Thailand, Laos, and Bali
*I am grateful for the smiles, the generosity, the willingness of other people in other cultures to open and share their lives. I am grateful for the exchange, the growth, the learning that it fosters. I am grateful for the financial ability to support local businesses, ethical and ecological tours, and to stay with local people. I recognize and acknowledge that I am a very privileged white westerner. And, there are mutual benefits to tourism and cultural exchange that I whole-heartedly support and do my best to engage in consciously. I know this system of exchange isn’t perfect, but I put my money where my mouth is and do my best to continue learning.*
As I recover from a bit of jet-lag and a stomach that doesn’t agree with foreign food, I am filled with gratitude for this little four-week adventure that Kurt and I got to go on. It was a combination of exploration and relaxing vacation — the perfect mix for the only month I get off each year. Yes, getting a month “off” is pretty remarkable. And, my of the year I am working my ass off to contribute my little part in saving humanity from itself, and I choose to replenish my soul and my faith in humanity by traveling to other places.
First stop: Chiang Mai.
We immediately dove into a yoga and meditation retreat at Suan Sati, and it was the most beautiful start to our trip. Twice-daily meditation and yoga, with sprinklings of other activities, relaxation, reflection, and reconnection. Wow. I felt pretty spoiled and so beautifully held in love. Suan Sati is a pretty incredible place, and I am so grateful for the amazing people we befriended, and for the subtle deepening and healing I experienced in that space and through the practices and time I spent there.
It’s hard to describe the mix of intensity and lightness that I flowed through during that retreat. Perhaps some of those stories are best shared in person. At the beginning of the retreat, I stated that I had come there to “reflect on a period of reflection,” which ended up being a somewhat humorous statement in the moment and I didn’t realize how that sounded until it came out of my mouth. I chose the phrase “subtle healing and deepening” as my intention for the retreat, and you can bet the Universe gave me ample opportunity for that.
At the end of the retreat, I looked back at the week and realized that so many of the seeds I had planted many years ago — seeds of how I wanted to grow and change and be more aligned with the higher Self — suddenly sprang their little baby leaves above the surface of the soil. Suddenly at this retreat I experienced actually being that person I wanted to be (this is mostly internal stuff, not necessarily outward behavior). But I didn’t even realize it until I looked back at the week and went, “huh, that’s interesting.” I’ve been working so hard on the digging and growing my roots — all that below-the-surface in-the-dirt work. This end-of-retreat reflection made me realize that I’m often so hard on myself that I don’t acknowledge or even see my own growth, and I don’t realize that I’m exhausting myself from pushing myself to hard. At this retreat, I was able to relax into the Self I was working to align with — as opposed to pushing myself into that space. I believe a lot of that was due to having the space to be and having the support and love of the people there. My little leaves were given room to grow.
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After the retreat we spent a few days in Chiang Mai exploring the city and enjoying time with the new friends we made at the retreat. Chiang Mai was an interesting mix of expats and locals, busy traffic and empty side-streets, good food and insanely packed night markets. I enjoyed visiting the Free Bird Cafe, a social enterprise that supports a school for refugees. There I attended Lisa’s (the founder) body scrub-making workshop — which got me super excited about aromatherapy and using crystals, both of which I’ve dabbled in but am now officially diving into.
Chaing Mai was followed by a few days in Khao Sok National Park. We needed a nature fix and Khao Sok was perfect. We stayed just outside the land entrance to the park, enjoying the small village by the river and a day hike in the park.We got bit by leeches on that hike, which we didn’t even notice until we got back to our room and saw our bloody socks. Yikes! We were fine — apparently leeches are pretty harmless? Hmm.
We also spent a day boating around on the man-made lake of the park. I’m curious what the park looked like before the dam was created, and what kind of animals were suddenly isolated on little islands because of the dam. Aside from those thoughts, the park was INCREDIBLE. We also visited a “coral cave” on our day tour, which was a cave filled with rocks that look like coral and are actually growing. Neat.
The young man we booked our lake tour with took us to some view points around the village. He was incredibly generous and warm-hearted, expressing how he wanted everyone to see and appreciate the beauty of this country he loves so much. He also talked a bit about the local tourism economy. Apparently everyone has to have equal prices for tours, but they try to then offer you “extras” to get you to book with them — free breakfast, a tour to viewpoints, etc. He told us this as he drove us to the viewpoints, and I immediately felt humbled and slightly embarrassed. But he gave off an air of “this is how it goes and we enjoy it,” and he had the most genuine smile as he watched the sunset with us.
Next up we flew to Laos, which is when some of the travel hiccups began. When we got to the airport, we were the lame tourists who forgot that the visa-on-arrival is a cash-only deal, and we did not have the right cash. So, while the visa folks held onto our passports, we had to go get money. But the only way to do that within security at the airport was the money exchange, and apparently they needed to copy my passport to do the transaction. We got ourselves in a little pickle and I got super frustrated and nearly started crying. Thankfully some other tourists gave us cash and we got our visas and paid them back.
But then we had to get back in line to get Laos money out because the atm wasn’t working. They took my passport again and we got our money. We hopped in a taxi to go to the bus station, but about a mile down the road I thought to myself, “I wonder what that visa looks like,” and went to look at my passport and realized I didn’t have it. The money exchange people didn’t give it back to me. We got the driver to turn around and I retrieved my passport. Safe to say I did not regulate my emotions in the best way in that moment.
Here’s the thing: we were about to go on a four-hour van ride into the mountains up to Van Vieng, which would a few days later be followed by another six-hour van ride up to Luang Prabang, where we would then fly back to Bali. We were not going back to the airport where my passport was, and getting back to it would’ve been a travel nightmare. Thank whatever holy power you do or don’t believe in that I realized I didn’t have my passport when we were only a mile from the airport.
The van ride up to Van Vieng was nauseating and a bit scary (the driving in SE Asia is nuts), but after about twenty times of the driver passing other cars at moments that I really thought he shouldn’t, I trusted that he was an expert and I relaxed a bit. Van Vieng is incredibly beautiful. And, our time there wasn’t exactly smooth — lots many partying tourists, unfortunately poor management at the place we stayed (and a couple encounters with them that left me feeling realistically unsafe), and a few other little things all added up and convinced us to move on a day early.
Our van ride up to Luang Prabang was even crazier, as we drove straight up the mountainside on a sometimes dirt road with a very big cliff off to one side. This was mostly fine, until we encountered another van stuck in the middle of a dirt section of the road and our driver decided to go around it. The road was very narrow, very steep, with very loose dirt, and the cliff was off to the left side, and our drive went around the stuck van to the left. Everyone seemed to lean a bit to the right and hold their breath. If the back tires of the van had spun out, we’d have been off the cliff. I’m not exaggerating.
We got to the top of the pass and took a deep breath in the thin air, enjoying the view and trying to forget what had just happened.
Luang Prabang was a relatively quiet town on the river. We mostly walked around, visiting temples and restaurants. Our first morning I went for a run and happened to go up Psou Si before the ticket guy got there, and I enjoyed the foggy mountaintop mostly to myself in the quiet before the city awoke. We enjoyed walking the night market and eating coconut pancakes.
The best part of our time in Luang Prabang was the afternoon we spent at MandaLao, and elephant sanctuary that goes above and beyond in its efforts to rehabilitate, repopulate, and reintroduce elephants into the wild. They do not allow riding of the elephants and do not make them “work” like other places do. They believe in creating a true sanctuary for the elephants and let them do what they want to do. They also work with the local community and have super ecological practices. I am so grateful that we found this place and got to be in the presence of these magnificent creatures. MandaLao is run by locals, with only one westerner helping with the tour bookings.
From Luang Prabang we flew back to Bali, where we spent the last week of our trip indulging in delicious food, doing a bit of new year reflection, exploring shops and markets, and riding around on a little scooter. We also discovered that it was the beginning of the rainy season in Bali, which made for a hot and humid and sticky time. Kuta was overly tourist-filled and a bit chaotic, but we really enjoyed our few days in Ubud relaxing and riding around and visiting allllll of the organic gluten-free places. It was a beautiful beginning to the new year, with a full moon shining down on us and an active volcano in the near distance.