Thursday, March 28, 2013

Bye bye Emily!

The bus ride from Siem Reap to Bangkok wasn't too bad, but the border crossing was down right awful. We had to change buses (because Cambodian's drive on the right and Thai's on the left) so we had to bring all of our stuff with us to the outdoor departure counter and then walk across the border to the arrival office where we had to wait in line outside for at least 45 minutes while they let probably 30 inside at a time to get their Thai stamp. It. Was. Shear. Torture. Somehow Shannon and I got separated from the rest of the group and they got inside ahead of us. About 10 minutes after they let them in they let 30 people from the other line in and I came seriously close to passing out. I had to take off my backpack and sit on the ground to avoid falling face first into the pavement. Luckily, it wasn't long until they let us in and we jumped ahead in line with the rest of the gang and the process was really fast. As soon as we got outside (where we had to wait under a tent with about 20 chairs for about 75 people) we bought a bunch of water and I think I drank a whole bottle on the spot. I felt terrible and was shaking uncontrollably. It was not fun. Soon after we got the water they taxied us to a place where we could get food then we were on our way to Bangkok. They let Ethan and I sit in the front seat so I didn't get car sick on top of already feeling miserable and we stopped at a 7-Eleven for some much needed sugar. After my favorite snack (banana muffin) and some Pepsi I was feeling much better. :]
Illicit drug trafficking will be punished with death penalty.
We got into Bangkok much later than expected, but still with plenty of time to shower and roam around Khao San Road. The next day morning we roamed Khao San looking for a place where Emily could get a tattoo and after she was freshly inked we headed to Shannon and Alexis' favorite place - the mall. (E- Em really liked the bamboo style. It didn't hurt her at all...(coughtearscoughlotsoftearscough!) We decided to see Oz and it was terrible. Entertaining, but awful. After which we ate dinner and prepared to send Emily back to the US of A. We sent her on her way very early in the morning and went back to sleep.
Later in the day Ethan and I had decided to take another bag to the storage place we had been to 4 weeks earlier to lighten our load even more. What was supposed to be a 1 hour journey ended up taking 2.5 hours, which slightly messed up our reunion with Alexis and Shannon at one of the malls. We got there and went to the place where they said they would be, but they weren't there. So we waited a little bit, but decided we were too hungry to wait any longer. We got some Pizza Company and on the way back down to the first floor decided to stop back by the meeting place. It was a good thing we did because there they were! Hooray! They hadn't eaten yet so we went back to the Pizza Company with them and then went to the grocery store to replenish some necessities for the rest of the trip. We didn't do much of anything that night because our alarms were set for 2am so we could get to the airport in time for our 6am flight to BALI!!!  

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Killing Fields and Angkor Wat

The border crossing from Vietnam to Cambodia was the easiest cross we had so far. We barely had to walk and the bus driver filled out all of our departure/arrival cards for us. After we got our visas we hopped back on the bus. Super easy. (the bus driver did accidentally leave my passport at the counter where he filled out our forms, but ran back for it when we realized what had happened). When we got off the bus in Phnom Penh we were immediately assaulted by a wave of intense heat unlike any we had experienced. All of S.E Asia is hot - let's be honest - but this was the hottest I had felt in our entire time here. It was brutal. We found a place to stay and paid an extra dollar per person for air conditioning.

After we got settled in we headed out to get some food and check out the Tuol Sleng prison where Cambodian's were held during the Cambodian genocide because they were thought to have been against the regime that had taken over. If you've never heard of the Cambodian genocide, first Google it, then read 'First They Killed My Father' - a book written by a girl who survived the genocide. Anyway, the prison is actually a school that they turned into a prison and now it is a memorial and museum. They left most of the prison the way they found it after the genocide so you could walk into the teeny tiny prison cells the Cambodians were held in and see the rooms where the kept people shackled together. It was very sad, but we're glad that we were able to learn more about how this tragedy happened and who was behind it. As we were leaving, one of the (two or three remaining) survivors of the prison was selling signed copies of his book about his time there and Ethan got to hear him talk a little about it. We bought the book and took a photo with him. After the prison we walked to the "Russian Market," but it was closed so we headed back to our room.

The next day we hired a tuk tuk (open air taxi of sorts) to drive us to what is known as the Killing Fields - another memorial to the Cambodian genocide. This particular killing field, known as Cheong Ek, (there were hundreds all over the country) was used to execute the prisoners from Tuol Sleng. Today it is set up as a walking tour and they give you a set of headphones to listen to information about the site. You can also listen to some survivors talk about their experiences. First, you see where they dropped the prisoners off and then you walk by some of the mass graves that were used to bury the bodies. A couple of them have been preserved and are surrounded by fences and have roofs over them. Others were dug up so the bones could be analyzed to find out how they were killed. Then you walk around a "lake" and listen to some survivor stories and make your way back to more mass graves. The graves just look like big depressions in the earth and if you look closely you can see bone fragments and small pieces of cloth that surface from the graves. The last stop is the memorial stupa that houses thousands of human bones that were dug up from the graves. Cheong Ek was another very depressing, but worthy experience in Cambodia. (E- They truly did an incredible job at the site. With a lot of things in SE Asia being halfway thought through, this was a very impressive memorial to the genocide. It was a very intimate experience that provided a lot of first hand accounts of the horrific acts that occurred here. There were stories about the victims as well as from the soldiers' point of view. I can't believe humans have the capability to do this kind of thing...)
After that we felt a bit down, but really glad we went. We headed to the Russian Market and bought some souvenir shirts and some bathing suits. I have no idea why it's called a Russian Market because most of the stuff that you could buy there are things that are sold in the US. I bought a bathing suit that would normally be sold in Target - weird. Anyway, after that we had our tuk tuk driver drop us down by the river where the bars and western food restaurants are plentiful. We ate dinner and then tried to check out the night market, but it wasn't open. After that fail, we called it a night and headed back. We had an early morning bus to catch to Siem Reap!
The bus was extremely slow and stopped to pick up random people on the side of the road at what seemed like 10 mile intervals. We were very relieved when we pulled into Siem Reap that day. The place we stayed in Phnom Penh had told us that they had a sister hotel in Siem Reap and that if we stayed there they would pick us up from the bus station. So when we got to the "station" (it wasn't much more than a rickety shack on a patch of dirt) there were two tuk tuks waiting for us. It was great, but when we got to the hotel they told us it would be more money than what we had originally been quoted. After we got a bit frustrated the woman went to speak to her boss, who let us stay there for the price we had been told, but there was no a/c and no hot water. No hot water is not a big deal, but I wasn't sure if I could deal with no a/c.

After we ate some food we headed to one of the places I have been wanting to see for a very long time - Angkor Wat. It is an ancient temple that is huge, was built a gazillion years ago and from what I could tell is awesome. So we got a ride out there in hopes of watching the sunset. It wasn't quite the sunset we were looking for but it was still really pretty. The temple was much bigger than I thought it would be, but looked much older than it does on TV. We walked around a little bit then headed back after the sun had gone down. We were saving the serious tour for the sunrise the next day. We ate dinner at our hotel and went to the night market where we got massages and I got my toe nails painted. That night I think I slept about 2 whole hours due to the lack of a/c in our room - they put us in a room with an air conditioner (without the remote of course), but that means no ventilation. I was not a happy camper.
The alarm went off at 4:15am and we were headed to Angkor Wat by 5. The sunrise was pretty awesome and we met a super cute Cambodian kid who called himself Justin Bieber. He was promoting his mom's shop for breakfast so after the sun rose we headed over there for some grub. The rest of the day we spent roaming around Angkor Wat and the other ruins in the area, sweating bucket fulls and consuming unheard of amounts of water. That night we were dead tired but went to the night market again anyway. Shannon and I didn't stay long and went back to pack up to be ready to head to Bangkok in the morning. Cambodia - you were hot, beautiful and we learned a lot from you... see you again next time!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Beaches, Snorkeling, Museums and Tunnels...

(March 16 - March 20) The bus ride to Nha Trang was uneventful, thank the Lord. We arrived sometime in the morning and found a a place to stay. Ethan and Emily went out looking around the city, while I took a nap. A few minutes before my alarm went off they came busting in telling me to get up and get ready to go because they found a place to go snorkeling and we had to be ready in 10 minutes. So I got ready to go in a half asleep state and we walked over to the tour office where a van picked us up and took us to the dock. We got on the boat that we rushed to get to in time and there was no one on it. I was not happy. We asked them when we would be leaving and they said they didn't know because the other group was late. Even more unhappy. But then they offered for us to get on their other boat that was ready to go so we didn't have to wait. We hopped on and were cruising into the bay in no time.
The snorkeling was actually pretty good and the reef was one of the best/healthiest reefs I had ever seen. There were lots of strange fishes and also quite a few jellyfish. I was getting tiny little stings all over my arms and legs, but one girl on the boat got a full on sting and had to get out. It didn't leave a mark, but she said her whole forearm was stinging. Yikes! After a while, we couldn't take the stinging anymore so we got out and set up camp on the top of the boat. They took us to another site that I think we all stayed in the boat for and then they served lunch. It was arguably the best lunch I've ever had on a snorkeling trip. It was served family style too, so when everyone was gone we picked at all the serving plates that still had food on them. Yup. We did. (E- Why you ask? Because we're American! And overeating is what we do!) It was too delicious to let it go to waste! They took us to one more snorkeling spot that we ended up using as a place to jump off the top of the boat and then we headed back to the harbor. So our snorkeling trip pretty much turned into a little bit of snorkeling, some swimming and mostly eating and sunbathing. Oh well! We had fun!
Beard is filling out nicely
Took a little hike by myself to this hilltop
Soooo many motorbikes in Vietnam!
That night we ate dinner and the rest of the crew went to find a bar, while I stayed back to catch some Zzzz's. In the morning we headed to the beach to do some relaxing. Nha Trang's beach is really really nice and the only part we didn't like were the vendors who were extremely persistent. This one woman insisted that Emily, Alexis and Shannon wanted to look at her bracelets when none of them did. She got upset when they told her to leave and started insulting Shannon in English. It was a very strange experience for all involved and we're really glad all the street vendors weren't that feisty. The rest of the afternoon we spent swimming (and trying not get knocked down by the waves) and relaxing. Unfortunately, we had to head out that night for Ho Chi Minh city. We ate a quick dinner and headed back to the hotel to shower and make sure we had all our stuff. We boarded our very last overnight bus that night and, since it was the last bus, we took the 5 seats in the very back and watched Wedding Crashers before attempting to sleep.

We arrived in Ho Chi Minh pretty early and after some back-alley searching found a place to stay with 3 double beds in one room - slumber party! Ethan was so thrilled. Anyway, we showered and headed out for some food and then to the Vietnam War museum. The museum was interesting to say the least. It was pretty anti-American (which I guess makes sense) and very graphic. Aside from being a bit shocked by some of the things they decided to display to the public, I was glad to see some of the history of the war from the Vietnamese side. Most of the things that were displayed about the war, I had already learned about, but they were shown from a different perspective, which was very eye-opening. They also had an entire room dedicated to the affects of Agent Orange (a chemical spread by American troops to destroy vegetation) on civilians immediately after and into recent times. Again, very eye-opening.

After the museum we headed over to market for lunch and then the Reunification Palace. The Palace was the home and workplace for the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam war and was also the site of negotiations between the North and South after the war. Essentially, it's a fancy looking building with several large rooms decorated with outdated furniture and a basement dedicated to war operations. We found a movie room that was air conditioned and decided to learn a bit more about the place. But the lights were off and the seats were comfy and we all fell asleep in there for about 10 minutes. It's a good thing Ethan woke up because I was out cold. After we left the Palace, Alexis, Shannon and I headed back to the room for a nap, while Emily and Ethan looked at a cathedral nearby. We all ended up falling asleep for a few hours, after which, we headed to the night market for some dinner and souvenir shopping.
Underground at the Reunification Palace (post-nap)

The next day we booked a tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels. The Cu Chi tunnels were used by the Viet Cong during the war. They are part of a large network of tunnels that run under the city that were used for communication, supplies, hospitals, food and weapon storage and living quarters. The tour wasn't the greatest thing we've ever been on, but it was informative and our guide was really funny. We saw some of the traps they used to ensnare American troops and got to sample some of the tapioca (pre-processed) they ate on a daily basis. We also got to walk through a section of the tunnel that was about 200m long. There were exits every 20m and I promptly took the first one - it was terrifying. The tunnel was about 3.5 feet tall by 2.5 feet wide and about 9ft underground. I do not know how people lived in them. I would not have lasted very long as a Viet Cong soldier. (E- Our tour guide discussed how the Vietnamese view American tourists. He said they have no problem with us because they know it was our government that was responsible and the citizens were actually fighting to pull out of Vietnam. Plus, American tourists give him a job so he really likes us. That was good to hear, mainly the first part.)
Tasty & Cheap Samiches
After the tour, we were dropped off by the market where we got some souvenirs and I bought some pants. That night we ate Mexican food and celebrated Shannon's 23rd birthday! A great time was had by all, particularly Shannon and myself. Unfortunately, we had to catch a bus at 7am so we didn't get much time to sleep off the night. Oh well! So long Vietnam! Cambodia here we come!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Losing Track of Time in Hoi An

(March 10 - March 15) Well the bus ride wasn't nearly as bad as the 24 hour one! There was a bathroom on board and we only made one strange stop. We all slept a little bit and when we got to Hue (where we had a 4 hour layover until the bus departed for Hoi An) we were able to walk around a little and see some of the town. We wanted to check out the old fort, but it cost a lot more than we were expecting so we tossed that out the window and opted for a game of pool at a bar near where the bus would be picking us up. (E- We ran into our Aussie friend, Jake, that was on the death bus ride from hell with us and he joined in on the pool)
Sleeping on the sleeper bus
Go Wings!
When the bus got there we asked if it was our bus to Hoi An and the guy loading luggage said yes. So, we threw our luggage underneath and got in line to board. After a minute though a different guy came up saying that the 5 of us were on a different bus... Unfortunately, the guy who told us it was the right bus had just finished piling more bags on top of ours and closed the luggage compartment. We were very irritated and asked if they would help us move the other bags, but they wouldn't... So after a minute or two of confusion I went over and unloaded all the bags on top of ours and our own bags and we followed the other guy to the correct bus. Luckily, they waited for us and we were able to all sit next to each other. Crisis averted!! We learned our lesson with that fiasco and never again trusted the luggage handlers for information.
Sharing a seat and planning the next adventure
Anyway, the ride to Hoi An was short and uneventful. We got in sometime in the afternoon, found a place to stay and got some dinner. The next morning as we were getting ready a girl popped her head into our room to let us know that they had had some money stolen from their room the night before. So we had a team meeting and decided not to risk it. Emily and I packed up, while Alexis and Ethan went to find a different hotel. They found one just down the street that we had looked at the day before, but decided against because it was a little more than we wanted to pay. We all agreed the extra cost was worth knowing our things/money would be safe. With that crisis over we rented some bicycles and headed for the beach nearby. We spent the afternoon there and ate some traditional Vietnamese food on the beach for a late lunch. That night we went to a late dinner at one of the many restaurants by the river that cater to European/American tastes and spent some time at one of the bars across the river. 
Cue typical beach picture
"You're handsome like Fidel Castro." -Dude
The next morning we rented three motorbikes so we could drive out to a set of ancient ruins called My Son Sanctuary. It was Emily's first time driving a motorbike, but she did great even with the crazy Vietnamese drivers and streets. The drive took about 45 minutes and it took us through some really pretty countryside. The My Son ruins were definitely nothing like the ruins we've seen in Thailand (meaning they were not nearly as interesting to look at), so it didn't take long for us to meander through them. The ruins were mostly covered in grass so we really didn't know what we were looking at and there were several that really just looked like piles of old bricks. (E- or piles of new bricks as there was definitely some over the top reconstruction going on.) The area was really pretty though. That night was pretty much like the night before. 
My Son Sanctuary
Making sure they don't get lost...
The next day we rented the bikes again, but went to a place called Marble Mountain instead that was about 20 minutes away. The name of the place pretty much gives away what it's attraction is. It's a "mountain" from which marble is used to make teeny tiny figurines to humongous statues. The walk to the top wasn't super fun, but the view of the beach and ocean below when you get there is pretty great. There is also a temple on the way to the top that we stopped at and tried to get a picture in front of, but the lady "guarding" the entrance was not happy with our inappropriate attire. She got saucy with us and shooed us away. It was pretty comical even though she was a little scary and only had like two teeth. Anyway, after the mountain we tried to go into that town to get food, but the restaurants were mostly seafood restaurants, so after several failed attempts we decided to head back to Hoi An for dinner. 
Marble Mountain view
On our last day in Hoi An we walked around the market getting some souvenirs, saw the famed Japanese Covered Bridge (E- The bridge was less than impressive, see below, and you had to pay to walk across it.) and then hopped on the overnight bus to our next Vietnamese destination - Nha Trang. 

Japanese Covered Bridge
(E- It's too bad we waited three weeks to share/write this blog because it doesn't do Hoi An justice. It was one of the highlights of Vietnam. The city in general has a really nice vibe to it. It's tough to explain. We all just really enjoyed our time there.)
If only we were as cute as the Vietnamese couple on the wall...

Monday, March 11, 2013

Goooood Morning, Vietnam!

(March 7 - March 10) After our bus ride from hell we were super excited to have a place to sleep and to reunite with our pals Shannon and Alexis. In the morning Ethan found their hotel, so we packed up and moved to that place. We felt much better about paying for a place that wasn't part of the bus scam. After we showered and scrubbed all the bus grime off of us, we set out to see the sights of Hanoi. We were highly unprepared for the crazy busy city that greeted us. The streets are narrow and there are more people on motorbikes there than there are in Thailand. There is also a serious lack of street lights and stop signs and where they existed they were not adhered to. It was insane and I'm very surprised that we didn't see any accidents.

Anyway, that day we went to a temple on an island in a lake in the middle of town, but it cost money to get in so we took a picture outside and left. We also visited the Maison Centrale Prison where John McCain was held as a POW during the Vietnam War. It was highly anti-American/French, but it was still really neat. The next day we tried to see more of Hanoi's sights, but it was Friday and many of the sights are closed. We didn't know this ahead of time though, so we set out only to be disappointed and frustrated. We saw the building that Ho Chi Minh's body is housed in (aka Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum) and we saw the outside of a museum that has a really big flag pole outside of it, but we weren't even allowed to go up to the flag pole. After those two failed attempts we decided to give up and find some lunch. We did make it out to another lake in town that was pretty neat, but didn't stay long due to hunger and lack of cheap places to eat. Later that night we went to the night market for dinner and a little shopping. We had some of Vietnam's famous Pho. I didn't really like it, but everyone else did. We left the night market with some bracelets and I bought a phone cover in the shape of one of my favorite Disney characters, Stitch. :]
Pho-king great!
Beamer, Benz, or Rolls?
The next day we left Hanoi on a tour headed to Halong Bay, which has been called one of the most beautiful places in Vietnam and is a World Heritage Site. We're not usually package tourists, but trying to get there on our own seemed a bit too complicated for us, so we bit the bullet and paid for a tour. We took a bus out to Halong City and then a little boat took us out to the boat we'd be touring the bay on and staying the night on. The boat reminded me of the riverboats on the Mississippi. We got two rooms that were all wood on the inside and a lot nicer than we expected. The shower even had hot water (didn't last very long, but it was there!)! The tour took us to a cave and to a tiny island with a pagoda on top. The cave was pretty cool and huge, but it had been way overdone with lights and footpaths. (E- The cave was called Surprising Cave for how big it is once you're inside, but the only thing we were surprised about was how dirty the water was everywhere in Halong Bay. I mean, trash everywhere. It was really quite sad that such a natural beauty has been allowed to waste away. And it's supposed to be protected by the United Nations...) The island was beautiful, but Emily and I decided not to take the 400 stair climb to the pagoda. The pictures from up there were beautiful, although Ethan says they don't do it justice. After the island we headed back to the big boat for dinner. The food was really good, which surprised us and they gave us a lot of it, which was even more surprising. They had karaoke and dancing after dinner, but we were on the boat with like 5 Asians, two older Russian couples, and two American girls who were our age. It didn't exactly make for the best karaoke audience so we opted out and I don't usually say no to karaoke! Instead we hung out on the roof deck and chatted with the girls we had met. They had just finished teaching English in Korea and made it very clear that they really liked it and made way more money than we did. In the morning, we did a quick cruise of the bay after breakfast then headed back to Halong City where we had lunch before departing the boat. Overall, we were pleased with the tour and might not be so apprehensive about package tours in the future :] (E- Still very apprehensive. I'd much rather rent a motorbike and do it myself, but you can't do that on the water...)
Surprising Cave
View of Halong Bay from Ti Top Island
Go Wings!
It was a 3 hour bus ride back to Hanoi where we waited an hour or so for the overnight bus that would take us to Hue and then on to Hoi An. We crossed our fingers that this ride would go smoother than the last one! 

Still just doesn't do it justice!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Death Bus Ride from Hell

Ethan here. This is a timeline of the worst transportation I have ever been involved with. Some of the times are approximate and might have occurred out of the order they are listed here. I was a bit delirious from the trip and waited a week to write this. I'm going to try my best to explain the trapped feeling we had on this death bus ride from hell.

5:30 pm - Arrive mini bus station outskirts of Luang Prabang by small tuk-tuk. It struggled to fit and handle the three of us and our luggage.
Crammed in the tuk-tuk.
5:45 pm - Waiting in line to check in while Skye and Emily watch our bags.

6:00 pm - Scheduled departure time. Instead, we just start boarding. This is also when we realize that some people have sleeping compartments with two people to the compartment and not actual separate seats. Other people aren't as lucky as they get put under these seats pretty much on the floor with no window, sleeping side by side. Hope you're not claustrophobic. We are the lucky ones with seats. However, Emily has a 50 year old Irishmen to snuggle with for what we think will be 24 hours. It's okay though because at least they'll get their own blankets, right? Oh wait, nope, they have to share that too. Sorry bout ya. Again, we're the lucky ones with real seats and windows.

6:30 pm - Bus departs from Luang Prabang only 30 minutes late. Oh well, 24 more hours to go to Hanoi, Vietnam.

10:00 pm - Stop for our first meal and toilet break. Pretty sure it's at their friends' place with below average food and inflated prices. It's also FREEZING outside. Skye and Em play it safe with fried rice. I eat a few bites of Skyes. Bathroom was interesting.

10:45 pm - Depart the food scam trap.

3:00 am - We all sleep fairly decent or at least I think we all did. I was lights out with some help. However, the next day some girls on the bus tell us we stopped in a village for about an hour at 3 am while they unloaded all of our stuff, put some "other stuff" on and then loaded our stuff back on. Excuse me? You were awake for this? And didn't think it was necessary to inform us that they unloaded our stuff? Hmm. Hope everyone's bag is there when we get to Hanoi.

8:00 am - I wake up suddenly and realize our bus is stopped. Fall back asleep.

8:30 am - Wake up again and bus hasn't moved. Some people are talking about the border so I figure our bus is stopped in a line for the border.

9:00 am - Still no movement so I get out of the bus to investigate. A semi truck or a laurie as our European mates refer to it as is broken going around a tight curve and is blocking the entire road. Traffic is stopped in both directions.

10:00 am - No progress is made and everyone is just standing around looking at it. We've also discovered were only 3 kms short of the border. Since no progress is made, everyone starts talking about possibly walking to the border and finding another bus. Nobody acts on it though. A bunch of military official looking dudes show up and stand there looking at the situation with no action.
Everybody standing around doing nothing to solve the problem.
10:15 am - Locals start showing up from nowhere and creating a bridge out of trees tied together with vines and bamboo so minivans can cross over the drainage ditches on the sides of the road. They test it by jumping up and down on it. Probably a good comparison. It withstood a 150 pound SE Asian so a minivan full of people should be able to make it.
The bridge for the minivans. It held Emily... barely.
10:45 am - A minivan actually starts to attempt it, but alas, there's finally a decent plan thought of. Tow the truck out with one of the other 10+ semis there. So they attach it with one chain. I'm convinced the chain is going to snap so I make Emily move behind another semi in case it does. Meanwhile, Skye's still sleeping as she did through most of this process.

11:00 am - Cheers all around as the chain holds up and the truck is moved to the side of the road further up the hill. 3 hours of no progress. We heard in Hanoi that this isn't uncommon to have happen at this exact spot.

11:30 am - Finally get to the border. Yes, 3 km and about 30 minutes. That's how bad the mountain and roads are. The border crossing is supposed to be closed for lunch, but they must have stayed open because they knew what happened. We lucked out with that. We depart Laos and walk across no mans land to the Vietnam side. We hand a dude our passports with our $70 Vietnam visas already inside. Sit around for about 30 minutes before they call our names. I was really expecting to be scammed into paying more, but everyone got through with no problems.
Departed Laos and Vietnam on the other side of the bridge.
12:30 pm - The whole border thing took around an hour, which isn't too bad. Everyone boards the bus and we depart.
Fellow captives of the death bus ride from hell at the border crossing.
2:00 pm - **We stop and the drivers get off for a smoke break. Some people have to pee so they try and get off the bus. They're yelled at by the drivers and aren't allowed off.**

4:00 pm - So remember the food trap that we were forced to eat at? 10 pm the night before? Well who needs breakfast or lunch? We don't stop until 4 pm for lunch. Cool! We have 45 minutes here so I immediately start walking around this middle of nowhere village looking for somewhere to exchange money. Find a bank and they say no exchange. Another woman on the bus (from Chicago) goes to give it a try so I go in again. This time it works? Okay? Get back to the bus stop, which is another friend/family members place with inflated prices and poor food. An older guy had bought Em and Skye a plate of food while I was gone. Thanks bud. We get some snacks, a coke and red bulls because who knows when we'll stop again.

4:45 pm - Depart food scam stop. Thanks for stopping at a place that's a solid 1-2 kms from the nearest bank when it's our first stop in a new country. Got my exercise in at least.

5:00 pm - We're informed that 9 pm is our likely arrival time. Ha. Ha.

6:00 pm - *Drop package off to random person at the side of the road. 24 hour point. Everything is becoming a blur. I don't even know who I am or what I'm doing on this bus...*

8:00 pm - **Another smoke stop for the drivers. Again, we're not allowed off even though people try.**

10:00 pm - Another food scam stop. This is the worst food yet with the highest prices. We get some random mix of food that tastes like grass.

10:45 pm - Depart and were informed we only have 30 minutes left. Then why'd we stop!!!!!!? Oh, because 30 minutes is a gigantic lie.

11:30 pm - Pull down a side road. Then another. We think we're in Hanoi and going to the bus station. Then pull down another dark and deserted road. Stop. Lights off. No bus station. Dafuq? A truck pulls up with its lights off. Drivers get off and start unloading our bags. Uhh? They then get blocks of wood buried within the bus and start throwing them into the truck. Pretty sure it is packed with "other stuff" if you're picking up what I'm putting down.

12:00 am - Leave the back alley.

1:00 am - Bus stops for a toilet break. Sorry ladies, this toilet break is at the side of the road.
We're forcing a smile, but feeling like the lady behind us.
2:00 am - Bus stops and picks up a dude that says, "Welcome to Hanoi." He informs us how shady taxis are at this time of night and we should use his minibus to get from the bus station to the Old Quarter. We all decide we should stay together and it's only $1.50 a head so we listen to him. Hop off the bus, get assaulted by taxi drivers and all cram on the minibus. Of course he takes us to his hotel and nowhere else where we can stay for $5 per person for the night. Most people leave, but we stay behind after I haggle him down to $12 for the three of us.

Next morning: We change hotels to finally leave this 32 hour scam behind us.

Hanoi City Hostel, where we meet our friends Alexis and Shannon, is a welcome relief.

* Throughout the entire journey, the bus would stop at random places with a person waiting there and drop a package of "other stuff" off to them.

**The random smoke break stops where we weren't allowed off the bus happened a number of times throughout the death bus ride from hell.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Bye Bye Thawangpha - Hello Laos!

Leaving Thailand.
The last week of school was exam week, so we didn't have any teaching or really anything to do except pack up our stuff. Wednesday night the English department held a going away dinner for us at their favorite restaurant near town. It was nice to see them one last time and they gave us a couple gifts. We each gave a little thank you speech that was highly embarrassing, but it was a good time and it was a really nice thing for them to do. Thursday morning we addressed the students who were there at the morning assembly to say thank you and goodbye. Also embarrassing, but we were glad we got the chance to say goodbye to at least some of them. The rest of the morning was spent packing and throwing away all the crap we had collected from the last few months. It was a lot more than I thought it would be. We're kind of pack rats! :] Anyway, Thursday afternoon we said goodbye to our apartment for the last time and headed back to Nan city.
Pak Beng, Laos
While in Nan for the evening, Ethan and I got more passport photos that we would need for our tourist visas in a few countries and Emily treated herself to a traditional Thai massage. We got dinner then went to bed pretty early because the bus headed for the Laos border left around 5:30am. At 4:30 in the morning we quietly left the guesthouse and walked to the bus station. We bought our tickets and of course I ended up squished in the front seat with a dude who was hacking up his lungs and not covering his mouth. I wanted to die. Anyway, eventually a bunch of people got off so I moved in the back with Ethan. I don't know what time it was when we got to the border, but once you get there they just drop you off on the side of the road and you have to walk over the border. First, you go to the Thai immigration stand and they take your departure card and stamp you out of the country. Then you are in no man's land until you reach the Laos immigration building. Once there you fill out a visa application, they check your passport to make sure you're not a crazy person, then they put a big visa sticker in your passport, you pay them some money and you're done! 
Minivan seats on the slowboat to Luang Prabang.
We still needed to get to another town though and we had missed the early bus that takes us where we needed to go. (E- missed it by 15 minutes. One of us walks slow...) So we hopped in a truck to the "bus station" where we found out there was another bus going to the place we needed to go, but it wasn't leaving until 12. So we put our stuff on the bus (hoping to save our seats) and waited and waited. Once it got closer to 12 Ethan and I went off to find a toilet, but when we got back everyone was on the bus. I guess they decided that the bus was leaving (E- 30 minutes early), while we were gone. So we got on and poor Emily was looking highly distraught. She had tried to save our seats, but a local woman was not having it. Apparently, the woman literally sat down on top of our things instead of just moving them aside. Emily ended up having to yank our stuff out from under her and was not able to secure seats for both of us. So I ended up having to sit on the fold down chair in the aisle that I was much too big for and it was a miserable two hours. To top off the adventure they dropped us off past the town we were headed for and had no idea where we were. Luckily, Ethan managed to find out that we were about a 30 minute walk from where we wanted to go. Unfortunately, it was about 102 degrees in the middle of the afternoon. We didn't really even walk that far, but it was torture. We ended up getting a ride (thank god!) after a while and they dropped us off near a bunch of guesthouses. We found a place to stay and hung out for the rest of the night.
In the morning, we got our stuff around and headed out to the dock to catch the slow boat down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang. We were nervous about how comfy the boat would be because we had heard several different accounts and the boat ride is 8 hours long. The seats ended up being essentially seats taken from a van and rigged to fit on this boat. So they were comfy enough, but the boat was also very, very full so there wasn't any room to spread out. The journey was long, but the scenery was really pretty. We were definitely excited to get off the boat when we got to Luang Prabang. It was another super hot afternoon and even though the place we ended up staying wasn't the cleanest - I think it might have been the dirtiest place we've ever stayed actually- we were excited to get out of the heat and shower. That night we walked around the night market and ate sandwiches, which Laos is known for. Laos was colonized by France and there is still a strong French influence so everywhere you go they have baguettes and baguette sandwiches. There are a bunch of different ways to order them and they're delicious. Oddly enough they are cheaper than plated food at the restaurants, so we ended up eating them for several meals. It was strange for us because in Thailand sandwiches are expensive and teeny tiny. We definitely had our fill of Laos sandwiches.
After getting soaked at the Pak Ou caves.
Sunday we hired a tuk tuk with some other random people to take us to a famous cave in the area. The cave wasn't super cool, but it is right on the river and it was a really pretty area. While we were there it started down pouring, so we got completely soaked. It didn't really bother us, but it did make for a pretty chilly ride back. Monday our first order of business was to apply for our tourist visas at the Vietnamese Embassy. It was super easy, but ended up costing each of us $70! Eeeeek! Anyway, after that Emily really wanted to ride an elephant so we headed out to find an elephant camp. They're quite popular so it wasn't hard and we found one that would bargain with us. They took us out to the camp and all three of us rode on one elephant around this little village. I wasn't sure that the elephant appreciated carrying around 500+ lbs on its back, but we did choose the cheapest tour sooooo....
After the ride through the village they got two more elephants so we each had our own ride and they took us down to the river for "elephant bathing." It was actually more like "elephant play time" because as soon as we got in the water, which had a healthy amount of giant elephant poops in it, the elephants tossed us off of their backs and into the poop infested water. Emily and Ethan had a great time, but I really did not enjoy it. That night we met up with our friends Josie and ate dinner with them.
Kuang Si waterfall.
Tuesday morning we checked out of our hotel, dropped our things at their hotel (E- Thanks, Josie and Allison!) and went with them to our last Laos attraction, the Kuang Si waterfalls. The falls were a bit farther away and you had to pay to get in, but it was worth it. They had a bear conservation camp there that I was unaware of and the falls themselves were amazing. We spent some time watching the bears and checking out the waterfalls. (E- Allison and I were the only ones brave enough to jump in the slightly chill and amazingly bluish/turquoise water) Our last day was well spent and when we got back we headed straight to the bus station for what would be the strangest, and maybe even the worst, bus ride we have ever had to endure.... To be continued!
View of Luang Prabang and the Mekong River from atop Phu Si