Learning to Drive a Scooter in Laos might be a Terrible Idea

Learning to Drive a Scooter in Laos might be a Terrible Idea

Over the course of our trip, Jessica and I had a lot of conversations about learning to ride a scooter – the far and above preferred mode of transportation in SE Asia. Without knowing how to drive one, we were stuck with the super touristy bus routes or having to haggle with a tuk-tuk driver. Our conversations usually went something like this: “Hey Jessica, we should learn how to ride a scooter today.” “Definitely. We should go rent one.” “Definitely.” And then we go buy a ticket for the bus because neither of us can actually work up the nerve. On our second day in Luang Prabang, the 22-year-old guys working at our hotel overheard our usual conversation about maybe renting a scooter to go the Kuang Si Waterfalls. Without missing a beat, they reassured us that this was both a great idea and incredibly easy. They even offered to give us a lesson and call the rental company. Maybe it was our sense of pride – or the fact that they were already dialing – but we finally decided to give it a try. In less than ten minutes, a giant red scooter was waiting for us in the driveway of the hotel. I handed over my passport and signed away my right to everything should anything go wrong. Because I had four minutes more scooter experience (a very brief one-road lesson in San Francisco) compared to Jessica’s zero, we decided that I would drive. The guys’ “lesson” consisted of them telling me how to turn it on, watching me go up and down the driveway, and then...
Taking the Slow Boat to Luang Prabang: Don’t Worry, Be Happy, It’s Great

Taking the Slow Boat to Luang Prabang: Don’t Worry, Be Happy, It’s Great

The Internet has done some of its best fear mongering when it comes to taking a boat to Luang Prabang in Laos. If you choose the fast boat – which only takes six hours – you travel at such high speeds you will most certainly crash and die. If you choose the slow boat – which takes 14 hours, over two days – there are so many people you will be crammed into the engine room, with noise so loud and exhaust so intense you’ll wish you’d taken the fast boat and crashed and died. Given those choices, Jessica and I decided to go with the slow boat and arrive at the port extremely early to secure a less noisy/exhaust-y seat toward the front. The boat was supposed to leave at 11:30am, so we thought arriving at 9am would put us well enough in front of the hordes of people all also trying to avoid the back of the boat. That morning we mournfully left our amazing home stay, and made our way down to buy tickets from one of the many tour companies lining the street. We handed over our money and the woman handed us a dodgy piece of paper where she’d written TWO TICKETS FOR BOAT. This seemed very legitimate. She told us to come back at 9:30am – no earlier- and a tuk tuk would take us to the other port across town. 9:30 came. 9:30 left. I started pacing around, alternating between checking the street for the tuk tuk and staring dubiously at my handwritten ticket. By 9:45 I was beside myself, imagining all...
Crossing the Border to Laos: The Best Guesthouse in Huay Xai

Crossing the Border to Laos: The Best Guesthouse in Huay Xai

After two months in Thailand, my visa was about to run out and it seemed time to pry myself away from the food stands in search of new experiences. With a few coconut milk rotee shoved in my pocket, I decided to tag along with my friend Jessica to the city of Luang Prabang in Laos While it is possible to get to Luang Prabang by plane (expensively) or bus (close to 20 hours), we thought that a boat ride through the jungles of the country definitely had the most appeal. There are dozens of companies offering packaged bus-boat-hotel deals from Chiang Mai. But that is for weenies and old people, so we decided to figure it out on our own. We headed to the bus station at 6am to buy tickets to the Thai border city Chiang Khong. Unfortunately, there were only two tickets left on the VIP bus, in the first class section. This effectively doubled the price of what we thought we would pay. But we went ahead and bit the bullet, reclined our giant padded seats, ate our free snacks, and took the next six hours to enjoy the consequences of poor planning. Six hours later, the bus dropped us off on the side of the road. We followed signs down to the river and took a short boat ride to the city of Huay Xai in Laos, where we would stay for the night before heading to Luang Prabang. In the spirit of adventure (and trying let go of some of my totally neurotic planning habits), we hadn’t booked any hotels in advance. We...
Living in Chiang Mai: Did I Do it All Wrong?

Living in Chiang Mai: Did I Do it All Wrong?

It’s hard to talk about weeks of experiences without resorting to sweeping generalizations … so, I’m just going to go ahead and do it. Living in Chiang Mai for a month was both amazing and disappointing. According to The Internet, Chiang Mai is the holy grail of places to live in Asia, possessing that rare combination of a low cost of living and a high quality of life. I initially decided to spend so much time in the city because I wanted to give myself the opportunity to get to know the “real” Thailand. When I first arrived in Chiang Mai, my friend and I dropped off our bags at our guesthouse and hurried into the night, excitedly talking over each other as we set off to explore the city. Our conversation slowed as we started to look around, peeking into several restaurants and bars.We walked for a few moments in silence, our excitement brought down to a simmer. “Hey Marie …” “Uh huh” “Um … so, is it just me or is-” “Everybody white …” “Where are we?” Where we stayed the first week, in the walled “old city,” was basically a Thai-themed amusement park for tourists. The bars blare Bob Marley and serve cocktails in buckets. Every street is lined with posters for zipline tours, elephant parks, cooking classes, and whitewater rafting. There were also plenty of shops catering to the New Age-inclined expats, rendering some streets reminiscent of an aisle in Whole Foods. There are enough vegan restaurants/gluten-free bakeries/yoga studios/Reiki classes to rival the trendiest of U.S. neighborhoods. I wasn’t sure whether I’d discovered the perfect...
Painting Classes in Chiang Mai: Noina’s Art Studio

Painting Classes in Chiang Mai: Noina’s Art Studio

While volunteering three times a week kept me fairly busy, I still managed to find myself with enough leisure time to rival a resident of Downton Abbey. Luckily for me, Chiang Mai is full of ways to help the idle expat while away the day. Walking around Chiang Mai’s old town, I saw a sign for painting classes for only 200 baht (8 dollars) at Noina’s Art Studio. I’d spent a fair amount of time painting before my trip, (though usually just alone in my bedroom, with an appropriately angst-filled mix playing) but never found the time to take actual classes. Given that eight dollars would barely buy a brush set in the United States, I easily rationalized room in my travel budget. The space is a giant open two-story room down a quiet alley in the old city. The walls are covered in Noina’s and her students’ paintings, ranging from photo-like charcoal drawings to colorful abstract animals. Several people sat quietly at easels working on sketches. After signing up, Noina asked if I’d ever painted before. I was torn between wanting to impress her and wanting to lower expectations by feigning total ignorance. What came out was a confused and vaguely defensive: “I’ve painted before. Maybe.” Unfazed, she set out a canvas, acrylic paints, and brushes. She then had me choose a photograph for inspiration from a box of hundreds of postcards and polaroids. I selected a picture of an empty hallway and handed it to her. She nodded and left me to my canvas. After a few frozen moments of panic, I randomly picked shades of yellow...