Saturday, January 24, 2009

Aoraki/Mt. Cook

From Tekapo, we headed further inland to another wildly blue lake, Lake Pukaki. From here, we caught our first glimpse of Mt. Cook. The mountain was named after Captain James Cook, one of the early western explorers of the islands, but its original name was Aoraki, which means "Cloud Piercer" in the language of New Zealand's first people, the Maori.

Mt. Cook is the highest mountain in New Zealand - all of Australasia, in fact - and seems to emerge straight up from the belly of the island. You drive along the flat roads that skirt Lake Pukaki almost straight to the base of the Southern Alps. This is one of the best things about New Zealand; everything - from the mountains to the glaciers and more - is amazingly accessible.

We were very lucky to have seen the Mt. Cook's peak, as it is very often shrouded in clouds. We went on a short hike in the morning to a viewpoint that gave us an awesome view of the mountain range and the Mueller Glacier. Gil continued trekking further up into the Hooker Valley for a couple of hours, but eventually those infamous clouds developed and he found himself hurrying back to town to escape the windy cold and beat the impending rain.

We spent the night at the cozy YHA in Mt. Cook Village and in the morning went on another hike to check out nearby Tasman Glacier, one of the largest in New Zealand. It looks a bit "dirty" because of the way it has advanced and retreated over time, but was still a spectacular sight to see. There are huge icebergs that fell off the face of the glacier floating in the terminal lake and we did not realize the scale of them until we spotted a small shape motoring around them, which we finally figure out was a rather large passanger boat!

Lake Tekapo

We rented a car and headed south from Christchurch, quickly figuring out why everyone says the South Island is so amazing. We cruised along Highway 1, stopping in a few towns along the route in seach of some long underwear and a mattress pads for our tent, we turned off onto a windy road twisting its way up through rolling amber foothills of the islands great mountain ranges.

We arrived at Lake Tekapo at dusk and checked into one of the local hostels (begrudgingly sharing a dormroom with some fellow travelers for the first time on our trip for lack of an affordable alternative!). We headed down to the lake for a night time strole and marvelled at the southern skies that opened up above our heads. There is an observatory nearby that supposedly affords some of the best views of the heavens in the southern hemisphere and we could certainly see why.
Our amazement of this place only grew when we awoke in the morning, because when illuminated by the sun, Lake Tekapo, and many of the other lakes in the South Island, appear to be an almost unnatural color of blue. The milky turquoise hue is due to the "rock flour" suspended in the glacial melt water, which was created when glaciers moved across the land pulverizing anything in their way.

To make the scene even more picturesque, there is a tiny stone church built along the shore of the lake. A bit more unusual is the dog statue nearby, which was supposedly built as a tribute to the sheepdogs that served the hearders that settled the area. We snapped a few classic photos here before heading out of town.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Christchurch, NZ

After one last day in Bangkok eating cheap pad thai and trading in our dingy t-shirts for shiny new ones, we boarded the plane for New Zealand via Melbourne. It was strange to be ending another part of our trip and getting closer to the finish line, but even stranger to be back in a western country. The biggest shock by far were the prices. The US dollar was in the tank and where just a two days ago we were paying $20 a night for a hotel room with all the amenities we could possibly need, now $20 wouldn't even get us a bunk in a hostel dorm room. This reality forced us to get a bit more resourceful, so we finally decided to take advantage of - one of the best things to ever happen to independent travelers! Generous people from all walks of life offer to host travelers in return for nothing but a sincere thank you. What a novel idea!

Our host, Tony, was a super nice guy and not only had a couch to offer us, but the luxury of a spare room. He gave us some tips for touring downtown Christchurch, helped us sort out our car rental situation and even took us to a local couchsurfing party. A perfect poster boy for all Kiwis, who tend to be a very friendly and welcoming lot.

Christchurch seems to be a very nice place. It reminds me a bit of a New England college town in that it has a few cultural highlights, a handful of bars and a decent selection of international restaurants. But, for being the South Island's biggest city, it's not a very big city at all. After a couple of days, you might find yourself fondly endeared or totally bored to tears. We probably fell somewhere between those extremes.

Between the head and tail of our loop around the island, we spent about 3 days in Christchurch, which allowed us to take in the architecturally-stunning modern art gallery, visit the Canterbury Museum, which showcases regional history, and hit the weekend market at the Arts Center. We also had plenty of time to check out a couple of matches on the giant chess board in Cathedral Square and wander around the pretty botanical gardens.

On our last day in town, we headed out to the Banks Peninsula to check out the former French settlement of Akaroa. We never actually made it though, because we left on an empty take of gas and apparently there are no gas stations between the two cities - at least on the scenic route we took! The empty tank light had been on for about 40 kilometers when we reached a windy dirt road headed across the volcanically formed mountains from the northern coast. It seemed like a pretty risky move (one local we consulted said something along the lines of "gas? out here? good luck - you'll need it"), so we finally decided to turn around and head back toward civilization. We coasted down every hill in neutral and crossed our fingers as we drove on little more than fumes around the curvy coastline and finally through what seemed like an exceedingly long tunnel from Lyttelton back into Christchurch. Amazingly, we made it to a gas station, but it was certainly not the relaxing day we had planned!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Luang Prabang

The ride to Luang Prabang from Vang Vieng consisted of hour upon hour of twisty turns up the mountainside and back down, which caused many of the locals to vomit the entire way. The scenery was georgeous, but the frequent sight of smoke from fires being used to clear cut the land for agriculture was disappointing. It's tough to fault people trying to eak out a living, so hopefully with all the new initiatives aimed at fighting climate change we can figure out a way to provide some financial incentive for people to protect their native forests.

There are a few cities we've been to on this trip that seem to just ooze charm and Luang Prabang is near the top of the list. It's the cultural capital of Laos and you are surrounded by beauty every step that you take through its quaint streets. The architecture is georgeous - classic teak homes are interespersed every block or so by gilded temples. Luang Prabang is a World Heritage Site, and its setting, at the intersection of two meandering rivers, is quite fitting for such a lovely place.

Luang Prabang defintely has a more upscale and sophisticated feel compared to the bucolic south, but we happened to be there during Bpee Mai (Laos New Year), which meant the atmosphere was a bit wilder than usual. Bpee Mai lasts for 3 days in most parts of Laos, but in Luang Prabang it extends over 5 days. There are many rituals and ceremonies that take place, ranging from the banal (like house cleaning) to the kitsch (like the crowning of Miss Bpee Mai).

The festivities begion with a visit to a special holiday market where everything one needs for the celebration is available for sale, from noise makers to caged birds (which are released for good karma). Families tidy their homes so that old spirits can freely depart and then cross the Mekong to build sandcastle stupas. On the second day we saw a colorful parade down the city's main street, with women and girls made up in traditional costume, monks in bright orange robes and led by Pu No and Na No, two bizarre red-faced characters. In the days that follow there is a pilgramage to the wat that sits on top Phu Si (the hill that sits in the center of the city) and friends and families symbolically connect with one another by tying strings around each other's wrists. There is a special procession with a revered Buddha image named Pha Banga and all of the Buddha images are washed and blessed using a special naga-shaped spout.

Keeping with the spirit of "cleansing", the entire city breaks out into a huge water fight. We joined the workers at our hotel splashing passersby with water as a New Year's blessing. Young people cruise around in the back of pick-up trucks scooping buckets out of giant vats, while others return fire with water guns from the back of moterbikes. The main street is where the most intense battles take place, and you need to keep an eye out for the few people who are dishing out more malicious "blessings" like a smear of black ink on your cheek or a blast of white powder in your hair. No one escapes from the action - we saw a group of monks dousing folks from the upper ledge of one of the wats and saw more than one elderly grandmothers tossing out cups! Luckily, it takes place during the hottest time of the year, so you don't really mind that you're soaking wet. Everyone is in good spirits, and things wrap up by sundown so you can go out and enjoy a nice dinner in dry pants. It was definitely one of the funnest things we did on the whole trip.

Speaking of enjoying dinner, another highlight of Luang Prabang is its culinary riches. From the all-you-can-eat vegetarian buffet on the street to some top notch traditional Lao and French restaurants, you really can't go wrong. There is also a wonderful night market with some of the best handicrafts we've seen on our long trip, including beutifully woven scraves and hand-quilted blankets. If you're anywhere in South East Asia, its worth making the journey here, especially now that you can fly directly to and from Bankgok - which is exactly what we did in order to catch our flight to New Zealand...

Monday, September 15, 2008

Vang Vieng

Vang Vieng is a guilty pleasure. It's the type of place that, as an enlightened traveler, you want to hate. It's overrun with tourists wearing inappropriate clothing, overindulging in booze and poor imitations of western foods, watching crappy western television and generally not giving a damn about the culture or the people surrounding them. But, it's also ridiculously fun. If you can choke it down, chances are you'll ask for a second helping.

So, what's the big draw? I'm sure that once upon a time people came here for the beauty of the river and the surrounding limestone moutains jutting skyward above an intricate system of caves. Today, the allure of the river is not its beauty, but the many make-shift bars that have been built along its banks, each with its own signature rope swing, zip line and volleyball court. You rent a tube and float along, as the proprieters pass you a reed and pull you into the shore to greetings of free shots and DJ music. If we could somehow replicate this in the States, we would be millionaires.

In town, the situation is a little less worthy of emulation. There are lines of bars playing endless loops of "Friends" reruns, with the occasional "Family Guy" or "Simpsons" thrown in for good measure. I am not sure why these places are so popular, but I am guessing it has something to do with the fact that most people are too drunk or hung over to do anything else but veg out in front of the TV.
After a couple of days on the river, we decided it was time to get out and see more of the surrounding area. We rented a minibike and went in search of the many caves throughout the region. Along the way we passed some local boys hurrying home to show off the birds they had caught. Gil climbed through one cave that extended a kilometer into the hillside and we followed a river into another deep cave by tube. We also visited a couple of more expansive caves trimmed with stalactites and stalagmites. One was the home to a Buddah figure surrounded with offerings.

Back in town, we visited our favorite restaurant one last time - an organic restaurant using ingredients from a farm they own nearby - and then went for an ice cream at the local night market. Even though it was only two blocks from the packed Friends bars, we were the only foreigners there. For shame!


The overnight bus ride to Vientiane (pronounced something closer to "wiangchan" by the locals) was long, but noticeably free of the earsplitting karaoke of which we had been warned, so we can't complain. The search for a hotel was another matter (Lao New Years was fast approaching), but after a series of unsuccessful attempts, we finally found a great room a few blocks away from the river.

Vientiane is the capital of Laos and although it's relatively sleepy compared to other Asian capitals, there was enough happening to keep us busy for several days. We started by visiting the city's temples by foot and then by bike. As a whole, they are less impressive than the temples in Thailand (no thanks to the Siamese, who destroyed nearly all of them in a series of invasions), but many boast special features or histories that make them unique.

Pha That Luang, a golden stuppa of enormous proportions, is the most important national symbol and a point of pilgrimage for many Laotians. Its architectural design is meant to convey different aspects of Buddhist doctrine, with the lotus bud on top symbolizing human advancement toward enlightenment. The stuppa also represents national independence to many Lao people, since it has been rebuilt multiple times following the occupation of foreign rulers.

Another interesting temple is Wat Si Saket, the only temple to survive the Siamese invasions. Today it houses more than two thousand Buddhist images of various shapes and sizes and a couple of interesting dragon-shaped vessels that are used each year on Lao New Year to bless the Buddha images with water. Nearby sits Haw Pha Kaew, a royal temple built to house the legendary Emerald Buddha, which currently resides in Bangkok. There are many monks studying at these temples, all eager to practice their English!

Other attractions in and around Vientiane include Patuxi, an Arc de Triomphe look-alike and the Xieng Kuan Buddha Park, a collection of larger-than-life sculptures built by a priest-shaman who integrated Buddhist and Hindu teachings. The sculptures were supposedly built by amateur artists, but what they lack in meticulousness they certainly make up for in sheer size and bizarreness. It was a fun place to visit, especially since we got to wait for the bus with a couple of beers overlooking a local soccer match. Another highlight is the huge Talat Sao market, where we picked up some amazing hand-woven scarves.

One of the best things about Vientiane, however, is the proliferation of excellent, cheap restaurants - many in the tradition of the French, who ruled here for over 50 years. From quick eats by the river to a 4 course meal with wine, we did our best to take advantage of the city's fantastic culinary offerings.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Tat Lo and Pakse

We picked up in Tat Lo where we left off in Si Phan Don - relaxing on the front porch of our hut overlooking the river. Except now we had traded the sweltering heat of the valley for the cool breezes of the Bolaven Plateau, and the wide, slowly meandering Mekong for a more agile network of rivers that tumble over the highlands in a series of waterfalls.

Although we were joined by a handful of travelers on the long and sweaty bus ride to Tat Lo, the place seems to have retained much of its traditional character. There are no Internet cafes or western-style restaurants - just a few local shops, a collection of huts for travelers and a small temple, which was blasting music at all hours of the day and night for a local festival while we were there.

The area is famous for two things: waterfalls and coffee. In our short time there, we got a small taste of each. There were two waterfalls within walking distance of our hut, where we could take a refreshing dip or watch the local boys slip down naturally carved water slides into swirling water below. A short hike beyond the waterfalls brought us to small tracts of farmland clear-cut from the thick forest. In addition to growing coffee, the local tribal people plant a wide range of other crops to support their small villages.

The Plateau was an incredibly pleasant detour and we wish we had more time to explore the area, but we now had a flight to New Zealand booked and not much leeway in our schedule. So, we headed back to Pakse to try to arrange transport up north. It worked out that we had an extra day in the city, so we rented a fantastic hotel room (a big splurge at $17 a night!) and took advantage of "big city" amenities, like an ATM.

There isn't too much to do in Pakse, but it's a pleasant enough place if you can find somewhere to hide from the mid-day sun. We picked a local "healing center", where we got traditional Laos-style massages laying on mattresses on the floor. It was a far cry from a spa-like setting and the masseuses kept laughing at us, but at least there was air conditioning! This riverside city also boasts a few pretty temples, a small market and, of course, a couple of excellent coffee shops. By 10 pm we were exhausted and ready to sleep the night away on our overnight bus to Vientiane.