Climbing Christmas Continued!

Christmas!
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We do a white elephant gift exchange with our buddies and convince the guesthouse to let us put their tree in the dorm room. So festive! We spend the day tubing down the Nam Song river. It was great fun, but I have no photos because MY Chanukkah gift was a brand new camera and I can’t risk getting it wet! Solace yourselves with this awesome photo of me leading a 6B.

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We head back to our favorite climbing locale and have just as much fun the second time.

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Sleeping Wall

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C leading “I like it tight.”

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J “Living on The Edge.”

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Lots of love, and a happy new year!!
Love C&J

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In love with Laos.

Photos from the last two weeks in Laos!
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We spend our first night at Daauw Home, a nonprofit supporting a local women’s group. They had no rooms available, so we slept in a tent tucked sort of behind and underneath one of the bungalows. Laos!  The next morning, we wake up early and head down to the riverbank, buy tickets, and hop on a slow boat, ready to go. Three hours later, off we go! Laos!

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Oh my goodness, let me tell you about our slow boat ride down the Mekong River. This boat is packed with 70-100 people, mostly sitting on wooden benches or what seem to be seats from minivans, neither of which are actually attached to anything. Some sit on the roof or the floor. We nab a seat and spend a lot of time reading, gazing at the scenery, and. . .

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Happy Chanukkah, J!! Behold, the Pineapple! First on the docket, twinkle twinkle, the pink panther theme song, all of me, and 5 years time. Feliz Navidad proved a bit difficult. . .

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After the two most pleasant days of travelling I’ve ever experienced, we arrive in Luang Prabang. The entire city is a designated UNESCO world heritage site, and is packed with pleasant tree-lined alleyways, red and gold temples, and French-style architecture.

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It’s also the home of the Hmong night market, which provided us with a grand opportunity for Christmas shopping, as well as brushing up on our haggling skills.

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We visit some temples, walk some streets, and chat with some monks. We also befriend some other travellers and, after so much time as a duo, we discover the joys of group travelling – instant volleyball teams and group rates! We rent out a minibus and head south for Christmas in Vang Vieng!

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We spend the next four days cavorting in the majestic landscape and being far more active than we’re used to. Fist off, renting bikes! They are the shittiest bikes I’ve ever ridden, but off we go 7km to Tham Phou Kham!

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Phou Kham Cave. Followed by a dip in the Blue Lagoon, which featured some jumping off of trees with locals in jeans. And then, the real reason we’re all in Vang Vieng, Rock Climbing!!!

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We rent some gear, hop a tuk-tuk, and are ferried across the river by an elderly gentleman who later shows us a path through the jungle to get to the wall. We find a cool fissure in the rocks, which turns into a cooler fissure with bolts, which becomes a pitch-dark tunnel a meter tall, which opens into. . . BAM! Secret Canyon, the coolest climbing site ever. SO Secret. The group is mixed levels, but we work our way through a series of 5s and 6s and have a phenomenal day.

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To be continued!
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Chiang Mai and Pai!

Chiang Mai was fun. How much fun, you ask? This much fun:

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Lots of awesome markets. Lots of moats. Lots of wats (temples).  How many temples, you ask? One afternoon, we played a game – while strolling down the street, hold your breath. You are only allowed to breathe when you can see the next wat. And we didn’t die. We didn’t even get light headed. That many temples. Some are glitzy.

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Some are old.

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These spikes protect the temple from falling spirits.

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Other things we discovered in Chiang Mai: Sidewalk laundry.

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Steam bun stores.

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Another whole new sport!! This one is sort of like tag meets red rover, but with tackling. Team A sends a single player across to Team B’s side, where everyone is in pairs holding hands. This player must tag someone on Team B, then retreat back to his own side. Once a member of their team is tagged, any member of Team B can tackle or otherwise stop the player from retreating. If player A is tackled, he is out for the round. If he is successful, the tagged player from Team B is out. A popular move is to tag with a foot, by kicking. This can, and does, backfire when the tagged player grabs your foot and you end up on your head.

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Alas, we didn’t do much else in Chiang Mai because J and I each had a bout with Thaiarrhea and spent some QT curled up in our guesthouse, not moving much. Traveller’s badge of honor – didn’t regret that street food for a second. On to Pai!

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Pai is beautiful. It was cold at night. Its a little hippie haven full of artists nestled into rice fields and lush jungled hills. So friggin pleasant. How pleasant, you ask? This pleasant:

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Our guesthouse looked like this. Our neighbor looked like this:

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Harvesting rice. The stalks are cut and brought to a central bowl, then beat against the edge of the bowl until the grains fall off. It’s super labor intensive and also pretty bucolic.

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There’s a market pretty catered to hippie buying power and we discover more new and delicious street foods. Sadly, our visa was about to expire, so we had to say goodbye. Three buses later, we ferried our way out of Thailand and into Laos.

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Farewell Thailand! (Sunset over Thai hills as seen from across the Mekong, on our patio in Huay Xia)

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Hello, Laos!

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Mr. Jungle Trek!

We’ve just returned from a three-day trek into the jungle of Northern Thailand and oh my goodness, it was worth the splurge. We had heard a lot of bad things about treks like this – mistreated, underfed elephants giving tourists rides up and down strips of concrete, Hill Tribe villages turned into human zoos with women paid to wear neck rings so that the tourists can take their photos, and more. Yet we stumbled upon a trek which promised a more natural route – less touristed and more actual living in the jungle, and decided to go for it.

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Thai elephants used to be work animals for the logging industry. When logging was banned in the 1990s, a huge number of elephants were suddenly left purposeless. Wild elephants in Thailand are heavily protected, but working animals are thoroughly domesticated and not included in any legislation. Many have found their way into the tourism industry giving rides to farangs, often facing terrible living conditions. However, (something I had not considered) with their trained profession banned, these elephants don’t have any place in Thai society at all and without the tourists, might actually be worse off. The best thing to do is support businesses and organizations that treat their animals well.

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Knowing this, we began our trek with a long bumpy songtheaw ride to a small family operation with five healthy-looking elephants, arriving right at bath-time! The elephants were having a ball rolling around in the river with the handlers climbing all over them splashing and washing. Afterwards, we met them before climbing up a mounting platform and going for a ride! We were given bunches of bananas as “elephant fuel” and were taken up and down a jagged path through the jungle. And you guys, the hype is true. Riding an elephant is so cool. They are friendly and massively huge and feel like dinosaurs.

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(C discovers the most comfortable way to ride an elephant. Don’t knock it til you try it.)

After climbing off and saying goodbye, we had lunch and then took off walking. Nice pathways through forested hills quickly turned into scrambling through jungle along a small stream bed and everyone ended the day wet and muddy. Hell yes.

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We swung on vines, Tarzan-style, and tried to keep close to our guide, Den, in order to hear his running commentary about different plants and trees and their uses. If ever stuck in a southeast Asian jungle, we could totally make tea, roll cigarettes, find drinkable water, make good torches, spice our food, and make eating utensils. Survivors! We are also given slingshots, which J takes to instantly and spends the rest of the trip with pockets full of small stones and nuts for ammo.

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We spend the first night in a raised bamboo hut in a jungle clearing with a beautiful view. As a group, we cook up some delicious green curry and spicy basil chicken with entire handfuls of garlic and hot pepper.

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Day two involves a long day of hiking through some breathtaking scenery with a stop for lunch beside a small stream. In addition to our noodles, we roast over the fire some crabs J helped to pull from the stream and a large spider we’d come a cross en route.

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At the end of the day, we find ourselves meandering through rice patties and around water buffalo to a tiny Karen Hill Tribe village, where we spend the night. None of our hosts speak a word of either English or Thai, but we are fed a delicious meal of pumpkin curry, rice from the fields, and a delicious stir-fried mystery green we had trouble translating enough to identify. Later in the evening, Den gives us a talk about the Hill Tribe culture and later we are joined by our host for a song session around the fire – classic Bob Marley and Christmas carols in multiple languages at once with a guitar accompaniment. The stars are unbelievable, and the altitude makes the night brisk and chilly.

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In the morning, we are awoken by the roosters before the break of dawn. The village is alive with animals – dogs, chickens, buffalo and pigs all wandering around freely. Usually there are five families here, we are told, but since the harvest is done, many move temporarily to other nearby villages to work. The kids aged 5-12 attend school 15km away, and thus stay for the week and return on weekends. Thus the usually tiny village is reduced to just a handful of people and one small toddler. The family wears traditional clothing – thick woven wrap skirts and embroidered blouses which struck us as much more Burmese in style than Thai – with the occasional western T-shirt or plastic sandals. They have a special house just for rice storage.

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After a quick breakfast we hike off for the final leg of our trek – a few hours of walking, then maneuvering our way downriver on long bamboo rafts! It’s a bit tricky. We float past farms and homes with docks jutting out and laundry strung from trees. The lack of other tourists is cemented when we float past a couple of bloated dog carcasses washed up on the banks. . .

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Our final stop is a beautiful waterfall where we play and jump from the rocks into the refreshingly “chilly” pool below. We all nod off on the long ride back to Chiang Mai, which is probably very dangerous, as there were 11 people in the songtheaw for 8 and some of us were seated dangling off the back end. A great end to a great trip, made all the better by the new buddies we’ve made – an awesome French Canadian couple fresh off a working holiday in Australia who’ve given us some great inspiration for our plans this spring. We hope to meet up with them again in Laos.

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We’ve spent the last few days in Chiang Mai, but have done shockingly little exploring due to various stomach ailments which have led to lots of lying around the guesthouse drinking coconut milk and eating rice. We have done just enough wandering and exploring to get a taste of Chiang Mai.  It is a beautiful city, with lots of tiny little tree-lined alleyways and sois opening up into huge markets (super intense sensory overload) and wats (same same).
A few closing photos:

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C making friends!!

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J hiking with bamboo (which we later made into some pretty awesome cups and chopsticks).

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Lots of love!
C and J

Thailand. Things that happen here.

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As we accustom ourselves to the Thai pace of life (something right up our alley, it seems), it is necessary to introduce our loyal followers to the things which are normal here. We’ll start with the basics: shoes off inside. This sometimes includes stores, like this 7-11 knock-off, 7-day.
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Thai restaurants. They’re everywhere. This includes people’s driveways, front porches, living rooms and motorbikes. Whether making noodle soup, pad thai, and barbecued unidentified meats and fishes or something more complicated with lengthy menu options, food service needs no brick and mortar. In lieu of disposable dishes, many foods are served in small plastic bags, sometimes wth toothpicks for spearing. This includes soups, beverages, salads, and noodles alike.
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Motorbikes. They are everywhere and used for everything, from carrying your family of 5 to your mobile restaurant to stacked coops of chickens. Walking through the market one day, we saw a motorbike causing a stir trying to get through the narrow, crowded alleyway carrying, I kid you not, a wall. Also because of motorbike prevalence, behold the Thai gas station, also sometimes seen as a rack of refillable liquor bottles filled with gasoline with or without a cardboard sign.
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Condiments. Instead of salt and pepper, restaurants set out sugar, spice, and vinegar. It’s delicious. And sometimes not very sanitary. Believe it or not, J and I have found ourselves adding spice to our food. Maybe we got too accustomed in Bangkok?
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Thai toilets. It’s set into the ground and you squat over it. Instead of paper, use water! If you’re lucky there’s a high-powered sprayer like the kind you’d find on a kitchen sink for dishes. Sometimes it’s super high-powered and you end up embarrassingly wet. If not, there’s a basin of water and a complicated splashing technique and you’ll probably end up embarrassingly wet. To flush, dump in a few ladles of water from the basin. Often, there’s a hole in the bucket and you end up embarrassingly wet. If you are in a westernized establishment, the toilet seat may be either dirty or slanted – the first, from locals squatting on it, the second, to prevent locals from squatting.
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Some pretty janky stuff passes as okay here. This means normal things, like patchy internet and driving on the highway with 12 people in the back of your truck. And rusty nails, garbage heaps, gaping holes in the sidewalk or road, or this, the bridge from our bungalow on Koh Chang to the beach. Needless to say, we waded.

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And yet right up next to all those janky things, extremely ornate, well-kept, or strikingly beautiful things. All over the place. Beautiful intricate colorfully painted wats (temples), ornate metalwork on fencing, or, the funniest example, meticulously pruned highway meridians:
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And this, the quintessential Thailand, our double-decker bus from Tak. Take special note of the lace seat covers and the lighting fixtures.
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We’ve completed our tour north and now find ourselves in Chiang Mai, where J is luxuriating in real (non-instant) coffee. Last night, we discovered a new sport, Sepak Takraw, which looks something like volleyball except that you use your feet. Meaning lots of bicycle kicks. Just in case anyone kicks too high and pulls a muscle, there’s a nurse present. How do I know she’s a nurse?

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We take off tomorrow for a three day jungle trek, which we negotiated and haggled to fit our budget. We will return in three days having learned all sorts of skills we will use for the rest of our lives, like which jungle bugs of South East Asia taste like lemon and how to shoot rats with sling shots. Also, we get to play with elephants.

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Excited!

Loi Krathong and Burmese Cooking.

Loi Krathong is a festival celebrating the largest full moon of the year – the 12th month of the Thai Lunar Calendar. It is a celebration of water, and is celebrated by making decorative floats with incense, flowers, and a candle, and sending them off down a river or other body of water (“Loi Krathong” literally means “floating crown”). Usually people will buy a float made from a ring of banana wood and add something personal – a hair or fingernail, or coins – then make a wish as they send it off.

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Rather than buy one, we tried our hand at making our own.

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The result! Woven mats of banana leaves and palm stuffed with coconut husk for buoyancy.

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We collected flowers for decoration and went down to the party at the beach. At midnight, waded out and made our wishes.

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And it sank, pretty immediately.

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I think this means our wishes won’t come true, but we had a great time anyway. Other photos from Koh Chang:

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Pork blood soup. J continues her dangerous affections towards the weirdest thing on the menu. This one turned out to be delicious.

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J on our rented motorbike.

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C, after crashing our rented motorbike.

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J making friends with all the stray dogs.

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And also the stray pigs and water buffalo.

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Monks kicking back at a temple on the far side of the island.

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C kicking back with some papaya salad.

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That’s all folks! We are now in Mae Sot, an overnight bus north right on the Mayanmar border, enjoying some delicious Burmese foods. Next we’ll meander further north to Chiang Mai and beyond!
Lots of love,
C and J

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