Sunday, March 27, 2011

Laos first impression

I'm in my second country!!!
Yea, I made it to Laos! This country was the one I was most excited for, and now I'm here. Yippee!!

After crossing the border at Huay Xai into Laos, I hopped onto the slow boat from Huay Xai to Pak Beng to Luang Prabang. This slow boat traveled down the Mekong River from Huay Xai. The boat carried about 100 people and the first day we traveled for about 6 hours down the river through beautiful scenery. Lush mountain sides that were snaked through by the river, nice sandy beaches on the river, limestone like formations creating large sharp stark mountains. And the occasional Elephant, family having a picnic, or small village along the river. We stayed in Pak Beng that night (I split a room with 2 British girls, and we only paid $1.50 each!). The next morning the adventure down the river continued...for 8 more hours. Well this being the second day on a boat, we had to find ways to entertain ourselves, cards, silly games, reading, chatting, eating, drinking, and the best of all...watermelon bowling down the aisles!
The scenery continued to be amazing, but we finally arrived to the city of Luang Prabang at about 5 pm. This is the second biggest city in Laos, with a total population of 100,000. Yea! The total population of Laos is between 6 and 7 million only (San Diego has 1.3 million) In other words, Laos may big big on the map, but the population is few and far between.
This town was once colonized by the French during Laos' complicated and fairly recent history in world politics. So Luang Prabang has this leftover influence from the French, that makes for a really cool setting. French like architecture mixed with Laos architecture. Crepes being sold on the streets. Wine. Curbside cafes. Tucked maze-like alleyways. The signs have subtitles in French, and the Laos ladies address me as Madame.
What a nice little town. I planted myself there for about 5 days, and they floated by.
You could hike to the top of a hill in the middle of town that had a Wat and a great view of Luang Prabang below. You could see the Mekong and the other river Nam Rah, as well as the small city laid out before you. What a place for a sunset!
One of the days I challenged myself by taking a Laos cooking class. Now ask anybody that knows me, and I'm not like my Mom or Maija or my Grandma...I'm not a cook! I can do little things (I make a mean spaghetti and boiled egg, and prepare yourself for my expertly made microwave burrito), but this seemed like a good way to challenge myself.
So the Laos cooking class was all day. We started by taking a trip through the local market which is pretty large and offers everything from raw meat, to batteries, to 10 lb. bags of tobacco. We picked up vegetables, spices, and a few other ingredients. Once back at the school, we started by making the famous Luang Prabang salad which is based around their particular style of sauce, yummy! Okay I can make a salad, you can't burn that, you can't deform it too much...phew safe. But then I had to start cooking things :- /  I burnt the first dish, which if I remeber correctly was a meat and vegetable dish with noodles, those noodles got burnt in the wok. Oops. At least I was the only one who had to eat it. Then, we were shown how to make 5 traditional dishes, and then had to choose three to make ourselves.  So I moved on with a smile and made three dishes that turned out pretty darn well if I do say so myself. I made a fried eggplant, vegetable and pork dish. Also a chicken curry, and lastly another pork vegetable noodle dish. It was a fun day, and I enjoyed the other two people in the class. I'm very glad I did something different and something challenging, I liked it so much, I think I'll take a cooking class in each country I go to in Southeast Asia. The cuisine, and culture for that matter, is so different in all of them.

The next day I spent going to the waterfalls outside of town (a little more in my realm of familiarity). These were amazing sights to see. The waterfall park included a bear refugee, Laos having 2 of the 7 species of bear in the world. These bears were cute to watch playing around with eachother, smacking each other in the face and hanging around in hammocks- kinda reminded me of me and my brother. The I hiked up to the waterfalls. :-O Wow!!! The waterfalls were set in the Laos jungle and the color of the water was spectacular, a crystal clear blue that reminded me of the Caribbean. There was the main waterfall but also tons of smaller sets of falls up and down the river from that, some meant for swimming, others for gazing, and others had rope swings to jump into the water.  I hiked to the top of the waterfalls (which to compare were somewhat similar to Cedar falls in the shape) and was treated to a beautiful view of the valley and jungle. I was able track down a set of pools off the beaten track and had them all to myself to take a swim and read and enjoy the views. Gorgeous. Simply gorgeous.
Another enjoyable thing about Luang Prabang was the Hmong night market, seemingly endless rows of stands selling clothes, knick knacks, silver, and all sorts of other pretty things to feast your eyes on and get your inner-hippie going. At the end of the market was what I dubbed the food alley, and ate here every night. You walked down the crammed alley full of fried chicken and meat, questionably looking floating meat dishes, and a buffet. For 10,000 Kip (just over 1 USD) you buy a plate and get to put however much you can fit of the delicious Lao food and take a seat among people you don't know and have a feast!! I was happily in food heaven (especially since I knew how to make some of those dishes.)
I really really enjoyed Luang Prabang and won't feel guilty if I stop by there again for another couple of days ;-p

But, I've moved up north. I took a minibus from Luang Prabang to Luang Nam Tha. The ride here I just had to mark on my scale. I've created a scale while traveling that pertains to bus rides or other forms of transportation. Known as the "Sport Bra Worthiness" scale. It ranges from 1 being a nice smooth ride in a luxury like bus where you could practically sleep the entire time (and wear a regular bra) to 5 being you need a sports bra, don't bother eating before you go, better not have to pee, you'll bounce 6 inches out of your seat and sleep...well you shoulda done that before! For my 8 hour journey from Luang Prabang to Luang Nam rated a 4.5 on the SBW scale. Laos doesn't put much money into their roads...

But I'm hear, and a little soarer in the tailbone for the worse, but not too bad. So off to explore some more...

Feel free to comment on the blog and say HI! I'd love to hear from people :-) Life is good. 

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The end of Thailand (for now...)

Well I've left the town of Mae Sot, and I was sad to see it go, especially the kids I grew so much to like in the past two weeks. I will miss that town. But I feel I left it in good hands because a new batch of teachers came in that will be staying for 2 months. I spent the last  couple of days wrapping things up and saying good bye to friends that I had met and spent time with in Mae Sot. 
Another reason for me leaving is that my Visa is up March 20th for I've got to boogy out of the country. And even though you may put the dots together and ask 'Why do you have to leave if you are on a border town with Burma?' Good question...well because of recent issues with the Thai and Burmese at this particular border town, as well as the elections in Burma, this border has been closed since July. 
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Mae Sot, and it reminds me to keep my ears open for more volunteer positions. I have found them to be the most rewarding memories and connections you make while traveling. Whether it is with the foreigners you meet doing similar things, or with the local people you interact with while trying to complete something.  
Me with one of my classes. :-)

So I head north on the twisty and windy roads toward Mae Sariang and Mae Hong Son ( I know pronunciation is tough, but you get it while you are here) I went by sungtao, the name for a pickup truck with a fancy bench set-up in the bed of the truck. least they are good for some fresh air...and some rain to the face. 

On my way out of Mae Sot on an absolutely beautiful ride through the northern jungle and mountains of started to rain. I didn't know at the time that this would be the beginning of 4 days straight of rain...had I known, I would of, well I wouldn't of done anything...maybe bought a scarf!! BBrrrr....Cold for the first time in Thailand. I stopped after an awesome sungtao ride in Mae Sariang and stayed the night there. I was treated in luxury with delicious green curry with chicken, yummy coffee, the sounds of rain, red silk sheets (:-O gasp!) as well as a TV!!!!!!  
Out of all those things, let whichever you want amaze you or catch your interest...whether some yummy curry sounds good to you, or the red silky sheets sound sultry, or perhaps you are interested in what I watched on TV. If not, i'm going to tell you anyways, so get over it and read on !!
When flipping through the channels of Thai TV we were confronted with the following choices...
  • News about the unfortunate Japan earthquake (in Thai, so not as informative as you think)
  • Thai 'MTV' with the newest and greatest Thai-pop
  • Ten Things I Hate about you II  (yes there is a second one!)
  • Raising woodstock (questionable)
  • Australian hippie shows
  • A live video cam of random coffee shops (no acting no sound, just the video camera recording customers, and the occasional water spill or security gaurd)
  • And just when you thought there wasn't any more, the winner! A 24 hour LIVE video cam of a zoo PANDA!!!!! Yes the station shows 24/7 a video camera of a Panda. FYI since we watched some, Pandas don't do much at all but sleep sleep and walk around. Boring, but there is a TV channel showing it 24/7- only in Asia!!
From Mae Sariang, I headed to Mae Hong Son. I had run into one of my students from Mae Sot school at the bus station and we made the trip together. And yes, it was still raining. Mae Hong Son was a nice mountain town surrounding a small lake/pond with Burmese/Shan influence showing in their Wats (remember a Wat is a temple) I couldn't see much because it was torrentially downpouring all day, but Brad sent me some handy information about that particular town, sweet that he is. There are many hillside tribal communities around there, including the Longneck tribes. They are famous for their necks being abnormally long, it is because they were the coils on the neck and each year they add a coil, extending their neck even further. I had a girl in my school at Mae Sot who did this for part of her childhood and did have a longer than normal neck. I only spent a day there and moved on, in hopes of escaping the rain. 

Mae Hong Song and the lake. In the back Burmese Shan tribe temples

I moved onto Pai, the hippy village of the North. The town name is pronounced Pie or Pi and it is pretty hippy-ed out. By that I mean there are places to get dreadlocks done all around, people with dreads all around, hippy people, laid back atmosphere and full of things for foreigners to do when they cross long distances to be with other foreigners. An interesting place to walk around. But the real beauty was surrounding.I met a friend and we rented motorbikes (100 Baht for 24 hours (approx. 3 dollars- then add in gas)). First stop of the day was at  Mor Paeng waterfall a couple of kilometers outside of town.  A pleasant little waterfall that looked strickingly similar to Three Sisters in the San Diego county area near Julian. From there, after a strong (and possibly spiked) jug of coffee at this local hippy Thai place... we headed to a hillside Wat (temple) that overlooked the beautiful valley of Pai. An interesting thing that struck me is how brown the landscape is. Because it is March, and this month along with April and May are the Hot and dry seasons in most of SE Asia. There isn't the lush tropical forest you think of when you think of least no this time of year. After the hillside temple, we headed to the Pai Hotsprings, but were met with a pleasant roadside surprise...ELEPHANTS!!! 
There was an elephant training camp or elephant refugee place on the road and right there were two amazing elephants, Mai and Po. I was able to touch the elephants and everything. They are amazing creatures when you get up close. Videos and seeing them from afar at the Zoo doesn't do these animals justice. Just remarkable really! Their skin so rough yet soft and their huge trunks you can hug. And they love to get their ears rubbed. I can't really describe it much better than I was jaw-dropped and lost track of time just looking and touching these animals. The day's (and possibly a trip) top so far! We continued on to the Pai Hot springs and enjoyed a soak in the pools for a $2.50 (i know you are jealous) . Finishing off the day riding around at sunset through the hills and valleys and rivers of the countryside and headed to Pai Canyon. A cool little scene for a beautiful sunset. 
I was QUITE the day indeed!!! 

Can you say Classy Red Scooter!?!

A pretty roadside cafe
Waxing never seemed so enticing

As of now, I'm on a break from the bus headed to Laos. By tomorrow morning (my time) I'll be in Laos, my second country of SouthEast Asia. Until then, life is definitely good.  

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Min Ma Haw

Min Ma Haw, post-10 school for Burmese refugees. My school.

The homework question was...

"If you had a cap of invisibility (like the one from Perseus and Medusa greek mythology), what would you do and why?"

Well, I imagine if you were to ask any class of teenagers in the US or other countries what they would do, you'd receive answers like, sneek into the girls locker room to the showers. Or sneek out every night to party with my friends. Or break in to a bank and get rich.

Well if you had a cap of invisibility, what would you do?
I didn't have an answer, but was pretty stunned by the answers my students presented. My students who are 16-22...

When my Min Ma Haw students read their individual answers aloud to class this morning, the answers seemed to range in a similar style, but definitely differed.
Their answers included

- "Return to Burma and sneek into prison and free all the political prisoners"
   Recent counts on the amount of political prisoners range very high, and most are imprisoned for no reason at all. Others for being pro-democracy. Others for simply standing against the Junta. I believe this website is based here in Mae Sot, an association to help the thousands of political prisoners ( I met a man last night who wrote a book I have, he was imprisoned for 17 years, many of those years spent in solitary confinement, and the others in torturous conditions.

- " I would return to Burma to see my girlfriend, even though she is in love with another man, I will go back because she is the love of my life and to steal her back and be with her"

- A handful of the young students said "They would sneak into the government/parliament and kill the head general of Burma and the members" in order to do the bad things to them that they've done to us.

- "I would sneak into a bank and rob it, and give the money to all the poor families"

- "I would travel around the world" These Burmese students have very few options of where they can go. They can't legally move around Mae Sot, a small city. If they are caught, even here in Mae Sot, they are sent back to Burma. The LAST PLACE in theworld they want to be. They can be in dangerous Burma, under risk of death, slavery, rape, beating, and fleeing, or they can stay here in Mae Sot. It is very unlikely these kids will see past Mae Sot in their life, unless Burma's regime ends.

- "I would go to the beach to see the sunset"  A novel concept, to someone who has never seen the beach.

There were other just as meaningul answers that kinda left me jaw-dropped. I couldn't believe that these kids, so young could have such a passion to change things, to do such good. I have a lot of respect for these kids,and hope that someday they can get their hands on such an 'invisibility cap' and do all the great things they want to...the world would be a better place.


Many of the issues are very hush hush in Mae Sot. Also, it is known that there are Burmese spies here looking for certain key individuals that have fleed and are attempting to start an uprising from Thailand. Don't worry people at home, foreigners are not in danger (including me- don't worry!) Everyday I meet somebody doing something interesting. A lot of NGO workers, or journalists, or aid workers are here. Yesterday I talked to a guy from Spain, a journalist staying here for 2 years. He is focusing on Burmese migrant workers and the horrible conditions they are put under because they are illegal.

I'm keeping my heart, ears, and eyes open still. I'm only sharing partsof everything that comes up, i know there is so much more but I can't rememberit all to write it down. I want to learn more. The situation is complicated and intricate, and what I learn here only seems to be a piece of the puzzle.

One of the most prominent helpers in Mae Sot- The Best Friend Library ( )

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Burmese

Hello again,

So i've migrated a lil west of where I was. I'm now located in Mae Sot, Thailand. If you look on the left hand side of the map, you'll see Mae Sot is located just on the Burma border, but still in Thailand. There isn't much Thailand about this town, actually the population is 70 % Burmese, and 20% Thailand,  and the 10 % I dunno, stray dogs. This border town is mainly a refugee for Burmese fleeing from the military ('junta') run country of Burma. Now I wasn't too aware of the Burmese conflict that has been going on for soemthing like 40 years now, just as I imagine most of Americans aren't aware of it. But the junta government has consistenly been abusing human and civil rights in their country. Killing Burmese in their own village, causing them to flee, guilty of murder, rape, and violation. It isn't a pretty picture, much like Colombia before or even the Egyptian and Tunisian affairs right now. A country on the brink of civil war. Well i'm not the most of current affairs, but i can tell you what I've seen here and what i've heard.

What that all means for Thailand is Refugees. Mae Sot alone has 2 very large refugee camps here. Full of Burmese tribal people forced to flee their country, but Thailand won't recognize many of their rights and they can't really leave the camp. The others that are here in Mae Sot, not in a refugee camp are here illegally. Strange thing is the Thai police know that 70% they are dealing with Burmese, and don't even speak Thai, but it is in a way 'accepted' just looked over. So what that creates is a very interesting town full of Burmese food, culture, and people. A more conservative culture than Thailand. 
That also means there needs to be education and some employement in places like factories. If they don't create some kind of situation for them, they end on the trashy sid eof things. Literally. A few days ago, I took a trip with a friend I have met here. We took a bike ride out to the 'Rubbage dump.' I've never been to a trash dump, only just seem from afar or saw in pics in school or on a news real. But this wasn't a news reel, when I arrived, I saw something quite shocking to say the least. Karen people, a tribe of Burma, are living in and around the rubbage dump. They live on top of, next to, or below the huge mountain of trash. Their reason, to collect plastic that gets disposed there. Once collected a Kilo of plastic, they can collect from the recycling plant 3 Baht ~ about 9 cents. 
Collecting trash. I've never seen so many flies in my life, or wanted to hurl at the smell. 
It was a sad sight to see and one of the more uncomfortably surreal things i've ever seen. I still haven't quite digested it. 

But in my attempts to help the situation here, I was able to track down a volunteer position. I'm volunteering for 2 weeks (as long as my visa will allow for now) at the MeeMaHaw Post 10 school for Burmese Refugees. I'm teaching English reading and grammar to a handful of kids. I've only just started this week, but I hope that somehow it will help this whole depressing situation. This is the foot in for a Burmese person being able to apply for a Thai University to continue studying English. This is an intensive preparation course for them. They are very sweet and always smiling. A large portion of them older than me, but still manage to be young at heart and easy to laugh. They make me smile and laugh too. Which I guess is all either of us can as for. I will certainly be a meaningful purpose. 

Not to mention, Mae Sot is full of volunteers and informative events and things on Burma and the situation. So in keeping my eyes, ears mind and heart open- maybe I"ll be able to grasp something on why things like this happen in the world.