Sunday, March 25, 2012

Let's go find new friends

No one would question the fact that Michelle and I are very good friends.  After all, in addition to being professional colleagues, we did agree to travel the whole world together assuming we would still be friends at the end.  Six weeks in: so far, so good. I haven’t tired of Michelle at all yet, not one bit.  However, it is nice to have someone new to talk to once in a while. I mean, let’s face it… all the wonderful things we’ve seen, all the good stories I have to tell or that she has to tell  and – well, we were both there!

It did not take long to start making friends on this trip.  The first ones came along our very first night out in Bangkok. We got dressed up -- well, as dressed up as you can get when you have four shirts to choose from -- looked at each other and said, “Let’s go make some friends.” We went down to the common area in our hostel to see what we could find.  And wouldn’t you know it?  Right there, right away we found three guys drinking Chang beer and, we soon learned, wondering what they were going to do for their last evening in Bangkok. 

GP – G.P. is a guy from Canada, heading home the next day.  He had had been traveling in Thailand for two months though he admitted to spending the majority of his time on the beaches in the south. The most memorable thing about G.P. was the color of his skin, I’ve never seen a white man with skin like that.

Glen and Conrad - Conrad is a Canadian, and Glen is from Northern Ireland. These two were friends after studying together in Australia.  They were on a break and bumming around SE Asia for awhile.

L-R: Conrad, Michelle, Katy, G.P., Glen - note G.P.'s skin tones!
The best picture I could find from the night
The five of us went to eat and to celebrate our first and their last night in Bangkok. We spent the majority of the night roaming around Khosan Road and people-watching.  It was particularly interesting to observe the dynamic change as to who approaches you in the street when you’re two girls as compared to when you’re two girls and three guys.  When we had walked down Khosan Rd earlier in the day no one bothered us.  However, when we were walking with these three gents, they told us all about the hookers and ladyboys approaching them seemingly all day and night.  Walking with them we did get approached a time or two, but it was nothing troublesome or threatening.  It was truly more entertaining than anything else.

That first night was a great way to kick off our trip. The best thing about staying in guesthouses and hostels is that they are not only incredibly affordable compared to conventional hotels, but also the “hostel scene” makes it so easy to meet fun people, people with great stories about their travels and about life in general.  Also, many of the people you meet along the way have been or are headed to places you have been or are going, and exchanging ideas and experiences makes the “go without a plan” plan all the more fun.

Green Leaf Guest House...
After Bangkok we headed North toward Khoi Yai National Park where we had a plan to stay at Green Leaf Guesthouse outside the town of Pak Chong. Here we had an “all inclusive” arrangement where we paid for a room and two daytrips into the park.  Not only was the park enjoyable but, like the hostels, it was also a great spot for making new friends.  The rooms were nothing special and can only be described as being “basic” at best.  However, the common area of this particular place was very spacious, well lit, and set up perfectly for playing cards and just hanging out and exchanging stories.

The first night there, Michelle and I went out to the common area with our computers to catch up on chronicling this trip and attempt to SKYPE with folks back home.  It didn’t take five minutes for our next new friend to emerge.  We got acquainted easily and quickly, and he joined us for dinner.  His name is Pras, short for Prasanna.  Pras was another Canadian.  He was currently living and working in San Francisco.  He was on a short trip to Thailand, meeting up with friends in a few random places around the country.  He was at Green Leaf Guesthouse for his last few nights in Thailand. 

With Pras at Khao Yai
The following day the three of us stayed together, enjoying the park as a trio as well as among a group of about six or eight others.  That evening we found ourselves among another, totally different, group and, as is our way, having a very good time. The formula isn’t complicated: Chang beer, a deck of cards, a picnic table and six happy, storytelling backpackers.  This evening we were part of a great group.  We met Marijue from Belgium.  Marijue was spending four months traveling throughout SE Asia and would soon be on her way to Malaysia.  Ward, from the Netherlands, was spending a month in Thailand primarily to go diving in the south.  Unfortunately he had surfaced too quickly on a dive near the beginning of his trip resulting in two ruptured eardrums and several days in the hospital.  He wisely decided to spend the remainder of is trip above sea level. Our group also included Tom Russell, an Englishman.  Tom was on a route similar to mine and Michelle’s, but he was moving at a much more leisurely pace.  We did have the good fortune of meeting up with Tom again several days later when our paths crossed in Chiang Mai.

If I could edit pics on my net book I would crop this so you can see everyone a little better.
At the train stop in Pak Chong. L-R: Michelle, Tom, Ward, Marijue, Pras, Katy
The six of us boarded the same third class (oops! 3rd class!) train to Ayutthaya. It was a hot, humid, sweaty and yet VERY entertaining train ride.  We said goodbye to Marijue and Ward when we got to Ayutthaya as they were continuing back to Bangkok, but Tom, Pras, Michelle and I had a very fun day exploring the ruins of Ayutthaya.

With Tom and Ward on our third class train.

We spent only the day in Auytthaua, so we had to finally say goodbye to Pras and Tom.  Quite good friends by now, saying goodbye to these two was tough. Remember, however, Pras lives in San Francisco, and I’m certain we’ll see him again one day.  And Tom… Tom eased the moment by reminding us that we were going to meet loads of wonderful people along the way, and we were likely going to see him again in Chiang Mai in a few days anyway.

Lunch in Ayutthaya with Pras amd Tom

Exploring around the ruins...

Next new friend, Jesus...
I met Jesus on the sleeper train, to Chiang Mai the morning we arrived there.  Michelle and I were in separate train cars on this ride. I think it was the first time we had been separated for more than an hour.  Anyway,  when we boarded the sleeper train around 10 pm, everyone in my “cubby” had their privacy curtains closed and had gone to sleep.  When I awoke the next morning, Jesus was surprised to see me because, he said, when he went to sleep the night before there had been a local in my spot! 

We got to talking and discovered we were both headed toward the same guest house in Chiang Mai.  As such, we would share a tuk tuk and probably have some lunch together.  Jesus is yet another Canadian – we’ve been meeting A LOT of Canadians and British people during this month of travel in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.  But he;s is the only Spanish speaking Canadian I have ever met. Upon getting to town we learned our intended guesthouse was full, and the three of us ended up sharing a room at the place next door.  Jesus left Chiang Mai the next day, but, almost unbelievably, we ran into him about a week later on the street in Vang VIeng.  If there is anything I have learned about SE Asia, it’s that this wonderful, unforgettable place is the biggest small town on the planet.

With Jesus in Chiang Mai

Vang Vieng... 
This place merits a little further comment.  It is a small town in Laos.  There is not a whole lot of culture or history here. It is primarily a backpacker-oriented stop, thought by some to be a rather cheesy place.  The main streets are lined with bars with TVs that play episodes of FRIENDS all day and night, and the primary attraction is tubing down the Nam Song River where a secondary attraction is the many bars along the river selling cheap beer and pouring free and bad whiskey down your throat.  Also at these bars there’s plenty of loud music and platforms built out over the water for dancing and socializing as well as zip lines and rope swings for adventurous entries in to the river.  We had no intention of staying in Vang Vieng more than a day or two, but we ended up staying for five. Why?  Because of the wonderful people we met here.

The afternoon we arrived we wandered into the nearest FRIENDS bar to find some dinner and try to meet some people. We wound up finding Nick and Dominic and a whole lot of other things to do besides tubing in Vang Vieng.  Nick is from England.  He’s been traveling SE Asia for several months and was on his way to Thailand to take a job and stay for an undetermined amount of time.  Dominic is from Zurich, Switzerland. He was about three weeks into wandering about SE Asia on a path similar to ours, but, like most everyone we encounter, at a much slower pace.  Nick and Dominic met the day before while tubing.  We spent the next four days with these two discovering what Vang Vieng had to offer besides tubing, such things as bike riding, kayaking, caving and, of course, hanging out at a bar/restaurant eating dinner, playing cards and watching FRIENDS until they invite us out at closing time.

At the start of our Kayak trip


In the caves

Stop off at the tubing bars while Kayaking

A few days later, after Nick and Dominic had both left town, Michelle and I decided we would stay one more day and finally see what the tubing was all about. We decided to go tubing, sans tubes! It seemed too complicated to keep track of a tube all afternoon. We just wanted to drink some beer and make some more friends.  Besides, a few days ago we had already gone the entire tubing route in our kayaks!  We were not in the first bar for five minutes when along came Sam and Shy.  These two were from England on a short vacation, just two weeks.  They were great.  I think the reason we got along with them so well was because they were just like us - two very good friends traveling with just each other and just for fun.  Like us they always had each other’s back and were able to see almost any situation as a good time.  Further, they went tubing with the same plan we had -- no tubes!  We four wanted just to see what the fuss was all about, have a good time and make some new friends.  We’ll probably see Sam and Shy again in June when we’re in the UK. 

Sam and Shy
Enjoying some beer Lao on a tubing bar platform

On the chicken bus we met Justin.  Justin was the first Aussie we met.  Though we did not get to know him very well, it was nice having him around on the chicken bus, and the story he told us about his brother is one I’ll probably tell for a long time whenever trying to convince someone that travel insurance is 100 percent necessary.
with Justin on the Chicken bus
Justin was on the chicken bus, on his way back to a small medical clinic in the Middle of Nowhere, Laos.  He was aiming to recover his motorbike left outside a medical clinic where his brother was treated after being hit by a tuk tuk in what was a very bad accident.  The people in this clinic were not properly equipped to provide the necessary medical attention needed to treat two broken legs and a severed Achilles tendon.  Travel insurance covered the cost of transportation for both of them to Bangkok (where Justin’s brother could have surgery under very good medical conditions) 4-star hotel accommodations for Justin while his brother was in the hospital and a flight back to Australia. The insurance would have covered flights for both of them, but Justin decided to carry on and stay in SE Asia.  I think the saddest part of the story was when Justin had to call his Mom and explain what had happened.  His brother was the youngest of four for that poor woman.

Cambodia Friends... 
On to Cambodia… On our way to Siem Reap, we met Max and Hugo, travelers from France.  After having survived a disastrous, 16-hour bus ride with them, we all got better acquainted over Angkor beer and yellow curry at three in the morning.  We also shared a tuk tuk to Angkor Wat with them our first evening in town.  Our stay in Siem Reap was brief, so we exchanged emails and facebook info with them, in hopes of meeting up again Phnom Penh.  Unfortunately, that didn’t pan out, and we never heard from them again.  No answered emails and neither had posted anything on facebook since the day we were with them.  I certainly hope they are not locked up some place abroad!

Max and Hugo in a Tuk Tuk to Angkor Wat

In Phnom Penh we met Vicki.  Vicki had been in Cambodia for several months teaching English to children and adults in the southern part of the country.  She had finished her teaching contract about a week before we met her.  Her plans were to travel throughout Vietnam and Thailand before returning to England.  Unfortunately, the only reason she was still in Phnom Penh was because she had lost her ATM card several weeks ago and was still waiting for a replacement to arrive. (Hummm…  I wouldn’t know anything about a lost ATM card while traveling! Haha!  More that later.  Maybe!)  

Due to her lack of funds, Vicki was unable to accompany us on some of our excursions in Phnom Penh, but she did join us on our lazy day at the fancy pool and for dinner several nights.  She was still waiting for her card when we left Phnom Penh.  Good news intervenes:  we’re actually planning to meet up with her again tonight.  Vicki has made it to Hanoi, and that’s where we are too!

With Vicki at the fancy hotel with the fancy pool

Earlier, when we got to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), it was not as important to “go out and find new friends.”  Why?  Because we were finally going to connect with our very good and long-time friend, Megan.  Megan is also a nurse who used to work with Michelle and me in the NICU at Rush.  She left Rush a few years ago and is currently living in Shanghai with her husband.  Living in Shanghai made it very easy to meet us for a couple weeks in Vietnam.  Poor Megan!  It was quite the lifestyle change for her.  We rather quickly hazed her into the backpacker lifestyle. In the first two days she was with us she had to get up at 5AM, spend the day getting coated in filth and sweat only to finally shower in a public restroom before hopping on a sleeper bus amid creepy locals, assorted questionable odors wafting about and no bathroom for 12 hours! 

Megan, still smiling on the sleeper bus. (We had not left yet)

The first group shot, taken about a week later.

Ha long Bay, or not...
Megan, Michelle and I have done so well keeping each other entertained while in Vietnam that our first new friends here didn’t come along until the day we were supposed to go to Ha Long bay.  That’s right, supposed to.  We tried to take a boat trip out to Ha Long bay on Friday night. Unfortunately, after the four-hour bus ride to the coast we waited for three more hours only be told the trip was canceled due to “weather.”  They claimed it was too windy to safely take boats out.   Simply out of curiosity, we asked about the wind speed.  The reply?  6 to 8 knots.  What?!?!  Okay, maybe weather was mildly unpleasant on shore, and it was a little windy (much more than 6-8 knots by my estimate), but can’t we at least tool around the harbor a little?  Apparently there was a accident a couple years ago where a boat capsized, and six tourists died.  They get nervous, I guess.

The closest we got to our Halong Bat cruise.
L-R: Sam, Katy, Megan, Michelle, Steve

So, no Ha Long Bay and no boat ride, but we were with a fun group of people.  Perhaps defeated this time in fact, but never defeated in spirit, we had a rowdy bus ride back to Hanoi and all spent the evening together.

Party bus back to Hanoi

This pretty much sums up the evening.

Group shot in the bar.

Oh yeah, and then there's this guy.............

We're not sure who his is, but he is a very strange man who shows up along the way quite frequently.

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