Don’t eat the street Papaya in Laos

Don’t eat the street Papaya in Laos

Note: this blog post deals (unfortunately) with a lot of people being sick. No graphic or descriptive imagery or photo evidence. Just the word puke a lot. 
 It was a really difficult couple of days in Laos. Our first couple of days in this beautiful interesting country were fantastic. We had a weird but joyous night out that involved midnight bowling with friends from the slow boat and we explored interesting temples and walked across bamboo bridges and poked around the (very touristy) town of Luang Prabang. This is how I choose to remember our time in Luang Prabang.   

Unfortunately, disaster struck. It began with a curse placed on us by Khammany (sp.? doesn’t deserve to be known) hostel that shames the name of hostel. This is the place your relatives warned you about. Now, I’ve stayed in some very questionable places (health and safety code wise) but I truly believed I would never encounter a place that I actually couldn’t stay in. Hanna and I retreated the following morning having not slept a wink horrified by the putrid smell of sewage, the floors covered in used ear plugs no locks and the beds that were really just a metal frame with a piece of paper on it. (Hanna: “I think there were ants in my bed.”) Never pay 4 USD kids, splurge and spend 6 and be a Queen. 

It’s good we retreated because later that day we went to the street food market where I devoured a glorious and questionably meat stick and Hanna committed one of the biggest mistakes of travel.   

She ate the street fruit. 

and then she puked all night. 

and then she slept all day and I kind of thought she was going to die as I delivered water to her bedside. 

I was going to have her write a guest post about her experience but she was too busy puking in the street. 

We missed our van to Vang Vieng and stayed another night in Luang Prabang which was no problem because I homesteaded some coffee shops and learned about Laos buddhism! Did you know that monks can choose how long they want to serve? Most do it just for 3-10 years to give their parents good luck. Quite interesting. 

The curse continued because although Hanna began to recover she was still not necessarily better and I slowly started to feel sick myself. Whereas her illness was abrupt mine was a slow descent into abominable pain that has torn and shredded my GI in ways that are impossible to describe. I know these things are not related but I’m blaming it on the curse of Khammany and the worst van ride I’ve ever encountered. The 6 hours from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng stuffed into a mini van with way too many people in it on a makeshift chair (literally) and woman puking behind us as we weaved through ‘roads’ that were mostly potholes and honked while whipping around blind corners. It was made even worse because I knew in 2 days I was going to have to get back in the van and do it again. 

Vang Vieng is a neat place but both Hanna and I were feeling still pretty miserable and weak for most of our time there except for a three hour period where I rallied myself enough to go in a very cheap hot air balloon ride. 

Hanna and I both grew basically desperate to leave this country and this period of our travels behind. It’s unfortunate because I don’t want to feel this way about Laos but it’s tarnished now ever so slightly by the illness we both picked up there. Sometimes that happens in travel in fact I was surprised her and I had already traveled a month without any illness from street food. We rallied. We came back from it. But the curse of Khammany revealed itself in other insidious ways as it’s final parting gift from Laos. Our dirtbag travel choice (still cannot believe I survived this) to take a bus from Luang Prabang to Hanoi, Vietnam…for 25 hours. 

The simple beautiful challenging art of being

Theres been a lot of waiting on this trip. Waiting in lines and long winding van rides and hopeless ferry windows and all this waiting holds the promises of the next. The next town, adventure, view experience. 

I feel perpetually that in these moments (as I’ve been doing my whole life) I forget the now and focus purely, fully on the next. It’s a common coping mechanism for impatient people, those of us that are not zen enough or enlightened enough or balanced enough to exist and be and stand patiently without fidgeting. I think we all know these people and I think some (most) of us are these people. 

I know I am. I live, even what in retrospect may have been a beautiful stunning moment, forever considering the next. I wish I didn’t. I wish I could be better at simply being. I desire desperately for my mind to not haphazardly wander and wane and take me to other places when I should be exactly where I am. 

But I’m working on it. This trip is a perpetual process of me working on it. 

These past couple days were me working on it in a big way. Hanna and I chose to take the south east Asia famous journey from northern Thailand to Laos via slow boat.   

The slow boat is a 3 day journey from Chiang Mai, Thailand to Luang Prabang Laos. Two of those days you spend the better part of your morning and entire afternoon idling and weaving and slowly and randomly picking up locals and dropping them off down the Mekong River. There’s no wifi or outlets or really comfortable chairs and all you can do for 8ish hours daily is stare out at the jungle as you float along. 

The slow boat is a test in patience and endurance and ultimately an experience that is wholly and entirely about the journey. It has nothing to do with the next.  It was one of the first times I’ve felt myself truly “be”. Be where I was completely and engaging actively with the beautiful incredible slow boat squad (almost family they are so familiar) and our surroundings and be a part of something that was truly just what it was. No distractions or fanfare (we are talking about workers that pushed the boat backwards with long bamboo poles. Feeling thankful for reverse and bow thrusters and power steering).  

It was lovely and despite the gross parts (vile bathrooms, horrible smells, questionable guest houses) it was a bonding experience that is unparalleled.

The slow boat was a remarkable, memorable experience that is rare in a world of travel that often feels rushed or jam packed with desire for ‘ultimate experience.’ The slow boat had nothing to do with snapchat or Instagram or a senseless desire to prove how interesting our carefully curated life is. It was simply what it was. A jungle boat full of people from all over the world mixing for three days and exchanging perspectives and personalities. It was beautiful (except for the Laos border crossing. That was a test of sheer force of will to survive). 

Everyone should go. Everyone should find their own slow boat, whatever form it may take, to practice the simple challenging art of being.  

A letter to my backpack

It’s been a month. I thought I’d check in. I know you stink and smell and are covered in dirt from the peeling floors of dorms and guest houses and street corners that I carelessly dumped you on. I know that you still have sand in your corners from the beach we left behind weeks ago.
I’m sorry for that.
I’m sorry that nothing inside you ever dries in this cruel climate. I’m sorry that I forget the incredible role you’re playing in this adventure as you carry around all my stinky mildly mildewy stuff. I wish the further we traveled together the more you’d expand. To fit better all the little things I keep picking up on the way and to store the items that will someday be incredible memories in the form of objects that I turn over in callused ancient hands smiling remembering the weird smell of street meat sticks wafting as I haggled over a dollar difference. 

You are literally carrying my hard evidence. You are solid real proof that I did this and saw that and I wish you could expand. 

The same way that I’ve felt my heart constrict and convulse and I’m sure grow inside my beating chest so big I wonder how it could possibly be the same size. 

The same when I look at you.

 I’ve been to 10 cities, 2 countries, beach-to-jungle, underwater, up the mountains, seen spectacular sights that drew me speechless and I know I’m not the same that I was. 

But you, my dear backpack, my hard evidence, you are still the same. 

A little more dirty, a little bit roughed up. You look like me I’m sure. But your insides, like mine, are different. Sandy and strange and yes, smelly (someday we won’t smell I’m sure of it) stuffed with my memories. The stains on those tattered shirts the weird odors the sand covered shorts, the bikini tops that will never be the same (ever) the gifts I’m trying to keep separate they are the realness of what I’m carrying inside me. 

So im sorry I keep forgetting you, sometimes cursing you as we wander the streets in the sun sweating. I’m sorry that I stuff more and stuff more and more and stuff stuff stuff into you till you’re bursting. I feel the same and I love it.

I know you do too.

 We will both be sad when the stuffing is over and we have to unpack, both literally and figuratively. 

That’s why it’s okay to be smelly and sweaty and stuffed. I’ll try to remember to dump the sand out of your bottom corners and you keep doing exactly what you’re doing. Don’t change a thing. We’ve still got a lot to go. More countries and more cities and more smells to pick up. I’m thrilled that you’re watching my back as we travel. 

Love, Cassie 

sexy and disgusting and dangerous: motor biking to Pai

Hindsight being 20/20 this idea was insane…and I’d do it again. The look of sheer shock on people’s faces since completing this journey when I say casually what we did tells me enough about the choice we made. Everyone looks in wondrous shock that we appear non-disfigured and are still 100% alive. 

I can hardly believe it either. 

Motor biking to Pai sounded simple and kind of sexy. We were excited for a journey with Chris and Nicole and to see some nature. Scooter freedom, take our time, really live the experience to this weird northern hippie town to the fullest. The scooter journey sounded like a sort of pilgrimmage through much needed jungle really IN nature not just bouncing around the back of a bus. 

I’m still getting dirt, dust, bugs off my skin. I’m still marveling about the fact that I’m not covered in road rash or laying broken in a Thai hospital (sorry mom. Aren’t you glad you’re hearing about this now that I’m perfectly safe.)

The road was endless, broken pavement everywhere, potholes so large if you knocked one your cheap scooter would probably break in two, loose gravel, mud, dirt. Every corner was a blind hair pin prayer to our maker that no van, bus, or banana truck would whip around at a bad angle. 

700+ hair pin turns I found out when we arrived in Pai covered in dirt starved for food shaky from balancing dodging maneuvering a scooter up down around for 4 hours. 

Even though it was terrifying it was also exhilarating, beyond beautiful scenery, and dare I say sexy? Despite the dirt dust near death death experience I never felt so al ive as I did whipping around blind corners on our shaking scooter. I am quite sure Hanna did not feel the same, she was a sweaty control less passenger white knuckle gripping as I whizzed us through the jungle. 

But I brought us 8 hours round trip unscathed. 

We had two flat tires. An experience that could’ve been horrible but miraculous fate had them occur both in what was most likely the only two parts of the ride where we were a mere 2 minute walk from a mechanic. (One of which was a beautiful lovely non English speaking school janitor who fixed our bike with a grin and no complaints. This country is beauiful in both scenery and people.)

It was the least sexy and most sexy I’ve ever felt. The best experiences are always that way. Giving you cold sweats and shaky hands but good god, you feel that this is what living really IS. Dangling your mortality a little bit off the branch makes you want to whoop scream in terror beam about beatuiful breathing life. 

In the jungle with a broken dusty road and a shuttering scooter I felt that. That I was really living my life, not moving passively as it happened to me. 

Special shoutout to my papa’s guardian angels. I am 100% certain the only reason Hanna and I are still able to tell this story has everything to do with outside invisible forces and very little to do with me being an “expert” scooter driver. 

Chiang Mai: cooking and jazz co-ops and hipster coffee shops

Chiang Mai: cooking and jazz co-ops and hipster coffee shops

I knew when I put on my backpack 3(!!!) weeks ago to go on this (marginally unorganized, wandering, see where a paper map takes me) trip to Southeast Asia I was going to have experiences that fell across the spectrum on good/bad/incredible etc. 

I had a day in Chiang Mai, Thailand that was pretty close to (my definition of) traveler perfect. It was just enough traveler touring and a perfect night out of feeling like you had stumbled upon the coolest place in town. It involved a hipster coffee shop that I have now been homesteading and weather that was not too hot or too cold. This perfect day involved cooking, which for people who know me may be astonished by this. However, it also involved limitless yummy food that I got the pleasure of cooking while a very cute thai woman told me exactly how to not burn anything or chop off my finger with my giant cleaver (I know cooking terms now!)

  There are so so so many cooking schools in Chiang Mai but we chose Siam Rice Thai cookery and are so thankful we did. The cooking school is in their home and it truly feels like you are learning to cook with good friends in a cozy home. Our class was small and entertaining the ingredients were deliciously fresh, we visited a local market to see the various spices and chose 6 different items to learn how to cook. I made papaya salad, red curry with pineapple, coconut curry soup, pad thai,  sweet and sour vegetables, sticky rice and coconut for desert. They gave me a cookbook so I could attempt to replicate it but I don’t know if I can without Mai telling me exactly how much fish oil to put in my wok. 

We discovered a hipster coffee shop that upon entering transported me right back to Portland, complete with local sourced coffee and man buns and minimalist aesthetics. I love it here.

We ended this really fulfilling day with pineapple shakes and an open mic night at a jazz co-op that had unbelievably talented and colorful artists jamming together, a great deal of travelers,expats, local thai people  all co-mingling and enjoying smooth saxophones and wildly disruptive trumpets. 

It was one of those days you fantasize about as a traveler when you are bouncing around for hours in the back of a sorrong ta ou (thai pickup truck with seats varying levels of padding) or smelling yourself on a miserable night ferry/van transport across the country that cost you 15 USD. 

You do those things for days like this one. You put on your backpack for days like this one.

A day with elephants and I’ll never be the same

I think I was riding some kind of happiness high because when I left the elephants I felt so blissed out that the 2+ hour ride in the back of a pick up truck down a windy bumpy dirt road didn’t even bother me. 

The elephant jungle park is nestled in a small village outside of Chiang Mai. All the elephants have been rescued from working camps, there is no riding, only elephant hugs. The elephants seem truly happy and other than the 4-6 hours a day when they hug tourists with their trunks, they enjoy their life in the jungle by the village. It was truly a remarkable experience that I would highly recommend for anyone seeking a conservationist approach to meeting elephants. The baby elephant Patung is my new alter ego. He stomps around and doesn’t listen to anyone and frustrates all the villagers. 

Heres photos of me with elephants because that’s all you need. 


Ko Phi Phi: beauty can be a burden

Ko Phi Phi is a tropical dream. It’s views are spectacular, limestone rocks imposing and beaches sheltered and stunning. Unfortunately the world knows it. 

I traveled here with Hanna for one night to meet up with Nicole (!!!) and Chris for some fun island time. We went on a gorgeous hike to viewpoints and enjoyed catching up and it was wonderful. 

However, this gorgeous island also represents some internal tension for the mindful traveler.  The isthmus between the two sides of Phi Phi is one large tourist town filled with wetern food advertised en mass (we also have thai food!!), beautiful spa resorts, and hostels and guesthouses. The island is tailored for those that want to party hard and relax all day. It’s gorgeous beaches are littered in trash from negligent visitors, and probably some negligent workers too, and every Thai person you actually see on the island is either pushing luggage around the windy roads or is dancing with fire as a spectacle for people to be entertained while drinking Thai buckets.

It’s challenging because I had an absolute blast here. 

I danced with the fire dancers and I partied on the beach (pouring rain dance party on the beach it was unforgettable) but it’s troubling too. 

If what Phi Phi “is” is a tropical oasis for westerners to party and spa and visit on day trips and maybe scuba if not too hungover and no one is really complaining, especially the Thai people who live here, does that validate how we treat it and talk about it? Does it validate the concept of a westerner’s Thai playground? 

What troubles me is that long after I go home and tell my stories and potentially thrill others with grand tales the people that inhabit this small beautiful place will still just be pushing luggage around windy roads as another ferry of faces arrives to find the cheapest bucket and forget their trash on the beach. 

It’s the traveler dilemma that haunts most everyone that straps on their backpacks. Are we helping or hurting? What does the path I leave behind look like? 

Phi Phi is gorgeous and fun and a wonderful opportunity to be introspective about why we travel and critical of those that often forget mindfulness as they litter the beach with their cheeseburger wrappers.