I’m going to lay it all out there and show you my underwear in this post. Aren’t you excited? Wooohooo!
It’s no secret that Americans are FAT and getting fatter.
The first day our plane landed in Amsterdam we were shocked by all the skinny people and the very obvious absence of obesity. It was true through most of Europe, and doubly so here in SE Asia. Most adults in Thailand and Laos would fall in the healthy “normal” range on the body-mass-index (here’s more info on BMI and how to calculate yours). A “normal” BMI ranking translates to “skinny as hell” on the official US scale!
The US is the second “fattest” country on the planet with the average adult BMI of almost 30 – borderline “Obese.” In Thailand, the average BMI is 23.6. Here’s an interesting graphic that shows BMI by country (click to enlarge):
Click to enlarge
Statistics, tables, and charts are great, but they say a picture is worth a thousands words. So in that spirit, let’s dispense with numbers and move on to my underwear. That is why you’re here, right?!
I typically wear Jockey boxer briefs, size XL. The other day I popped into a department store here in Bangkok to pick up a couple extra pairs. They didn’t have the Jockey boxer briefs I typically wear, so I bought a pair of Jockey bikini briefs, size XL (the largest size they have). When I got back to the hotel and opened the box, this is what I discovered:
US vs. Thai size ‘XL’
Obviously, the pair on the bottom is a size “XL” from the US and the pair on the top is a size “XL” from Thailand.
This picture says it all.
We’re sitting at a little cafe in Chumphon (actually now we’re in Bangkok, but when I started writing this we were in Chumphon) watching the pouring rain outside (and inside too when the wind blows!). It is monsoon season, which means that we’ve had the occasional cooling downpour in the middle of beautiful, sunny days. It has been a great couple of weeks in Southern Thailand. Let me tell you about it…
We left Bangkok on the night train to Chumphon in Southern Thailand.
Another night train
Getting ready to leave the station
Jette enjoying a peanut butter sandwich
When we bought the train tickets the air conditioned second class cars were full, so we ended up in non-AC second class. Same fold-down sleeper seats, but no AC, so the windows were open for most of the trip. It wasn’t too bad, but the open windows made it kind of loud, especially when we passed other trains, and there was a constant stream of little bugs blowing in. In fact when it was time to go to bed we had to brush all the little gnats, beetles, and flies off our beds. Once we were tucked in, we had little bugs hitting us in the face all night long, especially for Mila and me in the lower bunks. I didn’t sleep much, but I got a lot of reading done!
Sticky rice breakfast while we wait for the bus to the ferry
We arrived at Chumphon well before sunrise. We piled off the train with all the other tourists. The ferry company that services the popular islands of Koh Tao, Koh Phangan, Koh Samui, et. al. has an office at the train station, so we checked in there and then waited an hour or so for the big bus that would shuttle us all to the ferry pier. our fellow travellers were mostly 20-something backpackers who looked like there were ready for one of the “full-moon” parties Southern Thailand is sadly notorious for. We had chosen Koh Tao precisely because it was known more as a snorkeling and diving destination and less as a wild party scene.
While we were waiting for the bus, it started raining, but we were sheltered under the roof of the train station platform. It rained for half-an-hour or so, then conveniently slowed to a light sprinkle as the double-decker bus pulled up. We piled on the bus and headed to the ferry pier.
Jette at the ferry pier
Mila and Jette checking out the ocean
With the rain came some ocean swells. Nothing big, but just enough to make the ferry trip a puke fest. The ferry was a large catamaran. Compared to single-hulled ships, twin-hulled catamarans are often more stable and have less of a rocking and side-to-side motion in the waves. It didn’t help on this trip. Within 5 minutes of boarding the boat the crew was busy handing out small plastic bags and wads of toilet paper to increasingly sea-sick passengers. It was a puke fest. Mila and Jette both got very, very sea sick and vomited multiple times. I was very nauseated but managed to keep my breakfast down. It was an absolutely miserable two hours that seemed like it would never end. When we finally arrived at Koh Tao it was such a relief! We be landlubbers!
We made it! At the Koh Tao pier.
A “taxi” from our hotel was waiting for us. Like much of SE Asia (and the rest of the world), a “taxi” is a Toyota Hi-Lux 4×4 pickup truck with seats in the back. We were lucky and got to sit in the cab of the truck, while others piled in the back. Off we went to Mango Bay, on the North side of the island. In terms of distance, it was only 6 or 7 km, but the “road” was one of the worst and most hilariously challenging I have ever seen. As we went through town it was a typical paved road, but as we got closer to Mango Bay it was more of a washed out trail.
The route from the pier to Mango Bay in the North of Koh Tao Island.
Road to Mango Bay
The road/trail went up and down through the mountains and was much steeper than you might imagine. Think of the steepest streets in San Francisco and then make them even steeper! Along some of these very steep sections a concrete surface had been laid, about the width of a wide sidewalk. This gave the 4×4 enough traction to make it up the steep grade. In many places there were deep fissures and gullies, carved by rainwater rushing down, and large rocks (or small boulders, depending on your perspective). Some of the gullies were as big as 2 feet wide and 2 feet deep, so the driver was constantly weaving slowly to avoid getting stuck. When it is wet, the road is impassable, so people and goods must come and go by boat.
When we arrived at Mango Bay we found ourselves at the top of the mountain looking down at a hillside of giant boulders and tropical vegetation. There was a very long staircase winding down between the boulders, with small bungalows perched between and on top of the giant boulders going all the way down to the sea.
The stairs down
Jette on her way down the mountain to our bungalow.
A bungalow, Jette and the sea
On the walkway at Mango Bay
View of Mango Bay from the water.
We made it down the winding stairs, checked in at the office, and found our bungalow. It was perfectly positioned atop the boulders with unobstructed views of the sea. Beautiful.
View from our bungalow.
Mila in our bungalow.
The walkway down to the restaurant and the water.
View from the restaurant.
Another view of the bay. For scale, note the size of the people on top of the boat.
The bay at Mango Bay is a popular destination for local scuba and snorkeling, so every day there are tour boats that come in for a few hours. The Mango Bay Resort is quite secluded as it is the only active hotel in the area. Other than the occasional scuba boat tour, we have the whole bay and beach to ourselves. It is a really fantastic setup! The hotel also provides free snorkeling gear, so anytime we want we can just jump in. There are large coral formations throughout the bay and thousands of tropical fish. The small beach at the center right of the photo above is easy to swim to, and there is lots to see on the way!
The seclusion gave us lots of time to just relax, read, and do our work. Jette was very busy with her math and we have started experimenting with a new curriculum based on the “great books” or classical tradition (think trivium). I’m pretty excited about it, and will go into more detail in a future post. Of course, when we were tired of working and wanted to play there was great snorkeling just outside our door and a beach to swim to. Town, a bigger beach, shops and restaurants were just a boat ride or 4×4 truck trip away.
More about life in Koh Tao in our next post…
Another post by Mila as we continue to catch up. We’re on the island of Koh Tao in Thailand right now, but want to post more about Laos, first.
As Waco mentioned in an earlier post, end-to-end months of travel can take their toll and we all ended up with colds. We spent extra days exploring the city while regaining our health in Luang Prabang. Luckily for us, the city offers some creature comforts that helped us with our recovery. Exhibit I, JOMA Bakery Cafe. We are naturally inquisitive about local foods wherever we travel. We typically eat meals the way they are eaten by the people who live wherever we happen to be, but when you don’t feel well, exploring new foods is one of the last things you want to do. Enter JOMA, a cafe that offers items that we no longer take for granted: lattes, unsweetened brewed iced tea (VERY difficult to find), fresh vegetable sandwiches with REAL cheddar cheese on focaccia and moist banana bread. We felt better with every delicious bite.
JOMA makes great Lao/Thai style iced tea, too
feeling better on a walk in Luang Prabang
Typical buildings along the main street of the old city
On the main street of the old city
Picking up some fallen frangipani flowers…my new favorite!
cooling off at Big Tree cafe
the “Big Tree”
Buildings facing the Mekong River
Life outdoors is everywhere. As we walked and peeked up side streets, we would glimpse bits of daily life. Here, a woman is getting a pedicure from another woman who travels around town with her pedicure station.
Time for a pedicure
these seed pods were gorgeous
traditional teak architecture with a heavy dose of modern minimalism
We enjoyed a nearby restaurant called Cafe Toui, not only because the food was delicious, but because one of Jette’s favorite furry friends was always there, too. We named this sweet dog, Little Brownie.
“Little Brownie” at one of our favorite restaurants, Cafe Toui
Jette with “Little Brownie”
enjoying the colorful temple decorations
One of the nicest aspects of Luang Prabang is being able to dine along the Mekong. In addition to having relied on the “Mighty” Mekong agriculturally, for transportation and as a major trade route, the city understands that the river has a natural beauty and has developed it into an enjoyable amenity.
We had dinner at one of the nicer restaurants across from the river one night and each ordered a basket filled with traditional Lao foods. We all love sticky rice, which Laotians eaten with every meal, as an accompaniment to savory dishes. It’s also used as a base for many other dishes, including sweets. My favorite Lao savory snack is crispy river weed. The most familiar food that I can think of that even comes close is Japanese nori, but it’s still quite different. The process for making river weed can be seen here. On our heaping basket of food, the river weed is in the top left corner just behind a small bowl of dipping sauce; it’s sprinkled with sesame seeds. Both Waco and I enjoyed the Lao eggplant dip, too.
basket of Lao food
sunset on the Mekong
The main areas of the city can be easily accessed by a group of low-emission, electric tuk-tuks. Quite progressive!
electric tuk-tuk map
This display was one we couldn’t bypass without documenting. These vessels are filled with reptile-infused alcohol, and the owner has posted some informational material to entice passers-by.
incentives for imbibing
Indulging in some comfort food and a few days of rest provided enough energy for the seven hour long bus ride to Vang Vieng, Laos. Both Jette and I get motion sick, so we stocked up at the neighborhood pharmacy with some preventative tools. We bought ginger lozenges, mint chewing gum, and a menthol inhaler. In Asia, many people carry menthol inhalers and use them to help alleviate motion sickness. On our first long bus ride, a very nice Thai woman had seen Jette suffering and offered us her inhaler. The inhalers are small tubes that are about the size of a chapstick that people open and insert into their nostrils. We respectfully declined, but decided we should carry our own and test its possible potential beneficial effects.
We’re ready for a loooooong bus ride
The scenery was absolutely stunning
We drove for several hours and finally made it halfway. The driver pulled into a Laotian style rest stop which looked like this:
a rest stop halfway to Vang Vieng
At the rest stop, a steady stream of kids on bikes with colorful umbrellas (aka portable shade) rode past.
Kids with colorful umbrellas coming home from school
Thankfully, the bus ride was fine and we arrived in Vang Vieng in good spirits. Our initial impression was that Vang Vieng was a small dusty town, especially in comparison to Luang Prabang, which had initially seemed smallish and charming, but now felt downright cosmopolitan in hindsight.
We had booked a guesthouse by email and hired a tuk-tuk for the short ride there. As we drove through town, it was hard to miss the natural beauty of the green mountains and lush tropical plants that played majestic background to all of the simplistic foreground.
This type of raised seating with flat cushions is common in Vang Vieng and we enjoyed it during breakfasts at our guesthouse. This was their covered patio lounge space with the prettiest view.
View from our guesthouse to a new road being built
After relaxing for a bit, we set out to explore. A simple sign spotted from the road into town had grabbed our attention and we decided to investigate a little place called Amigos.
We’re ready for Mexican food
We ended up having dinner at Amigos three out of the four nights we were in Vang Vieng, at Jette’s request. We chatted with the lovely Australian owner and enjoyed her mom’s absolutely incredible chocolate rum balls. We felt welcomed, the ambiance was lovely and it was clear that a tremendous amount of effort was being made to create a beautiful environment and a successful business. Oh, and yes, the food was yummy, too! We would typically walk from our guesthouse to dinner and take in the local culture.
There were lots and lots of chickens roaming the streets of Vang Vieng, and other chickens in oversized, overturned handwoven baskets that were used as cages for the birds.
more street chickens
Much of life happens outside in most Asian cities, and that concept can be quite literal at times. We enjoyed watching a game of Sepak Takraw, above and had the chance to peek in on many other activities. Case in point, hair salons. This one was between Amigos and our guesthouse, so Jette decided to get her hair washed one night after dinner on our walk “home”. They did a nice job and it was a lot of fun.
Jette was getting so into the concept of living outdoors that she decided it would be fun to lose her eleventh tooth while walking around one day!
Some of the most extensive limestone caves in Asia are found in Laos. We were interested in a spelunking adventure, and selected Ban Pha Thou as the cave we wanted to explore. We hired a tuk-tuk driver for the day, stopped at a street vendor for one of the tastiest treats of our trip (slightly sweet sticky rice cooked in bamboo) and drove about eleven km north of town through vibrant green, natural beauty.
this lady makes the best sticky rice!
We travelled some very bumpy roads and the skinniest suspension bridge we’ve ever seen.
He’s transporting mattresses
tight squeeze across a suspended bridge
Our driver stopped near some water buffalo who were going about their day.
There was one small bridge that we had to walk across. It was quite simply three hollow bamboo trunks tied together with bits of string and very few vertical supports. We pondered how wet we would be getting as we had very little confidence that the “bridge” could support our weight, but our concerns were unfounded…bamboo for the win!
a bike that’s been “parked” for a very long time
View from the cave entrance
A family inside this small hut rented us headlamps
climbing to cave entrance
it’s dark in here
We explored the dark cave by ourselves for some time. We exited hot, dirty, tired and in need of a snack. We found our driver and requested a stop at Organic Mulberry Farm on our way back to town and we’re so glad we did. We tried a mulberry shake which was surprisingly pungent and strongly flavored. I bought a small wedge of their house-made goat cheese. Cheese is not an ingredient of Asian food, so to find a specialty goat cheese in such a rural spot was quite exciting. Waco ordered Thod Khao, fried sticky rice with egg, which turned out to be a much more delicious dish than it sounds. We were very happy campers and Jette and I will be making some as soon as possible with minced vegetables like the ones from Organic Mulberry Farm.
Organic Mulberry Farm goat cheese
Sampling a mulberry shake
We spent our final days in Vang Vieng enjoying the views of the Nam Song river, Laotian food and shady sidewalk cafes.
We were more than a little excited to discover a family who sold ice by the bag full
It was time to renew our Thai visas, and we needed to get to Vientiane. A four hour bus ride later, we were there.
NOTE: This post is a few days old now, but our internet connections have been so bad that I have not been able to get photos uploaded and finish the post. I managed to get a few photos uploaded so I’ve decided to publish this one without the other photos for now. (Here are some photos on Google that will give you some idea what this place looks like). When we have a functional connection again I’ll edit this post and add the other photos and also add a post or two about the weaving class and our trip to the waterfall.
Temple in Luang Prabang, Laos
We’ve been in Luang Prabang, Laos for a week. Jette and I have been fighting colds. Despite being run-down, snotty-nosed, sneezy, sore-throated kids, we have still been exploring a bit and having fun. Of course we’ve spent quite a bit of time just resting and healing too. Yesterday Jette woke up feeling really rotten with an upset tummy. She opened her eyes, rolled over, and puked. Yep, as we used to say in fifth grade, she puked, barfed, blew chow, spewed stew, revealed her meal.
I just puked
Thankfully by the end of the day she was feeling much better. Today both Jette and I are feeling good, almost back to normal aside from a bit of lingering nasal congestion, but Mila woke up with a sore throat! Oy vey! That’s how it started for us.
Luang Prabang is the second largest city in Laos. It has a small, sleepy feel, especially in the neighborhood of the “old city.” The quaint old city harkens back to French Indochina with lots of villas and shophouses dating back to the 1930’s and earlier, all fairly well preserved (or at least still standing and in use). It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The old city sits on a small peninsula about 1 km long and 300m wide, at the intersection of the Mekong River and the Nam Kham River. There are four streets that run the length of the peninsula and a mix of cross streets and small alleys that connect them. Overall, it’s a cute little place that is all about tourism now. Despite the fact this it is so touristy, it has its charms. For us it has been a comfortable place to slow down and rest a bit.
Having ridden and studied the Rhine, it is interesting to now be on the Mekong and to see the similarities and differences. There are common needs and patterns that have driven human’s use of the rivers and settlement throughout history. It’s no surprise that Luang Prabang sits on a peninsula at the confluence of two rivers. It’s a position that has economic, transportation, military, and general resource benefits, and a settlement and development pattern that we have now seen the world over.
Since the French colonial days, the town has expanded beyond the peninsula. The new part of town looks like a typical SE Asian town, perhaps a Thai town from 20 years ago. It is not touristy at all. While Mila and Jette were doing their weaving class last week, I walked through that part of town and one of the markets there and didn’t see another gringo. I also bought an umbrella in the market, which was apparently quite a novelty as my friendly negotiations with the seller quickly drew an audience, LOL. I ended up paying 20,000 KIP for the umbrella. Do you think I got a good deal?
Enjoying some shade
Lao people and culture are very interesting. The stamp of communism is evident everywhere, something I may elaborate on in a future post. Culturally it is quite a contrast to Thailand, though the languages are quite similar.
Anyway, we’ve been enjoying the town’s sleepy vibe and many cafes. Mila and Jette took a full-day weaving class, and we all took a trip to a nearby waterfall. We’ll tell you about these in upcoming blog posts.
We’ve been visiting good friends in Singapore and having a really fun time despite the smokey haze that is plaguing the city. The smoke is from the “slash and burn” fires on palm oil plantations in Indonesia. I don’t know if western media is covering it, but Singapore and much of this part of SE Asia has been choking in this smoke for weeks. It’s really horrible.
As you can see, when we are outside, we’ve been wearing “N95” masks that (hopefully) filter out much of the dangerous particulates. I doubt they help much with the sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and ozone. Lots of people here wear the N95 masks. In fact we had a hard time finding stores that had the larger masks in stock. They are in high demand!
There are a number of smartphone apps that track the levels of “haze” or air pollution. The specific measure they use in Singapore is the PSI (Pollution Standards Index) which is an air quality index (AQI).
Note the level of 274. This is from yesterday afternoon. Here’s what the numbers in the index mean from a potential health standpoint:
The Straits Times newspaper here in Singapore has a good Guide to the #haze with maps of the locations of the fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan (Borneo), and descriptions of the causes and potential health effects of the peat fires.
Until we arrived in Singapore and experienced the conditions here (and the health effects on us) we were planning to stay about a week and then go to Northern Sumatra. The idea was to study the Sumatran ecosystem and rainforests, land use, and local cultures – much like we did with the Rhine River. But with the fires still burning and the air as dangerously polluted as it is, we now have to come up with another plan. We’re going to spend tomorrow inside at the main library doing some research and deciding on our next moves.
In just the few days that we have been here, we can really feel the health effects of the toxic air. Mila has been fighting a sore throat and we just put Jette to bed with a horrible headache. I can feel it in my nose and throat too.
Nasty stuff this slash and burn. It’s ironic that one of the very things we came to study is going to drive us away. Thankfully, we have a choice. It is already proving to be a powerful and memorable lesson.
click to see more photos on DW.com