Wish we had longer

On Friday, February 12th, we flew from Luang Prabang back to Vientiane to spend one more night there before heading home to Malaysia.  We stayed in a different hotel this time around – the Dhavara Boutique Hotel, and since I had some credits with the website we use for booking accommodations when we travel we decided to book a suite.  If I remember correctly, the suite we stayed in was their “Mekong” suite, and it was fantastic, complete with complementary wine and a nice little balcony.  The hotel was only a few blocks from where we stayed several days earlier when we passed through Vientiane, so that meant we were just a few blocks from the night market.  Carolyn was still trying to set a world record, so of course she visited the night market on our final evening in Laos, which meant that she went every single night we were there.

The only other thing we really did on our final day in Laos was to go to the Hard Rock Cafe, which was brand spanking new and still partially under construction.  They were still training staff, so our waitress was horrible, but the manager in charge of the seaters/greeters and several of the other staff members were all fantastic.  The colors colored some coloring books the staff gave them, there was some good music playing, I had several ice cold beers, Carolyn picked up HRC t-shirts for herself and the kids, and we talked and joked with the staff for quite a while.  One lady in particular was absolutely in love with Sebastian, so he was carried all around and given lots of hugs, kisses and pinches by all the girls there.  It was fun and a good cap on a wonderful week in Laos.

The following morning Carolyn and I were both sad to be leaving.  We wished that we had stayed for another night in Vientiane and skipped the one night we planned in KL.  Laos is such a wonderful country to visit and 7 nights wasn’t nearly enough.  The good news is that Laos ain’t going anywhere soon, so we definitely plan to visit again in the future.

When we got back to KL we had a really bizarre experience at the airport.  A girl would had sat near us at the Vientiane airport as we waited to board our flight came up to me in a panic after we had cleared customs, immigration and baggage claim as Carol was topping up her Celcom credit on her phone.  I had just taken out some cash from an ATM, but since I recognized her from Laos and our flight it never crossed my mind initially that she was maybe scamming me.

She came up smiling but looked extremely nervous.  She told me some guy who she didn’t know was following her.  She said he had followed her outside and back into the terminal, and was sitting next to her there at the arrivals area and looking at her phone.  I asked who it was and she didn’t give a good answer, but at the time she appeared very scared so I let her know I’d help her in any way I could and that she’s safe, just let me know who it was and I’d take care of it.  She nervously said something that was hard to understand, but sounded like “that guy with backpack and hat”.  I looked over at a crowd of people and saw who I thought may be the guy, so I pointed and asked “Is that him, with the black jacket right there?”  She was so nervous or scared that it wasn’t an emphatic “yes”, but she seemed to nod in affirmation.

I said that I would go tell him to leave her the hell alone right as Carol walked up.  The girl’s demeanor changed and she would hardly talk with Carol standing there.  I explained what was going on to Carol, that some guy was following this poor girl and she was afraid.  I looked over to point out the guy to Carol but I couldn’t find him, so I asked the girl if she wanted me to go talk to security with her to let them know what was going on and she said “no, I just sit there” and pointed to some empty seat.  She indicated that she was waiting for a friend who wouldn’t arrive for another 2 hours and that’s when I started to feel like something was up and this may be a scam.  My thoughts were racing — she went outside supposedly, but was waiting for a friend to arrive in 2 hours.  She was very talkative about her concerns until Carol and the kids came up, then she wouldn’t say hardly a word.  She wouldn’t clearly identify the guy and she refused several times to go with me to security that was sitting nearby.  I asked “What do you want me to do?”  I had given her options, but she didn’t say what she needed.  She didn’t want me to approach the guy she hadn’t identified and she didn’t want to speak to security.

I was really starting to feel uncomfortable with the situation at that point, particularly with my kids there, so I said to the girl, “come on, we are going to speak to that security guard right now”.  We went back and forth 3-4 times with her saying nervously “no, it’s ok, I will just sit and wait there” and me saying again and again, “No, we need to alert security.”  Finally I said “Come on, follow me.”  She looked REALLY nervous at that point and she followed far behind me as I walked the 40-50 feet over to a guard.  She didn’t come up to the podium where he was sitting, but stood about 15 feet away.  I went up to the guy and said “Sir, this lady just approached me, and I recognize her from my flight that just landed.  We flew in from Laos.  She says someone is following her and I told her we should alert security to help, so I’m letting you know because I’m leaving now.”

The officer looked very interested and demanded to know “which girl is it?”  I turned around and pointed directly at her but she wouldn’t make eye contact.  Carolyn said later she kept looking over at some guy in the crowd and was nodding to him and communicating with him.  I didn’t notice that because I had my back to her the entire time except when I turned around for 5 seconds and pointed her out to the guard.  The guard asked if I knew her.  “Absolutely not.  I recognize her from the Vientiane airport and our plane though.”  He asked if she spoke English; “Not very well.  She may be Filipina.”  He said she looked like she was from Laos, not the Philippines.  He asked which guy was it, and I explained that she was hesitant to clearly identify him but I pointed to the guy who I thought she indicated.  That guy was mad dogging me — he looked like a little Malay guy to me, dark brown skin, maybe 5′ tall (really short, could have been under 5′), and probably weighed all of 90 pounds.  He was glaring at me though as I pointed at him.

The guard said he’d keep an eye on her, so I thanked him, shook his hand, walked to the girl and told her the guard would keep an eye on her and told her to not leave the area until her friend arrived, then I got my family out of there as fast as I could.

As we walked away I told Carol to keep an eye out for that little guy and anyone else watching us too closely.  Our heads were on swivels as we corralled the children towards the taxi rank exit as fast as we could.  We hired a van taxi and waited on the curb for about 10 mins for the guy to run get his van, and finally we were off.  We both agreed that it was most likely a scam but that I did the right thing to warn the security in case it wasn’t and she really needed protection.  She never said “confront that guy”, “please go to security with me”, “can you give me a ride”, or anything else to indicate what she wanted me to do.  We both thought that if Carol hadn’t have shown up that there was a good chance this lady was going to try to get me to give her a ride somewhere to “protect” her and then those guys working with her would rob me.  Who knows…  It was beyond strange, primarily because she simply would not show who it was, she never said what help she actually wanted, she refused to go up to security with me and told me not to go to them that it would be fine and she would just sit and wait when I said we should go there.

We got our car and headed into KL.  Even though it was the Saturday after Chinese New Year the highways into the capital were basically empty.  We couldn’t believe how light the traffic was.  The air was also clean and you could see the Petronas Towers from a long was off.  When we got to our regular hotel in Bukit Bintang the lady at reception who has been checking us in for 3+ years said “Welcome back!” and asked about all the kids.  Carolyn went to pickup dinner at El Cerdo while I stayed in the room with the kids.  I used the time to prepare for the following day, Valentine’s Day.  I called the concierge and asked for a dozen roses to be delivered at 8am in the morning.  He called back 30 minutes later and confirmed that he had made the arrangements.  Perfect!

Jean made it back from El Cerdo with half a roasted piglet and some other stuff.  The piglet was pretty good and the girls enjoyed checking it out.  After that Carol went shopping and I fell asleep with the kids.

The next morning we were woken up be a knock at the door at 8am.  Carol answered the door and I heard someone say “These are for you, ma’am.”  She was all smiles when she came back into the bedroom.  Happy Valentine’s Day!  I ordered us room service while she took a shower and got ready, then she took Zoe shopping for a couple of hours and they both got a pair of Birkenstocks and some other stuff.  I really enjoyed spending more time with the two little ones.  We didn’t check out until about 2pm, and before that we took some photos of us with the kids.

We finally drove home and unbelievably we made it back from KL in just three and a half hours.  It was the fastest we’ve ever driven that route, which usually takes us 5-6 hours.  The traffic was almost non-existent…

Here are the photos from those final few days of our vacation, spent in Vientiane and KL:

Dodging crowds and helping students

Thursday, February 11th, was our final full day in Luang Prabang.  The weather was once again absolutely incredible, like late fall in Alabama (60’s and blue skies, with low humidity).

We woke up fairly early, got ready and ate breakfast, then we headed just a few blocks over to the former Royal Palace which is now a National Museum.  On the same grounds is Haw Pha Bang, which is supposed to house a famous Buddha statue.  Unfortunately by the time we arrived there were already Chinese tour groups all over the place, gathering around for group photos, hocking loogies everywhere and yelling at each other or listening to their guide yell.  It certainly took away from the serenity that I remember from my previous visit to the Royal Palace, although the last time I couldn’t see all of Haw Pha Bang because it had scaffolding all around it and this time it looked marvelous.

After paying our entrance fees and stopping by for a quick look at Haw Pha Bang we made our way to the former Royal Palace, where the King of Laos lived before the country was taken over by Communists and the King was overthrown in 1975.  The royal family were sent to “re-education camps” and now their palace is a National Museum.  The building itself is impressive, including the royal standard shown in gold above the main entrance, showing 3 elephant heads beneath an umbrella.  There are several relics on display, most from the colonial period when the King of Laos and his family were living at the palace.  The only bad part about visiting the palace is that not only do they make everyone take off their shoes before entering, but you must leave your cameras and phones outside, so you can’t get photos of any of the building’s interior.

During our walk-through of the palace we got stuck behind a large group of Chinese tourists who all turned on us and started gawking at our girls.  They wanted to touch their hair, take photos of their eyes, rub their skin and so on.  We’ve dealt with this many times, but never when 20+ people all surround us inside a tight hallway.  We tried to get out of that situation quickly and then moved quickly on through the museum to stay ahead of them.

On the way back out to pickup our shoes and cameras we found several groups of 20+ Chinese tourists all huddled together waiting for their turn to go inside.  It was just too much.  What should be a laid back serene place was now loud and full of people spitting and gawking at our kids.

We went around back to see the royal cars parked inside a garage.  I got yelled at for trying to take a photo of the one car you could see through the door from the outside, but basically they were all gifts from the US.  I was surprised to see an Edsel in there.  I supposed the US gifted these to the King of Laos because we wanted him on the side of Capitalism at a time when Communism was spreading through the region.

We luckily were able to maneuver around the Chinese tour groups for the rest of the day, but the other big thing we did for the day was have dinner from a local place called Khaiphaen.  They have other restaurants in places like Vientiane and Siem Reap, and their thing is to take in young people from the rural areas of these poor countries to train them on cooking and other parts of the restaurant business (service industry) so that they can make a good living in their emerging economies.  Khaiphaen was the second highest rated restaurant in LP, and we agreed.  The food was really good, even their signature dish called “khaiphaen”, that we were a little apprehensive to try – Mekong River weeds dried and sprinkled with sesame seeds.  The food was good and it was for a great cause, to help young people in a poor country learn how to earn a good living in a major industry.

The following morning we flew back to Vientiane.  Carol loved Luang Prabang and my second trip there only solidified my thoughts after my first trip there years earlier, LP is an amazing place.  Even though it has had some changes for the worse, particularly an explosion of tour groups that have disrupted some of the serenity and some of the key features (ex: alms ceremony each morning), it is still a unique place that has a special vibe to it.  I love Luang Prabang and hope to return again in the future.

Here are the photos from our final day in LP:

Colors so vivid that they impressed the colorblind

One of the other things that happened on Tuesday, February 9th, after we finished walking around Luang Prabang was that Carol went around to several different places and made arrangements for private transport in a van to take us site-seeing the following day.  We had picked out a few different places we wanted to go and after checking into all of our options we found a van with driver for $45 (USD) that would take us everywhere we wanted to go.

We asked to go see the Kuang Si Waterfalls (about a 45 minute drive from LP), then to a butterfly farm near the waterfalls, next to Wat Xieng Thong (back in LP), then to drop us off at a restaurant of our choosing and wait until we finished before taking us back to our guesthouse.  We wanted to get to the waterfalls before the crowds so we asked to be picked up from our guesthouse at 8:15am

On Wednesday morning we go up early to get showered and dressed.  Carol postponed breakfast to met our driver on-time directly in front of our guesthouse promptly at 8:15am.  The drive out to the waterfalls was nice because we passed through rice paddies, over narrow wooden bridges and through some small rural villages.  Everything was great, except for Logan who freaked out when she noticed a mosquito smashed on a nearby window inside the van.  She pointed at it and started screaming “Bee!!  Bee!!”.  She did this several weeks ago in my car when a tiny termite looking thing was walking up the outside of the window.  Are all ants with wings termites?  I guess she’s seen bees stinging people in cartoons and has decided that she absolutely must avoid them because any insect she sees is labeled a bee and she loses her mind screaming, pointing and trying to get away from it as quickly as possible.

When we got to Kuang Si we were the second vehicle that pulled into a large parking lot near the top of the road that led us up a hill.  From the parking lot to the entry gate was just about a 100m stroll up that road, with vendors lining both side of the road.  The vendors were getting setup for the coming crowds but weren’t quite ready yet since the place was just opening.  It reminded me of Angkor Wat and Borobudur, with little hawker styles lining the entrance so they could sell handicrafts, cold drinks and food to the captive crowds that had to funnel through in order to reach their destination.  It’s actually a good thing if they aren’t too heavy with the touting, since a cold drink is always nice.

The food stalls already had their coals hot and the morning’s first fish and other meats starting to BBQ so they’d be prepared for the first comers of the day.  We were greeted by one lady who was carrying a small baby like Carolyn.  After we said “no thank you” to the offer of some 9am BBQ fish she was interested in seeing our kids and Carol enjoyed getting to meet her little baby too.  When you travel with kids it clearly makes you more approachable because we are constantly asked about the kids and have people comment and take photos of them.  Our kids really enjoy playing with other kids, so if the people we meet in our travels have their own children of a similar age to our’s then it’s even better except that one side is usually shy at first.

We paid the fee and walked down the trail towards the falls.  On the way there you pass by a bear rescue center that houses several Asiatic black bears that were rescued from poachers who want them for their bile that is in high demand in China and Taiwan.  The bears were all just waking up.  The girls really enjoyed seeing the bears climbing around and didn’t want to leave to go see the waterfalls, but Carol and I wanted to see the falls before the crowds showed up so we only spent about 20-25 minutes watching the bears.  It was nice though because we were the people there at the fence and then standing on the platform, so there wasn’t any jostling for position to see them.  We even approached one enclosure that had a window alongside the walkway and the single bear inside came running over to us and jumper up against the glass and started pawing it furiously.  They were huge bears, like grizzlies or polars, but you’d have your hands full if one got loose and tried to come at you.  Their claws are super sharp and they’re exceptionally strong – we watched them climb straight up wooden poles, pulling their entire weight with just their arms, or would that be their legs closest to their head?  Ha!  I’m not sure what to call ’em.

Anyhow, we made our way further along the pathway and finally made it to the first section of waterfall.  The water was an amazing bluish green color.  I’m colorblind, but to me it appeared to be what I would call aquamarine.  I’ve never seen anything that color that wasn’t made from paint or on a computer screen.  It was such a beautiful color and reminded me of the amazing palette of marine colors displayed in Patagonia.

You are allowed to get into the water, but it was in the low 60’s and the water was probably even colder, so there was no chance of us testing the frigid waters.

We made our way further up the path, with the waterfalls getting more and more dramatic as you got closer to the main waterfall at the top of the path.  About three-quarters of the way up was a restaurant that was setting up to open for breakfast, but they were fine with us taking a seat and ordering a couple baguettes.  Since Laos was formerly one of the colonies that made up part of French Indochina until WWII, there is definitely some French influence in Laos, the best of which is the French culinary influence.  The breads in Laos are fantastic – as good as anything you could find in Paris.  After a couple of baguettes with strawberry jam we headed up to the main waterfall, which had a bridge spanning the stream below.  I went down below the bridge and out onto a little slippery spit of land to get some photos of Carol and the kids above, with the waterfall behind them, but by this point there were several people who had sprinted past us as we admired the lower falls and stopped for breakfast, so that they could get to the main falls to take photos without anyone in their shots.

When we turned around to walk back down the path we had been there for nearly an hour and a half (around 10:30am) and the place was starting to get busy.  During our 15 minute walk back down to the van we passed dozens and dozens of people.  We were glad we got there when we did and we hope to return one day when the weather is a little warmer so we can all get in the water.

We hopped in the van and made our way down the road just a few hundred meters before stopping at the butterfly farm.  Again we were the only van in the parking lot, and while we were there we only saw one other couple with their child.  It was nice that it wasn’t packed.  The landscaping at the butterfly park was actually more impressive than the butterflies, but the butterflies were beautiful as well.  The butterfly park entrance is down a hill from the parking lot and then from their you descend several staircases alongside waterfalls with that same blue water to the entrance of the butterfly area.  The plant, blue waterfalls, flowers and butterflies made it an absolutely gorgeous spot, and it was made even better because it wasn’t 100F with 100% humidity.  It was in the 60’s and perfect.  The people who own and run the place were actually Westerners; we met them both and they were very friendly.  The owner himself was running the ticketing booth and his wife was down inside the butterfly area.  The entrance price was too expensive, but it was nice to visit once.

After that we headed back to LP.  Carol had the driver stop a couple of times so she could hop out and get some photos of rice fields, water buffaloes and those narrow bridges.  When we got back into LP we went down to Wat Xieng Thong, down where the Nam Khan River and the Mekong River meet.  I visited it in 2009 and really liked it, so that’s why I wanted Carol to see it.  I stayed in the car though because Logan and Sebbie were both asleep.  Carol and Zoe went into the complex and checked it out.  I absolutely love the low sweeping roofs on the main Wat — it looks amazing.

After that it had been something like 5-6 hours since we left in the morning and we were ready to get back to our room since the kids were either asleep or cranky.  We decided to not have the driver wait for us outside a restaurant, so we were dropped off at our guesthouse and relaxed for the remainder of the day there.  Carol did manage to make it to the night market once again that night.  It was a wonderful day seeing some amazing natural sights in Laos – waterfalls, unbelievably blue water, bears and butterflies.  The kids all enjoyed themselves and I loved being able to spend all that time with them and Carol.

Here are the photos from February 10th, when we went out and about around Luang Prabang:

Made it back

I visited Luang Prabang, Laos alone back in September 2009 as one of the legs on my second RTW trip.  I loved the place and it that short visit to just the small town of LP pushed Laos into my top 5 places to visit.  After returning back to the US in 2009 I told Carolyn about LP and how great the place and the people were, and ever since then I’ve mentioned it dozens and dozens of times.

We’re living in Southeast Asia and our time here will be ending before we know it, and since we’ve now visited many of the places neither of us ever went to (Singapore, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Indonesia) and a few that we both enjoyed and wanted to return to (Thailand, Cambodia), it was finally time to take Carolyn to this place I’ve been telling her about for over 6 years.

Since we had an entire week of vacation we decided to also check out the capital, Vientiane, which was a very pleasant surprise as I mentioned in a previous post.  The plan was to fly from KL to Vientiane, spend 2 nights there and then fly to Luang Prabang for 4 nights before returning to Vientiane for a single night, then return to KL for 1 night and finally head home to JB on Sunday (February 14th).

We discussed taking the bus back and forth between Vientiane and LP, but two 10-12 hour trips on a bus with 3 small kids forced us to continue checking our options.  Next we decided maybe we could tolerate the bus in one direction so we’d have a chance to see some of the countryside, then fly the other direction so the journey would be quick for the kids.  In the end we flew round trip, in business class, on Lao Airlines.  I’m always a little nervous about flying flagship airlines for small countries, but the website mentioned that it was a new Airbus A320 (better than some old Soviet propeller plane that Laotian mechanics kept running somehow for the past 40 years).

In the end it was comfort that won out because the flight is 45 minutes long and business class seats on an Airbus A320 are much better than any seats on a 10-12 hour tour bus, bouncing around on rural roads.  If it were just Carol and I, without the kids, or if the kids were all 5-6 years older, we would have taken the bus because the price was a huge difference.  The bus tickets for a “luxury” bus were like $15 per person each way, so $120-$150 depending on whether or not we wanted a seat for Sebastian.  The flight was just under $800 for 4 round trip business class seats and an infant in arms ticket.  Huge difference, but so is 1.5 total hours of travel versus 20-24!

Having kids hasn’t stopped us from traveling like some people predicted, but it has definitely changed how we travel.  Finding hotel rooms for a family of 5 is difficult, we look for hotels with cribs, seating on any transport is always a question since we can’t leave any of the kids sitting alone, and we aren’t interested in taking the kids to any places that are difficult to travel in, like India, Bangladesh, or even Jakarta in Indonesia.

Anyhow, back to Laos…  On Monday, February 8th, we flew from Vientiane to Luang Prabang.  Lao Airlines even has a “lounge” on the second floor of their domestic terminal.  It’s nicer than the regular waiting area, but it ain’t in the same stratosphere as the lounges at Changi, Incheon or Detroit.  The lights were out until the lady turned them when we showed up, the seating area is a collection of some nice wooden chairs and benches, but they’re completely wooden — no cushions and uncomfortable as hell after about 3 minutes.  The air conditioning wasn’t on until we arrived and it seemed to just blow all the mosquitoes towards us (everyone but Carol ended up with multiple bites).  The best part was that the had a small cooler with some cool (not cold) drinks that were free, and they had some little snack cakes that the girls raided.

The flight was perfect.  Comfortable and quick.

The only problem we had was with our transport at the airport.  We had actually booked two separate guesthouses in Luang Prabang because we were there during Chinese New Year and several reviews (more than 10!) mentioned different guesthouses reserving rooms online but giving them to people who showed up first without any reservations.  The people with reservations would show up to full guesthouses and always would have to first argue with the people and each time they’d eventually be led to some other guesthouse that they had never looked into but that the one the reserved with would put their overflow into.  We didn’t want this to happen to us so we booked a room with 2 beds at both Soutikone 1 Guesthouse and Phounsab Guesthouse.  This wasn’t too much of a problem because the rooms were inexpensive (in the $30-50 range, per night), so the piece of mind was worth it for this family vacation…

We couldn’t have them know that we’d booked both places or else for sure one of them would likely try to give our room to someone else, so we only notified Soutikone of our arrival time in order to setup transport from the airport to the guesthouse.  I called them the night before and again in the morning before the flight, and both times they said someone would be there waiting with a signboard.  As usual, they had our name, flight number and arrival time.  When we walked into the “arrivals hall”, where you leave the secure section into the place where people wait on you, there wasn’t anyone with a signboard for us.  I double checked all the signs and we waited.  We waited for about 10 minutes and then I called and they apologized and said the driver was on his way.  They actually showed up shortly after that.  Not a big deal, especially if it were just Carol and I, but with 3 kids waiting with us it was a little annoying.

We got the the guesthouse and it was actually just a block away from the place where I had stayed back in 2009.  It felt great to be back at this place I really loved visiting by myself years ago because I could now experience this fantastic town with my wife and kids.  The Soutikone Guesthouse was ok, and again, it would have been absolutely fine for me by myself or just Carolyn and I, but the five of us were squeezed into a tiny room.  The queen bed was against one wall and on the other side of a space too narrow for our suitcase was a single bed against another wall.  The bathroom was also spartan at best.  The best part was that it was all wood and had a door that opened onto a little deck.  The door to the deck and the window beside it were open, and like Vientiane the weather was absolutely perfect – 60’s with blue skies.  I took a couple of photos of the kids and Carol and just laid there enjoying the feeling of the cool crisp air and thinking about my last visit there.

I pretty much vegged out while Carolyn and Zoe went out exploring like I’d done years before.  They walked all around, picked up dinner for everyone and brought it back to the guesthouse, then in the evening Carol took Logan to the night market and also made her way over to Phounsab and checked us in there (our second guesthouse).  Carol came back saying that Phounsab was much better than Soutikone 1 because the room was huge, it had 3 beds instead of 2, the bathroom was much larger and nicer, and instead of being on a back road it was on the main road right next to where the night market began.  All of that sounded good to me except the main road part.  I loved staying at the guesthouse on that back road the last time because there were monasteries nearby and I loved the chanting, drumming, cymbals and just being in that laid back area.  The main road is actually a busy place during the day, but it’s only a 5 minute walk from the backroad where I’d stayed before and where our smaller room was on this trip.

Besides checking us into Phounsab and going through the night market, Carol did panic a little bit when an ATM gobbled up our debit card when she tried to pull some cash.  The security guard wanted her to wait until the bank opened the following morning in order to retrieve her card, but she demanded that they come open it and she made it back to Soutikone with the card.  I called our bank and they’d actually frozen the card for “suspicious activity” even though I’ve told them no fewer than 4 times over the phone and twice in person at our local branch that we travel and I do not want them to cut it off if being used in the region.  HSBC continues to suck.  They did reactivate it and the following day we successfully pulled cash out of an ATM.

We slept at Soutikone 1, but on Tuesday morning we woke up before sunrise and Carolyn went out into the streets to watch the daily monk procession where people offer alms.  I loved this when I visited before, except for the hassle from a rice seller who tried to push me to buy rice to give the monks when I just wanted to peacefully watch the scene.  What Carolyn saw was very different than what I saw, but maybe it’s because we’re visiting at a much busier tourist time then I did before or perhaps tourism has just picked up that much in six and a half years.  Instead of locals offering alms to the monks and a handful of backpackers and tourists taking a few photos while a rice hawker harassed those backpackers to buy rice, now it was full blown tourism show that really cheapened the experience.  In the photos below you’ll see tourists lined up offering alms after paying for this “experience”, and tourists standing right beside the monks snapping photos in their faces and with flashes blasting away.  I tried to be respectful when I watched it in 2009 and Carolyn gave the monks a respectful distance and didn’t use her flash, but it really was more authentic watching the locals come give alms to their community monks instead of dozens of package tourists lining up to do it.

The good news is that the monks haven’t changed one bit.  They still go about their lives around LP, smiling, chanting, working and so on.  I hope the alms procession fiasco was only because a ton of tourists were in town for CNY vacations, not that this incredible place has changed for the worse year round.

After Jean came back to the room we packed up and moved over to Phounsab, but kept the key for Soutikone 1 in case we wanted to go there for any reason.  It was strange walking the same steps I had taken alone in 2009, but while holding hands with my girls this time.  It was a great feeling to share this place with them.  I love the little shaded lanes connecting main streets, seeing monks walking around everywhere, flowers and amazing vegetation all around, and just a peacefulness that’s hard to explain.

The room at Phounsab was far better than the other one, and we ended up staying there the next 3 nights before heading back to Vientiane.  We had a good breakfast and then went out walking around town.  We tried to check out the old Royal Palace and Haw Pha Bang, which were actually just a block or two from our new guesthouse, but it was closed for some reason and the guards chased us away when we tried to walk in the one gate we found cracked open.  Instead we visited the Wat Mai Monastery, then walked down to the road that runs alongside the Mekong River.  I had an amazing fresh fruit shake from a hawker on the main drag, but the girls decided to try the “Oreo shake”, which they loved and ended up getting a couple more times over the next few days.

In the evening (5pm) we walked over to Wat Xieng Muan, which was literally across the street from where I stayed in 2009, so that we could hear the monks drumming and banging cymbals, but for some reason that was not really clear to us they didn’t do it.  My memory isn’t perfect, but I clearly remember the drumming scared the hell out of me the first time I heard it while in bed across the street from Wat Xieng Muan in 2009.  I also remember going to Wat Xieng Muan at some point during that visit and watching the young monks banging on their huge drum and smashing cymbals for like 5 minutes straight.  My memory of that time was that they did it every single night, but for the 4 nights we spent in LP this time around we didn’t hear it at all and we even tried twice to watch it in person at Wat Xieng Muan, but we never saw them drumming.

A friendly old man had come by while we were there that evening and spoke to me and Logan briefly, but I didn’t really understand what he said about why they weren’t drumming that night.  He did tell us to come back in an hour and the monks would be doing their evening chants/prayers (around 6-6:15pm).  We did come back in an hour and the 5 of us stood by the Wat’s front door as the monks chanted.  It was mesmerizing, but I was beyond embarrassed when Zoe started clapping (loudly) at one point, causing all the monks to become so distracted that they all turned around and saw my entire family watching them and Zoe still clapping!  I swatted her head because she was sitting on the ground in front of the entrance.  In a very loud whisper told her to knock it off, but my face was red and I was really embarrassed that we had disturbed them so I moved the family away from the entrance and immediately asked Zoe why in the hell she was being disrespectful and loud.  Zobug just looked up at me with those big eyes and said “I’m so sorry daddy, I was only clapping because their chanting sounded really nice.”  I couldn’t do anything but laugh and pick her up to give her a hug and tell her I love her.

We walked back down the pathway to our hotel, where I hung out with the two little ones while Carol and Zoe hit the night market.  Fourth night in a row of night markets for Carol at that point (2 in Vientiane, 2 in LP).

Here are the photos from those first two days in Luang Prabang, which I was so happy to have returned to and which Carol and the kids were all falling in love with:

Vientiane was good from my perspective too!

The photos at the bottom of the previous blog posting were all taken by Carolyn with her new phone, and the photos at the bottom of this blog posting were all taken by me with either my DSLR or my phone.

Like I’ve already said, we didn’t have really high expectations for Vientiane, I suppose because it has some famous neighbors like Bangkok, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, so it isn’t a capital city you hear of very often.  Fortunately we decided to include it in our trip to Laos because it was actually a nice city and we really enjoyed it.

I’ve already written about our two days in Vientiane in the previous posting, but the photos below are from my perspective.  Unfortunately I didn’t join Carolyn at the night market, which she attended both nights, as it had some pretty neat things to see.  I did get some photos of everyone boarding and getting off our planes, plus some of us waiting in the Laos Airlines “Executive Lounge” at the domestic terminal in Vientiane.  It was not a very comfortable lounge because the benches were all wood without any cushions, the air was off and there were a pile of mosquitoes buzzing around and nibbling on us, but they did have some little cakes that the girls destroyed and free drinks.

Vientiane was a pleasant surprise

When I visited Laos around 7 years ago I only went to Luang Prabang, but for this trip we decided to visit Luang Prabang and the capital – Vientiane.

We flew from Kuala Lumpur to Vientiane on AirAsia, arriving in Vientiane around 9:15am.  The flight wasn’t bad at all, passing quickly.  I filled out the immigration cards during the flight, thinking it would save us some time upon arrival, but I was wrong.  When the plane stopped and everyone stood up to get their bags from the overhead compartments, Carolyn was trampled by some jackass who literally ran from about 3 rows behind us up to the front so he could be the first one off.  She was wearing sandals and he stomped on her feet.  That was a bad start…

When we got off the plane we were very surprised because it was actually cool.  Not hot and humid like everywhere else in Southeast Asia, but so cool that it was almost cold.  The wind was blowing and the temperature was actually in the mid-60’s.  We couldn’t believe it.  We were all dressed for a sauna, like the weather we have in JB, but this felt like Northern Kentucky in early February on a very sunny day.  I love the 60’s!  When it’s sunny and 65F-68F I’m in heaven — that’s my absolute favorite weather.

Unfortunately the roller coaster continued.  We went inside the terminal and quickly discovered that we had to fill out another set of papers for the visa on arrival.  Since we’re a family of 5 now it didn’t go very quickly and we went from being in the 3rd row of our plane to being within the final 15-20 people in line for our visas.  We stood in line for probably 40 minutes.  I did get some Laos Kip from an ATM and while I was in the men’s restroom I was surprised to see Logan walk right in and check out the urinal next to mine.

We finally paid our $30 (or was it $35?) per person for our visas, and had I not reminded Carol that they owed us change they appeared happy to not mention it and keep our change.  Next we went through immigration and finally to baggage claim.  We eventually made it out into the arrivals hall and our driver was waiting there with a signboard.  He picked up the van while another of our hotel’s handlers spoke with us on the curb while we waited.

We took a relatively short ride over to our hotel for the next two nights, the Salana Boutique Hotel.  The girls at the front desk were super friendly and really liked our girls.  A guy brought us some welcome drinks that were out of this world; we ended up ordering some later and found out it was fresh passion fruit juice — amazing!

We were checked in and even though we arrived well before check-in we lucked out because our room was ready.  We were led to the top floor to our Salana Suite.  The room was incredible, with a balcony that looked out over the city, all the way to the Mekong River.  We ordered room service and it was fantastic too.

The roller coaster ended and the remainder of our time in Vientiane was all good.  Really the only bad parts were the jerk who stomped Carolyn’s foot on the plane (a Westerner who sounded like an American!) and the mess surrounding the visa on arrival application process (why aren’t those forms handed out on the plane?!).

We spent basically that entire day (Saturday, February 6) relaxing since we didn’t get but a couple of hours of sleep the night before.  We played with the kids, sat on the balcony and checked out the monks on the adjacent rooftops, had some good food from room service and the best mango I’ve ever had from our room’s fruit bowl, plus Carolyn made arrangements for a city tour the following day.  February 7th was to be our only full day in Vientiane for the entire trip, so we wanted to make sure and hit the main sites.

I really can’t say enough about how great the weather was.  At night it actually got cold, like high 30’s and low 40’s cold.  I stayed in the room with the kids while Carolyn hit the night market, which started just a block or two from our hotel.

The next morning we had an exceptionally good buffet breakfast at our hotel, which is not normal for this region.  After that we all loaded into a nice van for a private tour based on an itinerary Carolyn put together for us the night before.

We had planned to visit 4 top sites but only made it to three before we decided to head back to the hotel, but the tour started at 9am and we didn’t get back to the hotel until about 2:30pm.  Nearly 6 hours of site-seeing is a long time with a 5 month old and two others below 5 years old, but the girls had a blast and so did Carol and I.  Sebastian seemed to enjoy himself, but he enjoys most things.

The first stop was Patuxai (“Pa-two-shay”), which is an Asian version of the Arc de Triomphe.  I was actually impressed by Patuxai.  The grounds were pretty well kept and the monument itself was nice, regardless of what you may hear.  We walked around and took some photos, and Carolyn even climbed the stairs with Zoe for the view from the top while I hung out below with Sebbie and Loggie.

Our second stop was to a beautiful complex of Buddhist buildings and monuments called Pha That Luang.  We all had a great time here.  The weather was fantastic, when we first got there we were basically the only foreigners in the entire complex (it got busy before we left), there were a variety of different areas and things to see, it was exceptionally peaceful, and there were several monks walking around the grounds.  The other highlight of this place was that there were a couple of vendors walking around with little bird cages that you’d pay a dollar or two for so you could release the birds for supposed good luck.  The last time I saw these was while sitting outside a bar/restaurant and having a cold beer in Bangkok, the night I met Noriko and her friend.  I still remember meeting them and what a super cool girl Noriko was, and how we got some of those little birds to release that night.  Anyhow, I got two birds for the girls but they didn’t want to be the one to reach into the cage to flush the birds out so I did the honor after they’d been sufficiently checked out by Zoe and Logan.

Noriko, if you still happen to read the blog, Carolyn and I both hope you’re doing well.  We miss you!

Our third and final stop for the day was the Buddha Park, which was actually like a 45-50 minute drive outside of Vientiane.  When we got there Carolyn stayed in the van to feed Sebastian and because Logan was asleep.  I checked out the park with Zoe.  I bought the entrance ticket (no charge for kids and only a few dollars for an adult).  Right inside the gate there was some sort of festival going on because they had a little area cordoned off for little kids to play inside of with bouncy castles and other things, several tables and a stage with some kids singing.  Of course Zoe wanted to head over there first, but I promised her we’d check it out after seeing the Buddha park right beside it.

We walked all around the Buddha park, checking out different statues and taking photos.  At one point a group of 3 young girls (maybe 16 or 17?) came up and asked if they could take a photo with me.  It seemed strange so I said “no thank you”, but in retrospect I should have because they seemed friendly (and strange).  I cannot imagine asking someone I don’t know to take a photo with me, but after traveling through India and having many people in Malaysia and Singapore ask to photo our girls, nothing should surprise me any more.

I ended up paying like $0.50 for Zoe to play in the play area for about 20-30 minutes, then I swapped with Carol.  She took Zoe and Logan to the play area for them to play around, then after a while she dropped Logan off at the van and then took Zoe back into the Buddha Park while I stayed in the van with Seb and later with Logan too.  Carolyn and Zoe climbed up to the top of this gigantic pumpkin looking structure that actual had a neat view of the Buddha Park below.

Once they finished we headed back to the hotel, had dinner and Carolyn went to the night market again, this time with Zoe.  I hung out in the room with Logan and Seb.

Here are Carolyn’s photos of our first two days in Vientiane – we loved it!

Off we go

Two weeks ago, on Friday, February 5th, I left work a little bit early because we were heading to KL to spend the night before flying out from KLIA2 early the next morning.  I wanted to hit the road as soon as possible because Monday and Tuesday (February 8th and 9th) were the Chinese New Year’s public holidays and traffic would be awful as people left to head to their hometowns for the 4 day weekend.

As soon as I got home everyone was ready to go and our two bags were already packed up, so luckily we hit the road by 4:30pm.  We made it to the Sama-Sama Hotel at the Kuala Lumpur Airport just before 9pm, which was amazing.  There was basically no jam at all, so perhaps we beat the traffic.  The lobby of the Sama-Sama was all decked out for Chinese New Year – red everywhere!  We checked in, ordered room service and hit the sack.

Carolyn and I were up at 4am to get ready for our 7:40am flight from KL to Vientiane, the capital of Laos.  By 5:15am we showered, packed and ready, so we checked out of the hotel and took a taxi to KLIA2.  We left our car in the Sama-Sama car park because if you’re a guest you can leave it there for RM20/day ($4.74).

We checked in and hiked the ridiculous 3 miles from check-in out to our gate.  KLIA2 is basically a brand new terminal for the low cost carriers, so it’s a nice place, but it is WAY too spread out.  It serious takes 45 minutes just to walk from the front door to your gate, and that’s without any line at all at immigration and the two separate security checkpoints.  It’s also clearly not finished; there are cutouts in the walls with signs that say things like “ATM” and “Charging Station”, but there’s nothing there.  They also have large areas in this brand new terminal with no lighting installed (fixtures are missing and wiring is hanging out) and the air conditioning is off (or not installed?) in several sections.  When it’s finally complete it will be a really nice place that is just too spread out, but it currently looks like they have lots of work to do to finish the project.

Here are some photos of us getting ready to leave the house, walking into the CNY themed lobby at our hotel near the KL airport, a Lego Yoda at a shop in KLIA2 and a few shots as we got settled into our seats for our flight to Laos:

A tiring “vacation”

After 30 hours of travel from Malaysia to Kentucky, then nearly a week with our little girls sick and in hospitals, followed by 1300 miles of driving, we had 4 days to run errands and enjoy vacation a little bit in Florida before heading back to Malaysia.  It was not a relaxing vacation at all, and I told Carolyn I would have preferred to have just stayed in Malaysia because it simply wasn’t worth the exhaustion and effort to cram flying halfway around the world twice together with 1300 miles into a two week span.  It’s ridiculous that we’ve now tried it twice!  We won’t be doing any more 2 week trips back to the US — the next time we come back it’ll either be for 3 weeks or for good because 2 weeks and trying to visit everyone is too much for anyone and it is painful with two little kids because it’s hard on you to have jet lag and be constantly exhausted and then your immune system gets run down and it just combines for misery.

All of the exhaustion aside, and taking away the huge cost of the hospital stays and extra hotels, we really enjoyed getting to see our families, even if it was only briefly.  I wish we could have spent longer with my grandmother in Bardstown and with my grandparents in Birmingham, and Carol was disappointed in not getting to visit with her family in Birmingham longer, but the short moments we did spend with them were priceless because it had been 6 months since we’d seen any of them.

Next time we travel to the US, if it is for a visit and not because we’re moving back, we will try to do a week in Alabama, a week in Florida and a week for travel and everything else in between.

We flew out of the airport in Ft. Lauderdale on Saturday, October 4th, in the very early morning.  We left Port St. Lucie around 3:30am…

We transferred flights in the US and then took the long one over to Beijing.  The view out the window of China was impressive, with some nice mountains, and when we began our descent into Beijing I noticed that the smog had improved dramatically – when we stopped there on the way to the US you couldn’t see further than a couple hundred meters but now you could see a few miles.  We liked our hotel on this stop in Beijing, the Hilton Beijing Wangfujing, much better than the Raffles where we’d stayed previously.

The only interesting thing about this short overnight in Beijing was that we woke up starving at about midnight and decided that instead of room service we wanted some authentic Chinese food.  We searched the internet and found a highly recommended dim sum place that stays open 24 hours, and Carol took some money and headed there on her own while I stayed at the hotel with the girls.  Carol caught a cab to Jin Ding Xuan.  She picked up several of our favorites, siew mai and xiao long bao, and came on back with a bag full.  She said the place was completely packed (at 1:30am!).  We all four ate some dim sum and then went back to bed.

The flight back to Singapore was uneventful and we arrived home late on Monday night, October 6th.

Here are a few photos from our return back to Malaysia:

Beijing sling?

I had heard over the past few years that the air quality in Beijing was horrible, and I thought it was exaggerated because I was in Beijing about 5 years ago and don’t remember it being too bad.  When we landed it was very clear that the stories were true — you could hardly see anything unless it was right in front of you.  Check out the final photo in the previous blog entry to see what Beijing looked like from our plane during landing 3:30 in the afternoon.

We landed and were happy to have arrived so we hurried off the plane and for once in our lives were the first people from our entire plane to reach immigration.  Unfortunately as we walked up to the immigration agent we realized that in our haste that we’d forgotten to pick up our stroller that we had gate-checked in Singapore.  We asked the agent if we could go back to the plane to get it and he said “no”.  He processed Logan, Zoe and Carolyn, then when it got to me it became a problem.

I ended up waiting for about 30 minutes and the agent made several phone calls and two different guys came out of nowhere and asked me questions like, “Have you ever entered on another passport?” and “When did you last visit?”.  Eventually they stamped my passport with the free 72-hour transit visa and we were able to head on through to baggage claim.  In the end we were the last ones through immigration from our entire plane…

Our luck changed at baggage claim because there was our stroller, sitting right beside the belt where our luggage was riding around.  Woohoo!  The stroller wasn’t gone.

We grabbed our stuff, managed to find an ATM and withdraw some Chinese currency, then after brushing off several very aggressive taxi touts we made our way to the bottom floor with all of our luggage piled high on a pushcart.  The line for a metered taxi was absurd.  It snaked back-and-forth like a line for a roller coaster at an amusement park.  The sign said the wait would be 1 hour.  I noticed a sign for an “executive van” so I told Carol to go check with them if there was another option.  Indeed there was, and it involved zero waiting time.  Instead of taking a single taxi for something like RMB150 ($25), which all of our luggage very well may not have fit into, we ended up getting a large minivan for RMB350 ($58).  Our hotel had wanted RMB700 ($115) to pick us up from the airport in an Audi SUV.  I think we picked the best option, medium price with no wait.  If you find yourself at the Beijing airport needing a ride into town and you don’t wish to haggle with touts or wait in a humongous line then go to the counter positioned between the two long lines that twist back-and-forth for the metered taxis – van for RMB300-400 into the city and it’ll leave immediately.

We arrived shortly afterwards at the Raffles Beijing.  The hotel is from the same group as the famous Raffles in Singapore and the E&O in Penang.  It was fancy and the staff were super friendly.  They checked us in and showed us to our room.  A while later we went down to their restaurant and ate their buffet, which was really impressive but expensive.  After dinner we decided to try a Singapore Sling.  We’ve been to Singapore dozens of times but never made it to the original Raffles Hotel to try the famous drink that one of their bartenders supposedly invented.  Instead we’d try it at one of their other hotels.  It was really good, but crazy expensive – like $18 (US) if I remember correctly.

We went to bed and found the only bad point about the Raffles; the mattresses are about as comfortable as sleeping on a slab of concrete.

One of the best points about the Raffles is their location, right in the center of Beijing.  We woke up early and walked a couple of blocks down to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.  Our girls were a big attraction and dozens of people smiled, pointed, took photos of them and touched their hair.  Just like my last trip to Bejing several years ago it was humid as hell.  We arrived at the Forbidden City shortly before it opened.  We took some photos out front with the girls and headed inside once they opened the huge doors just beside the gigantic painting of Chairman Mao.

Inside it wasn’t like my last time there.  Instead of allowing you to turn around and head back out towards Tiananmen Square you had to continue walking straight and go through the entire Forbidden City and exit out the back and take a very long path around some park.  Instead of taking 15 minutes to walk back to our hotel it took 45 minutes.  We finally got back, showered and packed, ordered room service, then caught a cab to the airport.

The security at the Beijing airport was like nothing we’ve ever experienced before.  It was VERY tight.  We were thoroughly checked many times.  While checking in our luggage they claimed to have found a lighter in one of the bags so I had to go behind the counter and help a guard search for it, but we never found it.  At a security point they sent Carolyn’s carry-on bag through the x-ray 4 separate times and dug through it after each time through, plus they made her drink the liquid in Logan’s sippy cup (I suppose they thought it may be an explosive or poison since they had her drink it instead of pouring it out).  Before boarding the plane they again made us open up our carry-on bags and searched through them again.

We finally made it on the plane and about 12 hours later we landed in Detroit!  The girls were exhausted and you can see in the final photo in the album below that they were all out cold on the flight from Detroit to Louisville.

 

The el-pent adventure was published somewhere else too

In the last blog posting I wrote about Zoe and Jean going to an elephant camp up in the mountains outside of Chiang Mai, and I also included some photographs the staff had taken of them using one of our cameras.  The following day I found out that the company had posted 70+ photos of Zoe and Jean’s visit on their Facebook page, so I downloaded all the photos and I’m posting some of them below.

Here are the photos:

We love baby el-pents

This morning Carolyn and Zoe had a mommy-daughter adventure in the mountains of Northern Thailand.  Two days ago I booked a trip for all 4 of us to go up into the mountains to an Elephant rescue so Zoe could ride, feed and bathe a baby elephant (or “el-pent” as she calls them).  The elephant ride in Bali had been a huge hit with Zoe and Chiang Mai is famous for all its elephant tours, so this was the perfect opportunity.

I chose Ran-Tong because the reviews were almost all very good, they seemed to be responsible and take better care of their elephants than others (bare back riding instead of in chairs, no bull hooks, etc), and you had a choice to skip riding the big elephants and instead care for a baby elephant for the day.  I chose the baby elephant option and the guy I exchanged emails with said that it would be fine to bring a 3 month old infant and Zoe, but after reviewing the photos of muddy trails through the jungle and waist deep bathing of 500+ pound creatures in a river we decided that one of us would stay back with Logan.  Since Carolyn has only had 4 hours without Logan in the past 3 months we decided I would watch her while Zobug and Jean went to visit with the elephants.

They left the hotel at 8:30am and got back early by 12:45pm (the trip normally lasts until 3:30pm, but we asked to end it early since 7-8 hours with children in a jungle would make for an extremely long day).  Luckily they got to do everything the tour said they would and Zoe absolutely loved it.  The first thing she said when they got back was that she wanted to watch Dumbo on the iPad.  They fed the baby elephant (3 years old) when they first got there after changing into the mahout outfits, then Zoe got to ride around on the elephant for about 20 minutes, and finally they want to a river and helped one of the mahouts bathe the elephant (Jean wouldn’t get completely in the river — I would have!).

When they got home Zoe went on and on about how dirty she was, and yes, she was filthy.  If we return to Chiang Mai again in the future once both of our daughters are at an age where they can at least hold on to a rope and respond when we talk to them, we would definitely like to do the full family version where we ride the big elephants into the river and wash them.

Carolyn really enjoyed the elephant trip, but it was a home run for Zoe.  Here are the photos of them at Ran-Tong this morning:

A late Halloween is better than no Halloween…

Carolyn ended up deciding that she didn’t want to do an all day cooking class and the half day options weren’t so appealing since you weren’t able to pick what you wanted to cook like you could when taking the all day classes.  Cooking class was a bust, but she will try again in the future because she really enjoyed the cooking class she took in Bali.

On Sunday (Nov 3) we slept in late (7:30am!), then got ready, had breakfast and proceeded to relax at the hotel for the rest of the day until about 5pm.  Chiang Mai has the following 3 main markets: (1) the Night Bazaar that we went to already that happens every single night, (2) the Saturday market that we missed and (3) the Sunday market which is supposedly the biggest and best of them all.  The Sunday market starts at 4pm and goes until midnight, and Carolyn has an insatiable thirst for shopping, so she put Logan in the papoose, hopped into the back of a little pickup truck taxi they call a “Songthaew“, and went to the market.  Everyone has different ideas about what a vacation should be; for Carol it is shopping, for me it is being away from work and completely relaxing by reading and laying around, for Zobug it is seeing animals and watching tons of Little Einsteins on the iPad, and right now for Logan it is drinking milk, sleeping and pooping — she doesn’t change her routine much for vacation.

Zoe and I hung out while Jean and Logan went to the Sunday market.  Zoe had me sing songs to her, we watched Gnomeo and Juliet, and I read some travel blogs.  Carolyn made it back to the hotel after 10pm, which gave her something like 4 hours of shopping.  She came in with a large bag of stuff and showed everything off.  Carol said the Sunday market was awesome, enormous, everyone wanted to see Logan, tons of people, and lots of different items that were nowhere to be found at the Night Bazaar.

My favorite thing Jean picked up at the Sunday market was a traditional Northern Thailand Hill Tribe outfit that she got for Zoe.  We had recently been lamenting the fact that Zoe was missing out on traditional American holidays that we enjoyed when we were kids, and since Zoe missed out on Halloween we were both excited that she was able to dress up for a little while.  We even got her a bag of “emmies” (M&M’s) to complete the experience, but it still doesn’t make up for walking around your neighborhood and going door to door trick-or-treating.

Yesterday our only excitement was moving hotels.  We left the previous one and moved to a hotel that we like better because the location is fantastic.  We’re now on the road that converts into the Night Bazaar every evening, so Carol is thrilled to be in the middle of the shopping.

Today is the elephant trip and tomorrow we fly back to KL for a night before heading to Langkawi island for a few days.

Here’s a photo of Zoe trying on the outfit Carol got for her at the Sunday market (and an abbreviated Halloween experience in Southeast Asia for our 2 year old):

Tigers followed by long necks

Today we woke up early and went downstairs for breakfast, and by 8:45am we were in a tuk-tuk and headed for Tiger Kingdom.  The ride took about 30 minutes, and even though Zobug was pumped to be back in a tuk-tuk, she was asleep by the time we got to the Tiger Kingdom.

At Tiger Kingdom you have several options, each costing a different fee.  You can pay separately to see the “smallest” tigers (2-4 months old), the “small” tigers (4-8 months), the “medium” tigers (9-12 months), or the “big cats” (13-30 months).  We were informed that for safety reasons they do not allow children into any of the cages except for the “smallest” tigers, and since we had 2 little girls with us that ruled out the others.

We paid 620 Baht ($20USD) each for Carolyn and I, and 480 Baht ($15) for Zoe — Logan was free, which was good since she slept the entire time and doesn’t even know what her own hands are…

We were brought to this open area with a low fence surrounding it, we took off our shoes, washed our hands and went into the cage area with a young man who works for the park.  Besides us the only other visitors were two young women, and they had their own “guide” too.  The large fenced in area was separated into two areas, one with the 2 month old tigers and the other side with the 4 month old tigers.  I couldn’t believe how quickly tigers grow up!  The different of 2 months is unbelievable, and by 1 year these things are no joke — they’re enormous.

We were first brought to a corner where one baby tiger was asleep and another was wearily resting underneath a table.  The one under the table growled at us while the other one slept as we all took turns petting it and taking photos of it.  The guide told us that lightly petting a tiger, as you would a domestic cat or dog, feels like you’re tickling it to the tiger and it will make it very playful or aggressive, so you’re supposed to firmly rub them.

After about 10 minutes we moved to the opposite corner where another set of 2 month old tigers were resting.  We got to pet them and take photos of them too, and the one in the back was keeping a close eye on us.  After 10 minutes with those we stepped over the small separating fence and spent the next 10-15 minutes with a 4 month old tiger that was more than double the size of the 2 month olds.  If you look at the photos below you will see a picture of me rubbing the paws of a 2 month old and they were large, but the 4 month old’s paws were almost as big as my entire hand.  The guide pushed down on the tigers paws to make his claws come out and they were impressive.

You’re only supposed to approach the tigers from behind, so as we took turns going behind the 4 month old and rubbing him the guide was keeping his attention by gently tapping him on one of his front paws with a stick.  Eventually he decided we weren’t very interesting and didn’t pose a threat so he went back to sleep and we rubbed his belly and watched as his tail whipped around us.

We finally had enough and more visitors started showing up, but we were very happy that they advertise the visits as 10-15 minutes but we spent over 30 minutes with the baby tigers!  I’m sure it was only because we were there just as they opened and there wasn’t a crowd waiting to come in behind us.

We walked around the park some to check out the other big cats.  They had 3 white tigers and one was very upset about our presence, eyeballing Zoe and growling at us the whole time.  It’s scary when you’re 10 feet away from a 350-450 pound cat that is obviously pissed off at you and the only thing between you and him is a flimsy chain link fence.  The park isn’t like normal zoos where these big cats are in pits or behind half inch iron bars, they’re behind chain link fences and you can walk right up to the fence and stick your hand in if you wanted to.

We saw one large lion, several gigantic tigers roaming around their cages, and we saw from a distance a little plastic basket with a couple 2 week old tigers in it.  I’m glad we were unable to go inside a cage with the big cats because that would be more than I could handle.  The little 2 month old growling at us made me nervous because little house cats can do some damage if they go crazy, so surely these things could be a handful if they decided to be.  We actually had to fill out paperwork before entering the park saying we wouldn’t hold them liable if we were attacked.

In the end it was a great experience that you could never do in the US, and I rank it right up there with riding out into the Pacific Ocean on a little fiberglass skiff and stopping directly above whales just off the cost of Baja.  When you are that close to these wild and amazing creatures it too far beyond the normal zoo or aquarium experience to explain.  Your heart skips a beat and you think about the “what if’s” while you’re there next to these creatures, but once it’s over you realize how incredible it was to be that near to animals like that.

When we finally got back to the tuk-tuk our driver had to look high and low for about 15 minutes for his keys that he thought he lost (they were in his fanny pack the whole time).  Next we rode to a “Long Neck Karen” village so we could see something I’ve been fascinated with since seeing National Geographic magazines with these ladies in them at my grandmother’s home 30+ years ago.  The Karen people living here in the mountains of Northern Thailand were mostly from Burma and they fled the persecution there over the past 30 years and have lived here in Thailand as political refugees since.  You may not recognize their tribal name (Karen) or know where Burma is on a map, but if you grew up in the USA in the 1970’s and 1980’s you have almost definitely seen a photo of women with brass rings around their seemingly long stretched necks.

I’ve read a little bit about them after I found out we could actually go visit one of their villages, and it sounds like their necks aren’t stretched as much as their ribs, collar bone and shoulders are smashed down and then more of the spinal column is above their shoulders and appears like a really long neck.  The Karen have traditionally done this for centuries, but not all of the Karen women do it.  The reason more are doing it today than were 30-40 years ago (percentage wise) is because it attracts more tourists who want to see them and then they can sell more of their handicrafts, which is their main source of income.

I thought it would be an awkward scene where these ladies would be sitting around listlessly passing the day while we would walk up, pay some fee and take their photos.  It was different and much better.  The area is actually setup so that these women can sell their handmade (and some not so handmade) crafts to earn money for their families, and there is a long path through the jungle with little shacks on either side for these women to work from.  I suppose they live nearby and travel there each day like anyone would travel to a store for work each day.  The difference is that while their crafts were nice, the main attraction is to see the long necks.  Maybe it is exploiting the women, but at the same time it provides a much larger customer base than most people in the region would have access to for selling their goods, so they certainly have advantages.

Almost all of the ladies loved Zoe’s hair and commented on it, and one lady with a 1 month of baby asked about Logan and we talked briefly to her about our kids and her’s.  I really liked watching Zoe interact with the youngest retailers.  Some little girls were working in the shops alone and they couldn’t have been more than 6 or 7, and each one would greet Zoe with a “hi!” and after Zoe would waive at them and return the greeting they would smile at each other and walk up to each other and stare for a minute before carrying on with whatever they were doing.  Zoe wanted to pick up every single item they were selling so I spent a lot of time snatching stuff out of her hands and putting it back.

I was impressed by how well some of them knew English, particularly one Akha woman whom we purchased a colorful handmade table cloth from (her mother made it over several months).  She had a lovely traditional Akha hat on that her mother had made her and she couldn’t have been more friendly.  Some of the older ladies had obviously been doing this for a while and they pretended to cry when we’d walk away from their booths, and one younger lady stuck her tongue out at a group of Chinese folks who were really trying to get a ridiculously low price from her on some items.

We enjoyed visiting the Karen village and seeing these unique women (and girls) that we’d marveled at in National Geographic decades ago, but after an hour there we’d had enough and were ready to head off.  We found our tuk-tuk driver and asked him to take us to the elephant place but he balked at that and wanted more money so we told him just to take us back to the hotel.  The ride back took around 45 minutes.

Once we got back Carol fed Logie and we ordered some Mexican delivery for lunch – it was actually pretty good.  Right now the girls are all asleep as I’m writing this blog.  Tomorrow Jean will take a cooking class (maybe) and we still want to hit the elephant place, but there are some temples we’d like to see too.

Here are the photos from today:

Tuk-tuk’n around Chiang Mai

Tonight was a milestone for our girls – they’ve both now been on their first tuk-tuk ride.  Carolyn and I have ridden around in tuk-tuk’s in Thailand, Cambodia, Peru and India, and we’ve enjoyed them quite a bit.  Tonight we tried to take a taxi to the Night Bazaar but after the front desk of our hotel called for a couple of taxis and they were all busy we decided to go with a tuk-tuk since they’re everywhere.

When the tuk-tuk pulled out Zoe jumped right in while she was yelling “get in!”.  We started laughing and I tried to take 2 photos but they both came out really poorly.  As we started to get in on either side of Zobug she screamed “I like ick!”.  Zoe uses “ick” for “it”.  As we sputtered away Zoe put both of her arms up over her head like she was on a roller coaster and yelled “yeaaaa!”.

We ended up walking down one side of the Night Bazaar and then back up the other, and we went into several of the shopping arcades off to each side down narrow alleyways.  Carol bought a large bag full of stuff, like a tuk-tuk t-shirt for Zoe, some hand carved soap bars that were shaped and painted to look like flowers and put into wooden bowls (I liked the lotus’, Jean preferred the roses), and a few other knick-knacks.

Once the sidewalks filled up with people and it was hard to push your way through we decided we’d had enough — actually I decided I’d had enough because we’d been there for well over an hour and trying to hold Zoe’s hand was getting difficult as I pushed through crammed sidewalks full of tourists and vendors.  Carolyn would have continued on for hours if I’d been willing (or gone back to the hotel without her).

We caught another tuk-tuk and went back to the hotel.  When we arrived back at the hotel the guy gave me a good offer on a private tour tomorrow, so we’re meeting him at 8:30am to go pet tigers, ride elephants and see some women with really long necks.  We will be taking a tuk-tuk around to all those places, so hopefully Zoe will still enjoy it tomorrow.

Here are some photos I took tonight (I wish the ones of Zobug going nuts in the tuk-tuk had come out better):

Up early for the flight to Northern Thailand

We didn’t go to sleep last night until almost midnight, then we got up at 4am for our trek to Chiang Mai.  We left the hotel around 5:15am and drove the hour and 20 minutes south to the Kuala Lumpur International Airport.  We went to the LCC Terminal (“Low Cost Carrier”) because we were flying with AirAsia.  We had some trouble finding our way into the parking lot at first, but eventually we got it.

The LCC Terminal of the KLIA is pretty run down.  Lots of alfresco shops, tons of people pushing around carts stacked way too high with junk they’re taking to some other place in the region, no air conditioning, everything could use a coat of paint, and in general it just looks dumpy.  We had to clear through security to get to the check-in desk, then we had to leave the secure area to go to another place where we waited for 45 minutes before they opened up the International gates.  We went through a brief security check, then cleared immigration, then a final security checkpoint.  After that we were finally at the gate.  I went to a duty free shop to make a few purchases for our vacation – scotch and some chocolate!

We boarded the plane around 8:30am and took off at 8:55am.  Zoe was an angel for the flight, which was almost 3 hours long.  She hopped into my lap several times to look out of the window because she like airplanes and flying, and the rest of the time she watched shows on the iPad, ate snacks and kissed Logan’s hands and feet.  Logan slept the entire flight up until the final 15 minutes, then she woke up screaming.  She cried and yelled for about 10 minutes – stopping just as the landing gear was going down.

We took our time clearing immigration in Thailand, picking up our luggage and getting some Thai Baht (30Baht = 1USD) before we met up with the guy who was holding a sign with our name on it.  The worst part of the trip, other than getting up ridiculously early, was that while we were in line to clear through Thai immigration Logan dropped the motherload of poops.  It was unbelievably stinky and could surely be detected from 15 feet away.  We had nowhere to go, so we wrapped her up in a blanket to keep it from spilling out of the diaper, and we waited until our turn and cleared through.  Carol and Logan ran straight to the restroom once we got into the next room where the baggage claim was; Zoe and I picked up our luggage.

The guy who picked us up had some cold bottled water for us and took us to our hotel.  We hadn’t eaten breakfast or lunch and it was around 1pm Malay time when we got into our room, so Jean fed Logan and we ordered room service (pad thai, fried rice, fried bread, some Singhas, etc).  After that we took a long nap to catch up on the sleep we missed by getting only 4 hours last night.

We’re up now and we’re getting ready to head out to the Night Bazaar to do a little shopping and take in the relaxed atmosphere or Chian Mai!

Here’s some photos from today and last night when Zoe and I went out to get some photos of Flat Sasha in KL.  By the way, I thought Zoe was going to get me arrested when she walked underneath the rope around a Deepavali exhibit in front of the Pavilion Mall last night and started shifting the colored rice design with her feet!  A security guard yelled at me…).