Gratitude

I want to personally thank the jellyfish in Khao Lak for welcoming me into the ocean on my first attempt at surfing. I can still feel your loving embrace hours later.

Also, I’d like to apologize to the frog that stowed away on my bike. I’m sorry I didn’t realize you were sitting on my bike until I was racing down the main road at 80km/hr. I’m glad your feet were so sticky, though.

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Paksong and TCDF Eco-Logic

After Bangkok I made my way down to Ranong for a quick visa run, then on to Pak Song, a small village which is home to Thai Children Development Foundation (TCDF) Eco-Logic. I stumbled across Eco-Logic and regret I didn’t have more time there. TCDF is set up to benefit kids in need from the local villages, be it with education or medical care. It’s the idea of two wonderful women, Ingrid and Rose, who give their time and energy to this cause. When I arrived, roughly a dozen volunteers were tending to the vegetable gardens, building ecologically friendly housing, or playing with children. The atmosphere was warm and open, and I immediately felt welcomed into the family. My knowledgeable host, Chislaine, who herself is a volunteer, showed me around the grounds. The grounds are immense and a perfect mixture of nature and comfort. Dorms, bungalows, restaurants, gardens, school, playground…it was all right there.

I was extremely impressed with the attitude of both volunteer and staff. If anyone you know in southern Thailand is looking for a place to stay that’s off the beaten path, or is looking to volunteer, I can’t think of a better place.

http://tcdf-ecologic.jimdo.com/

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(Above: The volunteer and staff team at Eco-Logic)

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(Above: View from the restaurant area. Food was amazing too!)

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(Above: School for the local children in need. I believe 35 students attend.)

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(Above: One of many vegetable gardens. They hope to become self sufficient.)

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(Above : Views from the grounds, including some recently volunteer constructed housing.)

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(Above: Some local wildlife. I searched for snakes, but came up empty. Which, let’s be honest, is probably a good thing.)

Back in Bangkok

After Songkran in Chiang Mai, I soon found myself back in Bangkok, sitting across from Naama and Noa, devouring vegetarian Indian dishes and ordering basket after basket of butter naan. It was their last night of their trip, as after 5 months of traveling, they decided to surprise their parents and come home earlier (sorry, Mom, not happening). We shared laughs and stories and a final hug.  If history is any indicator, our paths will cross again.

This being my 4th time in Bangkok, and with a few days to spare before I needed to make a visa run to Myanmar, I decided to be a gentleman and class it up a bit. I spent the day at the Bangkok Arts and Culture Center (BACC), taking in the works of famous Thai artists and viewing exhibits on modern Buddhism. I’d like to tell you I understood the meaning behind each piece, but I can’t. I’m sure the plastic table stacked on a plastic chair stacked on another plastic chair stacked on another plastic table (but this time, upside down!) had some deep, thought provoking message, but I failed to see it. Perhaps I wasn’t looking hard enough. That said, there were some amazing exhibits that did result in me shaking my head in admiration and disbelief. My favorite was an exhibit on calligraphic meditation. I think the following picture sums of Thailand very nicely.

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After a few hours of walking around the the BACC while thoughtfully tapping my index finger on my chin, I made my way outside to a colorful street show. As talented as the performers were, the show was stolen by a little girl who ran into the stage to twirl and dance.

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Achievement Unlocked : 90 Days of Travel

Well, I hit my first true benchmark. As of today, I’ve spent 3 months on the road. That’s 90 nights of sleeping in strange beds next to even stranger people. That’s 270 meals of delicious, sometimes suspicious, food in a foreign land. It represents lasting memories, many new friends and even a few conquered fears.

Today was spent in familiar territory. I’m back in Chiang Mai, Thailand to celebrate Songkran, the Thai New Year Water festival. The festivities have morphed from respectful splashing of elders with water into an all out water war that overtakes the entire Old Quarters area of the city. Tens of thousands of visitors, both foreign and Thai, come to celebrate this yearly event. The city comes to a stand still as both water and people flood the streets. One thing is certain; You are never safe and rarely ever dry. Roving pickup trucks filled with ice cold water barrels hunt down whatever is in their path. Kids armed with water guns nearly half their size chase laughing victims down backstreets. I can’t even count the amount of times I’ve looked over my shoulder in fear of an oncoming wave of icy water. If I come home with PTSD, at least I’ll know why.

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Photo Gallery – Sapa (Vietnam) and Luang Prabang and Nong Khiaw (Laos)

I thought it would be nice to focus more on the pictures than words for a change. Also, this is the fastest way for me to catch up on my posts. American laziness combined with German efficiency…it’s so beautiful.

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(Above: View from the boat in Halong Bay. 2 days/1 night of good food, great friends, kayaking and swimming.)

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(Above: The rice patties of Sapa, Vietnam. Also pictured; one very handsome man. He’s hard to see though. He’s behind my giant head)

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(Above : Two villagers hard at work in the rice fields of Sapa)

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(Above: Trekking in the mountains of Sapa. We lucked out and had great weather on the longest trekking day of our 3 day tour.)

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(Above: Relaxing at the end of the day. Half of us went swimming, the other half napped on warm rocks)

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(Above: The view from Phu Si Temple in Luang Prabang, Laos. It’s hazy due to the season. It’s the warmest time of the year, and controled burnings of the forest are taking place.)

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(Above: Night Market in Luang Prabang. One of the best night markets I’ve been too.)

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(Above: More night market pictures. Naama loved shopping there, so I had some time to kill.)

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(Above: Tak Bat – the morning collection of alms by Buddhist monks.)

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(Above: Young boys and their offerings to the monks.)

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(Above: Kuang Si Falls, about 45 minutes outside of Luang Prabang.)

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(Above: Naama, myself, Amit, and Noa at the waterfalls. Not pictured: rope swing jumps and horrible belly flops.)

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(Above: A pretty picture.)

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(Above: The previous 4 pictures were taken in Nang Khiaw, Laos. I went on a solo hike through some villages and these kids came out to investigate (aka ask for candy). They thought my glasses were funny, and we ended up taking lots of pictures and just being fools. They then took me swimming and we were joined by about 15 other kids. After I jumped in the river, I was surrounded by the little demons and a massive splash war ensued. I spent the next half hour throwing kids into the water. It was one of my favorite trip experiences so far.)

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(Above: Enjoying the boat ride back to the village of Nang Khiaw, Laos.)

A Little Bit of Catching Up (Son Trach and Ninh Binh)

I decided to move off the beaten path after Hue, said goodbye (well, more like “see you later”) to my friends and headed over to Son Trach. The north central portion of Vietnam remains largely skipped over by travelers, but that will change soon enough. Enormous caves and parks have been opened to the public in the last decade, and as the infrastructure and accommodations improve, the backpacker trails will inevitably shift to Son Trach.

Still a very sleepy town, Son Trach’s major draw is its location. It’s a perfect jumping off point for day trips into the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park and its many cave systems. At this point in time, the world’s largest cave system is still not open to the general public, but I was still lucky enough to spend time in Paradise Cave, a 7km cave which was used for shelter during the Vietnam war (or, as it’s referred to here, the American War). After climbing 518 steps, give or take a few, you find yourself descending into a cool, damp amphitheater, brilliantly back lit by lamps for both aesthetic and safety. Honestly, if you want to feel like you’re on a different planet, don’t bother with space tourism (yes, that’s a thing). Just head down into one of these caves, and you’re no longer on an Earth you’re familiar with. The sheer size of the place, combined with the cold, smooth surfaces and wet, sticky air, gave me the feeling I was transported to a far off world. Either that, or a movie set. I kept waiting for James Cameron to yell “Cut”, but it never happened.

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After the cave I found myself eating a tasty lunch on a stilted bamboo hut with the sounds of a rushing river below me. I now consider those sounds to be an open invitation, so after tastefully shoveling my food into my mouth, I dove into the waters and was soon joined by the rest of my tour group. We spent a good hour or so rock jumping and swimming, which was a welcome reprieve from the humid weather of the region.

With Son Trach checked off my list, it was time to visit Ninh Binh. Many travelers in Son Trach had sung its praises, and as it was conveniently on the way to Hanoi, it wasn’t even an option to miss it. The journey there wasn’t easy. After one missed bus (not my fault, I swear), one overpriced motorbike ride, one 6 hour wait, and one 8 hour bus ride, I found myself in Ninh Binh. Problem was, it was 3am, my guesthouse was closed and no one was answering the front door. I looked for a comfortable bench to sleep on, but the rats had already taken all the good ones. Luckily for me, Vietnam is still a pretty busy place in the early morning. People watching and bowls of pho noodles kept me pretty entertained, and at 8am I was able to arrange a bed for some much needed sleep.

I woke up around mid-day, ate half of a duck, jumped on a bike and headed over to Tam Coc. Tam Coc, which translates to 3 caves, consists of a scenic river which runs through rice fields, karst mountains and a series of small caves. I hired a rowboat, and as my guide alternately rowed with her hands and feet, I slowly moved across the still water through rich green, rice patties and towering limestone mountains. The 2 hour trip is a unique and affordable way to get close to karst mountains and get lost in their beauty. I’m surprised there weren’t more foreigners there, but with everyone in such a hurry to get to Hanoi (only about 2 hours north of Ninh Binh), I guess it’s understandable. Still, such an opportunity lost!

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A Little Bit of Catching Up (Nha Trang, Hoi An and Hue)

Has it really been almost 3 weeks since my last trip update? Days and time tend lose a little bit of their weight on a trip like this. For the most part, the only dates that mean anything are the ones stamped on your visa. Thankfully I have my horrible memory to rely on, so let’s catch up.

The end of my East Rider journey found me in Nha Trang, a coastal city popular on the traditional tourist and backpacker trails.  However, for me at least, the city lacked something. The city was void of character and charm, and the majority of the locals I met didn’t seem to be enjoying life. Well, all except the tuk-tuk driver who tried to sell me opium. He was pretty happy. That assessment of the city is just my opinion though. I’m sure the throngs of Russian tourists there would tell you different. Truth be told, it wasn’t entirely lacking in appeal. We (Rom, Amit, Naama, and Noa, and I were still together) spent a day on Vinpearl Island. Just off the coast of Nha Trang, this island resort included a water park, roller coasters and adventure sports. We stuck to the waterpark and roller coasters for an afternoon, only taking breaks to fill our stomachs with soft serve yogurt. We screamed, laughed and splashed until nightfall, ending our stay because of a pre-booked bus ride to our next destination, Hoi Ann.

Hoi An is a beautiful town and a favorite among backpackers. You can’t have a discussion with a backpacker in Vietnam without the inevitable “You have to go to Hoi An!” comment slipping in. Once there, Rom played tour guide for our time in the city, and he lead us to the centuries old architecture and temples within the old town quarters as well as on an hour long motorbike ride to the ancient ruins of My Son. Truth be told, the motorbike ride could have been to the city dump, I was just happy to be riding again. We spent the nights eating some of the best food we had in Vietnam, walking the thin cobble stone streets and crossing vibrantly lit bridges. Hoi An is a romantic and relaxed town, one that shouldn’t be missed.

Next on our docket was Hue, another town that just didn’t impress. We weren’t there for very long, but in our short time we did visit some note worthy tombs/burial grounds. Sadly, all of my pictures from Hoi Ann and Hue were taken on my Ipod touch, which is now currently either buried in the seat cushions of a random bus or in the hands of a lucky Vietnamese person. But focusing on the positive, I lasted 75 days without losing something important. Let’s be honest, that far exceeded everyone’s expectations. So…yay for me?