Archive for January, 2012

The story of “Señor hoja”

This story is so funny, that even though it is only a small anecdote that we experienced in Laos, we think that it deserves a post by itself.

It all started on our second day in Vang Vieng, where we checked out of Pan’s Place guesthouse in town and moved out of town, to the other side of the river, into Maylyn guesthouse. In contrast to the noisy town, this part of Vang Vieng still enjoys nice and quiet days (and nights) and fantastic views of the surrounding hills. We got a spotless bungalow with a hammock from where we could see a beautiful countryside landscape. The bungalow had a separate bathroom and shower room in the building in front of the bungalow. This bathroom was in fact in the middle of the garden shared by all bungalows.

View from our bungalow in Maylyn guesthouse

I saw him during my first visit to the bathroom, that same day. I did not recognize it at first, due to the poor illumination of the bathroom, but then, when I switch on the light, I could see it clearly. The biggest “leaf insect” I had seen in my life was just in the ceiling, above my head! We called him “El señor hoja” (translation of Mr. Leaf in Spanish). He must be one of the most beautiful insects in the world! The bright green colour of his leaves was amazing. The size was also very impressive, nearly as big as a pair of sun glasses.

Señor hoja in his favourite place

We liked him immediately but such a big insect is something we are not used to. Therefore, being together with “him” in the small bathroom made us a bit uneasy.

In particular, that evening, Señor hoja was especially naughty, and when we were having a shower, he flew over our heads and stopped at the mirror just in front of us. It all happened so fast that we were really scared! I started shouting as only people who know me know and Iván went out of the bathroom, and to the garden, naked as it was. I followed him to the garden, and as soon as we realize of the fun of the situation, we started laughing with embarrassment. However, we did not dare to come in again, as Señor hoja really inspired us a big respect. Finally, I do not know why but we finished our shower and we went back to the bungalow. But we knew that we had to do something to save Señor hoja, or some other guest will kill him sooner of later. We were not brave enough to do it ourselves, so Iván asked the security guy who walks around the bungalows at night. Iván really emphasized that we did not want Señor hoja to be killed, but just be taken outside of the bathroom. However, Iván saw how this guy threw something to the toilet and flushed it. We could not believe it. Señor hoja had just been killed! We went for dinner, but we could not think of anything else and we were really sad. We knew it was just an insect, but we liked him so much! And we were annoyed that such an innocent creature had just been killed only because we were not brave enough to take him out of the bathroom ourselves…

After dinner, I came back to the bathroom to brush my teeth, and still thinking of Señor hoja, I looked at the last place where I saw him…and there he was!!! Señor hoja was alive!! We still do not understand, but apparently the security guy just flushed the toilet, without throwing him inside! We could not believe it and we were so happy! But we had to do something soon or someone else would kill him, accidentally or on purpose. So this time we gathered all our courage (well, Ivan did), and he tried to drag Señor hoja along the door and out of the bathroom using his cap. But suddenly, the insect made the most horrible noise ever heard! It sounded like we were killing him! Iván stopped immediately, but after I insisted, he finally got Señor hoja out of the bathroom and to the toilet.

The most funny thing is that, after all this series of occurrences, the morning after, Señor hoja was again at the same place, where we found it the day before. We do not know if he liked the quietness of the bathroom, or if he/she was laying eggs right there, but the thing is, that we decided to leave Señor hoja where we wanted to be :o)


Exploring the North of Laos

After feeling like gibbons for two days, we continued our trip to the North of Laos. A three hour bus ride took us to Luang Namtha, the gateway to many tribal villages in Northern part of the country.

Gary and Line, the Hungarian/Danish couple whom we met in the Gibbon Experience, were also coming to Luang Namtha and we were glad to have some company, especially because there were not so many tourists in this area when we got there. The first night we stayed in Zuela guesthouse, a really good place to stay due to the good value rooms and the friendly owners, always willing to help. Together with Gary and Line, we had a really nice Lao dinner in the night market: barbecued chicken and duck, papaya salad and spring rolls.

The day after, after sending some Christmas greetings by email, we head off to Muang Sing with a rented motorbike. Muang Sing is a town about 30 Km north of Luang Namtha and it is famous because many tribal villages are accessible from it. The way to get there is already worth the trip, because of the fantastic landscape of forest, rivers and mountains (part of a National Park) that you cross to reach Muang Sing. The country side around Muang Sing is very beautiful as well and it is worth for exploring the local villages. Many agencies organize ecotourism trips in this area. However, due to our limited time, we decided to explore the villages by ourselves. After finding accommodation for the night (Adima guesthouse, out of town towards the Chinese border), we spent the rest of the day and part of the day after exploring the surrounding Akha and Hmong villages.

When we visited the Akha village in the late afternoon, local women were taking their daily shower at the river and at the village’s well and children were playing different games according to their age, including a kind of volleyball played with the feet and a bamboo ball. It was really interesting to see how the life at the local village was. At the beggining we felt a bit weird in these villages, because people are not used to see tourists so often and looked at us as if we were coming from another planet (and in a way, we are…),but after a few minutes, a few smiles helped breaking the ice, specially with the children.

Our stay here was definitely too short (only 2 nights), taking into account the many things that you can do/see in this part of the country, but we really enjoyed staying at Zuela guesthouse in Luang Namtha, the motorbike ride from Luang Namtha to Muang Sing, trying the local food of Muang Sing and visiting the tribal villages around Muang Sing.

Akha village close to Muang Sing

Children playing with us at the Akha village

Beautiful young Lao lady dressed in traditional tribal costume

Wired 20-21.12.11

Have you ever dreamed that you could fly? Particularly in my case I remember dreaming in several occasions that I was able to glide above the streets of my home town. I specially enjoyed these dreams because they always left that particular “aftertaste” when you wake up, like if it had been almost true.

After watching some videos in the internet from other people who had enrolled the experience before, our expectations were very high. Gliding trough the jungle like a bird did just look like a dream and as in many other occasions, the “real” thing might not be as impressive.

Well, being very honest, this is just not one of those occasions…the Gibbon Experience was simply one of the best experiences in our lives!!

We decided to join the 2 days new program and not the usual and by many people already enjoyed 3 days program. So we felt a little like the “guinea pigs” that are going to try the new fast program for people with not so much time and/or money (the 2 days experience costs half the price).

Having booked the Gibbon Experience a couple of months before (it is advisable to book ahead as it is usually full), we arrived to Laos one day before the experience started. We took a bus early in the morning from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai (Thailand) and from there another bus took us to the Thai border town of Chiang Khong. From there, we could already see Laos at the other side of the Mekong. A small long tail boat took us to the border Lao town of Huai Xai, together with two other guys from Israel and their fish pet in a bottle of water (unreal yes!). The border crossing was really easy and after some paper work, two passport-size photos and 35 UD$ each, we got our Lao visa for 30 days.

Huai Xai, gateway to the Bokeo forest and the Gibbon Experience

There is really not much to do or see in Huai Xai, but we just liked the chilled-out atmosphere of the town as a good introduction to the relaxed personality of Lao people. We visited the temple at the hill where we saw the first orange dressed Lao monks and in the evening, we enjoyed our first “BeerLao”, the National drink and a really good (and cheap) way to cool down and enjoy the views of the Mekong. We met an Australian young couple and a Swiss old lady at our hotel and we enjoyed nice conversation through the evening. Then we had a nice and simple Lao dinner in a local place (barbecue chicken and fried noodles).

The trip started the next morning with a ride from Huai Xai to a certain drop off point in the Bokeo forest area. During the ride, we got the chance to meet the people whom we were going to share the experience with. Gari and Line (a nice couple Hungarian-Danish), Steffen from Germany and the Swedish army composed by Daniel, Sara and Lars. Their easy going personality and their kindness will make the experience so much more fun!!!

Our "Gibbon mates". From left to right: Steffen, Ivan, Gary, Line, Ben, Sara, Daniel and Sonsoles

We also met our guides, received our respective harness and then, after a little trek trough the little village we got to the river where we found the first zip-line. The moment had come, our first time. The cable was about 30-40 meters long and about meters high over the water to get across it. We were already quite impressed with this first one…we obviously did not know what was ahead of us.
It was our first contact with the equipment, a simple roller attached to our harness plus another security line. Double check, everything is in place, and you just need to let yourself go. For people like Sonso and I, who does not have a lot of experience with many other “extreme” activities, the “short” trip across the river already made our adrenaline rush leaving that peculiar feeling in your guts.

First zip line, just to cross the river next to a village

Then we trekked for an hour or so deeper in the jungle. The sunlight got trough the bamboo trees and mixed with the infinite green range of colours making being a rather mesmerizing atmosphere. We were still kind of nervous with that mixed feeling of excitement and fear that jumping in the zip-lines triggers on us.

Trekking to the zip lines

Our guides did not speak a lot of English, so no much information was provided about the itinerary. They looked very confident about the zip lines at least, what somehow helped us to convince ourselves that everything was fine…

After one hour trekking we get to the second cable. They are always attached to trees and we can only see the beginning of the next one…where does it go? How long is it?? We just can not see where it goes…what!! 600 meters long!! And how high you say it is??

Ivan getting ready for the first zip

There is not way back now…you attach your roller to the wire and jump. And then, well, it is hard to tell the feeling, but you suddenly find yourself literally flying 150 meters above the canopy of the jungle. It was an overwhelming experience! Now I can better understand our trekking mate Théese, where we talked about the first time he did skydiving. Under such a situation, your buddy releases such an amount of adrenaline that you cannot focus on anything in particular. The zip line lasted about 30 seconds, but I could not remember anything afterwards! This was a shared feeling with the other participants…crazy! It was incredibly beautiful, but we could not fix any image in our minds.

Ivan enjoying the zipping

Flying like a Gibbon!!!

Sonsoles arriving to one of the platforms

This one was the first of the long zip lines, each of them more spectacular than the one before and up to 700 meters long. After a few more zip lines we learnt to relax and enjoy more the zipping experience. We learnt how to do so that you can move faster or slower, how to break and how to take your time to appreciate the scenery better. Particularly beautiful were a couple of lines located close to the treehouse, where we literally flew above the forest, just before flying across a valley of 40+ meter high trees.

After about 10 zip lines or so, we finally arrived to the place where we were going to spend the night: the treehouse!! When we saw it we could not believe our eyes: a wooden house built literally on the canopy of a 40 meter high tree!

Our tree house

Even though it was one of the shortest zip lines, getting from or to the treehouse was actually the scariest moment of the whole experience. The other lines started progressively, while in this case, we had to jump directly into space…it was better not to look down and just do it! On the other hand, the treehouse was really really nice! When we arrived, the guides already had prepared coffee, tea, fruit and some snacks for us to eat while enjoying the views.

Ivan and Sonsoles in the tree house

We were left there for a couple of hours before we zipped again for the sunset. During this break, we got to know a little bit better our “gibbon mates” and we explored the treehouse. We decided where each of us would sleep (we got the “tree-suite” upstairs) and we took the first shower of our lives at the top of a tree!!

Ivan in the tree house

When the guides came back, we went for more zipping and we had an amazing time. This was really magical because of the magical light of the sunset, which made the colours of the jungle shine in the most beautiful way.

We just arrived to the treehouse with time enough to see the sun go behind the jungle hills and the sky turned into orange, red and pink colour. After the rest of the people took a shower, we enjoyed a nice dinner prepared by the guides, followed by travelling tales shared with our gibbon mates. The night in the treehouse was not as relaxed as we had imagined, since we got to guests who were not so scared of the heights: the bamboo rats! Despite their noise and disturbances (they even ate part of Iván’s backpack because there was a food plastic bag on it), we managed to sleep quite well on the tree. The day after, after some more zipping, we ate breakfast, and we came to the pick up point. We took a different route to come back and we enjoy a couple of different zip lines with rivers and pools under us. It was really beautiful! We enjoyed dinner (and a swim) in a local village, before we were driven back to Huai Xai, just in time to take a bus to our next destination in the North of Laos.

The last zip line: bye bye Gibbons!!

We did not get to see the gibbons, as it is especially difficult due to the size of the forest and the shy personality of these apes. However, enjoying the zip lines through the jungle, sleeping in a 40+ meter high treehouse and supporting this eco-friendly initiative, was a memorable way to start our amazing trip to Laos.

Sunset in the tree house

Coming soon: “Exploring the North of Laos” and “A different Christmas”

Chiang Mai: Paradise for foodies and handicraft lovers 16-19.12.11

We know, we know…it has been a long time since we wrote our last post, but since we started our trip around South East Asia, everything has gone so fast that we have barely haft time to write.

Ok, so where were we? Oh, yes, Thailand. In the last post we told you about our brief trip to Phi Phi Island. After that, we took a night train to Bangkok, we spent the following day visiting Bangkok and the following night travelling towards the North of the country, to the city of Chiang Mai.

After a long, but really comfortable trip in the sleeper train, we arrived to a sunny Chiang Mai around midday. We walked inside the city walls to Diva guesthouse, a really cosy accommodation option with friendly owners and really good location. After a shower and a good rest, we started exploring the city.

Enjoying a coffe at Libernaud Cafe, Chiang Mai

We loved Chiang Mai since the very first moment. It was a combination of very friendly people, delicious food, beautiful old temples and gorgeous nature. We spent three days there, but we could have easily been there for a week! We were so lucky to be there on a Friday, on a Saturday and on a Sunday. This meant that we could see and experience the three different night markets of the city: the Night Bazaar, the Saturday Walking Street and the Sunday Walking Street. These fascinating markets are all an authentic paradise for foodies and handicraft lovers! In the markets that we had visited before, the stalls sold basically the same products, or at least similar souvenirs. The markets in Chiang Mai, however, are so special because of the diversity of products on sale: from hand-carved soaps with the shape of flowers or animals to glass blowers, many of the items being produced in situ by local craftsmen. Besides that, hundreds of food vendors sell their delicacies in their food stalls, everybody selling even more delicious food than the one before! We tried everything: the local speciality (Khai Soi Kai noodle soup, see picture below), Chinese deep fried balls, barbecued chicken legs, spiral potato chips, sausages with potato mousse, pad thai, hand made noodles, sweet sticky rice with raisins, bananas in stick cooked in coconut sauce, waffles, Oreo milk shakes…the list is endless!

Khai Soi Kai, noodle soup typical from Chiang Mai

Sticks of banana in coconut milk

Thai chips on stick, so loved by Ivan!

Pad Thai stall at Sunday Walking Street, Chiang Mai

Below there is a list of the sights that we visited during our stay in Chiang Mai, including a visit to the zoo and an exciting motorbike trip in the surrounding countryside. We have also included many pictures of these fantastic three days and we hope that they awaken your interest about visiting lovely Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai sights and attractions:
– Night bazaar, Saturday Walking Street and Sunday Walking Street: each of them taking place in a different part (or street) of the city, there are all different and the atmosphere unique, even though many sellers are the same in all three markets.

Chiang Mai's Night Bazaar

Young Thai girl performing a dance in traditional costume

Hand-carved soaps with flower designs at the Night Bazaar

Sunday Walking Street in Chiang Mai

Artist painting a woman in his iPad. Later he will send the portrait to her by email

– Chiang Mai temples: Wat Phra Singh (including the famous Phra Singh image) and Wat Chedi Luang are the most famous ones, but there are plenty of other scattered around the city!

Wat Pra Sing

Phra Singh image from Wat Phra Singh, Chiang Mai

Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang Mai

Impressive ancient Chedi at Wat Chedi Luang

Wat Pan Tao, one of the oldest wooden temples in good condition

– Chiang Mai zoo: a place where Thai families come on weekends, interesting to see the pandas, koalas, orangutans and gibbons. Moreover, there is a new aquarium and a huge aviary, but we didn’t have time for those.

Panda Bear at Chiang Mai Zoo.

Cute little koala at Chiang Mai Zoo

– Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep: spectacular temple located on the top of the Suthep hill. The temple is very beautiful itself, but the most interesting thing is to see the pilgrims coming here to make offerings of lotus flowers and of oil for the butter lamps.

Huge nagas guarding the entrance of Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep

Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep

Pilgrims praying at Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep

– Motorbike trip in the Mae Sa Valley: the Mae Hong Son Loop: we did the short version and it took us around 5 hours including a visit to a waterfall and the lunch break. This is a popular trip to do on weekends and we saw many people doing it by bike. There are plenty of things you can do on the way, such as elephant camps, orchid gardens, etc and there is a longer version for which you need two days to complete.

Sonsoles with her "fast face" riding Jenny (our motorbike) in the Mae Sa Loop, Chiang Mai

Waterfall in the Mae Sa Valley Loop, Chiang Mai