For my Christmas holiday, I met my friend Randy (I know her from Montana, but she is currently of Bellingham, WA) for two weeks in southeast Asia: one week on our own in the northeast province of Thailand where few tourists go (Isan Province), and one week on a biketrip through southern Laos with an organized tourgroup, Spiceroads. Randy and I flew into Ubon Ratchathani, a small city of 115,000 people, and spent a day acclimating to the heat (in the 90s Fahrenheit), the food (picked up a stomach bug that stayed with me for a good 7 days until I randomly found a Chinese herbalist), and the kind people (who didn't speak a lick of English but were game for our charades and countless questions, responding with big smiles of white teeth). From there, we hired a driver to take us to Khong Jiam, a small town on the confluence of the Moon River (which ran through Ubon Ratchathani) and the MeKong River, the river which borders Laos and which we would ride alongside on our biking trip the following week. We stayed in a bungalow which was recommended to us (charaded, I should say) by our "consierge" in Ubon. We ended up staying here three nights due to our inability to find accomodation in the local National Park as well as our fondness for the woman we came to call our Thai grandmother. Her garden was complete with orchids, and every morning as we were waking up in bed, we could hear the "clink clink" of her setting our tea and biscuits out on the porch. Khong Jiam is an off-the-beaten-track town in between two national parks, our attraction to the town. The town itself had a boardwalk with floating restaurants, and we enjoyed walking around and eating there in the evenings. Along the boardwalk are some antiquated exercise machines, which Randy and I jokingly played around on one day. But later that evening, in our walk to find dinner, we came across the coolest scene: An outdoor aerobics class, with Western workout music blaring along the banks of the MeKong, and all the exercise equipment in full use! One Thai woman encouraged Randy and I to join the class - so we did - a good workout in anticipation of our biking excursion.
This is the dinky Customs building. This is Randy afraid of being locked up in a Thai prison. We didn't even look at the other side of the river, for her fear was so strong we didn't want to give them any reason to be suspicious of us. One lesson I learned while in Thailand was that you should follow the suggestions of the local people, and not stubbornly realize your own vision. For instance, we wanted to travel north to Pha Taem National Park, and I got it into my head that I wanted to do so by boat even though all the locals we "talked" to (charades) recommended (charades) we rent a motorbike. We found a man at the river who was, although hesitant, willing to bring us the 1 1/2-hour boatride upriver to the park, and we set off on our mini-journey, backpacks in boat. It was a beautiful journey, so in that sense, it was worth it. However, when he pulled up to a somewhat steep bank with no visitor centers or roads in site, and pointed at the forest to say, "Pha Taem," Randy and I were a little hesitant to jump out of the boat. So he guided us straight up a hillside (maybe to avoid visitor entrance fees, we joked) to a path where visitors were viewing ancient pictographs, and dripping with sweat and a smile, pointed us towards the visitor's center. When we arrived at the visitor's center, the park ranger seemed more concerned with plucking his gray hairs with a tweezer than helping us find accomodation, because we quickly learned that all the bungalows were closed despite the fact that this was supposed to be the park's high tourist season. So we ended up hitchhiking back to town, where we sheepishly showed up at Grandma's again, asking for a room for two nights and a motorbike for the next day. This is us hitchhiking back to Khong Jiam. This is the countryside we hiked through to get from the river to the park. This is the mushroom rocks of Pha Taem - formed by erosion- the one thing we got to see in the park that day. This is out motorbike. This is Randy on the motorbike smiling at the end of a successful day's ride. However, we were more in the "white knuckle" condition earlier in the day as we tried to teach ourselves how to ride the bike, neither of us having driven one before, checking our pride at the door as Thai people came out to watch us wobble around the parking lot. But we eventually figured it out, and took off at a wopping 40km/h down the highway, vehicles wizzing past us, to Pha Taem National park. Once in the park again, we visited this beautiful waterfall: The sticks: It is Thai tradition to support a precariously balanced rock with sticks, with the idea that if every person who walks by adds one stick, everyone can stop it from falling. The sticks become the backbone of the rock. We also visited this "Dr. Seussical" field of carnivorous flowers: Finally, we ended our motorbikilicious day with a visit to prehistoric cliff paintings - the oldest in Thailand - over 3000 years old: Pa Cha Na Dai cliff is where you can see Thailand's first sunrise. We watched our Christmas Day sunset here: The sun setting on our ride home: The next day, we hired a driver to take us the 1 1/2 back to Ubon Ratchathani, where we had half a day to walk along the boardwalk of the Moon River, visit a temple, and enjoy the hustle-and-bustle of a small city before meeting up with the tourgroup the following morning to head into rural Laos. The was part one of our holiday - two very distinct types of vacationing - the Thai holiday involved the process: accidentally stumbling our way through experiences, not getting to do or see "tons," but enjoying the process and the smiles we met along the way. Enjoying that we were figuring it out ourselves. Part two, the bike trip in Laos - having been thoroughly organized for us - involved us getting to see and do loads, including staying in some amazing places. What we did in 7 days in Laos, it would have taken Randy and I 3 months to figure out and do. Both very different types of holidays, each with their own perks. Stay tunes for part two: Laos.