Category Archives: Thailand

Flying through countries

We fly down roads lined in trees and bushes and fences. We fly down roads paved and unpaved and in the middle of being paved again. We ride on buses and trains and tuktuks, little things chugging along the street and we watch the people pass us on their bikes and their cars. We ride through the countries, one after the other, India then Thailand then Laos. We watch as the scenery changes, as the food changes as the huts change from one place to the next.

The people look different. The roads feel different. We watch as they become more and more put together. We watch as the potholes disappear. We watch as the little shacks on the side of the road gain walls and windows and cars in their driveways. We watch as they space apart further and further so that each one gains its own piece of land and its own quiet space.

We watch as the countries change. As the countries change from jungles to flatlands to farms. From mountains to hills to rivers. We watch as they each gain their own little signature. As they all tell their own story.

We watch from buses, large and small. We watch from trains. We watch in the daytime and in the night, changing places, cities, countries all the time. We sit with our noses pressed against glass windows, necks craned towards the back. We drink it in. We want to drink it all in. We want these places in between to change us as much as the places we finally settle. As much as the cities and towns in which we stay. This is our way of seeing the world. We drive it, we watch it all the time.

On the bus, driving across borders.
On the bus, driving across borders.

We watch as the houses gain stilts to stand on, as the builders use concrete instead of mud. We watch as the farms flow from flowers to wheat to rice paddies spread over mountains then fields then nestle themselves back into the little flat beds between the hills that rise quietly here, so quietly.

Not loudly. Not like the jagged snow covered things that command a country. Not like the winding roads that command you go slow, that demand you watch out. Not like the little dirt roads passing for a highway, the one laned things that meekly cut a path from here to the next.

We notice when these things change. When there stops being a person everywhere we look. We notice that there are fewer people, people working, people sitting. We watch as the piles of trash shrink and go away, as the yards become swept and dignified, as the concrete builds itself up and fails to be crumbling away. We see the buildings retain their newness, we see the buildings stand up straight. We see the buildings stay buildings and not merely pieces of tarp sewn together. We see them stand proudly. We see them thrive.

Nepal, India, Thailand, now onto Laos. A new country, a new one to see. There are such brilliant contrasts in these places, such wonderful things to see. There are the constant changes in the land, in the trees and rivers and mountains. There are the new buildings, replacing the old and decrepit ones of the countries before. There are the roads, the flat smooth roads that connect one city to the next, that connect an entire country and make it whole. And there is the feeling in each country. The distinct feeling that accompanies each and every one. The air and the people and the breeze. They carry such different things. Here it is quiet. Quiet and gentle and sweet. Balmy and easy going. What will the next country bring? How will it change, how will it stand out?

Nepal is the mountains, India is the people. The people everywhere you turn. Thailand is the sweet sweet smell of the balmy breeze and the jungle rising quietly from the plains. Little things that define them in my mind. Little things that make them each unique and what they are.

Across the border, across the Mekong, and into Laos!
Across the border, across the Mekong, and into Laos!

*          *          *

We arrive in Laos by way of a Friendship Bridge and eight separate vehicles. We take the tuktuk from our hostel in Chiang Mai to the bus station and then we wait. At nine am we take the bus from Chiang Rai, and twenty minutes after we have gotten off of that we are on another bus, this time from Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong. Where the bridge is, where the department of immigration is. It is a quick drive to the water’s edge, immigration on the Thai side and then we take yet another bus across the bridge to Laos. So easy! And once we are there there are forms to be filled out, money to be paid (in American dollars, of course, what they always want for the visas), and then a group van to the bus station in Laos, at Hua Xai.

The bus leaves once a day from Hua Xai to Luang Prabang. Sometimes at 5pm, sometimes at 6pm, but once a day. And if you don’t make it onto the bus? Then you have to stay in the little town for another day.

We almost didn’t make it onto the bus.

It was me and Stephen and our new Australian friend, Kateryna. We met Kateryna in Chiang Mai and she needed to go to Laos, so here we were with another travel buddy!

Stephen and Kateryna, all set in our chairs on the bus!
Stephen and Kateryna, all set in our chairs on the bus!

We made it to the ticket counter just as two Romanians, Paul and Lorie, finished buying their tickets. We are out of luck, she says, there is nowhere to sit, she says. We beg her: we say, we will sit on the roof! We say, we will sit below, with the bags! She says no, no, there are no seats. We say, we will sit in the aisle! We are completely fine with sitting on the floor! It will be the same price, though, she says, and we say, fine. All we want is to be on that bus. All we want is to, finally, get to Luang Prabang.

And with that we are handed our tickets to the bus. To the aisle of the bus. When we get on she hands us three broken plastic chairs and wishes us “good luck”. We are going to need it.

The bus from Hua Xai to Luang Prabang is 14.5 hours long. It flies over night through the country and gets into the city in the morning, so it is imperative that we get some sleep. Not happening in the little chairs. Every time the bus moves too far to one side or the other the chair feels like it is going to either fall over onto Kateryna or break entirely. Every time I start to doze off with my head on the seat next to me the bus jerks and I nearly fall over. So at the next stop I transfer to the floor. Not so much better, because now every time the bus jerks, instead of being thrown around in my chair I am thrown around in the aisle of the bus, my limbs playing a sort of pin-ball with the sides of the aisles and peoples limbs which are sprawled out in the middle in the middle of their sleep. It is cold. It is sore. It is tiring to be thrown around constantly. It is not comfortable, and we have only been on the bus for six hours at this point.

Paul crashes our bus selfie.
Paul crashes our bus selfie.

Eventually enough people get off of the bus that we can get seats! This feels like heaven, and we finally manage to scrounge a few shreds of sleep from what is left of the ride.

We land in Luang Prabang in the morning, with the dew still weighing heavy on the city and sleep on our eyes. All we want are beds in a hostel that wont break the bank.

So, we head out. The three of us, Paul and Lorie, too, and another boy, Ali. We make our way into town, we do our research, we walk back and forth between two different hostels in different parts of town at least three times before finding somewhere that has six beds for us. And, finally, we can fall asleep. Heads on soft pillows now instead of on duffel bags and bags of rice, we fall asleep.

Homemade whiskey and wine, bought from the Luang Prabang night market
Homemade whiskey and wine, bought from the Luang Prabang night market
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Food Porn: Thai Edition

Since I have been in Thailand I have eaten…well…everything. Everything besides the trays full of bugs that they sell on the streets at night, that is. Too expensive, and anyways I’ve tried fried crickets before so I’m not about to shell out 80 baht to try one again. Or whatever they cost.

Anyway. The food here is amazing. Like, even more so than I could imagine! I do recall one time when I was younger declaring that I could (or would?) live off of Shrimp Pad Thai for the rest of my life. Well, I still completely hold true to this statement. The Pad Thai on the street, made fresh to order and topped with crushed peanuts and tiny dried prawns bringing in their wonderful crunch and briny taste? SO wonderful!

So, in honor of this wonderful country’s food, my favorite street foods, from awesome to totally awesome:

10. Fried gelatin…stuff…

The gelatin is cut up and thrown in a vat of oil before being fished out and covered with Thai chili sauce. This method of cooking things really does produce some awesome results...
The gelatin is cut up and thrown in a vat of oil before being fished out and covered with Thai chili sauce. This method of cooking things really does produce some awesome results…

Found in Chinatown, this stuff was some sort of scallion gelatin thing chopped up and fried. Anyone know what it is? Cause I have no idea. But it was drenched in sweet chili sauce, which turns everything it touches delicious. Very good! But I had to turn the rest of my serving over to Stephen cause it was a little too jelly-like.

9. Steamed pork buns

Mmmm you just can't go wrong with a nice steam bun.
Mmmm you just can’t go wrong with a nice steam bun.

Another one from Chinatown! Delicious, but partially so delicious because I had not had a steamed bun in a very long time. I still think the ones from San Francisco when I was younger win out over this one. Still totally worth the 10 baht, though.

8. Stir Fried Veggies w/ cashew nuts

I spy corn, carrots, greens, pork, and delicious stir fry sauce
I spy corn, carrots, greens, pork, and delicious stir fry sauce

I love veggies. As you can see, I was pretty hungry at this meal, enough so that I forgot to take a picture before devouring the large majority of the dish. Again, delicious! But very simple, I could make something similar. Not out of this world enough to warrant a top-5. Paired with a fresh mango smoothie, though? A great first meal of the day.

7. Fried fish

Looks gross, tastes delicious.
Looks gross, tastes delicious.

Oh MAN was this stuff good! Found in Chinatown, again. I know I know, it looks kind of weird. It’s freshly fried fish topped with (you guessed it) sweet chili sauce. Again, I think the sweet chili sauce may have been carrying it a bit, but it was nonetheless the stuff of dreams. They cut up a few pieces into a plastic bag, drench it in sauce and send you on your way.

6. Grilled Mushrooms (on a stick)

Delicious delicious mushrooms.
Delicious delicious mushrooms.
Mushrooms with bacon? Why yes, thank you.
Mushrooms with bacon? Why yes, thank you.

I love mushrooms. I LOVE mushrooms. Mushrooms are SO good. These were also wrapped in bacon. They were bacon wrapped grilled mushrooms, grilled to order on the street. I mean, it’s not even fair! I did, however, make the mistake of assuming the pepper at the bottom was not as spicy as it was. I ate the whole thing in one bite and thought I was going to die for a few minutes. That made the mushroom experience a little less than awesome. But still, they are grilled mushrooms, wrapped in bacon. Pretty legit.

5. Duck.

Super fancy for a street cart. Super delicious, too.
Super fancy for a street cart. Super delicious, too.
Homemade condiments for the duck.
Homemade condiments for the duck.

There’s this guy on the corner who has a stand where he cooks duck and then serves it up over rice with greens and sauce and this brine-soup that you wash it down with! Pretty amazing because it is duck and duck is awesome. And delicious. The rice wasn’t great, though, so he lost a few points for that. Overall a pretty delicious dinner, though.

4. Grilled Squid on a Stick

DSC_0727

The whole array of items on sticks to buy, freshly grilled!
The whole array of items on sticks to buy, freshly grilled!

Again, found in Chinatown. Again, served with chili sauce. But unlike the previous ones found in Chinatown and served with chili sauce this is squid! Uh, YUM! Really good squid, too. And freshly grilled, then plopped into the plastic bag, covered in sauce, and you are on your way. This is totally my new favorite way to eat squid.

3. Green Curry

Spicy spicy and amazing. Love curry.
Spicy spicy and amazing. Love curry.

Mmmm curry. Served over vermicelli noodles in a little hole in the wall restaurant. Lots of greens, and delicious sauce, and fresh noodles. ‘nuff said.

2. Tom Yum Soup (pork and noodles and spice!)

The first time I had the soup: from a little cart in the middle of the street, served in a bowl to go.
The first time I had the soup: from a little cart in the middle of the street, served in a bowl to go.
The second bowl, at a slightly more legit food stall, where they actually had real bowls and tables!
The second bowl, at a slightly more legit food stall, where they actually had real bowls and tables!

I. Love. Soup. They make this soup on the streets, which I think is so cool! Soup is not supposed to be a street food! In the middle of the street stand is a giant pot which holds the broth, and inside that pot is a slightly smaller pot filled with water where they cook the noodles. Two-for-one cooking. Very efficient. The other things in there are fish balls, pork, greens, and sprouts. I asked the guy on the street to put on the toppings for me, and he added a spoonful of sugar (?!), some chili flakes, a bit of chili brine and some soy sauce. This stuff tastes like heaven! If I hadn’t already promised to live off of Pad Thai for the rest of my life, I would totally consider living off of this instead.

1. Pad Thai

Pad Thai. 'Nuff said.
Pad Thai. ‘Nuff said.

This particular plate tasted like heaven. Literally. As Stephen pointed out, that could partially do with the fact that we were eating this one at 4am. I agree that that could be part of it, but only a very small part. They make each plate of Pad Thai fresh, adding in the veggies, an egg, and shrimp or pork or chicken (whichever you want). It is delicious. Then you can add all the lime and peanuts and chili flakes and mini dried prawns that you want! This particular plate I added ALL the peanuts and ALL the prawns. It was a great choice. I have dreams about the Pad Thai sometimes. And I have only been gone from Bangkok for a few days.

Goodnight, food carts.
Goodnight, food carts.

Planes, Trains & Automobiles

Well, I am currently lying in my bunk on the fifteen hour train ride from Bangkok to Chiang Mai (which, by the way is already 20x better than the fifteen hour train we took from Gorakhpur to Delhi, which was 14 hours late and ridiculously slow), so I figure what better time to write a quick post about a new country: Thailand!

Welcome to sunny, modern Bangkok!
Welcome to sunny, modern Bangkok!

We got into Thailand on Saturday, but have been busy taking in a city that is the most modern we have seen. Well, seen it to an extent. Because of all the turmoil going on with the election, Stephen and I decided to keep a low profile while in Bangkok to make sure that we would stay safe. We’re also going to be coming back through the city in April, so didn’t feel the urgent rush to see and do everything. Also, it was kind of nice to have a few days downtime after coming from the stress and craze that is India. We spent our fare share of time hanging out in the cafes/bars, celebrating Stephen’s 24th birthday, and meeting lots of new, foreign friends! (These included some Ethiopian Israelis, a London cabbie and his incredibly sweet girlfriend, and a couple of absolutely hilarious (and generous with the beer) Irishmen.)

We also took the opportunity to go to Chinatown, which reminded us that no matter where we go, we'll never get away from busy, crowded streets!
We also took the opportunity to go to Chinatown, which reminded us that no matter where we go, we’ll never get away from busy, crowded streets!

I think one of the things that got me the most in this city, compared to the ones that we had been in before, were the roads and transportation. There are no (well very few) potholes! And there are stoplights! And lanes in the roads! And both are used correctly! Needless to say, we were both in a mild state of culture shock.

Since I had to go to a few doctors’ checkups while in Bangkok for my new job next summer (more on that later!) I got the privilege of trying out almost all the methods of transportation Bangkok has to offer! A very exciting opportunity.

First off, there is the sky rail. Beautiful, clean, metro-like: I was definitely impressed. We took this from the airport into the city and got (almost) to where we wanted to be staying for cheap! Always a plus! Unfortunately, the goal was to catch a bus from the rail stop, but we never found the bus. After later consideration we determined we had waited on the wrong street…whoops.

My favorite method of public transportation, however, was definitely the ferries! They go up and down the river all day long, and for 15 baht (around $0.30) you can get to a good number of places! Also, you get to ride on a boat. Like, casually. How cool.

Passengers boarding the ferry
Passengers boarding the ferry

Alright. Now on to the private modes of transport. I’m gonna go from my least to most favorite on this one. It also happens to be most to least expensive…go figure! First up: cabs. They have meters! And the cars are new! And they stay in their lanes! All pretty impressive to me, especially after living in Kathmandu where none of these things were true…they are, however, more expensive, so we only took one the one time when we were trying to get the bus that never came (see above).

Ok, my second favorite? Tuktuks. These things are great. Little tin open sided car like things that chug along. They’re not too expensive, and will get you most places, and are pretty fun! My favorite part about them though: outside of the tourist area they can be seen hauling along pretty much anything you can think of. From giant bags of sugar, to loads of women’s shoes, to one time I saw a tuktuk transporting a monk with two pink children’s bikes. You never know what you’ll see!

Pictures of the King are everywhere in Bangkok!
Pictures of the King are everywhere in Bangkok!

Alright, so as fun as tuktuks are, my number one favorite: motorbike cabs. Yep, I said it. They are awesome. Guys in orange (or pink or blue) vests riding around on their bikes, who will give you a ride anywhere in the city for half the price of a tuktuk. Naturally, this is what I was taking to and from the hospital each day for my appointments. They are speedy (hello, weaving through the middle of stopped traffic), cheap (can you say extra money for street food?), and, perhaps best of all, produced some amusing stories.

Like how, my second time on one of the bikes, the bike got a flat tire. We had to pull over to a gas station and wait a half hour while it was changed. Pretty annoying at the time for both of us, but mildly funny in retrospect. Or this afternoon on my way back, when my driver pulled over halfway to where I was going, told me he was late for something and assured me I would find a new bike to get a ride home on from that area. I think that is the first time I have ever been kicked out of (or rather off of) a cab! Anyways, I got home quickly enough, even paying less for my two half fares than I was originally going to for the first guy’s full fare. I was all right with that.

The city, as seen from the river.
The city, as seen from the river.

So, trains and automobiles have been covered. On to planes! I got the exciting news recently that I was invited to serve in the Peace Corps in Zambia starting this summer, barring any issues coming up. It would mean more than two more years of traveling (and blogging)! So that’s pretty exciting. I’ll be writing more about it, too, as the spring goes on.

In the meantime it is nearly midnight, and I have a solid thirteen more hours on the train. I’m excited to see the country as we pass through it, I’m excited to see a new part of this country, and I’m excited just to be on the road, traveling to new places, meeting new people, and discovering new things!

Goodnight, Thailand
Goodnight, Thailand