the cover. It was already sweltering in there and then Jim began slowly pouring water filled with herbs and flowers that help clear your lungs, such as mint and eucalyptus. The steam was almost unbearable at first but you begin to relax and breathe deeply and slowly, and it is extremely relaxing. The smallest girls in the group (me and 2 others) were the first to leave, it felt amazing but I was getting a little claustrophobic. I lasted about 10 minutes and everyone else stayed in about 15-20. The whole experience at the farm was very wholesome and relaxing, and it felt really nice to be in a community (even if it was a bit hippie for my taste) and I gained many new skills and met a lot of great hardworking people.

We stayed on the farm for five days and headed back to Chiang Mai to finalize the rest of our trip which was at a crossroads. Noah and I were accepted into a great volunteer program of helping and teaching Burmese refugees in Thailand and were excited by the opportunity. The only downside was the steadfast three month commitment beginning in mid-December and the question of what kind of accommodation and even specifically what we would be doing on a daily basis. Since refugees from Burma (now Myranmar) are illegal in Thailand, they technically do not exist in regards to the government and have been stripped of all rights of freedom and education. This program also helps to protect the refugees and so the whole thing is very hush-hush, therefore, many details for the volunteers are constantly changing and cannot always be determined ahead of time. I was ready to take the risk, but after working on the farm, I realized I was ready to go home for the holidays and be near my family. The program director was very understanding and we kept on good terms, allowing us the possibility to come back in the future and work for the program at a later date if we wanted.

Noah and I have been traveling for a solid four months now, and it feels great, but I believe I am ready to come on home to my beloved California! We are squeezing in a last jaunt in our epic journey (well it is for me, Noah is heading to New Zealand for a few weeks after this), over the Mekong River on a 2 day slow-boat trip to Luang Prabong, Laos. The boat ride is wonderful and definitely beats the bus, with lots of fresh air and gorgeous sights of green mountains filled with banana trees. There are many locals on this trip, I think a large family, who have laid out mats on the floor and are having a great party (I wonder if it will continue for both days straight??) I am excited to see one last country and explore for a few more weeks before returning to my much missed home. And hey, I can always come back, right?!

 

Detours ahead! November 7, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — tlsimm @ 11:47 am

October 25th 8:30 pm

Stuck in the Surat Thani train station, on our way to Bangkok. It’s a weird thing, having a strange  tempting desire to be back in Bangkok, even if it is just for one night. Its where we began our Southeastern Asian journey, and we are wanting to be back in the pollution and chaos of it all. Its where we were introduced to the culture; the bargaining, the fast pace setting of ordering whether its food or any commodity, no one has time for you to aimlessly shop and sift through their menus. You want to come here and buy something? Okay, sure, well do it, and we’ll be sure to give you the best price. Guaranteed.

It’s a good and efficient system, most of the time. Things get done. But they usually get done in terms of necessity and not necessarily out of planning and precision. Things seem to be precariously  put together or balanced, such as buildings, motor vehicles, etc but everyone has an idea of how to work things out, even zipping down the 4 lane road with a washing machine strapped to your motorbike. The women even ride side saddle on the back of motorbikes, chatting away on cell phones, or carrying their babies in one arm, but I have not witnessed an accident yet and people are very confident going about their daily activities as we Americans gape at them in awe of this seemingly horrendously hazardous dangerous lifestyle.

Monsoon season began on the islands. Its pretty insane, the water just dumps buckets, and showers, and baths, and every hydrating appliance you can think of, straight out of the sky and on top of you relentlessly. Sometimes it would stop after an hour, but now that the season has really begun, there would be no signs of stopping whatsoever. And it didn’t stop in Koh Phangan.

October 29th

I wrote that segment while waiting in the train station, and we ended up waiting 6 hours for our train to arrive, supposed to be coming at 8 pm and didn’t arrive to our station until 2 am. Its just how things go sometimes, and no one seems to mind or complain and you just learn to accept your fate. We had an easier time of the train this time and immediately slept, mostly through the night and arrived in Bangkok not too worn out. We boarded our plane to Phnom Penh, Cambodia the next day and realized even though they may share a border and some similarities, they really are two different worlds.

Noah developed an immediate affinity for Phnom Penh, as it was a somewhat more low key version of Bangkok, and the food vendors are everywhere with amazing and cheap dishes/snacks! I will explain some of the food because I’m understandably getting a lot of requests of the Khmer food options are; the meals themselves are full of strange but delicious concoctions of noodles and soups, but also lots of barbequed skewers of meats with lots of dipping sauces and fresh vegetables on the side. The barbeques meat usually consists of chicken wings, squid, shrimp, and lots of ball of meat (not sure what exactly is inside). We tried this a la carte meal once, but found it was a lot more effort to eat the bits of meat around the bones stuck on sticks than it was worth, and the soups are delicious, made with spiced coconut milk, and lots of other slow cooked and herb filled stocks, flat noodles or lote (in between rice and noodles) and lots of fresh vegetables of young water lily/lotus stocks and various other leafy greens. The dishes are not as spicy as in Thailand, and there are immense amounts of fermenting going on, of meat, vegetables, and fruits as well. It seems that everywhere we stay in South East Asia, there is a fortunately a food market nearby, but I quickly realized that the markets are literally everywhere and are an essential part of the culture. Included in the photos are produce that can be purchased daily including lots of fruits and vegetables, as well as the assortment of fish (live, dried, or barbequed), any livestock meat, crabs, squid, crickets, beetles, and frogs. I unfortunately didn’t have my camera with me when I encountered the frogs which were an exceptionally exciting site because their faces had been chopped off, still bleeding, and they were still jumping around in the metal bowls and some even made it onto the surrounding street.

I apologize for the graphic detail of this account but this image really stuck with me! Noah did not witness this, and soon bravely decided to try out the fried frogs (yes, they come whole) and I literally could just not do it. Its funny to find out each individuals limits, as I had chicken feet with not too many issues, but Noah was completely repulsed, but could eat as many frog as were served as I couldn’t take a single bite!  My new favorite snack is bananas cooked in rice, all packaged up in a banana leaf, cooked with a little bit of simple syrup. Hot and fresh, being barbequed on a portable grill right in front of you, this treat is so good that I think I will try and make them when I get home. The French influence can still be seen in Cambodia, after being colonized in 1863 all the up until 1953 and baguettes and pastries are available too (something you will never see in Thailand) Pool and a similar game of “snooker” (smaller balls and cue stick with larger table) is extremely popular, and it has become a nightly pastime for Noah and I, and hopefully I am gaining a new skill!

We took a slight detour from Phnom Penh over to the coast of Sihanoukville while waiting for our Thai visas to be processed. We had intentionally left Thailand before our free 30 day visit was up, so we headed to Cambodia to renew our visas and check out a different place. Upon arriving to Phnom Penh, we soon realized the Khmer people were celebrating the recently deceased King’s (just a few weeks ago) birthday. It was a time of sadness and celebration with fireworks and monks (who are often seeing walking around in their bright orange robes and umbrellas to shade them from the sun) as well as the regular citizens praying and paying their respects to their beloved King. He had really helped pull Cambodia out of a tumultuous time, basically having to rebuild their entire country and way of life after WWII, and thus the citizens are very loyal and grateful to him. Because of this event, the Thai Embassy was closed for several days so we spent a much longer time in Cambodia than expected, but what’re you gonna do? We had such a great time and got to stay in a beautiful beach town on the coast. In Sihanoukville, we did a few guided excursions of touring the national park by hiking and boating, as well as a three island snorkel trip. These outings were fantastic, we got to see beauty of the less inhabited Cambodia and learn about the commerce of fishing, and saw amazing coral and underwater sea life. The local guide even cooked us a barracuda and rice lunch for each trip!

November 7th

We are now on the last leg of our Cambodia tour, heading to Siem Reap via bus (a very exciting bumpy ride but it is air-conditioned, hopefully just 6 hours but looking more like 8 at the moment) and will visit the wonders of Angkor Wat. We are passing through small villages and farms, all surrounded by marshes and water filled with lily pads, with cows absently walking through the streets and everyone going about their daily activities of transporting sugar cane (another extremely popular ingredient in deserts and drinks) and cutting lumber, gathering rice, etc. It is strangely reminds me of the Spanish countryside, while hiking on the Camino de Santiago, with the lush green foliage and simple villages but with much more water. The houses are all built up on stilts, about 15 feet above the watery ground surface, with long bridge-like walkways to the roads with laundry hanging on the railings to dry. Cambodia is very beautiful and it  will be hard  to leave; the people are extremely sweet but sadly desperate for any help they can receive. It has been slightly frustrating because upon coming to Asia, we had hoped to not just tour but to volunteer and help out by either teaching English or helping out at an orphanage. In Cambodia, we are learning from others that sometimes these volunteer positions are not scams per say, but are not as transparent as they may seem. That’s why we are taking non-committal positions, but would love to find something more permanent (maybe three to six months) that is truly a good organization where all proceeds go directly to those in need and not third-party programs that actually perpetuate the exploitation of children.

I am extremely excited to see this amazing work of human effort (it is called the Atlantis of the Jungle) being the largest Hindu temple in the entire world, and after that, back to Bangkok so we can head into northern Thailand, Chiang Mai, where we will work on a farm in a small village for a few weeks, in exchange for accommodation and food, as well as learning to cook in the “lanna” tradition (the Chiang Mai culture), as well as take part in any cultural events we are interested in. This volunteer program will be an adventure for sure and I’m excited to get out of the city and learn local traditions, so more interesting and exiting events to come.

JUST HEARD THE NEWS, CONGRATULATIONS PRESIDENT OBAMA!

 

Island Hopping

Filed under: Uncategorized — tlsimm @ 11:28 am

October 23rd, 2012

Monsoon season, it’s the real deal. The rain seems to come out of nowhere and absolutely dumps on us, saturating everything in its path. It’s pretty exciting seeing this amazing force of nature at work, but it is also not something to mess around with. Now that Noah and I are island hopping around Thailand essentially, we are now in the midst of the rainy season, which is actually over on the mainland (Bangkok, etc). We didn’t realize the seasons would be different on the islands, each situated with its own climate. Its refreshing though, the rain cools us down and clears the air and gives us an excuse to download a movie or hang out inside.

We finished our volunteer work in Koh Samui, and had a great time and got to meet a lot of great people. I also got to work on my creative writing skills; writing about 3 or 4 articles a day about traveling, Celtic jewelry and Irish heritage, and even about kitchen decorating/appliances. It was challenging at times, having to write about topics without having no real previous knowledge of them and to write several consecutively each day. We were given an immense amount of information and help about the entire internet blogging world; SEO’s (search engine optimization), how to make your page more credible with a high DA ranking (domain authority) etc. I also got some great ideas to pitch to online blogs or magazine editors if I want to get serious about writing. The volunteer program was a great thing to get into because it gave me glimpse of how working in the online world, working “remotely” really gained a whole new meaning! The beach was exactly what I had been looking for; serene, lots of locals and not too many tourists, with great views all around, and we had the opportunity to hang with great people and have fun at the night markets and downtown areas!

After our stay, we were told about the surrounding islands and headed over on an hour long ferry to Koh Phanghan; we definitely had the island itch and wanted to hop to another nearby paradise. This island was directed towards party goers, due to the conception of the “Full Moon Party” in 1988 and that has been going ever since. Luckily it was low season, due to the monsoon, and we were not surrounded by too many bros and partiers. We rented a motorbike for the first time and toured the island ourselves! We found an amazing secluded beach and swam and chilled on what seemed like untouched waters. A local man soon approached the area we were and scrambled up a coconut tree faster than I could have ever imagined. He began chopping down the coconuts (which have become a staple of Noah’s diet) and after hopping down from the tree like a limber kitty cat, he chopped the top of one of these fruits and gave it to us to drink. It was extremely generous and sweet! Zipping around on the motorbike was very liberating, not having to haggle for prices with tuk tuk drivers and having to figure out directions, we were the masters of our own destiny, but I don’t think either of us felt extremely safe as we neither of us have ever driven one before. We wore our helmets and drive very slow for Thai standards, and it worked out great, only costing about $3 for the day!

The next day, filled with ambition, we decided to hike from our beach through the jungle to another side of the island, an idea we had read from a guidebook, only reachable by foot or boat. There are no roads and it is completely forested and sounded awesome! When we asked people for directions on where to start, we got strange looks and wishes of good luck. We began our ascent and to make a long story short, it was HOT ( I mean its already at least 90 degrees with 100% humidity, but this was the dense sweltering heat of jungle air) which made it very difficult to hike straight up a mountain, and then basically a tool such as a machete would have been extremely useful to cut down the foliage so we could even see the path, and the number of insects crawling on us really started to freak me out. Anyway, it was a great experience and I’m glad I made it out of there alive (yes, I’m being slightly dramatic) but I definitely felt claustrophobic and fearful of the unknowns that this jungle held. Once we reached the new beach, we found a boat taxi and booked it back to our island, safe but for me, a little shaken.

Koh Phangan was a fun and extremely easy place to stay, totally catered to young tourists. We met a lot of great travelers and had lots of fun dancing on the beach and even in the rain! We headed back to Bangkok (the central place to travel basically ANYWHERE in SE Asia) so we could head to Cambodia. We decided to take the cheap route once again with the overnight train and a whole new adventure began.

 

Published! October 19, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — tlsimm @ 8:19 am

I briefly had  a few guests posts on this blog I had finished during my volunteer job on Koh Samui, Thailand. I quickly had to take them down due to copywright issues with Google; you cannot have the same posting twice on the internet unless its been properly published first!

So, to reiterate, I have been writing several guest posts for different bloggers and their websites, mostly for travelfashiongirl.com, and I had my first post published.

So go check her site, its full of great travel tips for the fashionista, and I had a blast researching and writing for Alex, she’s awesome!

here’s the link,

http://travelfashiongirl.com/7-diy-halloween-costumes-ideas-for-travelers/

Most of my other posts will be posted through November and December so I’ll continue linking them once they’re out.

Alright guys, gotta hit the beach!

 

Hello, Thailand! October 11, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — tlsimm @ 2:59 pm

Bangkok; it’s a crazy place, filled with motorbikes, tuk tuks, people walking briskly through the narrow streets in flip flops, winding through the seemingly hundreds of food vendors cooking delicious smelling delicacies right on the streets.

Its fast paced, crowded, and exciting, but extremely welcoming to the “farang” (people of European descent) and I stayed there for one week before heading to the island of Koh Samui, off the coast of Southern Thailand. Noah and I arrived in Bangkok via the international airport and decided to catch a taxi to our new home for the next days, a room in a guest house in central Bangkok. We were immediately faced with a new currency yet again, but this has the biggest conversion yet, 30 baht= $1, so the taxi ride was about 70 baht and this seems alarming at first but you catch on quickly that it is actually extremely inexpensive.

The taxi ride took about 30 minutes to reach our place which we found online prior to arriving, and this ride only showed us a miniscule piece of the largest city in the country of Thailand, populated by 7,000,000 just in the one city. We found our street and hopped out into the new world, and realized with our backpacks we were by far the largest people around and had to dodge cars and motorcycles down every road. You learn to walk single file and lean towards the walls or step into driveways as vehicles whizz by you, but you learn to trust these drivers are experienced and will avoid hitting you at all costs, even though it may not seem that way at first.

We were greeted by our host, who was a young Russian man who left his home country for Thailand about three years ago and was extremely nice with a great but very dry sense of humor. Noah and I amused him for sure, and he took pleasure in teasing us, we really began to like him and our area. The guest house was a place of business as well, as most buildings are in Bangkok, he ran a public laundry room and also a tailoring business. Another man, Kim, who is Thai and spoke great English to our benefit, would hem and alter clothes for a small fee that people would bring him daily. We soon found out that Evan and Kim were a couple and business partners. I was afraid we would seem like silly Americans to them but we all hung out and got along great.

Kim introduced us to the neighbors, several Thai women who lived in the apartment building across from us, and would hang out daily, having meals outside together and chatting. They were a lot of fun even though there was a huge language barrier but we had fun together nonetheless. They even took us out one night to a great venue, were we got to see a “ladyboy” show, where Thai men dress in drag and perform usually by singing in fabulous costumes. Everything was in English surprisingly and we generally were understood by everyone.

I was extremely wary of the water and eating fresh foods such as fruits and vegetables upon arriving, always hearing and reading you will always get sick due to the lack of sanitation in the water. Therefore, Noah and I played it pretty safe the first couple days and ate traditional phad thai noodles and stayed away from any veg uncooked, and ice as well. It soon became very apparent that we were being overly cautious and witnessed all people, farang and thai, eating all foods and so we began to venture out some more with no ill effects at all. I will obviously not drink the water and still use common sense when it comes to fresh foods but it is not necessary to be freaked out by everything.

Bangkok is known for its street food, usually being around 30-40 baht per dish, equivalent to about $1, and sometimes the restaurants as well, so it was amazing eating out! We had been so frugal with our spending in Europe and cooking as much as possible, but now we could walk right outside our door and find 15 different vendors cooking the freshest most delicious food right in front of you. We soon noticed also that there are barely any grocery stores and most of the population gets their food from vendors. They are literally everywhere with lots of variety, its definitely a food culture out here. Its true, I don’t want to eat noodles and rice with every single meal and I crave sandwiches often, but I have learned ways to create my own meals for breakfast and lunch and usually eat a big Thai dinner.

Thailand is essentially a jungle, even though in Bangkok it is a concrete jungle in most places, but the weather always gives it away. It would rain, and pour, and lightening, and thunder… the whole thing, once a day for about an hour. People would never change their clothes, only pull out umbrellas and thin ponchos and continue along their way walking and motorcycling down the roads. Noah and I gladly walked in the rain, the only time we felt cool. We walked most places but took a motorbike once, and tuk tuk’d around some times. The public transport is fun but you have to haggle and bargain prior to getting in/on the vehicle and sometimes it was exhausting. We learned to bargain everywhere we went, its part of the culture but it was tiresome after some time. I felt bad trying to always get a lower price, but the truth is, you will be ripped off if you are not aware of the standard price of things; this would include rides (mostly), clothes, anything sold on the street (street markets were everywhere) but never food. It was always so cheap I wouldn’t want to reduce the value, if you know what I mean.

We did a little sightseeing here, mostly walked around the streets and observed the culture but we did see Wat Po, the largest statue of the “reclining Buddah” featured in my pictures, and the temple it was in. We also got to take a boat ride down the canal (another popular version of transportation) which was a lot of fun. We went to a few night bazaars, which are catered to tourists with lots of alcohol vendors and cheap clothes suitable for clubbing, so it was more of an experience to watch other people act totally ridiculous and reduce my respect for other tourists. It was fun though to watch and wander the through the tents full of items marketed towards us tourists and I picked up a few things for myself for the first time!

One of the reasons for coming to Southeast Asia was to experience the culture as well as volunteer/work in a new environment. Noah and I found a site recommended by a friend called “Workaway”, which is a networking site where employers post volunteer jobs in exchange for room and board. We found one were a group of 20 somethings are running a blog project and wanted volunteers to help write guest posts on their sites and research different topics . We jumped on this offer and so here we are, in Koh Samui, staying with a girl from Los Angeles, a girl from Greece, two guys from London, and one guy from Ireland for about two weeks

We work from 9 am to 2 pm, Monday-Friday, writing for them and whatever research tasks they need and they provide us with breakfast food and snacks and a free place to stay. I’m having a great time and its nice to be able to hang out with people and not just meet randoms every so often just to hang out with for the evening. Since these people are running their own websites and blogs, they are also offering advice and help to get our own up and running, but after the work day is over, we all feel like getting out of the house, even if it is air-conditioned, and heading to the beach.

Koh Samui is an island, and it is pretty touristy but the beach is walking distance from our place and is actually very secluded so I don’t see too many people. We arrived here from Bangkok after 20 hours or traveling, which included another overnight mode of transportation (a sleeper train), two buses, a ferry, another bus, and then a truck version of a tuk tuk.It was exhausting and not glamorous in any way, and I don’t really have a desire to take the overnight train again, but we made it for very cheap, I think around $30. The train was extremely narrow and full, and the seats were converted into beds along the floor and the upper level of beds were pulled out like drawers from the ceilings. Noah and I “slept” in the upper level, and our train was delayed for five hours which is considered extremely normal, so we had no idea what our arrival time was going to be. During an overnight ride, the arrival time is crucial to your sleeping schedule so basically sleep did not happen, but we made it and now we understand it a little better.

Sorry for making this post a novel in itself, there is just so much to talk about this crazy place! Everyone in this new house is so fun and nice and we have lots in common. We all head out to dinner together and will head farther down the island this weekend for snorkeling (for Noah and I) and diving (for them because they all have licenses). Anyway, that’s all for now, if I have held the attention of anyone at all, and I will inform you of my next move which hopefully will include another volunteer position, this time on a farm, and is still being determined!

I really love and miss you all.

 

Goodbye Euro-tour October 5, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — tlsimm @ 5:05 am

SO. where to begin…so much has happened in the past 3 weeks or so that I have scornfully neglected my blog! I have been to 3, no, 4 more countries in that amount of time including France, England, Hungary, and now Thailand.

In France we stayed with Noah’s aunt Hannah, his uncle Andre, and their son Carlos in their lovely apartment in Paris. When we arrived, Hannah was gone on business and Andre graciously received us. With us speaking virtually no French, and Andre speaking minimal English, we had a good time working things out and trying to converse. Hannah arrived a few days later and became the official interpreter, having to repeat both sides of the conversation to both parties, she was great! Paris was a beautiful city, very romantic obviously, but very large as well. We stayed for about a week and probably only saw 1/10 of it. We immediately set out to see the sights; now become pro-tourists with our maps and planning strategies, and went to the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Arc de Triumph, the Lourve, many squares and gardens markets, saw some street festivals and ate a lot of baguettes! We really had the best bread in France and became very accustomed to having a loaf with us for every meal. We would walk down to the local patisserie and pick out a couple every evening before dinner with the family while it was still fresh and warm, so nice!

We had such a couple great coincidences while staying there as well, found out my aunt and uncle were visiting Paris at the exact same time and ran into a friend from home! Got to see both of them, had a great crepe lunch with my aunt and uncle, went to a great marche biologique (organic farmer’s market) which reminded me of Berkeley but with way more jamon and cheese, and visited a famous and beautiful cemetery. Paris was great, although the coldest place we had been in so far and were bundled in basically all of the warm clothes we brought, which is very few due to the majority of places we are visitng, but had a great time.

We then jetted over to London on a budget airline, which is always an exciting and nerve-wracking experience, and arrived at Noah’s (and mine) friend Michael and Ellie’s beautiful flat! Michael and his friends have come visited us in Santa Cruz a couple times a few years ago so it was great to them in their home turf. Michael is amazing; he had basically mapped out our trip for us with transit and museum cards that he received from his work. We were a little burned out on sight-seeing so we took it easy the first two days and enjoyed the comforts of hanging with friends, and watching movies! Such a simple pleasure I have really missed so that was awesome. Michael worked long hours so we got to see him briefly in the evenings and his VERY recent fiancé, Ellie, was in Madrid for the week working as well. When the weekend rolled around, everyone came back and we got to hangout and went out to a great curry place, which is famous in the UK, and went to an indoor festival decked with circus-like décor and trapeze artists and goat people on stilts to match. The next day we had an amazing fry-up at the best, in Michael’s expert opinion, café (just pronounced caff), which has the full English breakfast; eggs, bacon, beans, fried tomatoes, and bubble- a great invention of potatoes and veg all mashed up together and then fried, and the cheapest cups of tea, always taken with milk, so that you may have like 3 or 4 cups for the duration of your meal which Noah and Michael gladly took advantage of. We headed out to Parliament and Big Ben after that, and visited the biggest and BEST outdoor market I have ever seen!

The last day it rained, and I mean RAINED, but it was perfect because the big “football” (soccer) game was on, and everyone came over and Noah and I cooked up a delicious feast of fajitas (we’ve been missing our Mexican food) and just chilled inside for the whole day, something that has never occurred on this trip! We were sad to go the next day, but everyone was back to work and we were back on our schedule and headed to the last leg of our Europe tour, Budapest Hungary.

Budapest, which is actually split by the Danube river, is 2 areas; Buda and Pest, whaddya know! And I loved every minute of this city! It was much warmer than Paris and London so we were able to walk around all day without tons of layers which was great, and luckily we stayed in the best location where we never took public transit once! We stayed in the 7th quarter, the Jewish quarter, which is the new up and coming scene in Pest. It was full of cafes, bars, and really unique shops, and was only about a 10 minute walk to the river. This city was so scenic and beautiful with the skyline of Castle Hill and Gellert across the river, which are magnificent buildings on top of huge hills (yes, we walked up like zillions of steps) and provide incredible views of the city. Did lots of sightseeing here, and went out and explored the nightlife as well. Noah and I have become more adventurous with meeting new people and make easy, quick friendships with some locals. It really comes in handy to do this, not just for good company, but they always want to show you around and take you to the authentic places. We went to a few “ruin bars” which are bars that have established themselves in extremely old, dilapidated buildings and make them super hip and funky and usually have events occurring. They were very cool to visit, but filled with tourists of course.

We are obviously going to be around lots of tourists because obviously that’s the same thing we are, but we still have yet to meet many Americans, which I think is pretty cool. It is refreshing to meet people who are sort of just doing the same thing we are, and always have an interesting story with them, whether its about where they have been previously or going next, or advice they have to give. Hopefully we are providing the same kind of interest as well!

Hungary is a beautiful but has undertones of despair. This country has been through so much politically and has had some harsh times. They have definitely pulled through but it holds on to the hardships it went through during WWII, wjth reminders throughout the city of dark statues and several remembrances, especially along the river. We went to an amazing tour called “Hospital in the Rock” which took us through the underground hospital, constructed in the caves in the rock along the river as a hospital during the world wars, and was also a nuclear bomb bunker as well! They had everything intact, all the instruments, beds, and supplies, due to a caretaking couple who sanitized the sheets and kept everything in running order (even the ventilation units) for about 30 years, just up until 2001.  The hospital was just opened at a museum three years ago, and was so fascinating to hear the history and walk underground into the winding passages of this hidden hospital. Luckily the bunker was never used, but it is fully equipped and ready for a nuclear explosion, I mean that’s where I would be if this was a threat!

We had another great time at this location, but it was bittersweet towards the end because we knew we were leaving all things European, like bread, sandwiches, fresh fruit and veg, but very exciting because we are entering into a whole different world of South East Asia!