Friday, February 29, 2008

On my own

Yeah, that beach at Haad Yao was awesome. My soul enjoys beach living. The ocean looked so inviting, and the green water just off the beach extended far enough and was calm and shallow enough to treat like a swimming pool; yes, we bought a floatee and used it.

And the party, I knew it was something special as we walked through the streets to the beach: I first saw a girl getting a tattoo at one of the many parlors and she looked passed out drunk; next door you could see a doctor’s office/makeshift operating room. In the middle of the room you could see four nurses/doctors standing around a 20-something male with a bloody towel in his hand, and you could see them stitching up a cut on his head. We overheard a few feet away that a fight had caused it. Both of these businesses looked like one of dozens of similar operations within a few kilometer radius. Those two sights side-by-side really clued me in to the level of party we were getting into.

After Emma went off to Bangkok, I went down to Krabi in the southwest. I found a cheap place to stay, checked out some of the scenery, and got some work done at the internet cafes. The ocean down here is similarly awesome, but this time you have islands sticking out of the water like small skyscrapers, with limestone cliffs and vegetation on top. Apparently one of these formations was special enough to be filmed in Bond’s Man with a Golden Gun. There was even a tour called “James Bond Boat Tour.” Down there was pretty touristy in general.

So I embraced the touristy-ness and took a Thai cooking class. We had been meaning to do it the whole time in Thailand and was one of my main goals in coming to Thailand at all. I found a pretty sweet operation and it was a great experience. They drove me out to this lady’s property where she had a structure with maybe 600 sq feet of undercover space, with 10 stoves, 3 sinks, two nice clean tables for preparation, knifes, cutting boards, mortars (I forget what they’re called), and all the ingredients cleaned and ready for preparation, sitting on the table. They show you how to prepare both red and green curries from scratch (using a mortar thing to pound out the pepper, cumin, and coriander), as well as the staple dishes: pad thai, tom yum, and stir fried stuff. When actually cooking, there’s an assistant there who tells you when to do each thing and how much. “OK, five spoons of alskdfjla.” “Five spoons of what?” They point. “Oh right. That bowl of mystery liquid. Of course. Roger that.” No, she explained the mystery ones later: tamarind mixed with water (kind of tasted vinegary), chicken stock, one bottle of fish sauce or whatever, and the other ended up being soy sauce. So nothing too crazy. But it was fun because what we were making tasted fricking awesome and if I can ever reproduce something half this good, well, let’s just say major good-at-life points.

It just tasted too good, and the other 4 people in the class would give me strange looks when I was oohing and ahhing after taking a taste of something, closing my eyes in enjoyment. I’m no great cook, but at least I wasn’t as stupid as the goofy Austrian dude who cut himself within – no joke – twenty seconds of receiving his knife and beginning preparation of the curry ingredients. He also ruined one of the dishes when he didn’t hear her say two spoons and instead dumped an entire small bowl of tamarind juice into the dish. The assistants had to go and quickly get the ingredients prepared again.

All the students ate together and we were all truly stuffed by the end before finishing all the things we had made. It made me teary-eyed to see some of the soups get thrown out. And I won’t remember much of anything from the class – there was too much information, too quickly – but hopefully following the little recipes I’ll eventually jar some of the great things they showed us.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Full Moon Party

Sadly we found out we were getting kicked out of our hillside bungalow. A few days before Full Moon Party, when almost 30,000 people are on the island and we had to find a new place to stay. But by some awesome stroke of luck, Chris scored us a sweet, if a little sketchy, bungalow right on the beach! Complete with a money front porch and bar out in front, it was a great place and I wish we could have stayed for weeks. Our front row seat gave us full opportunity to take advantage of morning swims, Frisbee, and a few beers at sunset.

Another score was the free Wifi at a place 100 ft up the beach. Chris could sit and work while I was lounging in the sun, it doesn’t get much better than that. Days spent like this always seem to pass too quickly and before we knew it, it was party time.

The Full Moon Party at Hat Rin, Koh Phagnan draws a crowd upwards of 20,000 people most months. Imagine a pack of sweaty, drunk, young people raving all night long and you pretty much get the idea. After stashing our valuables, stocking the backpack with some beer, Faderade, and Bacardi breezers, we hopped in a taxi with the Canadian couple staying in the bungalow next to us and headed down to the madness. Within seconds of stepping down from the taxi we were offered “buckets” – the drink of choice at this event. Buckets come in all flavors: rum, vodka, gin, and tequila. Not only to you get a bottle of alcohol, but also a few mixers, straws, and ice. Mix it all up in the plastic bucket (think pail you would bring to the beach) and you are ready to go.

The closer we walked to the beach the louder the music, and the more crowded the streets. People stumbling along laughing, swearing and a few not looking so hot. Emerging on the beach was kinda shocking. There were people as far as you could see in both directions, music blaring from all the beachside bars and the ground was littered with bottles and straws. The first thing we saw was drunk people running through fire. Always a great idea of course. They had set up a ladder of flames allowing people to run across the sand by stepping between the rungs on the sand and jumping through the flames. Then there were fire dancers. People waving flaming balls, flaming poles, and flaming chains - probably one of the coolest things at the party. The visual effect of twirling flaming anything is pretty awesome.

And of course there was dancing.

The party really gets into the full swing of things around 2-3am. By this point there are people passed out in the sand, peeing and puking in the ocean while others swim, and lots and lots of empty buckets. Luckily we finished our buckets before seeing vendors collecting empty buckets off the sand and bringing them back to their stand to reuse. Yuck. Around 3 am it started to rain and the beach quickly emptied of all but the most serious party goers. Nerds that we are we had brought an umbrella, just in case, and had a great time dancing under it. We got a few funny looks but hey, we were dry and having a blast.

By 5 am we decided to call it a night and jumped in a taxi back to our bungalow which was about 45 min away. Let’s just say I was not a happy camper for the ride. The crazy driving, windy roads, alcohol and exhaust were all doing a number on my stomach. But we made it back without incident and even met a guy from Bozeman who was working on building Gates’ house at the YC. I was asleep before my head hit the pillow. Unfortunately the next day was travel day.

We had to catch the ferry back to the mainland. After packing the maximum allowed passengers onto the boat we finally left from the port. Forced to sit outside because there weren’t any seats, a fact I was happy about because of my still queasy stomach, we huddled on the deck and tried to stay dry when it started to sprinkle. And so began my 48 hours of transportation. 3 hours on the boat, hour bus ride, 13 hour train ride, hour bus ride and then 15 hour flight to LAX, not to mention the hours spent waiting around for my next departure. Sounds fun huh? But here I am at UCLA. I’m back in the U.S. to visit graduate schools for the week, while Chris is still living it up in Thailand. So weird to be back in the States, I actually brushed my teeth with tap water and slept with real blankets.

That's all for now. Love,


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Haad Yao

A hillside bungalow overlooking the palm trees and white sand beach, a Frisbee, a chess set, and a few bottles of beer. Yep folks, things are looking pretty great from this side of the globe.

Last week we made the journey from Laos to Thailand, which turned out to be a piece of cake. From Vientiane we crossed the border by bus and hopped on the overnight train to Bangkok. Sleeper trains are definitely an awesome way to travel; only downside is you can’t see the scenery going by. These trains have the program down pat. Not only to they make up your bunk with fresh sheets and a pillow, but they serve food and wake you up for your stop. Not the best night of sleep we’ve had, but certainly not the worst.

We arrived in Bangkok at 6:30 am. Of course nothing was open, but we watched Letters from Iwo Jima, ate some donuts, and bought another train ticket farther south. Our second sleeper train arrived in Chumphon at 4 am. Surprisingly this small city port was not completely dead, there were moto taxis milling about and a few businesses open here and there. We decided not to rush to the islands, but find a hotel for the night and catch our breath before any more travel. Chris found a café with free Wifi and worked for much of the afternoon. The following morning we caught the ferry to Koh Tao, the first in the group of three islands we are planning on visiting.

Stepping off the boat in Koh Tao brought us into a swarm of taxi drivers and people advertising various hotels and bungalows. The majority of the accommodation options on these islands are camps of bungalows. These small structures vary from very basic with only a bed and fan to those complete with aircon and hot water showers. We opted for a cheap room in town and decided to explore the rest of the island. Koh Tao is a very tiny island, it took us all of 15 min to drive from one end to another on our moto. The main attraction here is the scuba diving. There are dozens of diving operations offering week only PADI certification courses. The island was definitely picturesque, but not quite the vibe we had been hoping for. After a few nights we decided to move on to the second of the three islands.

Our current location, the island of Koh Phangan is well known for its famous Full Moon Party. Some 30,000 visitors flock here for the giant party of the beach. The next party is February 21st (another reason for our change in location). By a stroke of good luck Chris was able to find a vacancy at one of the bungalow operations on one of the northern beaches. Because of the upcoming party, cheap rooms are almost impossible to find on the island this week. We were picked up from the ferry and showed up not quite knowing what to expect.

We jumped out of the pickup, exchanged looks and knew we wouldn’t be leaving this place for a while. Our bungalow is situated on a steep hill overlooking the bay and beach below. It contains a comfy bed, bathroom and has a small deck in front. The best part? The hammock, of course. (In fact, I’m lying in it right now.) Walking along the beach that night, we felt our kinda vibe. Quieter, clean beach, chill people, I’m not really sure how to explain it. We decided it was absolutely necessary to buy a Frisbee and Chris bought a mini chess set. Today we spent the afternoon lounging in the sun, tossing our bright green “Flying Ring,” and reading. Chris destroyed me in a game us chess, but we are both pretty terrible right now and in need of more practice.

Other news…Chris loves driving around on our bright pink moto.

Miss you all! Love,

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Just a sidenote

I’m not sure if you’ve seen them, but some workout gyms in the US have a machine which at first looks like a stairstepper, but it has one horizontal platform for standing, and this platform moves in an elliptical motion with varying amplitude and velocity. It’s a quad machine, and you see plenty of people doing the typical behavior you see on workout machines, like supporting most their weight on the handrails, or proudly showing the no-hands-technique and scrunching their face to show how much they’re working. On this particular machine, this means you keep your head at the same height by extending your legs in rhythm with the machine; at one moment you’re standing on the platform and the next you’re in full squat.

So I was going to the bathroom on the night train from Northern Thailand to Bangkok and I finally understood what these machines are perfect for. As the train bounced up-and-down and wobbled side-to-side, the pit toilet was a moving target to say the least. I imagined those people at the gym and figured they must be pit-toilet-on-a-train professionals.

From a few days ago:
I was feeling fine at breakfast. But soon thereafter, I was reduced to a sniveling pile of worthlessness. Even more sniveling than Harry Potter in book 5.

Diahrrea. Quite a bit of it. And nausea. A few possibilities:
The food we gorged ourselves with last night. After all the sore butts motorcycling around, we had promised ourselves a good meal. I had steak, I had spring rolls, I had Tom Yum soup, I had some of Emma's meal, and some Beer Lao. Tasted great then. Not the second time.
I hadn't taken my malaria medicine for a day. Since they are pretty much antibiotics, we thought maybe that's what had protected me from whatever Emma got earlier in the week, and without it, the shield was down. Possible, but likely?
Still thinking of some more...

I stayed in bed all day, reading Shogun, having a hard time ignoring my nausea. Shogun’s a badass book by the way. I voted to not induce vomitting. Probably should have, because 4 hours later I was on my hands and knees, relishing the touch of the cold tile, and ralfed some knarliness into the wicker basket trash can.

Emma got me some white rice and Sprite and we watched a Blade Runner DVD we bought for $1.50 down the street. Feeling a bit better, but only at about 50-60% right now, if that. Ugh.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Motorcycle Diaries, Laos

Going from towering cliffs and green mountains into city sprawl was awful. From the moment we entered a 100 km radius of Vientiane, the capital city of Laos, we felt a bit depressed. The first few days of our motorcycle adventure brought us through such stunning scenery we weren't prepared to enter the world of cities once again.

The road from Luang Probang to Vientiane is the main highway in Laos. That being said, the portion from Luang Probang to just north of Vang Vieng was a narrow two lane road winding along and over mountains. It reminded me somewhat of roads on Corsica....where truck drivers pass you on blind curves going way too fast. Luckily for us the road here was relatively uncrowded. At one point we passed five or six buses on their usual route north, but other then those 30 min we only saw an occasional moto, a few trucks and some cyclists.

Leaving Luang Probang the road took us along a river valley. We passed through tiny villages consisting of no more than two dozen bamboo and straw structures along the side of the road. It's impossible to imagine what life in these tiny villages might be like. Isolated in the mountains, walking for miles along the road gathering new roof thatch or wood for cooking. Throughout our whole ride we saw women laying what looked to be a type of grass or something along the side of the road. They would them gather piles, wack them on the pavement for a while and bring the bundles back home. We still aren't quite sure what what the end result was.

We also saw lots of babies. Children have so much time on their own. It wasn't uncommom to see five year olds playing along the street with their younger siblings tied onto their backs. Children riding along the street, sometimes three to a bicycle. There were also baby animals everywhere! We saw chicks, piglets, puppies, kittens, calves, ducklings, and baby goats whatever they are called. Chris has a few close encounters but luckily there weren't any casualties.

After climbing out of the river valley and up to a mountain pass of sorts we descended into one of the most beautiful spots we have seen so far. The green valley before us was spotted with towering rock walls and jagged peaks. We were totally unprepared for the scenery. It was unlike anything I have seen before and we hit it right at sunset.

The last hour in the dark to Vang Vieng was a bit scary because of the lack of lights along the road - there aren't any. We also drove through a village celebration and entered a mini war zone of firecrackers being thrown into the street.

And then we entered an episode of Friends, literally. The main street of Vang Vieng is lined with cafes outfitted with lounge beds and tvs. They play Friends reruns all day long.The next day, after catching a few episodes over one of the worst meals we've had so far, we jumped on our bike again and fled the area. While the town of Vang Vieng was mediocre at best, the surrounding area was awesome.

One of the most intriguing natural formations is the series of caves along the various rivers. I am not a huge fan of caves, the thought of walking into a mountain hole and being enveloped into total darkness with god knows what else does not sound like fun. Chris on the other hand was the kid who had to explore until the very end until even crawling became futile, so we set off to see three of the most famous caves. As we walked into the entrance of the first I couldn't help but shiver. Ugh. We joined up with another couple and were followed in by a couple of locals who were guides. Between the six of us we had three working flashlights and our dying headlamp, which I was clutching to like it was my life support.

We weren't 30 feet into the cave when we heard a shout from the lead guide. SNAKE! Probably my least favorite animal in the world. Don't worry it doesn't bite, they told us. But when on of the guys tried to poke it with a stick it coiled. There is no way that snake was harmless. So there I was creeping past a five foot long snake deeper into the cave, knowing it was out there somewhere in the darkness and that at some point I would have to walk by it again. Not seeing it on the way out only made it more creepy. Ahh.

And of course to make things just a little bit better, right after passing the snake we saw a huge spider, maybe the size of my hand, on the cave wall. I couldn't help but wonder what I was getting myself into. I will say that the caves had awesome formations - stalagtites and stalagmites of all shapes and sizes. The third cave required a tiny climb up a steep rocky hillside to enter, but way by far the coolest. The tiny entrance led to a massive cavern. Another higher opening let in a beam of light that fell right on the statue of Buddha and alter in the center of the cavern. From here to cave continued in a maze of passages where it would have been very easy to get lost. We wandered around for 30 min before I had had enough of caves and we made our way back to the entrance.

After our day of caving and another awful meal we decided to continue south to Vientiane. The city sounded much cooler in our Lonely Planet guide then it was when we got there. We found ourselves a nice little guest house on the river, which is a huge sandy bed at the moment, (something about the seasons they said). We went down to the edge to have a beer and watch the sunset. And of course what do we see? A freaking water snake! If there is anything worse then a snake in a cave it's a water snake. Ew just the way they move through the water.....

One highlight of the city - we found an awesome little stand that made hot fresh donuts at night. They had a huge wok of oil and made all sort of fried dough pastries. Mmmmm hot sugar covered donuts. And the best part - they were 10 cents each and you always got one extra for free. Let's just say I ate a lot of them.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Edge of Laos

Vientiene sucks. We realized this during the 3 hour drive from Veng Vieng, most of it through a one dimensional, 3rd-world sprawl along the single road that penetrated the flat, hazy wasteland. The countryside, you could tell, should be lush green; instead there was a slight brownish tint, either due to it being the dry season, or due to the smoke from the locals burning trash on the sidewalks.

We were spoiled by the great terrain of the Laos mountains, but this was pretty brutal as far as drives go. Kind of like the LA portion of Route 66 maybe 20 years ago but with no strip malls. Just lamers.

We still had a day with the motorcycle, and we figured we might as well use it. Our selected destination was a national park about 1.5 hrs away that featured a few waterfalls. The coolest part of the drive was when we finally reached the red dirt road through the "park" and it wound up and down through jungle for 10 km or so. I was a bit nervous about handling the bike on some of it, but the thing handles awesomely; it was built for this kind of thing, after all. The entrance to the park was a shack with a hand operated wooden road block, with chipped red and white paint, manned by a senile uniformed dude who just kind of put his hand out until we had put enough money into it (about $2).

We found the waterfall. It was pretty cool. I was tempted to take a dive, but the water was a bit knarsty and I didn't feel like being wet while driving for 2 hrs. Walking down the river back to the parking lot, we said 'Sabaidee!' to a few people walking the other direction. They smiled and returned the greeting. Two had automatic rifles, not sure why. Further down there were also some teenagers with their pickup, drinking some Beer Laos and fishing with bamboo poles and god-knows-what as bait. Couldn't see any fish, and definitely didn't look like they were going to catch anything.

We took the long way back, driving west along the Mekong River. Much better than the highway, but we found out it was the highway for cattle. I swear: on this drive I have encountered every kind of farm animal here - goats, cows, chickens, pigs, dogs, water buffalo.... you name it, Emma and I have almost hit it.

Got dark just as we drove by the Friendship Bridge that goes into Thailand and we returned the bike with 5 min to spare. Booya.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

It's kind of like riding a bike, but you don't have to pedal....

I must have had an obvious "What do I do now?" look on my face. He had given me the keys to a Baja 250 dirtbike. It was as I had guessed and dreaded just a bit: a manual.

The guy from Green Discovery, the people we were renting from, had just given me a ride from the office to the bus station (where the bike had arrived) on the back of his moto. He wasn't that familiar with the bike either, but after a few minutes got it started and pointed a few things out (gas tank here, brake here, lights there... the basics), and let me get on and try driving around the parking lot. Hilarity ensued. I kind of got the hang of it on the way back to the office, but there was no way to see what gear I was in and I didn't know how to get into neutral yet. Other than that, I was good to go.

The boss at Green Discovery had a few questions for me. "Do you know how to drive one of these?" "No." "Do you have driver's license?" "Yes." "For motorcycle?" "No." Probably for his own amusement, he gave me a quick lesson on it and sent me down the street. While I was practicing shifting, he told Emma it was probably impossible, which made Emma even more nervous about getting on. After packing up a few things to strap on, we shipped the rest of our stuff south to our destination Vientiene. After a little warming up, Emma started feeling a little more comfortoable and we went and checked out some sweet caves to the north.

It is a bike, after all, and riding a bike is just riding a bike, and we never went faster than I would be comfortable riding a regular bike. At first, Emma would pinch me if we went over 50km/hr. (I ended up realizing that she simply was very sensitive to the feeling of going fast, so if we had a headwind or I accelerated too much, her nervous sensors went off pretty early.) As for me, I was so nervously excited I would sometimes catch myself holding my breath. Yeah, I stalled a few times and wasn't the smoothest shifter around, but it was a great way to see the Laos countryside.

The way south from Luang Prabang was mountainous and had some real great road. Mountain passes that reminded me of riding in Spain, cool little thatched mountain villages in the middle of nowhere with awesome views, and smooth descents along ridges and mountainsides. We passed a few cyclists doing the route, and I felt a bit guilty for being motorized, but oh well - I knew how many kilojoules some of these passes would take, especially with all that stuff to carry around, and Emma would have def mutinied.

On one or two descents, I did get a little tired of the high pitched Honda motor, so I put it in neutral (which I had learned how to do at this point), turned it off, and we were in "stealth" mode; peacefully and smoothly descending the innumerable corners. A spoonful of nostalgia for me, but it felt good. As for Emma, I think she was just thankful she wasn't in a bus.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Luang Probang

We landed in Luang Probang amidst low lying clouds and dark forested mountains…quite a change from the dry planes of Siem Reap. It was overcast… reminding us both a little of home. After the usual visa on arrival procedures, we hopped into a shared taxi with a couple of British girls and headed for town. The town of Luang Probang is one of the “tourist destinations” in Laos, known for its waterfalls, river rafting, elephants and trekking, in addition to the many Wats or temples. After a cup of coffee and a piece of delicious quiche we found ourselves a guesthouse and set out to explore the town. We were so surprised to see so many foreigners! Even in Siem Reap, one of the most famous attractions in the area, we were visibly the minority, but here it was just the opposite. The city occupies a peninsula between the Mekong and Nam Ou rivers. There is one main street in the city, lined with tour companies, restaurants, internet places, and that’s about it. We returned to our room after dinner slightly disappointed with our first impressions.

The next day it rained; it poured buckets all day and we stayed inside for most of the morning enjoying our book, Shogun. (We had to rip it in half so that we could both read – books are rare.) When it became clear the rain was not letting up we decided to take a walk around the peninsula and check out the river. Our clothes were soaked through within a matter of minutes, but we were enjoying our walk so it didn’t really matter. The Mekong river is a huge muddy body of water winding its way down the country. The banks of the river are lined with lush gardens; the flat fertile soil is an ideal environment and it was hard for us to resist all the fresh produce we saw in town. These gardens are such a stark contrast to the muddy water, they almost seems unnaturally green.

The scenery around town was definitely a highlight, but our favorite part of being in Luang Probang was without a doubt the night market. We had read about the market, but because our first few days in town were raining we didn’t get to experience it until our third night. At about 4 pm the streets became visibly busier… mopeds and tuktuks piled high with goods going to market. The market itself occupied two or three side streets and numerous alleys and sidewalks. Merchants lay out their goods under lighted tents. I never tired of walking into the mass of brightly colored lanterns, scarves, blankets, t-shirts, slippers, jewelry and more, all lit by strings of tiny light bulbs. We walked through the market almost every night and couldn’t resist buying something each time. Tiny paper lanterns decorated with leaves and dried flowers. $2 T-shirts promoting Beer Lao, so soft. Embroidered slippers, blankets, pillow cases. Let’s just say we went on a little bit of a shopping spree.

When we finally decided it would be dangerous to our budget to be in town any more, we looked into moving—exploring a bit to the north and them heading south the capital, Vientiane. We’d heard from people that Vang Vieng, one of the towns on the route south was also a must stop – famous for its river floating and “happy pizza.” The 11 hour bus ride was not sounding so hot to me and Chris had his heart set on trying to rent a motorcycle. We found out that one of the companies in town rented motorcycles and allowed customers to return the bike in Vientiane – perfect. One slight problem…neither of us knew how to drive a motorcycle. Chris went to pick up the bike with one of the company guides and somehow made it back to the office. I had been expecting one of the motorbikes we had seen around town, little did I know we had rented a giant dirt bike. The seat was so high I had to lift my own leg up just to get on the thing. Haha.

We thought it would be best to test out Chris’s driving ability and my nervousness factor before making any long distance journeys, so we took an afternoon trip out to one of the famous caves in the area that we both wanted to see before we left. We made it to the tiny village about an hour north of Luang Probang with sore butts but no other problems. The bike was perfect for the dirt roads, Chris did great with driving, and I eventually got over some of the nerves, kinda.

The Pak Ou Caves are set into the limestone cliffs at the mouth of the Nam Ou river. The lower cave is filled with Buddha images of all styles and sizes. The second and higher of the caves is longer and we needed a flashlight to explore the statues within. The caves are a pilgrimage place for many locals who bring new Buddha images to place in the caves and even earlier had been a place of worship for Laos river spirits. After exploring the two caves we rode back to Luang Probang and judged it a successful motorcycle trip. We rented to the bike for the next 4 days and decided to take a bit of a road trip. More on that to come soon…



Sunday, February 3, 2008


When we arrived in Luang Prabang, Laos, we immediately noticed all the white people. We had these two super annoying Brit women on our taxi ride. Our taxi pulled up to a coffee house, and Emma and I did a double-take: the coffee place was pristine and modern, and the place had a vibe and clientele that easily could have been Portland.

Luang Prabang is a small French-influenced town in the middle of Laos at the juncture of some river with the Mekong. It has tons of cool temples and restaurants.

As an official World-Heritage site for the last 10 years, it's ability to handle tourists is well established already. So you get a fair share of British and French retirees coming to visit, staying in the fancer guesthouses that range from $20-100/night, smiling to themselves that their money gets stretched so far. It is also a major destination in Laos and along the only major north-south road, so you get any cyclist/motorcyclist on their way north. But the majority of tourists are in the 20-30something range. Many have just finished partying in Vang Vieng, a town to the south. Many proudly sport funky scarfs or simple cotton homemade shirts or homemade purses -- which would be considered cool and different among their friends, but here, everybody in the town has seen that exact shirt/skirt for sale from dozens of different locals.

It rained here the first couple days. Reportedly is very unusual for this time of year, the Dry Season. Everybody was buying umbrellas (we saw the Brits and they had huge frowns on their faces since they were hoping for sunshine and some tanning). We finally bought one after taking a walk around the town in the rain and two choices: a standard black one for 25000 kip (roughly $3) or another one, blue with floral decorations, for 15000 kip. We were leaning for the blue one because of its pure radness, but upon further inspection, it wasn't even waterproof; it was one of those delicate sun umbrellas that you see by the dozen when a Japanese tour group goes by. Gotta go for functional: we picked the black one.

The market here does kick ass. It gets bustling at nighttime, and there're tons of cool things for super cheap. Usually you ask a price, they look you up and down, they name a price (eg. $3), you name a price ($1.50), they name a price ($2.50) and then you give in because at that point you're only arguing over $.50.

Walking through the market, I kept getting creeped out because merchants kept saying "Somebody! Buy something? Please? Good luck!" It seemed so desperate that everybody kept saying "Somebody!" After mentioning this to Em, she laughed and said that they were really saying "Sa Bad Di!" (sp?) which means "Hello" here. Oh boy. After that, I bashedly started saying hello back. Quite a few merchants didn't speak English and used a small calculator to communicate prices while bargaining. Our favorite was near closing time (10pm) when a one merchant said, "You buy! Cheap price and I go home!"

I had been looking for a place to rent a mountain bike for a few days, but they were all part of guided mountain bike tours, and refused to just rent one. I considered getting a private tour for $35 (privately looking forward to pushing the pace with my guide and slowly ripping his legs off). We finally found one that would just rent a bike and since Em had some stomach issues, I took off for the afternoon. Felt like I had just jumped from the pond back into the stream, like a beached shark back in the deep ocean current. I was passing mopeds, hanging onto jumbos (a tuktuk-moped combination), drafting off pickups, and generally hauling ass. I felt like it was the first real deep breath I had had in a while. It was great.

I rode 20km north, and found a dirt road that went 10km along the Mekong to some limestone cliffs, and ate lunch along the river near some water buffalo. After getting back, we resolved to explore some more, and plan on renting a motorcycle to go to the Plain of Jars. We'll let you know how that goes.