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...
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...
Close Encounters at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai

Close Encounters at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai

I’m not sure how elephants get away with being so damn cute. They’re hairy, wrinkled, fat, covered in mud, and have an alien appendage for a nose. But somehow they managed to work the gentle giant/big ears angle and fall pretty high on the lovable wild animals people want to cuddle with scale. I also have no defense against this baffling adorability and set out to get some QT with an elephant before leaving Thailand. There are plenty of companies offering tourists close encounters with elephants – ranging from riding them at a show to volunteering at a conservation park. Unfortunately, there is quite a deal of controversy concerning animal abuse at some of these organizations. We chose the Elephant Nature Park. The elephants don’t perform in any shows and you don’t get to ride on them – which we took as a sign of more humane treatment. A van picked me and my friend Jessica up one rainy morning and we made me our way through the downpour toward the park. As we drove deeper into the mountains and rainforest, a line of elephants from another company passed our van. Shoulder after elephant shoulder moved just inches from the window. On top of each animal were two tourists holding umbrellas. I had a brief pang of jealousy knowing we wouldn’t get that close during our visit. But that quickly faded once we got to the park and heard stories about the rescued elephants. There are almost 30 elephants living on the grounds, all rescued after being injured or becoming too old to be profitable. Some were blind from...
Rock Climbing at Crazy Horse in Chiang Mai: There Will Be Bruises

Rock Climbing at Crazy Horse in Chiang Mai: There Will Be Bruises

Love hurts. Particularly when that love is rock climbing. By the end of Saturday, I was covered in bruises, scratches, and had a pocket full of bloody tissues. But, like any dysfunctional relationship, the more it pushed me away, the more determined I was to try to make it work. Before my trip to Thailand, I’d never climbed outside. When I lived in DC, I went to an indoor climbing gym and quickly fell head over heels for the amazing athleticism the sport required. Unfortunately, I devoted very little time to attaining this athleticism because I spent most of my climbing sessions staring in awe at the people effortlessly crawling UPSIDE DOWN ACROSS THE CEILING. Wtf. Seriously. Like Spiderman. In Chiang Mai, for 3,000 Baht, you can pay for a one-day course in outdoor rock climbing. Or you can find a nice Polish rock climber who is in such desperate need of a partner he will willingly take a beginner for free. It happened that I was lucky enough to come across just such a desperate Polish rock climber at a Couchsurfing meetup last week. We headed out by motorbike for the 45-minute drive to Crazy Horse Buttress. The area is part of a mountain that looks like someone shaved off the greenery to reveal sheer tan and black cliffs. It’s named after a rock formation at the top that resembles a horse. But, after looking at it, I just referred to it as No Way in Hell l Can Climb That Buttress. Tomek asked if I wanted to start off in the cave. I quickly agreed as that...
Looking for an Apartment in Chiang Mai

Looking for an Apartment in Chiang Mai

Now that I was moving to a new city, it was finally time to begin my first apartment search in Thailand! I would be volunteering in Chiang Mai for the next month and needed to find a place to call home asap. Since most Thai apartment complexes don’t have websites — or at least not ones I can read — I decided my best bet was just to walk from place to place and ask in person about rates and to see the rooms. I had a taxi dropped me off in Nimman, the neighborhood recommended by another volunteer at the foundation. I optimistically set off into the midday sun, ready to view as many apartments as the day could hold. I started out at the large Baan Thai apartment complex. The room was sparse, but clean and bright. I loved the giant balcony, and the pool certainly didn’t hurt things. I felt like this could be a good option. But if I could get all this for only 5200 baht ($187), what was available for a little more? I decided to go see a few more buildings. I entered several faded high-rises and played the same game of charades when the staff said they didn’t speak English (my two Thai words of hello and thank you could really only book-end the conversation at best): I smiled brightly and pointed to myself. I held up one-finger to indicate one month and then made my hands into a pillow, closed my eyes, and tilted my head to the side to indicate I wanted to sleep there. Then I held up both...
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