About Katie

Hi! I'm an ex-corporate workaholic turned global nomad. About three years ago, after realizing how unhappy I was and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, I decided to break the routine of the daily grind and pursue the one thing I love... travel. After a year of planning and saving, I left. What was supposed to be a year-long career break turned into two years and 14 countries and I'm still going. I'm incredibly grateful that the universe conspired with me and I want to share that gratitude on the road. So please, come along on my adventure and let's see if we can't all find gratitude daily.

The Long Road and what’s next

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Each time that I venture back to the States after being on the road for an extended period, I arrive with a bit of apprehension, a twinge of angst about what to do next, and a bucket load of uncertainty. To say that I am a little more comfortable living as a nomad after what eventually became two years of travel instead of my originally intended one year would be the understatement of the year. I am also frequented with two questions as I meet people or talk to friends and family, “Where is home? And what’s next?”, neither of which I can easily answer. Has this ever happened to you? Someone asks a question and as you open your mouth to respond, you realize you have no idea what to say. The questions seem so simple yet I find myself wishing that I could just “Google” them. The screen would take me to my pre-written bio on Wikipedia so that I would know what the next step in my life is supposed to be – a map of sorts. And then I laugh heartily at myself because I know that I threw all of the maps out long ago.

The long road...

The long road…

As you may have noticed from the absence of posts, the road certainly has been long and uncertain, but it’s definitely had its benefits as well. I left Manila on June 2nd, flew against time, just like Superman as he spun the earth against time, and landed in Los Angeles two hours earlier than when I left Manila. Such a cool trick! After a very quick stopover, I went to Washington D.C. for a wedding, Pennsylvania to visit family, South Carolina to visit more family, reclaimed the car I had left with my parents and started driving back to Los Angeles to return to life as I knew it two years ago. It was right about the time that I made it to Houston, Texas (almost half way across the country), that I was so, so grateful that I took the long road. I had been experiencing some crazy reverse culture shock as I visited cities and towns that were so drastically different from what I left in South East Asia and that feeling of “I’m home” didn’t wash over me like past trips. As I drove into Houston and thought about settling back into routine in Los Angeles, I realized that I had reached the “stage of non-regression”. I had been studying Buddhism as I traveled through South East Asia and this term or phrase is one that I only learned recently but so aptly explains my sentiment. In Waking the Buddha by Clark Strand, he explains that in Nichiren Buddhism, the stage of non-regression is the point in one’s spiritual development where it becomes impossible to turn back and return to the world one knew before. This is exactly the experience that I was having. How could I possibly go back to the same old routine, schedule, and work after the multitude of experiences that had propelled me forward, made me feel more alive than ever, and altered my perspective over the past two years?

I remember very clearly sitting in my cousin’s house in Houston on Friday, July 10th, as she walked through the door carrying a bottle of Champaign. She had just received a promotion at work and had left a little early to celebrate. She looked at me and said, “Is everything ok? You look a little pale.” I explained that I had just declined the job offer that I had received in Los Angeles… the one that had set a whole chain of events in motion, like reclaiming my car, getting auto insurance, driving across the country, and apartment searching. My cousin asked, “so, what are you going to do now?”, which ironically is the cousin of “what’s next?” one of those tricky little questions that I can rarely answer. At that time, I didn’t quite comprehend the magnitude of the decision that I had just made but I shook it off and sipped a glass of Champaign. Celebration was in order.

Buffalo Skull at the visitor center in Abilene, Texas. The visitor center was one of the nicest I've seen.

Buffalo Skull at the visitor center in Abilene, Texas. The visitor center was one of the nicest I’ve seen.

That weekend of reconnecting, reminiscing, and pondering life’s big questions with my cousins and family in Houston was a turning point for me along the long road. I couldn’t even fathom what would come next, but I could tell that something was shifting inside me, so I continued driving to figure it out. I went through Austin, Texas to visit a college friend, and then continued on through the rest of the dry, dusty, barren landscape of Texas into New Mexico. I absolutely love road trips and as I drove through

Billy the Kid Museum - visited coincidentally on the anniversary of Billy the Kid's death

Billy the Kid Museum – visited coincidentally on the anniversary of Billy the Kid’s death – July 14th.

the intense heat of the South West, my innate senses of curiosity and exploration bubbled to the surface. I revelled in the journey, stopped thinking about the future and paid acute attention to everything that was around me. I stopped at silly places, anything that seemed the least bit interesting. There was the visitor center in Abilene, Texas that had a giant buffalo skull on display, the Billy the Kid museum, The Petrified National Forrest, The Painted Desert, a motel that had tee-pees as rooms, The Grand Canyon, Navajo Country, Zion National Park, and Las Vegas. As I visited some of the most popular national parks in the US, I realized that mostly foreign tourists who were

One angle of the Grand Canyon. Breathtaking!

One angle of the Grand Canyon. Breathtaking!

doing the same surrounded me. It was quite the juxtaposition for me. I expect to be surrounded by different cultures and languages when I’m in another country, but it caught me off guard here in my home country. Regardless, I love meeting new people this way. Explaining to them that the cute, little furry creature that they’re photographing is a squirrel, not a chipmunk. I like learning what they think of the US. I like hearing their stories. The ability to study anthropology from the inside of each country and share those findings with the world resonates with me.

So now, I’m back in Los Angeles, but still living as a nomad. I’ve visited friends, slept on a few couches, done some housesitting, and am now subletting for a short time. At the moment, the long road is giving me some room to breath, think, dream, develop new goals, research, learn, create, and organize my new lifestyle. I relocated to Los Angeles 15 years ago for a fresh start. Symbolically, I’ve come back to do the same thing all over, but this time I won’t be staying and I’m not just going to stumble onto the next thing that brings me a paycheck. This time I’m designing a life that I’ll love. I no longer want to take the road congested with cars, exhaust fumes, noise pollution, and impatient people. The scenic route is far prettier with it’s vistas and views, open highway, wind in my hair and happy-go-lucky types willing to engage in conversation over life’s simple pleasures.

And back to those two challenging little questions… where is home and what’s next? Well, you know the saying, “home is where the heart is”? I wear my heart on my sleeve and I take it with me everywhere I go, so home is where I am. It already has a permanent address . And since many of you have been asking me for two years now how I’ve managed to travel for so long, what’s next is me continuing to travel for as long and as far as I can, sharing stories from the road, and teaching anyone who has the desire for long term travel how to plan it, design the trip, and ensure that the trip enhances their career path and life story.  Let’s call it career boosting.  But more importantly, teaching them, and you, my dear readers, that NOW is the time… to take action, to change your story, and to live a life that you love.

Keep an eye out for a little different look and feel on my website and sign up to follow me if you don’t want to miss out on all of the travel secrets that I’ve learned over the past two years living as a global nomad.

Revelling in gratitude along the journey!

Cycling through Ancient History: Angkor Wat

Having decided rather last minute to visit Cambodia and knowing little about its history or culture, I decided to book a few bike tours upon arrival to get to know the place. I arrived in Siem Reap by plane and after an unusually groggy travel morning, I made it to my hotel after being slapped in the face by this new city’s noise, pollution, crazy traffic, and intense humidity. My transport from the airport to the hotel was by motorbike, so there I was… large pack wedged between the driver and his steering column with me sitting behind him, my small pack on my back. We bobbed and weaved through the traffic, sometimes riding on a side road or shoulder, sometimes riding on a main road, and occasionally riding on the wrong side of the road. The traffic whizzing all around us made me alert again and I realized that this was my first glimpse of what cycling through this city was going to be like.

On my first full day, I booked a sunrise tour of Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s most well-known temple complex and the largest religious monument in the world. This meant waking at 4:15am in order to be ready for a 4:40am pick-up by the bike tour operator, Grasshopper Adventures. They were very punctual and I was the first stop, but I learned that there would only be one more stop because the tour operator caps the groups at six people to ensure a personalized experience, and the other party would be a family of four. On the way to Angkor Wat, we would have to stop at the ticket office to get our passes, which would include all temples within the Angkor Wat complex. For those thinking of visiting, it is $20 for a day pass, $40 for a 3-day pass to be used within the week, or $60 for a 7-day pass to be used within the month. Dollars are accepted and typically preferred as currency as opposed to the Cambodian Riel.

Just before sunrise at Angkor Wat on an overcast morning.

Just before sunrise at Angkor Wat on an overcast morning.

We arrived just outside the Angkor Wat moat at 5:20am and quickly claimed our seats along its banks to ensure we would have a clear view of this magical sunrise experience. It was an overcast morning and the fluffy, patchy clouds were catching the sun’s rays and reflecting them back to us in shades of light pink, gray, and hints of purple. The melancholy hues seemed the perfect cast for this 12th Century ancient temple and painted a perfect backdrop as we listened to

The halls of Angkor Wat

The halls of Angkor Wat

our guide’s recanting of its rocky history. After the sun had risen, we walked inside and toured all of the temple’s nooks and crannies, gazing in amazement at the intricate etchings in the stone walls,

Beheaded statue reminiscent of the days of war.

Beheaded statue reminiscent of the days of war.

imagining characters walking down the long corridors of pillars, and trying to fathom what it must have been like living in the time that it was built. This temple has transitioned from a Hindu temple to a Buddhist one, as rulers changed reign over the years. It went through war after war during which the heads of statues have been cut off and sold.

Tower in Angkor Wat

Tower in Angkor Wat

The rubble and remains of decay stand in corners of the grounds reminding us that pieces have had to be rebuilt and restoration efforts are ceaseless. It still stands as the tallest building in Siem Reap at 65 meters and city mandate dictates that nothing shall be built taller than it. For me, it was one of those places that carried the essence of past souls and if I sat down in a quiet corner away from the crowds I could almost hear them whispering to me. I was awed by its grandeur and humbled by its ability to survive through the ages…reminded once again that I am just a blip in history… prompting me to seize the moment and make my mark before my time has passed.

Monkeys playing on the grounds of Bayon Temple.

Monkeys playing on the grounds of Bayon Temple.

By 8am, the sun was high in the sky, hot, reflecting off the stone and radiating heat. We exited through the temple’s back pathway lined with trees, and entered a small park, where we enjoyed a lovely breakfast and then geared up for our bike ride. We rode around the Angkor Wat moat and continued on to Bayon Temple, another 12th Century structure consisting of 54 towers with four faces on each one. As we entered the grounds, there were monkeys leaping to and fro, playing on the sidelines, chasing after their kids. It seemed the perfect compliment to the temple grounds and I envisaged that their entertainment to passersby has been timeless; their family history as old as that of the temple itself. Again, we walked through its ruins, perhaps with slightly less

The faces of Bayon

The faces of Bayon

enthusiasm because the sun was beating down on us by this point and this temple offered little cover not only because of its design, but also because of the size of the crowds that accompanied us. After hearing some history, and snapping some pictures, we were back to our bikes.

We rode along the main street and then took a short cut down a wooded path to the East gate of Ta

The trees of Ta Prohm

The trees of Ta Prohm

Prohm. This 9th Century Temple has been made famous due to its appearance in the movie, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie, and has worthily earned its recognition. It was adorned with enormous trees whose roots offered just as much intricacy to the adornment of the temple as the stone etchings themselves. Nature and manmade construction had merged as one.

Faces engulfed in tree roots

Faces engulfed in tree roots

There were faces peeking through tree trunks, apsaras, female spirits of the clouds and water in Hindu and Buddhist mythology, dancing around the corners of entrances, and enormous tree tops casting shadows over the grounds. After wandering and admiring to our heart’s content, we hopped back on our bikes and rode away to a traditional Khmer restaurant where we enjoyed a variety of local dishes to end the morning and refuel us after our ride.

Carvings in Banteay Srei,

Carvings in Banteay Srei, “Citadel of Women”.

I rode all over Siem Reap for four out of five days that week, including a countryside ride to learn about village life, a mountain ride to Kulen Mountain that tested my out-of-practice, technical mountain biking skills, and a road bike excursion to a temple that was 37 kilometers north of Angkor Wat, named Banteay Srei, meaning “Citadel of Women” and said to have such delicate carvings that they could only have been done by the hand of a woman. In total, I racked up over 150 kilometers of biking in intense heat, a personal record for me.  Three of the days were on tours with Grasshopper Adventures, and one of the days was with a newfound travel companion, who is far better on a bike than I, and whose favorite pastime was slipstreaming tuk-tuks.  On our long ride that day, I remember thinking, “huh, just another day cycling through ancient history”.  It was otherworldly.

Other than Kulen Mountain, Siem Reap is flat, so although it was significant distances, the only thing that made it strenuous was the heat.  All of it was highly enjoyable, other than the two kilometer stretch down a main street leaving my hotel that was lined with stands for an outdoor market, where pedestrians, bicyclists, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cars and trucks were all jumbled together. Because

Example of overloaded motor bikes.

Example of overloaded motor bikes.

drivers often don’t signal or even look before pulling out or merging onto or off the road, this small stretch required greater concentration and alertness than all of the rest of it combined.  In the five short days of biking up and down this road, I witnessed two accidents and had to swerve twice to avoid paraphernalia falling off the back of overloaded motorbikes, barely avoiding a crash of my own… all of it quickly accumulating in the vivid memory bank of adventure that I have stored to recollect this country.

Revelling in gratitude for sharing in the city’s history and making it out alive to tell the story.

Elephant Sense & Sensibility

Elephant feeding area.

Elephant feeding area.

“Stay behind the red line”, said our guide, Oley, as soon as we walked up a few steps and into a large, open, covered patio complex. Elephants roam freely in the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) and often come up to the patio area mid-morning searching for some food, which is when visitors have an opportunity for a close encounter with these seemingly gentle giants. Don’t be fooled, though, “If you’re in the way of their food, they won’t hesitate to knock you out of the way to get to it and there trunk is strong”, explained Oley. For this reason, the patio is elevated and surrounded by steel rails, and the red

Me, feeding watermelon to the elephants.

Me, feeding watermelon to the elephants.

line is about a meter inside that railing. Oley showed us to our assigned table so that we could put our bags down, and then encouraged us to go back over to the rail, grab some watermelon and try feeding the elephants. So we did. Their trunks are rather remarkable. They smell the watermelon and then curl their trunk around it with a tight grip to crush the watermelon quarter and drink the juice before dropping the entire piece of fruit into their mouth.

We had jumped right into our educational morning by listening to a video about the park and it’s endangered Asian elephants on our hour-long ride from Chiang Mai. At the turn of the 20th century, there were approximately 100,000 Asian elephants in existence. That population has now decreased to 30,000, with only about 1,500 of them left in the wild mainly due to the loss of their habitat through logging and slash-and-burn farming.  ENP is located on 300 acres of land that was donated by Bert &

Donors of the land for Elephant Nature Park.

Donors of the land for Elephant Nature Park.

Christine Van Roemer & the Serengeti Foundation in 2003.  However, the woman who runs the park, Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, started working with elephants long before that time. Elephants were captured and used in the logging business in Thailand for years.  When logging was banned in 1989, approximately 3,000 elephants were abandoned, many of whom had serious injuries from long hours of hauling logs up mountains or

The elephants and dogs have some fun with each other.

The elephants and dogs have some fun with each other.

scars from the abuse inflicted by their captors if they resisted work.  Lek started working with just four elephants in 1995, originally saving them one by one with her own money and resources. She has now made it her life’s work, determined to save as many elephants as she can, so all of the proceeds paid by visitors go directly to the oversight and management of ENP, which is now home to 44 elephants who have been rescued from logging, traps, snares, other parks, the circus, and street begging.  Lek is a lover of all animals though, so the park also has over 400 dogs rescued from a flood in Bangkok, 88 water buffalo and a herd of cows rescued from the slaughterhouse, as well as dozens of cats.

After feeding the elephants, Oley laid out a few simple rules for us before he took us on a walk of the grounds:

  1. Never stand behind an elephant. They will be able to sense a presence and will kick if they don’t know what that presence is.
  2. Never stand between two elephants or get between an elephant and her baby. We could easily become an “elephant sandwich”.

    Elephant Land Mines

    Elephant Land Mines

  3. When feeding the elephants, never put our hand in the elephant’s mouth, for obvious reasons, but also our hands are covered in things like lotion, mosquito repellent or sunscreen that could make the elephant sick.
  4. Watch out for the elephant land mines.
  5. And when Oley (or any of the guides) says run, he means RUN!

Although the park was filled with mainly rescued elephants that had been abused or tamed in some manner, there were a few who were born there and are considered wild. Oley explained that the elephants have keen instincts and if they aren’t comfortable with a visitor in their home, they would let us know, so we needed to respect them.  As we walked, Oley started to introduce us to the elephants and tell us their personal stories.

MEET KHUNDET

Khundet - her front left foot is injured from stepping in a snare.

Khundet – her front left foot is injured from stepping in a snare.

We first met a baby elephant named Khundet, which means “Warrior”, who is approximately 3 years old. It is difficult to know the exact age of the elephants unless they were born there, so the park assesses things like the dimples in the elephant’s head, wrinkles in the skin, and height and weight to approximate. Khundet had stepped in a snare in the jungle and was found by a park ranger in significant pain. The park ranger alerted ENP, who enacted a rescue mission, and Khundet joined the park about four months ago. Khundet’s front left foot is still healing and may never fully recover, which causes her to walk with a limp, but the park is providing treatment.

MEET LUCKY

Lucky - blind from working under circus spotlights for too long.

Lucky – blind from working under circus spotlights for too long.

A little later, we met Lucky, who is 30 years old and blind from working in the circus under circus spotlights for far too long. Elephants have fairly sensitive eyes and cannot endure that type of bright light. Even in the park, they asked that we turn off the flash for our cameras so that we didn’t startle the elephants or harm their eyesight. We couldn’t get very close to Lucky because she is constantly swinging her trunk to sense who and what is around her. It took a long time for

Elephant bonds are amazing.

Elephant bonds are amazing.

her to live a relatively peaceful life in the park, as opposed to constant fear in the darkness. Lucky was benevolently adopted by one of the other elephants, who sensed that she was blind, and took her under her wing. The two are now inseparable. These creatures are fiercely loyal and protective once they form a bond. Normally, elephants live together in families, with females forming a lifelong bond and male elephants staying with their mother for five years before going off on their own. The 44 elephants in the park have formed five small herds despite not being related, so it’s always a bit of a wait-and-see game to determine if a new elephant will be accepted by one of the herds.

The reason that we were able to walk around at all in this zoo without cages is thanks to the work of the mahouts. Traditionally, a mahout, or “elephant whisperer” as I like to call them, is known as the keeper of the elephant. The mahouts at this park, who are mostly from Burmese or Karen tribes because those groups of people grew up around elephants and have great respect for them, are responsible for the physical and emotional well-being of the elephants. They reside at the park, are each

Mahouts helping to bathe their elephants.

Mahouts helping to bathe their elephants.

assigned to one elephant, and spend the majority of their day watching over that elephant no matter where it goes.   They work with the natural instincts of the elephants and carry bags of food to help reinforce good behavior. Their relationships with the elephants, which we witnessed while there, were remarkable. They develop a long-term bond and deep trust with the elephant, something that can only be achieved over a long period of time. At ENP, when one of the mahouts had to leave due to family issues, his elephant moped around for weeks. They tried to introduce another mahout to the elephant but it took several different introductions of various mahouts until they finally found a man with a similar disposition to that of the elephant who the elephant accepted. And it is only now, after about six months time, that the elephant has started to seem content again, as witnessed through all of its ear flapping, which is a sign that it is happy.

Elephant bath time.

Elephant bath time.

Another thing that makes elephants happy is bathing and it is a daily ritual for the elephants, who always live within close proximity of a water source. They have inch thick, yet still sensitive skin and they like to cool off in the water. Watching them do this is joyful. They stand together, spray one another, rub against each other, push one another, use their trunks to tug at one another, and at times end up rolling around in the water. The babies are especially playful and try to climb on top of each other. They can stay under water for up to five minutes. Once they’re done bathing, cleanliness doesn’t last long because they immediately start spraying themselves with dirt, their natural form of sunscreen.

MEET BUALOY

Bualoy - with damaged hips, dislocated knee and spinal injuries due to logging and forced breeding.

Bualoy – with damaged hips, dislocated knee and spinal injuries due to logging and forced breeding.

At one point, we had the opportunity to bathe one of the more elderly elephants, who couldn’t easily roll around with a herd due to injury. Bualoy, which means “floating lotus”, is about 65 years old and she had been used in the logging industry for most of her life. Once logging was banned, she was put into a forced breeding program, which basically meant that she was tied up and gang raped. More than 29 attempts were made for breeding with her until

Bualoy's back right knee is permanently dislocated due to abuse.

Bualoy’s back right knee is permanently dislocated due to abuse.

during one of the last attempts, her hips and back legs were dislocated due to the weight of the bull.  Most elephants, especially male elephants, weigh in the neighborhood of three to four tons. Their penises are 1.5 to 2 meters in length and their mating ritual only lasts about 2 minutes, in part because it takes a lot of energy for a male to pump enough blood into a 2 meter long penis to be effective, and also in part due to the fact that a female can’t support the weight of the male for very long.  So, when poor Bualoy was tied up with no escape and repeated attempts were made to breed, she was physically and emotionally damaged. Her back no longer has the characteristic curve in it, her hip was broken, and one of her knees is permanently dislocated so she walks with a limp. Unfortunately, elephants also have a very good memory, so who knows with what sensibilities Bualoy lives on a daily basis. We gave her some extra special attention, scooping up water and throwing it on her back. Our guide told us that bathing like this was like a gentle massage for the elephants, so we went to work. Bualoy stood there munching on watermelon and contently flapping her ears while we washed her down.

Now, I know many of you are wondering, did I ride an elephant? The answer is NO, absolutely not.  And the reason specifically relates to the weight factor that I just referenced with Bualoy. Although elephants can pull a significant amount of weight, they can’t carry it on their backs. Riding elephants for countless hours, year after year, eventually causes spinal damage. I know, I know, it sounds so cool to say I’ve ridden an elephant. I mean, really, bathing them, taking walks with them, or watching them play in their natural habitat… that’s not nearly as fun, right? For me, it definitely was. They are incredible animals.

Here’s where I’m going to kindly ask you to use some common… oops, I mean elephant sense for a moment. Elephants are wild animals. Wild animals often have unpredictable, wild instincts. In order to be able to ride an elephant, like what is done at so many elephant parks, a mahout tames and trains the elephant so that the elephant will allow humans to ride it. The way that this is done, historically in Thailand, is often when an elephant is very young, the elephant is taken away from it’s mother, long before it should be separated, tied up, and then trained with the use of the “Tha Kor” or bull hook. While you’re pondering this scenario, also give some thought to whether a wild animal could truly be happy being captured and tamed in the first place. I know some of you have already ridden elephants and the park you visited treated the elephants very well… at least while

Special elephant moments.

Special elephant moments.

you were there to witness them. Elephants are emotional animals, though, and if you really sit and watch, I mean really see them, interacting naturally, it is so much more interesting and cool to witness than if you watch them while they have to carry a human on their back on command. I’m not trying to make you feel guilty if you’ve already ridden an elephant. I’m just asking you to think about it in the future. The biggest gift that you could give and statement that you could make going forward, is to visit an elephant park that allows you to ride the elephants. Then decline to ride them and ensure the park knows why so that they start to get the message. Several of the elephants at ENP were rescued from other parks and will live out their “retirement” there, similar to a hospice.

MEET FAA SAI

Faa Sai, or "clear sky", was forced into street begging.

Faa Sai, or “clear sky”, was forced into street begging.

Faa Sai, or “clear sky” was taken away from her Mom when she was a baby and forced to do street begging. This essentially means that her captor walks her down the street all day or all night and teaches her to do tricks so that people will think she’s cute and give her captor some money. Elephants are able to sense vibrations in the ground, which is key for them because their eyesight typically isn’t super strong. However, when placed on a busy street with vibrations all around from people, cars, and other street noises, it can be overwhelming. To top it off, when Faa Sai wasn’t walking the street begging, she was tied up in darkness, which is how her captor broke her spirit.  She went from one extreme to another for years until she was rescued.  She sometimes still has a nervous rocking motion when she’s scared, but has otherwise settled in well in the sanctuary and likes to cause a ruckus every now and then.

Our group slept at the park that night so that we would be able to wake up early the next morning and have some quiet time with the elephants before the day crowd arrived. On day two, we had a different guide, who was nicknamed Sunshine, and had been working at the park for two years. As we went on a walk in the morning with Sunshine, we stopped

Mahouts riding elephants from the neighboring elephant park.

Mahouts riding elephants from the neighboring elephant park.

by the river to watch the elephants playing in the water. While we were there, the neighboring elephant camp’s mahouts were riding three of their elephants down to the river. Once they got them in the river, I’m not sure what exactly they wanted the elephants to do, but one elephant in particular was not happy and let them know with a loud trumpet sound and them some low rumbling. The group of elephants with ENP reacted immediately with alarm, poised as if

The ENP elephants watching and reacting to the cry for help coming from the elephant at the neighboring park.

The ENP elephants watching and reacting to the cry for help coming from the elephant at the neighboring park.

ready to stampede. The mahout from the other park had a bull hook and started using it to get the elephant to lie down in the water. Simultaneously, the mahouts working with the elephants at ENP jumped up and ran over to each of their elephants to calm them. Sunshine explained that even though the groups of elephants aren’t related or in the same herd, elephants talk to one another and feel emotion in some of the same ways as humans.  Elephants cognitive processing exceeds any

Elephant frustration - kicking dirt and pulling at tree branches.

Elephant frustration – kicking dirt and pulling at tree branches.

of that of the primate species and they often exhibit a wide variety of behaviors.  I don’t want to get too political here, but in my mind, this incident is similar to some of the recent police brutality cases that enraged North America in the past couple of months. The very people who are their to protect, similar to the mahouts who are there to monitor an elephant’s well-being, inflicted unconscionable violence. And you probably weren’t related to those victims but you could empathize with their pain and be outraged with their misguided assailants.  Once the incident was over and the ENP mahouts finished talking with their elephants, the elephants walked out of the water and started throwing dirt, pulling branches off trees and throwing them down on the ground, and kicking their back feet. Frustration – that’s what it looks like with elephants.

As we continued our walk, we visited the 6 acres of land that is home to the only four male elephants in the ENP sanctuary. They are housed in a separate area because males between the ages of 10 to 20 years old go through an annual phenomenon known as “musth”. No one can predict when it might occur and during this period, a male elephant’s testosterone levels are 100 times greater than normal and they become extremely aggressive. ENP is already searching for land where they might be able to release some of the babies that were born there back into the wild, but unfortunately, the habitat that is needed is scarce. So, the other reason the male elephants need to be separated is because ENP is running out of land even on their 300 acres and they can’t afford to have pregnant elephants.  An elephant also eats up to about a tenth of its body weight, so more elephants mean they need more food, which means they need more money.

This leads me to the next conversation that I had with Sunshine… while our overnight stay was lovely and day two afforded us more alone time with the elephants and time away from the crowds, I suspect that it was in part due to Sunshine’s experience of managing the schedule and staggering our activities around the masses. When I asked Sunshine why ENP allowed so many people to visit during the day, he explained that they need all the help that they can get through tour fees and publicity to help spread their humane philosophy. I asked him why they didn’t just try to raise the prices a little, and as soon as the words came out of my mouth, I could tell how culturally insensitive this question was. Sunshine knew it too… stupid American. Of course this park is affordable for me; I can comfortably live in Thailand on $30 a day thanks to the exchange rate, but for the heaps of other tourists who might be coming from other Southeast Asian or developing countries, this park is on the high end of the cost spectrum in comparison to the other parks. Sunshine looked at me with restrained contempt and said, “We want to give everyone an opportunity to visit and learn about the elephants”. You’d think I would have relented out of sheer embarrassment, but acting like a fool often gets me to the answers, so I pressed further, as I often do, and questioned if having this many people around the elephants is healthy for them.  Sunshine explained that most of them can’t get around all that easily and they love the attention. Think again of the hospice where your elderly grandmother resides after a terrible stroke.  She can’t easily get out of bed and it’s depressing to just be staring at the walls all the time.  Visitors make it more interesting. The elephants that don’t love the attention are in outer lying areas of the sanctuary; the areas that we visited in very small groups on our morning walk.

Here’s what I really appreciate about the park… Ket, the manager, holds both herself and everyone who works there to a high standard. They aren’t just trying to rescue and care for injured elephants, they are trying to change the hearts and minds of the Thai people, and all of those visitors from around the world who had no idea that it’s cruel to ride an elephant. They are trying to encourage benevolence, respect, and a safe future for the endangered Asian elephant. When we asked Sunshine why he came to work there, he said, “I love elephants”. Sunshine’s grandparents, who are from the Karen tribe, lived in elephant country and taught him respect for them early in life. He eventually moved to a bigger city, went to college, got an office finance job, made good money, and hated it. So, one day he quit (sound familiar?). He became a monk for six months, sat quietly, and searched his heart for his true passion. Shortly after that time, he worked at an

Sunshine after feeding tamarind to the elephants.

Sunshine after feeding tamarind to the elephants.

international school as a teaching assistant and brought students to ENP, which is how he found his calling. He had to apply to ENP four times before they eventually accepted him as a guide in the park. Their application and interview process is rigorous. It involves an essay, an interview, volunteer work on the grounds, and eventually, they only select guides who truly embody their philosophy. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Sunshine for going in search of his vocation, following his dream, and having the persistence and determination to see it through. It shows in his work.

Our touring herd.  Clockwise around the table: Erik, Raudha, Jess, Me, Alex, and Caroline.

Our touring herd. Clockwise around the table: Erik, Raudha, Jess, Me, Alex, and Caroline.

By the end of our second day, it was like our 6-person tour group had formed a herd of our own. As is always the case, half of what makes or breaks these types of tours is the group itself and once again, my good fortune prevailed. There was Alex & Jess, a couple from the UK, who were traveling through Southeast Asia on their way to Australia for a year of work; Erik & Caroline, a soon to be US doctor of emergency medicine and a French Doctors without Borders HR professional; and Raudha, a digital media professional from Singapore who had just popped over to Thailand for the weekend. Without all of their participation, good questions, observations, and interaction, I wouldn’t have had nearly as many facts, pictures, or video for this post.

Elephant who lost a partial foot when she stepped on a land mine near the border.

Elephant who lost a partial foot when she stepped on a land mine near the border.

On the bus ride back to Chiang Mai, I couldn’t help but think that these elephants and their life stories sounded more like the chronicles of post-revolutionary slaves in the US who had received their emancipation papers but still ran into opposition at every turn. There was an elephant who stepped on a land mine and lost half of her foot, so she’ll need lifelong treatment and walk with a limp. There was another who was pregnant for 22 months, the span of an elephant’s gestation

Elephant with damaged hips.

Elephant with damaged hips.

period, while she was performing logging. When she gave birth on a hillside, her baby rolled down the hill and died. She refused to work after the incident and when she did, her captor shot her in the eye with a slingshot. When she lashed out at the abuse, he stabbed her in the other eye. She’s blind now. So many other elephants have hip problems from logging.  With each elephant’s tragic account, struggle to overcome it, and unique personality, we were touched and inspired. All of the mahouts and guides treated them as individuals as well. They knew every elephant by name, they could tell each elephant’s story as if they were talking about a dear friend, and they knew each elephant’s personality quirks, which is why we knew exactly who we could approach, when and how.

Hanging out with elephants at Elephant Nature Park.

Hanging out with elephants at Elephant Nature Park.

While I may have initially hoped for a less touristic experience, the guides were extremely knowledgeable and did an excellent job of educating us. ENP’s program is admirable and the work they’re doing is extraordinary. I would recommend the overnight stay or possibly even one of the elephant treks, like Journey to Freedom, for a smaller group experience. And whatever you do, please think about what kind of tourist you want to be… the cool elephant rider or the humane, knowledgeable eco tourist.  Cool is SO overrated.

Revelling in gratitude for the opportunity to visit this hospice sanctuary and bear witness.

Table for One, Please

My dear friends, normally, when I write to you, it is in the past tense because it takes me a few days to go through pictures, research and verify my facts, and collect my thoughts before I lay them out on the page for you in what I hope you find to be a thoughtful, entertaining, and easy to read post. And I assure you, I’m working on one for you that will explain those recent Facebook posts with elephants, but it’s not quite ready yet. Tonight, however, I had such a lovely evening that I decided I needed to write, in the moment, to mirror my current “live in the moment” lifestyle and convey my feelings while they are still vividly swimming around in my mind. I’ll warn you now that this post has only one picture and no specific travel facts. It also contains a tablespoon of feminism and a heap of encouragement … dedicated in particular to my handful of beautiful, single girlfriends who have never taken themselves out to dinner, i.e. eaten a meal solo in public. I’m feeling a bit cheeky tonight, ladies, especially in my mildly inebriated state, but I’m going to refrain from naming names in a public forum.

I was chatting with one of my aforementioned highly successful, self-sufficient, comfortably content friends on my last visit to the states and she was praising me for having the confidence to travel solo. I was chiding with her a bit, giving her a hard time for not coming to meet me on the road somewhere… and as we joked, she disclosed that she has never even gone out to dinner by herself. I tried to explain to her that there was a time in my life when the same was true for me. And the truth is that it took me a little bit of practice, some confidence building, and a great experience or two for me to realize that it is pretty fantastic. The first time that I dined alone was when I studied abroad in Athens during my junior year in college. Then again for a period in my early 20’s when I first moved to Los Angeles. After this time, however, it wasn’t until my early 30’s after I broke up with a long-term boyfriend that I had to exercise my “solo” muscles again. I assure you that just like a long lull from physical exercise, it’s a little hard and a little uncomfortable when you have to start back up again. But tonight is one of those perfect examples of why I’m so glad that I keep this particular muscle in tip-top shape.

It was 106F today in Chiang Mai, Thailand and after a rather poor night of sleep and a morning of exploring the town and visiting a few Wats, the sun had taken its toll. I came back to my guesthouse room and inadvertently fell asleep for a good two hours. When I woke, I went through some pictures and started trying to figure out where I should go next, thinking that the islands were sounding more and more appealing in this weather. Maybe I’ll even leave tomorrow I thought. When I start researching and planning like this, I get sucked in to some sort of Trip Advisor, Google Maps, travel blog vortex and often the hours pass without me even realizing it. Tonight, however, my stomach let me know that I had to set my computer aside, pull myself together, and go find food. On most of my prior nights here, that has meant wandering across the street to the food stands and ordering some incredibly delicious street food because it’s quick, easy, cheap, and still allows me to experiment with new dishes. Tonight, though, there was a restaurant that I had been meaning to find because the reviews were great and I liked the name of it, Cooking Love. Last year, when I had taken a Thai cooking class in Phuket, highlighted in A great escape: Phuket, our instructor had told us that we had to smile while we cooked to ensure that we were putting love into the food, so the name of this restaurant resonated with me. I consulted my city map before heading out the door around 7pm in search of Cooking Love.

The Old City in Chiang Mai is essentially a grid, which is great because then I can’t really get lost. And I love zigzagging my way through the streets and stumbling upon little artist shops, or clothing stores, or coffee shops. Tonight, I turned down a street that was lively, transitioning from the day shops to the night bars and restaurants, when I staggered into a bookstore just before it closed. I was thrilled! I haven’t had a book to read since Vang Vieng, when I finished the one that I was reading and thoughtlessly left it at the house. There has been no bookstores in all of the towns that I’ve visited since then, only coffee shops or guesthouses that would not sell me a book. They would only accept an exchange because they wanted to maintain a reading library for their patrons. Finally, I would be able to buy a book, to read of course, but also for future exchange scenarios. The owner was delightful and helpful and the store had the best collection that I have seen since I left Bangkok.

After the bookstore, I managed to find Cooking Love, which was tucked away down a small ally off the main road and just across from Thapae Gate. The waitress approached as I stepped through the entrance. “Table for one, please”, I said. It seemed that it was a quiet night or I had arrived at just the right time because I was able to sit and order almost immediately. Now, sometimes when I’m eating alone, I specifically choose spots that offer good people watching opportunities, which can be invaluable when trying to assimilate to a new culture. But tonight, since I chose my location especially for the food, I was happy to have discovered my bookshop first. The universe is so great like that. I opened one of my books and started reading but my order of green curry was delivered before I had even finished the forward and before they had even managed to bring my watermelon shake. The chef was a slender, elderly gentleman who concocted his meals in an open, outdoor kitchen at the corner of the restaurant. He watched as I took my first bite and smiled as I savored the explosion of flavors in my mouth. It was delicious! Everything that the reviews said it would be.

I know what you’re thinking… wouldn’t it be nice to share the experience or even the food with someone? I know, I know, sometimes that is nice. But, I had been craving green curry since the moment that I crossed the border into Thailand and unfortunately, most of the restaurants that serve it were closed last week due to the Thai New Year. This was the first week that they were open again. Thai Green Curry happens to be one of my favorite meals and it’s not as good if I take it to go. I like to eat it hot, over fluffy brown rice. While I’m relishing the flavors, and appreciating the love that was put into it, I don’t want to talk to anyone or make idle chit chat. I don’t want to be judged for eating the entire bowl because I can’t bear to waste any of it and I don’t have a refrigerator in my room. It’s a little bit like that old Carl’s Junior slogan, “Don’t bother me, I’m eating”. This is my ideal dining alone experience. I sat there eating, slowly, relishing every bite of spicy curry and every sip of sweet watermelon for nearly an hour. An empty bowl of curry and a dozen or so mosquito bites later; I decided I needed to walk. As I was leaving, the chef stopped me to ask how my dinner was and when I praised him for his superb skills, he encouraged me to come back tomorrow. “I will”, I said with sincerity.

Next, I walked a few blocks and decided that a coffee would be nice. It was still 100F outside, so I took myself to an upscale, air-conditioned coffee house that had both decaf coffee (since it was 8:30pm by that point) and soymilk, which is rare in these parts. It too was fairly quiet this evening except for one table of six that was celebrating a birthday. I read my book and I sipped my rich, delicious coffee. And I assure you, no one cared that I was there by myself. When I finished my coffee, I sauntered down a new street and enjoyed the sights and sounds coming from the bustling bars. I decided that I would make one more stop before going home.

North Gate Jazz Co-Op band, Chiang Mai.

North Gate Jazz Co-Op band, Chiang Mai.

There is a jazz bar only a block down the street from my guesthouse and on two prior nights, I had intended to visit it. Each time, though, it was a little early, the band hadn’t started playing and I chose to go back to my room to freshen up and cool off, and then told myself that I would go back out. The going back out never happened of course. Tonight, I decided to march my frizzy haired, dewy skinned, sticky self right into that bar and order a beer (yes, beer, it tastes better in the heat and the wine is shit here) before going home since this was likely to be one of my last nights in Chiang Mai. The band was singing Madonna’s Like a Virgin and people were eating it up. I scanned the crowd and walked over to a young couple, who had an extra chair at their table, and asked if I could join them. They looked at me, smiled and nodded yes. I introduced myself, and Isaac, who is from Malaysia, asked where my companion was. I told him that I was traveling solo and he smiled and said, “So are we”. It turned out that Isaac had met Mayo, from Japan, at the hostel where they were both staying and they just decided to join one another to come to the bar tonight. We listened to the music and chatted about where we had been and where we wanted to go next. A new band stepped in for the second shift and Santana’s Black Magic Woman left us all happily bobbing along to the beat.  After a myriad of other songs, exchanging contact information, and just before turning into a pumpkin at the stroke of midnight, I bid my farewell to my two new friends and strolled back to my room.

I can scarcely think of a time when I haven’t met someone interesting or had a fantastic time when I have dined alone or taken myself out.  And I certainly haven’t had any bad experiences. So, my dear, dear girlfriends, I say to you… stop waiting for an invite, or a date… just go take yourself to a nice dinner because you deserve it.  And, ya know what?  That goes for you single guys and couples alike.  You may be in a relationship, but you’re not attached at the hip, are you?  Work those “solo”  muscles until you can flex them without flinching. Practice in the mirror… Table for one, please.

Go revel!

Songkran Festivities – fun or folly?

Water guns armed and ready.

Water guns armed and ready.

As I left Laos, everyone was gearing up for the Lao New Year, which is celebrated from April 13th through the 15th and coincides with the New Year’s festivities across many Southeast Asian countries that also follow the same astrological calendar.  I knew that it was a water celebration because everyone was selling water guns, but I didn’t really know the extent of the festivities until I arrived on the eve of what is known as the Songkran Festival in Chiang Rai, Thailand. That night, I checked into my guesthouse and then immediately went out in search of dinner and to explore the town.  My guesthouse was on a street with several other guesthouses, bars and restaurants, so there were lots of people in the streets and some of them seemed to already be testing their water guns to ensure they would be ready for the following day. I got a few spritzes of water as I passed through their territory outside of the bar, mainly because I had walked through the line of fire. Other than that, I made it back to my guesthouse unscathed. The next morning, as I ventured out in search of a good breakfast spot or coffee house, I had completely forgotten that it was officially the start of the Thai New Year celebrations. It wasn’t until I passed by several closed restaurants and shops and observed their posted signs, “Closed for New Year. Returning on April 21st”, that I remembered.  Regardless, I managed to find one delicious breakfast spot that was still open and enjoyed a lovely, quiet morning of reading, writing, and researching.  After breakfast, I decided to drop my laptop back at my guesthouse and then take myself on a tour of the town.  All I took with me was a small satchel carrying my camera, some money, and my room key.

The line of assailants armed with their water.

The line of assailants armed with their water.

It was only thirty minutes later, but as I walked back down my street, it was lined with people. It was as if there was some secret signal that had been given and the games began. I watched as people ran hoses out to the curb and filled large trashcans or barrels full of water, then set up chairs, and even filled coolers full of ice. As I kept walking, one of the kids shot me in the back with his water gun. It caught me off guard and as I spun around to see who it was, I saw another kid running toward me with a pale of water. He threw. I dodged. He missed. I thought, “How exactly does this work? Are there just massive water battles in the streets, whether you’re willing or not… tourists alike”? The answer is YES. That’s exactly what happens. I managed to make it down the rest of the

The Songkran Festival Parade.

The Songkran Festival Parade.

street with only a few sprays from water guns and had to tuck my satchel with my camera in it under my arm to try to protect it. I was pleading silently with the universe… “please don’t let my camera be destroyed”. I thought about turning around and taking it back to the guesthouse but I didn’t know if I would make it down my street again and when I rounded the corner to the main street, a parade had started, so I wanted to be able to take pictures.

Pick-up truck carrying a bed of people and their barrel of water.

Pick-up truck carrying a bed of people and their barrel of water.

Thankfully, most of the people on the main street seemed to be enthralled and distracted by the parade so they were paying little attention to me as I walked behind them. They were more interested in dumping water on people in the street. There were pick-up trucks driving around with giant barrels of water in the back of them along with 3 or 4 people all scooping water out of the barrel and dumping it on anyone that they passed. The people on the sidewalk threw it right back at them in the truck. It didn’t matter if someone was on a bicycle or a motorcycle, they got doused while riding. Parade participant? Who cares… drenched with water.

Motorcycle water battle.  Notice that the third person on the back of that motorcycle has a water gun.

Motorcycle water battle. Notice that the third person on the back of that motorcycle has a water gun.

Songkran, from the Sanskrit work samkranti literally translated is “astrological passage” and the pouring of water is meant as a symbol of washing away all of the bad. At this time of year, everyone cleans their house and the small Buddha statues that sit in front of them and the water that they use to do this is sometimes filled with fragrant herbs or flowers. The elderly men and women that I observed honoring this tradition did so reverently and respectfully by sprinkling some of their fragrant

Parade participants also get doused with water.

Parade participants also get doused with water.

water on my hands, a far contrast from the battles that I was witnessing on the streets from most of the younger generations. I had also read that during this week of the year, traffic accidents nearly double due to drunk driving. Although the article didn’t specify, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those accidents happened because someone got a pale of water in the face as they rode their motorcycle. It was the only week since I’ve been in Southeast Asia when I’ve seen people regularly wearing helmets while riding their motorcycles. I walked a bit of the parade route and then when it was becoming more and more difficult to avoid a dousing of water, I ducked into a tea shop, made a purchase, and asked for a plastic bag to tie around my little purse in the hopes of keeping my camera dry. As I

Time to battle back.

Time to battle back.

walked out of the shop, I got no more than a half block before a very innocent looking, sweet teenager dumped a pale of water over me. I didn’t even see it coming. You know what I always say, when all else fails, do as the locals do… that was the end of it. I was already drenched so anytime anyone else came at me with a pale of water, I rushed in and attempted to redirect it back at him or her. I spent the rest of the afternoon on the parade route witnessing mayhem. I was told that this was the same as the festivities happening in Laos, which is ironic, since I had just spent the last month researching and spouting about water conservation. I eventually went home to change my dripping wet clothes and relax for a bit. Later that night, I went out for dinner and the festivities were still in full swing. I barely made it out the driveway of my guesthouse before someone was throwing water at me. So here’s how the Songkran Festival progressed for me: The Eve of Songkran: Huh, everyone’s really gearing up. Look at those water guns. I wonder how this works. Day 1: Oh, wow, this is crazy, but seems really fun… I’m just going to join in. Everyone’s having such a good time. Day 2: Huh, I really wish some more shops and restaurants were open. There’s not much to do other than the water battles. I don’t really feel comfortable trying to rent a moped and drive in this madness and I can’t even find a tour to join. How long do these water battles go on? And am I ever going to be able to sit down and enjoy a meal in dry underwear? This is getting a little annoying. Day 3 – Morning: I’m hiring a driver, not an open caged tuk-tuk… a driver, with a vehicle who can drive me around to a few of the sites and then take me with my bags to the bus station. I’m going to Chiang Mai. Day 3 – Afternoon: Bus ride to Chiang Mai (4 hours) – these people are so crazy. They’re throwing water at the bus windows… what’s the point? Day 3 – Evening: Arriving in Chiang Mai. There are almost three times as many people throwing water here, great.  I guess I’ll have to pull out my rain cover for my pack. Oh, yeah, of course the seats of the tuk-tuk are wet. Did that A-hole really just shoot water into my tuk-tuk and get my entire backpack wet? Oh yeah, figures, he’s not even Thai. He’s American. I guess I’m still going to get wet tonight when I go grab dinner. This tradition is dumb. Why do they need to celebrate for three days anyway? It’s officially only the new year on the first day. The morning after Songkran, shops were still closed, but order was restored and my bad attitude dried up with the warmth of the sun. Unfortunately, I think that bad attitude reared its ugly head because I was often on the defensive. If I ever come to Southeast Asia again during New Year, which I have to say is unlikely, I’ll be armed with my own damn water gun. Revelling, not so much.  Grateful for the passing of the New Year, definitely.

My very own Swiss Family Robinson Tree House

I had been looking forward to the weekend all week and it had finally arrived, Thursday evening. In less than twelve hours, I would be on my way! I was trying to send out a few last emails to let my parents and a few friends know that I would be off the grid, but a thunder storm was passing over Houay Xai and the electricity kept cutting out, which also made packing a little challenging. My pocket flashlight was proving its worth once again as I decided what to take with me and rearranged the items in my bags. I would be leaving my large pack behind in storage and taking only my small backpack with me for the weekend. And although I was brimming with excitement, I needed to go to bed… Friday was going to be a long day and I knew I should get a good night’s sleep.

On Friday morning, I awoke to another thunderstorm, which immediately made me jump out of bed to get an early start since I would need to walk 10 or 15 minutes down the street in the downpour to get to my meeting spot. I took one last look around my guesthouse room to make sure I had everything, pulled out my backpack rain cover, and threw a poncho over the rest of me. I stepped out into the pummeling rain and was mentally patting myself on the back for being so prepared with all of my rain gear. When I arrived at The Gibbon Experience office, one of the office workers was standing outside because she didn’t have a key. The office wouldn’t open until 8am, which was in ten minutes, so I left my packs with her and went across the street to buy a few snacks and some breakfast. By the time I came back, the office was swarming with backpackers, all stowing their packs, double checking final items, surveying the room, and exchanging stories as only backpackers can… comparing who’s travels have been the longest, who’s have been the farthest, the most remote, the craziest night, the cheapest room… on and on.

I sat down next to a girl named Julie, whom I mistakenly thought was with a group of Aussies. She wasn’t; she was from Denmark and had just arrived in Houay Xai from Luang Prabang like the majority of us who had come for this experience. As explained on their website, The Gibbon Experience is an eco tourism forest conservation project. It funds forest protection and community projects in the Bokeo Nature Reserve in Northern Laos. Guests stay in tree houses in the nature reserve and participate in one of three different excursions, an express one-night stay, a classic two-night stay, or a waterfall two-night stay. We were all trying to determine who was in which group and share what we had heard from other travelers about the experience. On the website, it indicates that it is best to wear long pants or high socks because there are leeches in the jungle. We debate this fact as we all sit there in our shorts or three-quarter length pants until one girl says she just talked to another backpacker two days ago who had returned from the jungle and said that there were leeches everywhere. We silently looked at each other with wide-eyed fear and one by one, searched our packs for long pants, then discretely slipped away to the restroom to change.

Moments later, one of the office managers welcomed the group and asked us all to quietly watch the video that he was about to play and pay careful attention to the safety instructions. Once questions were answered, we were off. As Julie & I walked out the door, we learned that we were the only two in the group who had signed up for the Classic, two-night excursion. Everyone else was doing the Express, one-night. It seemed a little odd, but we were grateful that they were still running the program with only the two of us and

Julie and I in the back of our truck… on our way to the Bokeo Nature Reserve after a rainy morning.

Julie and I in the back of our truck… on our way to the Bokeo Nature Reserve after a rainy morning.

quickly determined that we would simply become the best of friends. We hopped in the back of a 4-wheel drive truck, which closely resembled a tuk-tuk with a caged back cover and bench seats.   The seats were wet, but it had stopped raining. Without introductions, our driver jumped inside, started up the engine and pulled onto the road. It was 9:15am. As we drove, we made random stops to pick up an elderly woman and a mother carrying a baby, then a guy who turned out to be one of the guides with the program… then another guide, then drop off the elderly woman. It didn’t even faze me. I had experienced the same type of casual stops every time that I was in a vehicle in Laos, whether it was in someone’s personal vehicle, on a public bus, or Soaring along the Mekong. There is very little transportation in remote areas and it seems to be an unspoken rule that the community helps one another get to where they need to go.

Our off-road mountain drive into the Bokeo Nature Reserve.

Our off-road mountain drive into the Bokeo Nature Reserve.

After a little over an hour, we stopped at a small village where the driver said that we would take a five minute rest stop. Julie and I were chatting and getting to know one another so we didn’t care and before we realized five minutes had passed, two more guides hopped in the truck to join us. Julie & I looked at each other, both knowingly doing the math in our heads… two of us, four guides. We started wondering, “How rigorous was this excursion going to be”? As

Remote village on the edge of the Bokeo Nature Reserve.

Remote village on the edge of the Bokeo Nature Reserve.

we started driving again, the truck did not pull back onto the road, but instead headed down a narrow, muddy, dirt road and shifted into low gear. We crossed a river, bounced over some rocks and started uphill into the mountains. It took almost another hour driving up and down hills, through muddy ditches, around sharp curves and fallen trees while branches scraped the truck, to get to a very remote village with about a dozen aluminum or thatched roof houses. Our guides jumped out and motioned for us to follow. Two more guides joined us… now two of us and six guides.

Trekking across open fields to get to the forest.

Trekking across open fields to get to the forest.

The jungle of the Bokeo Nature Reserve.

The jungle of the Bokeo Nature Reserve.

There were no more roads, only trails. We strapped on our backpacks and trekked away from the village, across streams, along fields, through mud, and eventually into the jungle. We had only been hiking for about thirty minutes, when Julie and I peeled off our rain jackets, searched for our water, and pulled our hair back off of our necks. The post rain jungle humidity was thick and we were both already glistening with sweat. Our guides stopped at a spot where there were a few benches and pulled out sandwiches for a quick lunch break. Julie and I each took one without realizing that there weren’t enough for everyone. Each of the guides had torn their sandwich in half to share, but they were still one short. I felt guilty. Despite my growling hunger, I ripped my sandwich in half and handed it to the last guide, who reluctantly took it.

When we started walking again, it appeared that the rest of our trek would be uphill. The narrow, muddy path was covered in wet leaves, the roots of trees, and moss covered rocks. I was consciously trying to look around and absorb the spectacular jungle fauna, but

Julie hiking up our trail in the jungle.

Julie hiking up our trail in the jungle.

found that it was too difficult on the slippery trail and nearly lost my balance on the hill I was climbing. The friendly guide with whom I had shared my sandwich was instantly at my side to steady my footing and find me a bamboo walking stick.  As we continued our arduous ascent, I was deliberately controlling my breathing and carefully placing my footsteps, my heart pounding and my ears alertly listening to all of the jungle noises. The guides walking with us were casually chatting and laughing as they ambled along in their flip-flops as if it were a stroll in the park. It put my level of fitness in a whole new perspective.

After about an hour of trekking, we arrived at a cabin in a clearing. There were men standing idle on the porch, observing our approach. Our guides strolled up and exchanged pleasantries as if they were greeting family and told Julie and I we would take another ten minute break. By that point, we were drenched in sweat, reapplying our mosquito repellant, and discussing whether either of us had seen any leeches. Before we started walking again, two new guides introduced themselves and handed Julie and I each a harness and showed us how to properly adjust it. Their names were Bounleun and Khamphi. Four of the previous guides stayed behind at the cabin, while two of them continued on with Bounleun, Khamphi, Julie & I. The last part of our trek would involve a network of zip lines to get to our tree house, however, the zip lines weren’t all connected. They were just as much functional for crossing the jungle as fun, so there would be some hiking, then a zip line, then more hiking.

When we arrived at our first zip line, Khamphi reviewed the safety instructions and directions, attached his trolley and safety line to demonstrate, then breezily zipped across the line and disappeared into the jungle. Julie was next. She took a few minutes to get her bearings, check her harness and attachments, and take a deep breath. She had never done this either, but she bravely zipped away without hesitation. I was next. Khamphi told us that this particular zip line was 180 m (590 ft.) high and 140 m (459 ft.) long. I was doing

Me on my zip line!

Me on my zip line!

a mental checklist… harness, check. Trolley, check. Safety line, check. Right hand on top, check. Left hand on ropes, check. Deep breath, check. Goooooooooooooo! Legs tucked, check. Lean back, check. “Wow, I’m going really fast”. Break, break, break, check. I stopped about 3 meters short of the landing platform thanks to my extra breaking and had to spin around and pull myself in, hand over hand.

Whew, I made it. It was scary, adrenaline-charged, and exciting!

We unhooked, hiked a bit more and came to the next zip line. The second time, I was able to think less about my technical checklist and actually look at the scenery. It was breathtaking. Mountains, layered with hues of green, stacked against more mountains and more layers of green. Our third zip line took us to a landing on a very tall tree that had four

The safety line - Julie and I hooked into our nexus of zip lines.

The safety line – Julie and I hooked into our nexus of zip lines.

zip line connections. The zip lines throughout the network were one way only, the start of each one marked with green and the end marked with red. This tree had two starts and two ends, four layered platforms, and it was imperative that our safety line was always attached to the yellow line that spiraled around the tree. This tree, for me, was the most thrilling nexus in the network. Because the platforms were so narrow and a bit uneven, every time I looked down, I instantly had a fearful flutter in my gut and the thought of “holy crap, this tree is really tall”. At this point, our guides let us play. When zipping away from this tree, the walk to the return zip line to get back to the tree was only about five minutes, so we tried them all

One of our jungle tree houses.

One of our jungle tree houses.

until we felt really comfortable. Once we finished, we hiked some more and eventually reached our final zip line around 2pm, which would take us to the front door of our tree house. How fantastic is that? The only way to enter any of the tree houses in the forest was by zip line.

The front door of our tree house (tree house #7)

The front door of our tree house (tree house #7)

Our outdoor bathroom with rainforest shower.

Our outdoor bathroom with rainforest shower.

The main living area in our tree house.

The main living area in our tree house.

As we stepped into our little piece of heaven in the sky, we were stunned. We stepped through a spring loaded, waist high, wooden gate into the entrance, where, just like with any Lao home, we left our shoes. Around the other side of the tree on the same level as our front door was a green curtain. When we pulled it back, we stepped down three stairs to our outdoor bathroom in the sky. Next to the entrance was a set of stairs that led up to the main floor, where there was a kitchen, a low, round dining table, a few stools, and the makings for our beds that evening. The tree house was round so we had amazing panoramic views of the jungle no matter where we looked. From the main floor, there was another set of stairs that led up to a crow’s nest, that our guides jokingly called the honeymoon suite because at the top of the stairs, there was a door in the floor that closed to offer privacy from the floor below. Our guides pulled a melon, a mango, and some homemade corn and rice treats out of a cooler next to our kitchen, cut them up and served us so that we could have a snack and enjoy the view. It was 2:30pm and after they shared some fun facts about the forest, they let us know that they would be back around 5pm with dinner, but for now, they would leave us to allow us to settle in and relax. They would be staying in a small cabin at the other end of our zip line and up a short hill, where there was a camp for the guides, cooks, and other workers. This is where our meals would be made.

View from our Tree House

View from our Tree House

After more than a five-hour voyage into the forest, Julie and I were exhausted, but I found it hard to stand up from my little stool, either because my legs were too tired to work or I was still in shock. I’m not sure. I was overwhelmed by our magnificent surroundings. In due time, I managed to muster myself to my feet, unpack my bag, and venture down to test our outdoor bathroom. Standing naked under our rainforest showerhead, staring down at the trees and the wide, open expanse of the jungle, I’ve never felt more connected with nature. It was also one of the best showers I had experienced in Laos because the architect of this tree house managed to tap into a mountain stream that offered fresh water, albeit cold, and fantastic water pressure. After I changed and set up my mattress for bed, I just sat there listening to the birds chirping, the insects buzzing, and the cicadas humming. The jungle was alive and full of energy.

Our delicious dinner options.

Our delicious dinner options.

At 5pm as promised, Bounleun and Khamphi zipped over to the tree house with dinner, four different dishes and enough food for four people, but they didn’t stay to eat with us.  After the sandwich situation earlier and now this, I was beginning to realize that they probably weren’t allowed to eat with us, but in this case it seemed silly since it was just Julie and I.  The food was delicious and exactly the refueling that Julie and I needed after our adventurous day! After dinner, we set up our mosquito nets and ensured that we were ready for bed since it would soon be pitch dark. The sun had suddenly disappeared in the sky shortly after

The storm coming!

The storm coming!

dinner as dark clouds rolled across the mountains. We were sitting there watching those clouds blow closer toward us; lightening flashes illuminating the sky while thunder was rumbling in the distance. Like a whirlwind, we heard Bounleun and Khamphi zip into the house almost simultaneously and rush up the stairs. “Put on your harness”, they said, “you need to come back to the hut with us. There is a storm coming”. This we knew and were actually kind of excited about watching from our tree house but apparently the guides get a little nervous about leaving visitors in the tree house when there is lightening, so they whisked us away. The storm rolled in quickly so we sat with the cabin crew practicing our Lao, learning about the upcoming Lao New Year, and asking each person how he or she had gotten started with this program. There were three cooks, all teenage girls, two other guides, and a young guy who helped out wherever they needed him, whether it was clearing trails, transporting groceries, or checking zip lines. He was young and eager and he wanted to learn everything about the program. It was a little unfortunate that these young kids weren’t in school, but they all seemed really passionate about the work that they did and pleased to be part of the reserve.

Julie and I playing cards with flashlights under our mosquito net.

Julie and I playing cards with the help of flashlights under our mosquito net.  They know how to play Rummy in Denmark.

Once the storm passed, we zipped back over to the tree house. It was only 7:30pm, so Julie and I played some cards by the light of our flashlights, and then went to bed around 9pm. I thought that I would fall asleep instantly after all the exertion of the day, but it took me a little time to get used to the sounds in the jungle. I woke two or three times during the night to unfamiliar reverberations that I was certain were either possums or rats. I didn’t want to look. Unfortunately, the zip lines couldn’t keep all of the critters out of our house… after all, we were technically visitors in their neighborhood.

In the morning, just before 6am, we were thrilled to be woken by what we were hoping to hear… singing black gibbons. In 1997, a once thought extinct population of Western Black Crested Gibbons was discovered in the forest, and shortly after that time, The Gibbon Experience was created to help raise awareness, funding, and create conservation projects. In the southern part of the Nam Kan National Protected Area, there are only 11 distinct groups of gibbons, so there is no guarantee that visitors will see them while there.

A misty, foggy forest.

A misty, foggy forest.

However, the gibbon’s siren-like singing is distinct and echoes through the forest so even if they can’t be seen, they can often be heard, especially around sunrise. We heard the singing for at least a half hour off in the distance and sat there scouring the forest in the hopes of getting a glimpse, but there was a mist hanging over the trees from more overnight rain so we never found them.

Dishing up a tasty breakfast.

Dishing up a tasty breakfast.

Around 6:30am, Bounleun and Khamphi arrived with a kettle of hot water to make morning tea and brought four more distinct Lao breakfast options. Once again, they did not stay to eat with us, but said that they would be back around 8:30am to take us for a hike in order to explore the forest and visit the other tree houses. The food was delicious and like dinner, we were not able to finish it all. As the forest came to life, so did we. We rolled up our mosquito nets, made our beds, and started to get ourselves ready for the day. I was standing in the “bathroom” brushing my teeth… watching the mist roll off the mountains, thinking… “wow, this view is so much better than looking into a mirror over the

My first Western Black Crested Gibbon sighting in the jungle.

My first Western Black Crested Gibbon sighting in the jungle.

Brothers and sisters - a happy little family of gibbons.

Brothers and sisters – a happy little family of gibbons.

Momma Gibbon - recognized because of her lighter brown color.

Momma Gibbon – recognized because of her lighter brown color.

sink”. Then I saw it, two black arms, then it’s head before it swung to the next branch and the tree rustled. I raced up the stairs with a mouth full of white foam and my toothbrush hanging out the side, grabbed my camera, and just pointed in the general direction for Julie. She knew exactly what I meant. I went back downstairs where I had such a clear view, finished brushing my teeth, and stared in awe as three more black gibbons appeared. They were playing, talking, doing tree branch gymnastics, wrestling… they were so amazing with their long black arms that were twice the length of their body. Then a female appeared with her light brown fur; this group was clearly a family. Gibbons are monogamous and have a low birth rate with only one offspring at a time, which is usually spaced out every 2 to 3 years due to an 8-month gestation period. Gibbons never really leave the tree canopy, living their lives at about 50 meter altitudes, so our tree house afforded us the opportunity to be the nosey neighbors with an amazing view through the window of the house across the street.

We could see the gibbons move across the treetops on their own little excursion to find food until they were out of sight about forty minutes later. It was like going to the theatre and watching a movie that was so riveting, when it ended you needed a moment to let it all sink in so you just sat there watching the credits, unable to move, wondering who created that masterpiece… what a phenomenal past 24 hours.

Some kind of root that is used for medicine.

Some kind of root that is used for medicine.

After shaking off our astonishment at getting to witness the spectacle, we finished getting ready for our hike and zipped over to the cabin to meet with Bounleun. We set out on the still wet, muddy, slippery trails exploring our surroundings. There were bamboo plants, enormous palm fronds, beautiful varieties of trees covered in vines, and as we walked Bounleun showed us the roots and plants that the villagers used as jungle

Hardened sap from one of the trees.  Bounleun will use it in their New Year's campfire.

Hardened sap from one of the trees. Bounleun will use it in their New Year’s campfire.

medicine for things like headaches, stomach aches, and infection. We were hiking uphill to visit two other tree houses and there were a few zip lines along the way, so we adopted a steady pace, glided through the jungle like Tarzan across our zip lines and enjoyed our morning until we returned to our own tree house for lunch. By this point, Julie and I had forgotten all about the possibility of leeches, had grown accustomed to the incessant mosquitos, and made friends with the spiders who were living with us. In the afternoon, we did another strenuous uphill trek to two other tree houses in the opposite direction, cautiously maneuvering along trails that looked as though they hadn’t been used in weeks, and came back to our tree house exhausted. After showers, dinner, and setting up our beds and mosquito nets, we relaxed as the sun set over the forest to showcase a picture perfect frame. I meditated on the energy filling our jungle home, relished the moment, and memorized the feeling…

Overnight, I awoke a few times again curiously wondering about the nocturnal noises that I was hearing. This time, I even turned on my flashlight and peered into the darkness trying to get a glimpse of what animal might have joined us in our tree house during the night, but I couldn’t see anything. The next morning, Khamphi explained that they were probably bats hanging from the thatched roof, which is why I didn’t see them. I eventually fell back asleep until a loud clap of thunder startled me at 4:30am. The rain started shortly following it and continued for three hours. We rose again around 6am to singing gibbons, despite the rain, but the mist made them impossible to see. We ate breakfast, cleaned up our tree house, packed our bags, and sadly made our peace with parting from our magical Swiss Family Robinson home in the sky. About an hour later, as if to say their goodbyes, our family of gibbons made a final appearance for us. They were far off in the

Gibbon in the mist.  King of this jungle.

Gibbon in the mist. King of this jungle.

distance and we couldn’t see them as easily as the prior morning, but the parting gift was just as sweet. The rain stopped as we zipped out of our tree house for the last time. The cabin crew that had been supporting us during our visit was joining us on our two-hour trek out of the forest because they were all getting a break to visit with their families over the Lao New Year, which started the following day. Leaving the forest in the rear view mirror, we all hopped into our truck and after an hour haul over our muddy off road track down from the mountain and another hour drive into town, we were back at The Gibbon Experience office around 1pm. And poof, it was as if it were all a dream…

From left to right: me, Khamphi, Bounleun, and Julie.

From left to right: me, Khamphi, Bounleun, and Julie.

When I set out on my tour around the world 18 months ago, I never could have imagined that I would have an experience like the past weekend. I’ve never been more grateful for stepping out of my comfort zone, letting the winds blow me, and somehow landing in a country that was never on my original travel list. This experience with its long haul, challenging treks, and plethora of insects and jungle creatures may not be the experience for everyone, but I hope it makes you want to take a little step outside of your comfort zone… because who knows what could come next.

Revelling!

Soaring Along the Mekong

View of Luang Prabang and the Mekong from the That Phu Si & Wat Tham Phu Si, the highest point overlooking the town.

A hazy view of Luang Prabang and the Mekong from the That Phu Si & Wat Tham Phu Si, the highest point overlooking the town.

It was Tuesday night and my throat had been burning since the moment I stepped off the bus from Vang Vieng on Sunday, so after a few short, smoke-filled days in Luang Prabang, I knew it was time to move on. It’s a great town with Colonial architecture, refined charm, and some lovely hidden gems, but the surrounding fire lit mountains that are being burned to clear farmland at the moment, keep the smoke trapped in this little valley, which casts a gray hue over everything. Additionally, I booked an off the grid kind of excursion that required me to get to Houay Xai (pronounced “Way Sigh”), a border town resting along the Mekong and facing Thailand, by 5pm on Thursday night. There were three options to get to Houay Xai: a 12-hour overnight bus ride that leaves at 7pm every evening from Luang Prabang, a 2-day slow boat ride up the Mekong that requires a stop and overnight stay in Pak Beng, or a 6-hour fast boat ride up the Mekong that departs at about 9am every morning, if there are a minimum of 6 passengers. The 2-day slow boat ride would take too long and I wanted to avoid the smoke-filled mountains so the bus ride would be my back-up plan if there weren’t enough passengers for the fast boat.

Ban Done Port Office

Ban Done Port Office

I left bright and early for the Ban Done Port since I didn’t know exactly where I was going and I was pleased that finding a tuk-tuk proved quite simple as I strolled with my backpack through the morning market. My tuk-tuk driver weaved through morning traffic and then turned down a dead end road, passed a field or two and stopped in front of a small cement building. There were 2 tables inside, a bench, and a small store next to the building that looked more like a shack, but had a half dozen or so men sitting outside it talking. This was the port office. To my surprise, I was able to immediately purchase a ticket when I walked up to one of the tables and it was the last ticket for the fast boat that morning… the boat was full!  Back-up bus plan not needed.  The ticket would take me to Pak Beng, and then I was told that I would have to buy another ticket there to get to Houay Xai. I still had 40 minutest to wait until the departure time so I bought some water and watched as the slow boat pulled away.

The dock at Ban Done Port.

The dock at Ban Done Port.

There was an overcast sky and a few raindrops as we waited and as I looked over the edge of the hill at what was called a port, there was a slight twinge of unease. There was a steep set of uneven wooden stairs built into the hillside, and then a dirt path that led to two floating platforms, one made of bamboo and the other made of some type of plastic. Next to them were two or three long, narrow boats that looked a little larger than canoes. I thought, “Are those what they call fast boats?”. I didn’t see any other boats nearby and after giving it some more thought, whenever I passed a tour office, there were always pictures of the buses and the slow boat, but never any pictures of the fast boat. I pulled out my Lao phrasebook and started chatting with a friendly worker sitting at the table. He seemed pleased that I was making an effort to speak Lao and was helping me with my pronunciations. I asked him about the boats and who our captain would be for the fast boat. He introduced me to a humble, friendly man with a tan face and wrinkles around his eyes when he smiled, no doubt from hours in the sun on a boat. The captain also seemed pleased that I was speaking Lao and said that I could buy my ticket for Houay Xai there with him instead of waiting until we got to Pak Beng.  Apparently, I was the only tourist traveling with a boat full of locals and they were a little apprehensive about me until they heard I had been working in Vang Vieng and could speak some Lao.  I tried not to demonstrate that I was a little apprehensive about those boats down by their so-called dock and decided to stop asking questions.  When all else fails, do what the locals do.

We all started walking down to the boats, which was a little tricky on the steep stairs with my backpack. Once there, everyone started handing their bags, which were full of mostly groceries, to the captain, who was stacking them according to weight and size in the front of the over-sized canoe that I had observed earlier.  I carry a smaller backpack with my large pack for when I have short outings and normally keep it with me when I travel because I keep all of my valuables in it, along with snacks and water. They whisked it away from me to place with the rest of the bags before I even knew what was happening and handed me a life jacket, as if that was going to make me feel safe in this narrow, open air, wooden box.

The boat

The boat

The boat had five wooden boards that slid upright into slats along the side to create sections and then thinly padded plastic bench-length cushions that fit into each section and took up half of the space of the section. Everyone started piling in and I watched as they situated themselves onto a cushion, legs curled up in front of them so tightly that they could wrap their arms around their bent knees… two to a section. Huh? This boat was going to carry 9 adults and a one-year old child! One of the ladies in the back section motioned for me to sit with her… more like curl up next to her, so I did. In the section in front of me sat two women, one with the one-year old child on her lap and a blanket thrown over the child’s head. Crazy! The last section where I was seated was right in front of the captain, who sat at the back on a small wooden box. With him, there was some sort of propane or butane tank, a fuel tank, extra plastic bottles full of fuel and the long arm for steering the pole that jetted out from the engine with a small propeller on the end of it. This was going to be an interesting ride.

The engine with propeller removed.

The engine with propeller removed.

The captain started to fire up the engine and before we even pushed away from the dock, he shut it down again and hopped out of the boat. Apparently there was something wrong with the propeller, so everyone had to get back out of the boat while they called men down from the port office to help switch the prop shaft with another one. This required another boat to bring a replacement shaft… there was a hammer, some sort of chisel, and grease that they were using to remedy the whole situation. I decided it might be best if I didn’t watch and instead set to work retrieving my small backpack to pull out a bottle of water, my camera, and a hat since it didn’t seem like I would have access to my pack at any point during the ride. About forty-five minutes later, we all piled back in the boat and were ready to go. No apologies, no frills here… all seemed perfectly normal, like sometimes sh*t just happens.

Our packed little boat.

Our packed little boat.

My first thought as the captain kicked the engine into high gear was, “Woohoo! This is awesome! So glad I didn’t take the bus”. Wind in my hair, gliding over the water and whizzing past other boats, the spray occasionally giving me a little mist. It was exhilarating! Rocks, fishing nets, choppy water from the wake of other boats… no problem. Our captain was at ease, effortlessly navigating us around it all, skimming from side to side as if he had memorized the depth of the water, the nooks and crannies of the shoreline, and everything in between.

Fisherman on the Mekong.

Fisherman on the Mekong.

As we soared along the water, we passed small villages, grazing cows, water buffalo coming to the banks to submerge

Water buffalo grazing and bathing in the Mekong.

Water buffalo grazing and bathing in the Mekong.

themselves in the cool, refreshing water, fisherman, children playing, and the luming grandeur of the hills and mountains.

As we were approaching hour two, the awe and exhilaration started to compete with my mildly throbbing knees and hips. It should be noted here, that despite my 5 foot, 3 inch stature, I was still taller than most of the people on this boat and my butt was definitely bigger than all of the

Kids playing by the shores of the Mekong.

Kids playing by the shores of the Mekong.

slender Lao women, who seemed to assume this sitting position so easily. Thankfully, about 75 minutes into our trip, we pulled up to another boat along the shore that was a floating fuel station. It gave me a chance to stand up for a moment and stretch my legs. Everyone looked at me as if I was being a little dramatic. Five minutes later, we were off again. Two hours into the ride, we stopped again to let someone off at another floating boat, which seemed to be someone’s floating house, and we all got out to use the toilet. The fast boat didn’t seem to have specific ports of debarkation… it seemed more like a river taxi and the simplest way for people to get to their remote villages. As we headed into hour three, my knees were practically numb and I had shooting pains from my hips into my lower back every time that we went over choppy, bumpy water. It turned out that the life jacket was far better utilized as a cushion for my spine against the hard wooden plank than as a life-saving device.  I mean, really, was that life jacket going to save me if we hit a rock and I went flying out of the boat?? I don’t think so. Oh yeah, and the woman sitting next to me was sleeping in her seated, curled, upright position!?

When we stopped for lunch next to a floating barge, I was relieved to step out and see if my legs would still work. I had to let the pins and needles pass then find my balance to step over other boats and onto the barge. This was the place where all of the boats stopped so it was full of people. They had one lunch offering, noodle soup, which was fine by me. The half hour break was much needed. I visited the toilet again before departing and was relieved that everything I had just eaten had to be boiled after the cook touched it.  At this point, we would be switching boats and captains, as each would head back to their respective starting points.  I chatted with a fast boat full of tourists heading south and couldn’t believe that their boat was also carrying 9 people, all men taller than 5 foot 10 inches in stature! It gave me the mental toughness I needed to endure the final three hours of the trip.

Elephant next to the shore of the Mekong.

Elephant next to the shores of the Mekong.

I had negotiated a front seat on the latter half of the ride with the guy who had been sitting up front for the first half of our long haul because the passenger next to him was not going further. This meant that I could occasionally unfold my legs and stretch them over the bags in the front. As we pulled away from our barge and back onto the river, the sun was finally shining and I spotted an elephant along the banks standing amid some trees… surreal. It was one thing to see an elephant on a managed reserve safari when I was in South Africa last year, but seeing one randomly in the wild when I wasn’t expecting it was really magnificent.  The rest of the afternoon was far more bearable than the morning because we stopped regularly to let passengers off and on the boat and hour by hour we

Fires burning along the shores of the Mekong.

Fires burning along the shores of the Mekong.

had fewer people on board, which meant far more room because we could remove boards and stretch our legs.  The stunning sites of nature where dwarfed slightly by random burning hillsides and the litter that I watched my fellow Loa passengers toss into the river. These two things sadden me the most in this beautiful country.  But as the afternoon ebbed into early evening, the sun was starting to set and its reflection on the river was

Sun setting on my fast boat ride along the Mekong.

Sun setting on my fast boat ride along the Mekong.

splendid.  By the time we reached Houay Xai only the woman who originally offered me a seat next to her at the start of the trip was left with me.  I exited our boat, strapped on my backpack and struggled up a set of stairs steeper than the ones I had descended in the morning.

It was about a 4-kilometer walk into the town of Houay Xai and there were plenty of tuk-tuks available but they were all quoting me Thai Baht, despite the fact that we were still in Laos, which threw me off because I had forgotten the Baht conversion numbers. Besides, my legs needed the walk, so off I went. It gave me a chance to reflect on my ride… do I regret it, no way!  Would I recommend it… only if you have a sense of adventure and a fairly high level of pain tolerance.  Along my walk, I chatted with the locals, who were all gearing up for the Lao New Year and thought I was crazy for not getting a ride. What a wild day…

Revelling in gratitude for the experiences that I will never forget and the stories that I will always love to tell.