October 12th, 2007

We arrived in Istanbul after a fairly uneventful BA flight out of Heathrow. (Have I mentioned I HATE this airport?) To get rid of the last of our Pounds we bought an adorable Peter Rabbit beanie baby on board…and Jessica insisted that I cut the jacket off him so she could undress him. So much for his lovely blue jacket complete with brass buttons!

Clutching Peter, we disembarked at Istanbul and immediately headed towards the fast-forming vise queue. We jumped in line and I dashed off to the nearby bank machine to get some Turkish currency to pay for the visas. The machine refused my card, and I went back to the line to figure out if we had enough cash to even enter the country. To our amazement, we discovered that Canadians have to pay $60 USD per visa – children included. Everyone else pays a MAXIMUM of $20, with most coming in around $10. What did we Canadians do to deserve that? Seems like we’re always paying hand over fist for visas. I rummaged through my much depleted money belt and discovered I had just enough American cash left to pay for three visas. Hurrah!

At this point I noticed that there was a line forming to our left. Interestingly enough – we were at the leftmost window, so where these folks thought they were going was beyond me. Then they started filing in front of us whenever a window became free – someone would just dash in front of the waiting masses and take a place at a free window. The people giving visas didn’t really notice what was going on because there were a couple of plane loads of people waiting by this point. Now everyone in line was starting to get agitated and pushy. One woman from the rogue line dashed forward, but was too late to get to the window, so she came back and took her place in FRONT of our line. WELL. This was just too much! The lady in front of us told her off in a couple languages and harangued her for pushing in front of us with all our bags and a little one. The woman just stood there grinning and held her ground. So we talked over her head about how rude and ignorant she was and she just smiled and stood there. Then her friends came and joined her seeing as she had found such an advantageous spot! The lady in front of us seriously went off and we were getting pretty hot under the collar as well. One of the ladies waved us along when “her” turn came up and I thought Grant was going to snap. He just said: “No, no – YOU go ahead. You must have an important date or something.”

We finally made it through the visa line but by this time we were seriously pissed off. Paid three times as much for our visas and these bloody Turkish people were turning out to be horrible, pushy and rude. We entered the customs line with all defenses up and steadfastly held our ground when some of these women tried to push through. You could tell which ones were going to try it on – they were all victims of bad dye jobs and wearing leopard skin tights or short shorts with the thong showing through – you get the picture. There was one security guy who had cottoned on to the queue jumping and was barking orders at people – including the woman who jumped in front of us AGAIN right as our turn came in line. Thanking him profusely, we stepped up to the customs window where a supremely grouchy officer processed our passports. Well, we thought. Welcome to Turkey. It is going to be a really really long month.
We followed the crowd through to the baggage collection and scanned the signs for our flight number, trying to figure out which carousel was ours. Wait a minute – that carousel has “Moscow” above it. Suddenly we realized where all the pushy, obnoxious women had come from. Yep – there they were all pushing and shoving each other to get their luggage. WHEW. Big sigh of relief – maybe Turkish people wouldn’t be so bad after all. These folks were all from Russia. Steering WAY clear of the Moscow crowd, we grabbed our bags and headed for a taxi.

The taxi driver was a jolly friendly sort of guy who didn’t speak that much English. Since we hadn’t yet mastered even “Hello” in Turkish communication was a bit difficult. We were booked into a hotel in Sultanahmet that, according to the reviews, was notoriously difficult for taxi drivers to find. To deal with this fact, I had found the location of a hotel on our guidebook map AND written down not only the hotel’s street address but also directions to the hotel. However, I should have realized that most taxi drivers are MEN and not too likely to take direction from the foreign lady in the back seat! To be fair, I didn’t even know how to tell him I could give him directions to the hotel and he grabbed the piece of paper with the address and all my directions – which were in English and I presume he couldn’t read them – and kept it in the front seat.

Well, we got a lovely tour of Sultanahmet en route to our hotel, whilst out driver shouted out the window at passers by and other taxi drivers. He even jumped out once or twice and ran into a nearby shop or over to a taxi stand to get directions. I pushed the map into the front to show Grant where we were supposed to be going and, thankfully, the driver had a look. Eventually we made it through the maze of windy, narrow streets to our hotel. It didn’t matter to me that we took ten minutes longer than we should have to get to our hotel; I was already captivated by the beauty and charm of Istanbul.

We were staying at the Allstar Ambassador Hotel and the super friendly guy at the front desk checked us in and showed us to our room. I was already eyeing up the spa services and noticing how cheap they were compared to Scandinavia…but you’ve heard all about that previously! The lobby was lovely and comfortable and decorated with beautiful Turkish carpets and kilims. Our room was a bit on the small side, but had everything it needed to make us comfortable. It was quirky, though. In the course of our stay we had to have our TV changed because it kept overheating and turning itself off, and the light in the bathroom kept going out plunging you into complete darkness at the most inopportune of moments. You then had to get up, wrap your hand in a towel or t-shirt, and jiggle the light bulb over the sink. Classic.

First things first, I had a shower and then did a bit of laundry. I don’t generally mention it here because it’s boring as hell, but the first thing I generally do on arrival in a new hotel is about an hour’s worth of sink laundry so the clothes have the afternoon and overnight to dry – and hopefully they can be put away before the maid catches us at it. Then we hit the streets to find a grocery store and stock up on things for Jessica to eat – also another priority on arrival to a new place, especially a new country!

With all the confusion of our arrival, I hadn’t taken much notice of the hotel’s surrounding area – aside from gawking at the bazaars, the Blue Mosque, and Aya Sofya as we drove by, of course. When we first stepped out onto the street, and looked around, I truly began what was to become a month long love- affair with Turkey. We emerged into the evening air onto a steep and winding cobbled street too narrow for a car. This street opened onto another, wider, cobbled street where our taxi had dropped us off – hence his difficulty in finding the place as it was almost impossible to see from the road.

The place was a rabbit warren of little cobbled streets and alley ways. Most of the smaller streets didn’t have street lights and the light came instead from shop windows and the candles and colorful glass lanterns decorating the multitude of sidewalk cafes. The air was filled with funky Turkish music, the happy chatter of people dining, and the banter of the shopkeepers or restaurateurs lounging in their doorways hoping to entice you inside. Street vendors lined the main street spinning tops and flogging tourist tat and the ubiquitous blue glass evil eyes twinkled from every doorway; tiny versions of which were often handed to passers by for good luck. Wonderful food smells wafted through the air, foreign to me at that point, but certainly a forerunner of the many delicious meals to come. As expected, carpet shops were in abundance – many with a well fed, but independent cat curled up out front on a favorite carpet. Brightly colored carpets and kilims were on display everywhere, and their color and texture lent an exotic air to the streets. I simply could not get enough of it, and couldn’t wait to explore further.

But, I had a tired, hungry family who had waited too long for Mommy to finish the laundry and we had to find a grocery store before it closed. I wandered through the streets, ecstatic at every new scene that presented itself, largely ignoring my grumbling family. Insane drivers threatened us at every crossing and we were really glad to have Jessica firmly in her stroller even though it meant hauling it over a few uneven places and holes in the sidewalk. Several local people warned us to be careful because the drivers in Istanbul are very aggressive. Smiling, friendly people helped us to find a local grocery store; giving us ALL the options, and directions to each one, before offering their personal opinion of which one would serve our needs best. Of course, they also pinched Jessica’s cheek everywhere we went, much to her dismay. We found the store quickly enough, and even lucked into some strawberry milk for Jessica!

We loaded up the stroller with groceries and headed back to our hotel for dinner. The hotel has a lovely rooftop restaurant that I had read very good things about in the reviews. Stepping onto the roof, we could immediately see why! The rooftop overlooked both the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya. We’d had glimpses of both from the street, but this was our first proper look at them. Both were lit up for the night and we had a bird’s eye view…all we could do was stare, mouths hanging open in wonderment.

It was already past 9pm, so the restaurant was completely deserted. This suited us just fine as it meant Jessica could wander round and play whilst we ate. She made fast friends with the waiter before we’d even completed our order. Grant was starting to relax and cheer up with the prospect of food on the way and the spectacular view from our table. I still had a dreamy smile plastered on my face as this hotel, and Turkey itself, was turning out to be everything I’d hoped for!

Just as our food arrived, the muezzins began their call to prayer. Now, we were located about a block away from the Blue Mosque, and sitting – outside – at the same height as the loudspeakers attached to the minarets. Not only that, there are several other mosques nearby which have loudspeakers of their own. The total effect was as eerie as it was deafening. We’d heard this before in other countries but this was certainly the most up close and personal experience. Jessica screamed and held her hands over her ears and made the funniest of faces! Looking over the railing we could see the faithful hurrying to their prayers, and partway through the call to prayer, great clouds of birds exploded from the top of the Blue Mosque as if to say ENOUGH with the noise already. This happened at roughly the same point during prayer every night – a great flock of birds wheeling above the mosque in a darkened sky, lit from below by the floodlights that light the mosque, whilst an unearthly and beautiful wailing fills the air. A beautiful and unforgettable experience and I found myself looking forward to the five times daily call to prayer.

We ate a lovely meal in the gorgeous and completely deserted restaurant and headed back to our room. Free wireless in the room – hurrah! Jess and Grant headed to bed and I went out for the aforementioned “Turkish Bath” experience. Shudder. Thankfully, the call to prayer could barely be heard in the room so we didn’t wake up during the 5am version!

In the morning we had a bit of a rodeo as Mommy (aka breakfast Nazi) attempted to get everyone moving in time to actually EAT the free breakfast provided by the hotel. We made it up there with a grouchy, whiny kid and were so late that there was barely anything left on the buffet. Amazingly, the guy at the front desk later offered to have plates made up for us if we found it difficult to be up in time for the breakfast. I declined knowing I would be the only one to actually eat anything and the food would likely go to waste anyway. This was our last attempt at breakfast together. Afterwards, I would just get up and go on my own and bring some food back for Jessica. There’s nothing more horrible than having to be a bossy ogre in the morning to get everyone moving and I was getting thoroughly sick of it. So much for saving money on lunch by eating the FREE breakfast at the hotel!

Once everyone calmed down and forgave me for dragging them from their beds before noon, we geared up and headed out to see some of the sights. Istanbul is almost as intriguing by day as it is magical by night and, once again, I had a perma-grin from the moment I stepped through the door. I was also excited by the fact that the hotel offered laundry services for a really reasonable price and we were once again about to experience the incredible luxury of having all our clothes clean at once!

We walked the few blocks to Aya Sofya. Already enthralled by the lovely Sultanahmet district, I was completely taken aback by Aya Sofya. Entering the building is like stepping back in time and I was overwhelmed by the sheer magnificence of the structure and the deep sense of history as I walked through it. They had even framed some graffiti that dated back to the Viking times. It probably said something deeply profound like “Börkr was here!” This made me laugh because we’d just spent time in Scandinavia marveling at the ‘ancient’ Viking ships and this building pre-dated those ships by FAR.

I can’t adequately describe the way I felt with words. I was completely in awe and Aya Sofya swiftly joined Saint Basil’s Cathedral and Angkor Wat on the short list of structures that I could spend a lifetime staring at and never grow weary of looking. We had – somehow- managed to time our visit perfectly to coincide with the ONLY day that cruise ships don’t dock. Thus, there were comparatively few tourists save, unfortunately, the plane load of Russians that showed up in their short shorts and see-though crop tops. They made for an interesting contrast with the Muslim women who were covered head to toe in scarves and flowing robes. Jessica, of course, discovered some wonderful echoes and spent the entire visit dashing to and fro like a goofball until Grant finally took her outside and let me continue to gawk in peace.

Unaware that we’d been granted a tourist reprieve due to the absent cruise ships, we steeled ourselves for a visit to the infamous Grand Bazaar. Even the Lonely Planet suggests that you go when you’re in a good mood and have lots of time to spend, and be ready for all the harassment. But, due partially to the fact that we’d just come through China where the markets DEFINE the word harassment, and the general absence of the crushing cruise crowds, we had an extremely pleasant afternoon strolling around the ‘world’s oldest shopping mall’. Yes, the vendors chat you up and try to get you to come in the shop. But, everyone is friendly and nobody grabs you and hangs on like they do in China. We never felt pressured or harassed for an instant – even when we did venture into a few shops to ask for prices.

While it certainly caters to tourists, the Grand Bazaar is still a place that you can picture everyday Turkish people shopping. People sit outside their shops sharing cups after cup of strong tea in small glasses and visiting with friends, customers, and fellow shopkeepers alike. The place was alive with activity, and simply ablaze with color and light; beautiful ceramics, sequined belly dancing costumes, amazing glass lanterns of all colors and designs, exotic copperware, gorgeous leather clothing, finely wrought silver and gold jewelry, and, of course, sumptuously woven carpets everywhere the eye could see.

Grant was immediately ‘befriended’ by a very helpful man who instantly managed to annoy Jessica by pinching her cheek. Of course, this old guy had a cousin or a friend in just about every section of the market and he could help us find whatever it is we were looking for. We shook him off, gently, and took his card should we be interested in a watch in the future. That was the full extent of our “harassment.” We spent the next three hours or so wandering around the market, excited at the prospect of a new brand of souvenirs to buy as we were sick of all things South East Asian markets had to offer by that point! In the end we bought nothing at all (silly us – turns out prices are generally cheaper when the cruise ships aren’t in town) and headed back to the hotel for a much needed shower and some play time for Jessica.

That evening we headed out to see the Blue Mosque just before sunset. A nice guy helped us up the stairs with the stroller and then wanted to be our tour guide…for free. I was pretty sure there was a carpet shop involved somehow so we politely declined and he went on his way. At the entrance we removed our shoes and then Jessica and I borrowed the long blue scarves at the entrance to cover our heads. How DOES one tie those on, exactly? I ended up tying it round my head like a bandana and under my hair. Probably should have covered my throat, but couldn’t figure out how to keep it ON and still have hands free to take pictures and deal with Jessica. Of course, Jessica then wanted hers tied just like mine, which proved harder. Stupid me left it too long and she proceeded to run around pretending it was a cape. JUST what I needed – running around wasn’t so bad in Aya Sofya which now serves as a museum, but there are still people actually praying in the Blue Mosque and I needed her – desperately – to be quiet! She was so taken with her new headgear, however, that this was proving more unlikely by the minute. We’d get her to be quiet for a minute and then she’d be off again. All the open space to run in and the ‘cape’ tied to her head proved too much for her! We spent about ten minutes taking in the beautiful ceilings and the somber atmosphere before prayer started. Technically, we were welcome to stay, provided we took no pictures, but with Jessica so excited and giggly we took this as our cue to leave!

We wandered round in front of the Blue Mosque where there is somewhat of a festival atmosphere in the evenings; cotton candy and balloon vendors, impromptu market stalls set up on the sidewalks, and kids running around on the grass while their parents sit and stare in awe at the Mosque all lit up for the evening. Grant sat down on a bench to have a cigarette in a secluded portion of the park and a shoeshine guy came over and asked for a smoke. Grant gave him one and they smoked together chatting, with Jessica darting out of the way of repeated pinching attempts. Once they finished smoking, the guy cheerfully insisted on cleaning Grant’s shoes as ‘payment’ for the cigarette. Grant said no thank you, but the guy insisted as a matter of honor. Well, Grant was wearing sandals, so the guy scrubbed his sandals for about three minutes with a toothbrush. Then, of course, he asked for a ‘donation.’ Knowing full well he’d been had, Grant reached into his pocket and brought out about $3 Turkish Lira in change. The guy shook his head and then asked for $20-$25 to help feed his family. I was laughing openly by this point, as was a Turkish guy sitting on a bench nearby. The shoeshine guy never stopped being polite and cheerful, so I guess this ploy must have worked on many tourists before us. Grant simply pocketed his change and we walked away, with the shoeshine guy bidding us good evening as we left. Weird. He even waved to us like old friends the next few times we passed through that portion of the park on subsequent days.

We spent an hour or so wandering through the Arasta Bazaar near the Blue Mosque. It was closing down, so we were mostly window shopping. By this point, Grant had been seduced by all the luxurious carpets on display and had admitted that he was pretty keen to buy one in Turkey – as I’d been planning since before we left Canada! We agreed to go to a few shops recommended in the Lonely Planet the following day and get a bit of knowledge before we headed off to Cappadocia which was where I had intended to purchase a carpet because the prices were supposed to be lower. We discussed our plans over dinner on the roof again. Again, we had the restaurant to ourselves as it was late and we listened to the magical call to prayer while I ate and Grant glumly pushed his cold, weird, yoghurt covered pasta round on his plate! He went out for a döner later on to make up for ordering something bizarre off the menu. The funny thing was we eventually grew to like the weird, yoghurt covered miniature ravioli when it was served as a starter elsewhere!

The second day we slept in and missed breakfast again. We went off to the Grand Bazaar for the better part of the afternoon, which was now MUCH busier given the influx of cruise passengers. Grant spent ages shopping for a leather jacket and ended up not buying one. Had a laugh at some of the salesman’s tactics, though: “It’s MY turn now” “ I know EXACTLY what you are looking for, my friend!” One guy couldn’t sell us a jacket so he took us off to his ex-wife’s sister’s carpet shop so we could learn a bit about carpets. We didn’t like her and she wasn’t particularly informative so we left after only seeing a few carpets. We did have our first taste of apple tea, however. Everyone assumes it’s a traditional Turkish drink, but it was, in fact, created for the tourists who often didn’t enjoy the strong Turkish tea and coffee.

We wandered through the bazaar for ages looking for a glass lantern because I’d set my heart on buying one. Once Grant actually started looking at them properly he agreed that they were pretty amazing and we should get one. I found the “perfect” one and we ended up going back to the store three times. But, the guy wouldn’t budge enough on his price and Grant decided not to buy it. I went along with this (although admittedly not happily) comforted by the thought that surely we’d find another similar lantern elsewhere in Turkey, if not in Istanbul itself. (Never found one and I’m STILL mad at him for being so damn cheap!) In the end the only thing we actually bought in this shopping Mecca was a small pair of finger cymbals for Jessica.

Giving up on the Grand Bazaar as it was becoming more and more crowded with cruise passengers, we grabbed a döner for lunch and headed over to check out the Arasta Bazaar now that it was open properly. We ended up in a carpet shop called Troy Rug Store ( recommended by the Lonely Planet as a fantastic, no pressure, place to learn about carpets. As an added bonus, there was a friendly cat curled up on one of the carpets outside that had Jessica instantly fascinated, and a sweet and helpful staff member to play with her. Mustafa, the friendly, personable owner served us tea, gave us a bit of a primer and showed us a few things. Jessica had a ball helping him roll out the carpets. He showed us one kilim that we both instantly loved. The starting price was too high, however, and we hadn’t planned on buying one in Istanbul. We were only here to learn.

When it became apparent that we were primarily interested in kilims (who knew?), Mustafa recommended that we head to another nearby store that he partnered with to look at their more extensive stock. He walked us over, inviting us to come back and play a game of backgammon with him or drink a cup of tea whenever we felt like it. We hated the guys at the other store. They seemed very annoyed that we were unable to immediately articulate what it was we wanted and, when we said we liked kilims, he was annoyed that we didn’t like carpets! We didn’t like anything they showed us and they made us feel like we were wasting their time, so we left and went back to Mustapha’s store to look at the kilim we had liked again, and to learn a bit more. He was apologetic about the other guys, and he knocked a little bit off the price but it was still way too high for us. Glumly, we headed off to a nearby pub and had a very mediocre dinner.

Our third day in Istanbul we headed to the Palace. There were hordes of tourists there because the cruise ships were in town again. Actually, I think they only avoid docking on the one day of the week that the palace is closed, so my guess is that the palace is always busy. Grant had missed breakfast again so by the time we’d wandered through the harem he was hungry and getting grouchy. We headed over to the restaurant inside the palace, where I had thought we might grab a quick – if pricey – meal. It was packed and a tour group was just rolling in there for lunch so we gave up and headed off through the treasury before leaving to find lunch. Once again, Jessica was more fascinated by the cats that roamed everywhere and the variety of sticks she could pick up in the courtyard than the actual palace itself!

Afterwards, we headed off to a place recommended by the Lonely Planet to try köfte (Turkish meatballs). They were cheap and filling but I didn’t like them very much – we ended up having much nicer versions of them later on in our stay and they became a favorite dish of ours.

After our late lunch we went to the basilica cistern. It was really really cool! Jessica loved the fish swimming around in the semi-darkness, and I laughed at all the different ‘interpretations’ of the medusa heads used to support the columns at the back. Know what I think? The entire place was created using materials scavenged from other buildings. We know this. It was intended to store water, not to be beautiful and eventually become a tourist attraction. The medusa heads FIT and they were available when they were needed, therefore they were used. There is no special significance to them being upside down and sideways except this is the way they fit in. Just my humble opinion, for what it’s worth.

We decided to check out a few more carpet shops to see what the selection was like elsewhere to try to convince ourselves that there were hundreds of carpets we like everywhere. Well. We went to one or two and they didn’t have a single thing we liked. Nothing. Not even vaguely, and the prices they were quoting were double or triple the starting price of the one we DID like. I was starting to worry that we’d never find anything that we both really loved – especially in our price range, and in the large size we wanted. Apparently kilims are generally smaller sizes. I knew Cappadocia was famous for it’s kilims, but we’d never be back to Istanbul and we found one here that we liked, but couldn’t afford!

We headed off for a beer for Grant and some calamari in a gorgeous, vine covered little café just off the Arasta Bazaar where we’d been shopping for carpets. (AND for a lamp that was as nice as the one Grant didn’t buy!!) We talked it over and decided that we didn’t want to spend our entire holiday shopping for a carpet. We’d found one we liked, and – more importantly – we liked and trusted the guy selling it. Mustafa had seen us walk in and out of his shop twice and didn’t once pressure us. We decided on the maximum price we’d pay and that Grant would be the one to do the bargaining as he’s already proved he would walk away without buying something if the price wasn’t right!

The owner of the café gave Jessica a little scarf covered with jingly coins and she ran away and cried. She is getting so spoiled with all the attention and so tired of being grabbed and pinched by strangers that she won’t even take a simple gift graciously. We had some words with her about how you have to at least say a polite “no, thank you” if you don’t like a present someone gives you. Of course, within five minutes it was her favorite thing in the world and she wouldn’t be parted from it. The thing was filthy and disgusting from having hung on the wall for ages and I “accidentally” left it behind in the hotel and Grant bought her one later as a replacement.

Off we went back to Troy Rug Shop, Jessica jingling all the way, to try and buy the carpet we’d fallen for. We spent an hour or so chatting with Mustafa and drinking tea. Jessica showed us twenty or thirty small carpets. Grant turned out to be bargainer extraordinaire and we managed to stick to our budget and even have a bit left over for shipping. Stupidly, I decided that we should carry the carpet with us and ship it later on if we bought some of the lovely local ceramics or – hopefully – a lantern. Turned out that the ceramics are typically covered in lead glaze and you can’t eat from them, and we never did find a lantern. I should have just had Mustafa ship it, instead of paying a ridiculous amount to ship it from Cappadocia and have to carry it on and off several busses!

En route back to our hotel, the guy from the carpet shop next door got all annoyed with us for never having looked at carpets in his shop. Jessica would always stop and look at two turtles he had out front, but we’d never gone in. Now here we are with the very obvious black carpet bag, and we haven’t given him a shot! Feeling guilty we muttered “sorry” and dashed into the hotel. We spent the remainder of the evening looking at ceramics but decided not to buy them because of the lead issue, (No room for something we can’t use) and searching, in vain, for a lantern.

We were genuinely sad to leave Istanbul the following morning. The front desk had organized our bus tickets for us and called a taxi. The taxi ride was a bit hairy with all the crazy driving in Istanbul. I also realized that we’d only really experienced an extremely small slice of Istanbul. I vowed to come back and do it again properly sometime.

A Turkish Bath

September 13th, 2007

Upon arrival at our lovely boutique hotel in Istanbul, the first thing I spot is the listing of massage services for the in-house spa. Well, I’m tired and sore and in desperate need of a massage and I had always intended to try a Turkish bath. So, when I spotted the entry “Turkish Massage: Lying on a hot marble stone and get soaped and massaged. After that you will receive a full body oil massage. In the end you may enjoy the Turkish bath a bit more.” Accompanying this description was a photo of a man in a towel lying face down on a marble platform, covered in suds; attendant busily covering his legs in more suds. Perfect, I thought. I won’t have to be in a communal bath where I might embarrass myself by not knowing the ropes, and there’s a massage included afterwards. Just the thing for a novice bather!

Previous to our arrival, I had done some reading on Turkish baths and the appropriate etiquette. I wasn’t entirely sure that public bathing was an experience I really wanted, but everyone insists that “YOU MUST TRY the Turkish bath.” So, geek that I am, I read up. Apparently the typical drill is you enter the bathing chamber which has a big heated marble slab in the room and some washing stations round the edges. You either have an attendant wash you (eep) or you wash yourself (YES!!). Then, once you’re all clean, you lie on the slab and have a back massage. Well, that doesn’t sound too bad, but what about all that public nudity? Well, the guidebook is a little more vague on that one. Some places you get to wear your undies under your towel, some places just the towel. Oh well, I think, you still get a towel that’s the main thing! In Scandinavia, you had your choice of towel or no towel in the sauna so probably this is the same thing. The one thing it DOES insist is that there are separate facilities for men and women and that “no self-respecting Turkish woman would let a male masseur anywhere near her.”

So, armed with my book knowledge and the comforting idea of a personal bathing experience rather than a public airing of my ignorance, I head off for my late-night massage. I’d waited until 11pm because the gentleman at the front desk had suggested having a massage on a full stomach was not an ideal situation. We’d had a late dinner and the place was open 24/7. Given our recent two hour time change I was still wide awake so decided to go for it!

I entered the spa area and there was a traditional massage table directly in front of me, mood lighting, soft music, a sauna tucked into the corner, clean towels stacked up on shelves: a fairly typical set up for massage. However, it turns out that I’m to have a masseur NOT a masseuse. The short man who greets me upon my arrival is dressed entirely in tight white clothes and has a cheesy tattoo wrapped round his left bicep. Well, this is a little disconcerting as I’m not too sure about the whole bath bit. Not to mention that we’re all alone in this basement room and it’s the middle of the night. I’d certainly be more comfortable with a woman. But I have a masseur at home who is fantastic, and I presume the hotel would hire a professional and be quick to get rid of anyone who acted inappropriately. There’s also a bunch of framed certificates on the wall attesting to the ability and professionalism of the masseur. Comforted by this (and the thought that Grant is MUCH bigger than him and could certainly kick his ass if something icky should happen) I enter the room.

The masseur (I’m going to call him “Mustapha” because I forgot to get his name) tells me to go into this small cubicle and take off all my clothes and stuff them in this closet. He then hands me a small box with “TIPS” marked on the top and tells me to put my valuables in this, motioning to my watch, etc. This is a bit odd because the box just goes into the unlocked cubby with my clothes and simply makes it easier for a thief to grab all my valuables at once. Oh well, I only have my watch and room key with me anyway, and it’s obviously a shameless ploy to remind me to tip him….upon opening the box, the fake $100 American dollar bill pasted to the bottom confirms this suspicion nicely.

I look round the little cubicle and there’s no sign of a towel: “Take off ALL my clothes,” I say. Mustapha nods vigorously. I point to the towels on the chair outside the changing cubicle and ask for one. Mustapha grabs a length of light woven cloth from the back of the chair and hands it to me, shaking his head. I duck into the cubicle feeling a bit awkward. I remove my clothing and place it into the cubby; stowing my “valuables” into the tip box. I’ve forgotten to bring money to tip – the massage is charged to the room. Oh well, I’ll run up later and grab some cash to tip him. Now naked, I turn round to grab the cloth he’s provided and I’m confronted with a full length reflection of myself – naked. The entire wall is mirrored. Great, a moment to lament over cellulite and saggy bits, and I wrap the cloth round me. Sheesh – good job I’m not any taller because it BARELY covers all the important bits.

I sidle cautiously out the door to where Mustapha is waiting for me. He waves some shampoo in my face and says: “for your hair?” I nod, so he tucks it under his arm. He asks me if I’ve ever had a Turkish bath before. When I say no, he says: “It is a good place.” He points to some wooden Japanese-looking sandals and tells me I can use them if I like. So I put them on and follow him into the bath room; walking gingerly on a slippery wet floor in ill-fitting wooden shoes, whilst trying to keep my cover intact.

The room is warm and there is the anticipated round marble table in the centre and wash buckets round the edges. Mustapha spreads some more of the cloth things across the edge of the table and makes a slight pillow out of one for my head. He tells me to lie down. How, exactly, am I going to lie down without flashing him? Well, I guess quickly is the best option! I awkwardly kick off the slippy wooden shoes and dive onto the table still wearing the wrap. I tug it off whilst lying down and leave it covering my bum…as I’ve seen in the photo. I sense some amusement from Mustapha, but I don’t care – I’m covered….mostly.

Mustapha turns my head to face the stone and gruffly tells me to keep my eyes SHUT. Then he proceeds to douse me head to toe with bucket after bucket of warm water. My hair is trapping water around my head, which is quickly pooling deep enough to go up my nose. This causes me a problem for a few moments until I work out a method of pushing my nose into the cloth to block the water and cautiously breathing through the corners of my mouth. Once I’ve got this worked out, it’s not so bad. The marble table is pleasantly warm and the buckets of water sloshing over me were quite invigorating. I could see why I was given this light woven cloth rather than a towel because a towel would be soaked through and uncomfortable by this point while this cloth is……gone?!? Mustapha has just taken my cloth away!!!! I’m now completely naked!

Well. THIS is not what I’d had in mind, and I’m kind of trapped now. If I get up, I have to walk across the room nude and also explain why I’m running away. How, exactly, is it that I’m in a predominately Muslim country and I’M the modest one? If I stay, at least only my bum is really showing. So, it seems staying put is probably my best option. As I’m thinking this all through, the buckets of water are getting noticeably colder. Soon, they’re freezing cold, but just as I’m about to say something, they start to warm up again until they’re scalding hot. Eventually, they cool off to a comfortable temperature for a while. Then he pours an entire bucket of freezing cold water very carefully over each of my feet. Ok, I think, that’s just plain cruel.

Now comes the soap. Once again admonishing me to keep my eyes firmly shut, Mustapha begins to work up a lather using (I think – I had my eyes shut) one of the cloths. He covers my body completely in a big foamy lather about a foot deep, all without touching me whatsoever. I’m starting to relax just a little bit, telling myself that this is all totally normal for this guy and that I should just chill out. Plus, all the bubbles are now covering my nakedness and the foam is kind of cool. Then he starts in on the massage. He begins with my calves, but because of the way my feet are hanging off the edge of the table, all this does is ram my kneecaps into the marble table beneath me. This is unbelievably excruciating. I manage to last through the first leg by flexing my thigh muscles for all I’m worth, trying to protect my knee. When he started on the second leg, which was positioned even more poorly, I yelped. Mustapha says: “you have pain?” Yes, I have pain! I tell him this hurts my knee, and, obviously disgusted with this foreign woman’s lack of tolerance, he moves to my back.

The back massage is not much more comfortable than the leg massage, given that it drives my ribcage and shoulders into the marble. Probably, the massage would be better if I wasn’t quite so tense. I manage to tolerate it without yelling this time, and he begins to rinse me off, again with the warm/cold/scalding combo. Whew, I think, ok – hang in there kiddo it’s almost over. Soon enough I’ll be off this wretched table and we can start the more familiar oil massage. Then comes the fatal: “Ok, turn over.”

Is he serious? Turn over? Yep. The command comes again: “You turn over!” Shit. Now what? Again, the go vs. stay options flash through my head. What else can I really do? I turn over, and lie completely rigid – which isn’t exactly comfortable on the marble surface. I keep telling myself to relax, but now I feel like the proverbial virgin (well PRETEND for a moment) sacrifice laid out naked on a stone slab. I half expect to hear chanting.

Now the water up the nose issue is much more of a problem as buckets of water in varying temperatures are hitting me full force in the face and I start to have Chiang Mai Songkran flashbacks. The varied temperatures of the water are also causing other, more embarrassing issues now that I’m lying on my back. Any way you slice it, this is somewhat painful. Again with the soap, but even with a foot of bubbles covering me, I’m still feeling extremely vulnerable. He washes my hair, which for some reason feels even more personal than the massage although I’ve certainly had my hair washed by a million strangers. Now everything is freaking me out, it seems.

He starts with the front massage and, thankfully, I’ve got more padding on the back of me so it doesn’t hurt quite as much. He works on my thighs a moment and then, standing at my feet, facing me, proceeds to lift each leg at the ankle, hold it at up high as it will go and SHAKE it for all he’s worth. Every bit of me that can jiggle – is. I think this is now in the running for one of the most embarrassing moments of my life, and I cringe thinking of the view I must be presenting from that angle.

As I’m still reeling from all the jiggling, Mustapha begins massaging my chest; accidentally ramming his fingers into my throat in the process. I begin to choke. Then he washes my face and, to rinse it, plugs my nose and dashes a bucket of water into my face. Unfortunately, he releases my nose at the most crucial moment and I catch a bucket of water DIRECTLY up my nose. Now I can’t breathe through either nose or throat. Coughing and sputtering, I endure yet another cold/warm/scalding rinse cycle, and – mercifully – hear: “Ok, you get up now.”

Mustapha is standing there in a pair of board shorts holding out a nice fluffy robe for me. I leap into it, and ‘accidentally’ forget the wretched wooden shoes. I follow him into the main room where the massage table is, and he hands me a towel for my hair; asking if I would like tea or coffee or anything. I just wanna get OUT of there. He looks kind of hurt and confused when I politely decline a drink – he even clarifies that it’s free, but I still refuse. I sneak a peek at the clock and I’ve only been there about half an hour. So now what? Another massage? At this point I don’t really want one. As he’s leaving the room I ask him what I’m supposed to do and he points to the massage table, saying he’ll see me in ten minutes. Mercifully, there’s a towel draped across it. Hurrah!

I dry off in the changing cubicle just in case he comes back early, doing a test jump in front of the mirror to check out the jiggle factor – hey, maybe it wasn’t THAT bad…nope, major jiggles. Sigh. Oh well, now I’m armed with a towel at least. I jump onto the massage table praying there’s no more surprises in store for me. Mustapha returns dry and dressed back in the tight white outfit. He asks whether I am comfortable, adjusts my head rest, and begins his oil massage. Somewhat surprisingly, he is an excellent masseur and I get to (more or less) keep my towel for the duration of the session. The only slightly weird moment was when he was working on my bum and suddenly says: “You are – what – 28?” He can tell this from my BUM? And, if he’s looking for a big tip – he’s not guessed low enough!

The rest of the massage was actually quite good and worked out most of the stress caused by the bath. Maybe that’s why they combine the two for tourists! I was a bit uncomfortable when presented with a comments form at the end. After waffling for a bit, I ended up writing: “a truly memorable experience…” I dashed back upstairs to grab a tip for him because I felt bad returning the tip box empty, and then beat a hasty retreat to our room.

Hello again from London!

August 31st, 2007

Wow it’s been ages and I’ve missed gobs of stuff. But, hey, I’ve been traveling, and there’s lots of laundry to do…and, frankly, I’m lazy and hopelessly addicted to Facebook. I figured I’d better just fast forward to where we are now and catch up later on!

I’m sitting in a fancy schmancy hotel on Park Lane in London. Everyone is tired out from a big night out last night so I have a few moments to make some sort of blogging attempt here. Thankfully, we got a very very good room rate so we can actually afford to stay at such an up market hotel. We do get a few odd looks trekking through the lobby of fancy hotels in our jeans and sandals with backpacks slung over our shoulders and me tipping the stroller backwards so our peanut butter smeared four year old can sleep comfortably in the non-reclining cheap ass stroller we bought….but I digress.

The past few weeks have been pretty eventful. We arrived at Heathrow tired and stressed out after almost missing our flight out of Moscow (long story…I’ll get to it eventually) What I had remembered to be a lovely shopping paradise now seemed like a run down, crowded, poorly planned nightmare compared to some of the wonderfully designed and sparkling new Asian airports we’ve been through recently. We followed the masses of people down what seemed like a million miles of corridors, sailed through passport control with our handy Canadian passports and then found ourselves in the most crowded, dingy, and poorly designed baggage collection we’ve encountered since we left home a year ago. Forlorn and forgotten-looking bags were piled by the dozen in every available corner and luggage carts with broken wheels were piled high with what I imagined must be misdirected luggage awaiting discovery. Hundreds of people were jockeying for space round dilapidated baggage carousels waiting not-so-patiently for the luggage to appear.

Eventually our luggage arrived, much to my great relief after half an hour of staring at all the weird piles of random stuff just sitting around. We headed straight through to the British Airways desk to get our Round the World ticket sorted out. We’d had to make some flight changes because the travel agent had accidentally booked us to fly to San Jose, California instead of San Jose, Costa Rica! The travel agent in Canberra who sorts all this stuff out for me via email (bless her!) had warned me that re-ticketing would be somewhat costly and complicated but best accomplished at Heathrow. The BA agent looked a bit uncertain when I handed over the six feet of printed tickets we carry round with us, but said she could probably sort it out within an hour.

Here I saw further proof of the changes since I’d last flown through Heathrow five years ago. Police armed with machine guns stalked through the milling crowds, guarded the exits, and scrutinized us from on high. Armored vehicles were parked in front of the doors and paramedics made rounds inside the terminal on their bikes. Some of this was in response to the protesters (apparently they don’t want a new terminal built…although I say they bloody well NEED one!) but I got the feeling that this was the way of the future for Heathrow. They have also instituted the strictest carry on rules that we have yet to encounter.

Unfortunately for them, our friends Michelle and Neil who were picking us up were already en route. We found a (reasonably) quiet corner and waited for them to arrive – stowed the bags in their car, and headed off for some mediocre and overpriced airport food while we waited. Amazingly, the BA agent had the tickets sorted before our food even arrived and then didn’t even charge me for the changes! Woo hoo!! The food was better than expected, Jessica was kept amused building towers out of ketchup and mustard packets, we dined with good friends, and I saved $450! Things were definitely looking up.

A short drive later we arrived at Michelle and Neil’s new house in Egham; an adorable little three bedroom Victorian home. Having previously experienced their miniscule London flat, I was amazed at how big the house actually was. Obviously, Michelle’s interior design course has paid off because I instantly fell in love with her small home, and all the wonderful details that really give it charm and character…and the instant I stepped out the back door I had massive garden envy! You can grow SO many wonderful things in England. I’ve been goggling at everyone’s flowers since I’ve arrived and supposedly they’re crap this year because of the bad summer they’ve had.

After so long on the road it was simply wonderful to hang around in someone’s house again. Michelle had thoughtfully stocked up on all the Jessica-essentials (even including a booster seat for the car!) so all we had to do was put our feet up and get started on the laundry. She was even kind enough to borrow a very girly set of bedding for Jess to sleep in and made her a birthday cake! Of course, Jessica didn’t like it, but she had a lot of fun helping with the icing and sticking on the sugar princesses.

We spent three days at their house and got caught up on laundry, doctor’s appointments, hair cuts, etc. We did manage an evening out with Michelle’s family and an afternoon exploring Windsor and Windsor Castle, but that was about as much ambition as we could muster. It was a wonderful break, and I was secretly thankful that it was rainy so I didn’t feel too guilty about spending a few days indoors just hanging around. Unfortunately, Michelle managed to lose her voice the day after we arrived so we couldn’t catch up on QUITE as much gossip as we normally would have…but we managed.

Friday morning we caught an early flight to Paris. Once again, I had to throw away a few packages of perfectly good apple juice only to buy them again the other side of security. I’m beginning to think the beverage industry has had a hand in some of the recent threats, just to boost sales! Of course, Easy Jet doesn’t have a beverage service or carry enough change to break a 20 so Jess had to wait until we hit Paris to have another drink. Good thing it was a short flight.

The hotel I booked was in a wonderful location a few blocks from the Arch de Triumph, but for $575 Euro a night (regular price – we got a much better deal thankfully) you’d expect a LOT more than we received. The carpet in the room was shabby and the paint was peeling in the bathroom; Michelle and Neil had a massive rip in their wallpaper. The ancient TV was perched atop the mini bar, and the one chair in the room was stained. There was no duvet on the bed, only a blanket and a sheet, and the bed itself was two singles pushed together when they had offered us two doubles. The worst bit about the bed was the bloodstains on the box spring – which were fully on display due to lack of a bed skirt. The bathtub was so filthy that once we’d had a shower you could see the clean bits where the water had run down the sides. UGH! We ended up asking for a new room with two beds because Jessica had to sleep with us the first night as there were no extra blankets to make her a bed on the floor. The next morning we were moved to a new room that had been recently renovated. We didn’t get two beds (they just made up the pushed together twin beds separately) but the refurbished room was nicely appointed with no bloodstains or filthy bathtubs! (Yes we’ve been sleeping on twin beds pushed together all along, but they DID say double at reception!)

Aside from the minor issues with the hotel, Paris was spectacular. We lucked into a wonderfully hot weekend and we went with good friends. The first evening was spent exploring the Louvre and Jessica has decided that she really likes statues but that paintings are boring. Her favorite sculpture was one of Hercules, and, of course there was the inevitable: “Why are their penises hanging out Mommy?” at the top of her lungs.

After the Louvre, we wandered through the Latin Quarter (didn’t know it at the time but realized the next day when I said I wanted to see the Latin Quarter that we’d already been.) and found a small piano bar overlooking the Seine to while away a few hours in. I had some snails that tasted vaguely of dirt and a Pepsi that cost more than Grant’s beer! I was kind of disappointed that the escargot was on the menu as “snails,” but perhaps that’s code for “with dirt.” Michelle and Neil headed off to find a new place at about 11pm, but in our wisdom, Grant and I decided to walk back to the hotel rather than figure out the Metro or call a cab.

Ten minutes into our walk Grant realizes that he needs to use a toilet. He didn’t bother to stop right away thinking he’d hold out until the hotel. By the time we’d made it back to the Louvre, we realize that a day of wandering had taken us far further from the hotel than we’d anticipated. I stopped to take some night shots and Grant decides he’s going to duck into the darkened park area and find himself a tree to water. I’m making the typical wifely: “you can’t PEE in the garden of the LOUVRE you philistine!!” comments…but he’s off and running.

I saw him walk down the hill, so I thought – ok – he’ll be back in a moment and I’ll just take a few pictures of the Ferris wheel all lit up. Hopefully he’s back soon though; I don’t like to be alone with Jess in this darkened area with all these men walking by. When I looked up from the camera, I see Grant at the far end of the park heading rapidly away from me! Uh-oh, did he tell me to meet him somewhere and I didn’t hear? What’s he up to? He’s too far away to shout at without waking Jessica up, so I follow along as quickly as I can with the stroller. Man, is he moving though. I finally start to shout his name as he’s almost a city block ahead of me and about to round a corner – all without looking back. Am I even following the right guy? Yep – that’s his hat and his bag, must be him. Why hasn’t he noticed I’m not around? Surely he didn’t expect me to walk back on my own? FINALLY he turns around and walks back about a quarter of a block holding the front of his pants and I’m close enough to yell at him:


As he dashes towards the fairgrounds, I realize that he’s managed to stumble into a meeting place for gay men. Now I’m almost ready to pee my pants too, but only because I’m laughing so hard I can barely see straight. That’ll teach him to pee in public parks!! The remainder of the walk back to the hotel was punctuated by hysterical laughter on my part and shudders on his.

The next day we did a lot of walking (Grant hates the Metro), took in Notre Dame and the South Africa versus whoever Rugby game down at the Irish pub (I went shopping).I managed to resist all the tempting shops, however, and we actually came away with absolutely no souvenirs of Paris. That evening we ended up missing dinner to make it to the Eiffel Tower in time to get the elevator to the very top. After two hours in the queue, we were disappointed when they closed the top level ten minutes before we made it to the front of the ticket line. Oh well, it was still spectacular! Grant and I walked down with Jessica rather than wait in an hour long line at midnight for the elevator. We jumped in a cab and got back to the hotel exhausted and sore from carrying Jess for hours. Jessica managed to stay awake (and amazingly cheerful) for the whole thing and she wanted to go back the following evening but strangely enough nobody wanted to accompany her!

Our final day was nice and relaxing. We wandered around a few shops and then took Jessica to the fairgrounds to jump on the trampoline. Then we headed into the Latin Quarter again to eat dinner. We found a little place where we could eat outside and the atmosphere was just perfect: little twisting cobbled streets, tiny outdoor tables crammed together onto the sidewalks, a violinist and an accordionist working the crowd in turns, a balloon blowing clown named Sandro on the corner, crowds of tourists milling around gawking and shopping for tourist tat at the souvenir stalls, French men in banana yellow pants and French women impeccably made up in their little sundresses, scooters and bicycles parked haphazardly all down the street, red wine flowing like water….perfect. THIS is Paris.

It took us something like three hours to make it through dinner but nobody was complaining or trying to move us along. Sandro the clown made Jessica the most intricate balloon rocking horse: “But I WANTED a tiger Mommy!” I took tons of photos of the early evening light and the sunset reflecting off the shop windows. Then we caught the metro back towards our hotel to the James Joyce…yet another Irish Pub in Paris. I seem to be cursed with them – we ate at an Irish pub my first visit to Paris years ago as well. Took a great photo of Jessica up at the bar, balloon rocking horse in hand, with two very big pints lined up in front of her. I took Jessica back to the room sometime around 11 and the rest of them carried on until the wee hours.

The final morning was a mad dash to get packed and hurried goodbyes to Michelle and Neil in the hotel lobby. We headed to the airport and the exceptionally nice taxi driver helped us to ensure that we had the correct terminal. Apparently a lot of people get it wrong and there’s six km between the two of them. The BA flight we’d booked was a code share with some small airline I’d never heard of (and can’t remember the name of!) who’s computer went down just as we got to the front of the line. We stood there for ages, completely blowing my last chance to buy some French perfume and foiling all our best intentioned plans to eat breakfast. We finally made it through security and managed to forget Jessica’s little backpack at the security check. Of course, nobody came looking for us during the 20 minutes we spent waiting at the gate and we didn’t notice until we were actually sitting on the plane. I had to dash back through security as they were boarding – forgetting to get my boarding pass from Grant, of course – and retrieve it. Worse still, this was the smallest plane we’d flown on yet so EVERYONE on board saw me running across the tarmac like an idiot!

We made it to Manchester and hopped on a train to Huddersfield where we were met by Grant’s family: his Mom, Auntie Jo, and Cousin Neil. Jessica promptly burst into tears as we were mobbed by what seemed to her to be strangers. It took her a little while to warm up, but she got over it very quickly – especially once she met her two year old cousin Lara and had someone to boss around! From the train station we headed straight to Cousin Mark’s for a lovely meal and ANOTHER birthday cake for Jessica.

Jo’s house was much larger than I had anticipated from the descriptions I’d heard prior to our visit, but with Grant’s mom and us both staying there she ended up staying at Neil’s every night. We felt horrible kicking her out of house and home, especially as her smiling face was there every morning in the kitchen making us the bacon sandwiches I’m now entirely addicted to! Auntie Jo – you’re the BEST!

We had a wonderful four days catching up with family, and exploring the beautiful Yorkshire countryside. My garden envy kicked in again and I began to dream of retiring to the country and living in a wee little stone cottage perched high on a purple heather-covered hill criss-crossed with stone fences and dotted here and there with fluffy white sheep and black and white cows; spending my days puttering amongst the roses, picking blackberries, and drinking tea. Sigh. Heaven.

Grant and I took full advantage of the free Grandma babysitting service to catch a football game in the local pub and then to see a fantastic stand up show in Leeds with his cousins. Of course, we ended up sitting up front and the comedian picked on Grant – poor boy! We also took a steam train ride out to Haworth to see where the Bronte sisters lived, and to take loads of photos. The boys got cinders in their eyes from sticking their heads out the window…so a very authentic experience!

Our visit was over way too quickly and we’re really sad to wave goodbye at the train platform. Our train ride into London was fast and easy but we arrived to a city mobbed with people and half the streets around our hotel shut down for the Princess Diana memorial. I couldn’t talk Grant into leaving the hotel – too much beer last night!

Hill Tribe Trek

July 27th, 2007

The day after Songkran finished, we set off on our Hill Tribe Trek. They had given us backpacks to use for trekking and we left the rest of our luggage in our hotel room. We decided it was easier just to keep the room for the night of the trek, and good thing we did because I’d changed the dates!

When I originally booked this trip, I had been pretty undecided about whether to take Jessica trekking. I knew that we could simply take turns as we had done with the diving, but I really wanted her to experience this and looked high and low to find a trip suitable for children. Finally, I happened upon Wayfarer’s Travel a small company who organized private trekking parties and had one trip that was geared to people who couldn’t physically do much trekking, but still wanted the experience. I thought – perfect! We will have a gentle walk for a couple of hours and we’ll be on our own so we won’t be holding anyone up.

Thus far, the company had already impressed me with their professionalism. Their emails were prompt and they had no problems at all rearranging the dates of the tour at the last minute to accommodate my illness. Obviously it helped that we had a private trip, but I’m still really pleased with the service. They sent our guide over for a briefing and to drop off our backpacks just before the festival.

This guide has become our tour guide gold standard! What a truly lovely man! His name was “Hey” (not sure of the spelling) which he joked about immediately. He was a wiry little man a head shorter than I am, with a lovely, and seemingly permanent, smile affixed to his face. Jessica delighted him and he talked about how she was his youngest customer thus far and now he could tell everyone about it. We left the tour briefing with the feeling that we’d be very well taken care of and with Hey’s contagious smile on our faces.

Hey arrived promptly on the morning of our tour, with no confusion about the change in our hotels as we had feared might happen. Unfortunately, it was also a Monday…so we were in the midst of coercing Jessica to take her Malaria meds when he arrived. (You have to take it with food and water and we were at the breakfast buffet) It was a bit of an ordeal getting Jessica to take hers, but nothing like the previous week where I had to force the issue. Still, we were all in a fairly grumpy mood as we set out trekking, thanks to the meds. We had yet to learn to take them at NIGHT!

We were grateful for the comfortable van as we drove out of the city, and the rock-star service of a private tour. Some of the cheaper trekking parties take tuk tuks out to the starting point of the trek, and people were still throwing water even after the festival. Hey laughed at them and said they’d be soaked by the time they started trekking!

We stopped at a local market to pick up some drinks and snacks for the trek and I also bought some pencil crayons and workbooks for Jessica to share with the village children. She was a bit put out that they weren’t for her to keep, but she got the idea eventually. At the market we finally figured out what Durian is and why they don’t allow it into the hotels. This stuff STINKS to high heaven and we could never bring ourselves to actually eat it – although Jessica did have a candied version in Malaysia that was much less stinky!

The first stop on our tour was a local cave which had a temple built inside it. The air was foul inside and I couldn’t wait to get out. As far as caves go, this one wasn’t terribly spectacular and the highlight of the short tour was the hilarious signs with awkward English warning tourists not to venture off without lights or a guide:

“Tourist foreigner, if you no have guide don’t go alone or by one self, because if to have happen dangerous by the temple and the committee will not responsible”

After the cave, we went to a nearby restaurant for lunch. It was pretty typical of most Thai restaurants with the seating area outside. There were so many flies on the food it was hard to eat and, of course, there was nothing Jessica would eat. Good thing I pack snacks for her everywhere we go! They brought tons of food to the table and most of it wasn’t bad. I ate a bit and then got tired of trying to keep the flies off the food. Grant had a beer and ate nothing. Hey was a bit dismayed at the amount of food left on the table and I had to reassure him that the lunch had been fine but we’d all had a big breakfast…mostly true anyway!

We carried on in our trusty van to the starting point of the trek which was a nearby village. Getting out of the van, we were mobbed by little kids selling cheap bracelets. I finally gave the most persistent of them some money because she’d followed us for ages and was so polite and cute.

Our porter named Pong arrived to carry some of the food for our stay and we learned that we’d be sleeping in one of his two houses once we arrived in the village. The driver left and we carried on from there on foot. It was still smoky from the fires in Northern Thailand and Laos, so the scenery wasn’t quite as spectacular as it could have been. Still, we were all alone in the relative wilderness with our guides, which was really cool.

When I had originally booked the tour, I had assumed that we’d carry Jessica partway and she would walk some of the way. It was only a two hour walk maximum and there wasn’t much in the way of hills to climb. She liked to go for hikes and she walked a lot of the way when we were hiking in Australia, and it was super hot there too. Perfect, I thought. She lasted about six seconds on foot before begging to be carried. We were already both carrying daypacks stuffed with our personal drinking water and all our clothes and toiletries for overnight…not to mention Jessica’s stuff and snacks for everyone. So, the last thing either of us wanted to do was carry a kid along with everything! We carried her a little way and then set her down again to walk for awhile; telling her to walk for a little while and then we’d carry her again when she got tired.

Well. She was NOT impressed. She begged and cried to be picked up. Hey offered to carry her, but I wanted her to walk on her own and was sick of (Daddy) capitulating to her every whim to avoid a “scene” in public. Perfect, I thought, we’re in the middle of nowhere and only Hey and Pong are around to be annoyed by this kid…and we’re paying them! Let her spaz all she wants, then! So, I figured let her walk a bit and she’ll cry for awhile until she realized we won’t pick her up and then she’ll get over it. What I didn’t factor in was the effect of our malaria meds on everyone. Our tempers were unnaturally short and Jessica was in a truly foul mood.

Jessica threw a spaz like I have never before witnessed. She cried, she screamed, she threw herself on the ground and kicked. We tried to put her down several times and this happened every time her delicate little feet touched the ground. The more she screamed, the more determined I became that this child WILL walk and I will not give in to this!! At one point I just walked away and left her lying on the ground thinking she’d get up and catch up. But, she was screaming and crying so hard she started choking and nearly threw up. Great – a lovely family trip – wonderful experience for everyone! Hey was a trooper and kept smiling through all of it, and showed Jessica cool things along the way like ant houses and different kinds of bugs. But eventually Daddy had just had enough of both our pigheadedness and carried her on his shoulders for the duration of the trek, where she fell asleep just before we entered the village.

The village was a small settlement of a few hundred people nestled in amongst the hills. People didn’t stare quite as much as I’d expected, but I think this village sees a lot of foreign faces. In fact, there were a few other farang staying there that evening in a different part of the village. Jessica was still crashed out on Grant’s head and all we wanted to do was lay her down somewhere and dump our stuff off. Pong led us through the village to “our” house for the night.

Upon arrival, Hey sprang into action and eagerly began showing us around our accommodations. The house was a one room affair that stood up off the ground on short stilts; presumably to keep out some of the marauding insects, snakes, and assorted livestock that seemed to roam though the village at will. It also functioned to cool the house somewhat in Thailand’s hot climate. This latter was facilitated by the gaps between the floorboards and the cracks between the boards that formed the walls of the house. The roof was made of grass and there was a rather lot of sunlight shining through it for our liking…we said a short prayer that there would be no rain that night!

There were a couple of old candle stubs for when it got dark, (Uh-oh, thinks Mommy…a three year old in a wood and grass hut with candles stuck to the floor….) but at present, there was enough light coming in through the multitude of cracks to provide adequate illumination.

Hey eagerly showed us to our beds, which consisted of three narrow woven mats on the floor of the hut, and an old, but clean, blanket each. Hey added a sleeping bag to each of these and enthusiastically showed us how we could use these for extra padding provided that the night was not cool enough to require a blanket. I asked about insects and he explained that Pong would bring out a double mosquito net before it got dark and that we must tuck this firmly under our mats. Before he left us to our own devices, Hey made sure to show us in great detail the “security features” of the house. This consisted of a door (made of the same crack-riddled construction as the walls) that closed – mostly – and a tiny little sliding bar lock. He was so earnest and helpful that I managed to keep a straight face until he left before cracking up at the idea that this tiny bar lock would make us feel secure at night!

The bathroom facilities were far less luxurious than the sleeping quarters. It consisted of a small building made of rough cement with a dirt floor divided into two tiny rooms. One of them had a squat toilet inside, with a candle stuck in the corner for light. The other space had a big plastic rain barrel full of water (PERFECT for breeding mosquitoes thinks Mommy) and a narrow shelf along the back of the room holding another candle and a dipper. Hey demonstrated how we were supposed to “shower” using the dipper and cautioned us to try not to get any soap into the clean barrel of water…easier said than done given the size of the space! For obvious reasons, there were no windows, but the large cracks in and around the doors let in enough light that we wouldn’t need the candles until nightfall….I said a short prayer that Jessica wouldn’t need the bathroom in the middle of the night. The last thing I wanted to do was leave the relative security of our mosquito netting, try to find my headlamp, and stumble down the rough wooden ladder with a sleepy three year old to use the ‘facilities.’

By this time, Jessica was comfortably sleeping on one of the mats and we’d divested ourselves of our packs and assorted gear. Grant went off for a walk (read: smoke) and I decided to hang out at the table outside our house and take in the scenery where I’d be close enough to hear Jessica if she woke up.

Hmmmm….the nice ladies that had welcomed us upon our arrival were now setting up a market beside the house….some actually UNDER the house. There was now nowhere to sit where I would not be inundated with appeals to purchase local handicraft. I had fully expected to visit a local market at some point during my visit, but I certainly hadn’t anticipated one set up purely for my benefit…and on MY doorstep! I was tired and just wanted to sit down and have six quiet minutes to myself and maybe a coke from the rather promising looking cooler nearby. I could have handled friendly curiosity and maybe a visit from the locals, but the LAST thing I felt like doing was shopping, never mind friendly bargaining.

Not only that – now I couldn’t have a “shower” without all the assembled women and children being able to see just about everything I was doing through those handy cracks in the door. The women were all gathered with their kids between the house and the bathroom, and it looked as though they were settling in nicely. I opted for a face wash, and as discreet as possible use of the toilet.

I went back inside figuring I would spray Jessica’s long pants and shirt with insect repellent in anticipation of a mosquito filled evening. The directions said “well ventilated area” and I figured the hut probably answered that description admirably! The clothes were filthy by the time I finished because the floor was so dirty and there was nowhere else to lay them flat to spray on the stuff. Oh well. Not looking to win any fashion awards and at least that should keep the mosquitoes at bay!

Grant returned from his wander through the village and Jessica woke up so we went outside to visit with the locals and – whether we liked it or not – shop for handicrafts! I half heartedly looked at a few scarves and things that I didn’t really want just to be polite. We’d just spent so much time in the night market in Chiang Mai that neither of us was much interested in buying anything. I thought I might as well pick up something small as a souvenir of the trek and sort of as a thank-you to the village…..and discovered that prices were WAAAAAYYYY more expensive than in the city. I was not in the mood for friendly bargaining and the starting price was way too high, so I decided to find out which one of these ladies was Pong’s wife and buy from her later.

Meanwhile, I had brought out the pencil crayons and workbooks for Jessica to share with the kids. Soon the little square in front of our hut was filled with kids busily coloring and frustrated adults trying to sharpen the crayons with the cheap little sharpeners I’d purchased. I actually got a blister from sharpening so many darn pencils! Jessica had fun playing with all the little ones even though they obviously didn’t speak the same language.

At one point, I went into the hut to get something or other and there on the sleeping mats was an ENORMOUS spider about the size of the palm of my hand. I called Grant in to check it out and Hey came in as well and helped me to chase it away. I didn’t want him to kill it if it wasn’t poisonous (though I’m pretty sure Grant did!!) so we just chased it out a crack in the floor. Once again Hey assured me that the mosquito net that Pong was bringing later on would keep out the critters.

Pretty soon it was suppertime and, thankfully, the ladies packed up their impromptu market so we could have our meal. Whew. I was feeling a bit uncomfortable about not buying anything. We sat down at the rough wooden table outside the door of our hut, enjoying the relative quiet after the market had been packed up.

Hey had been busily preparing our meal in the nearby kitchen. (and I use the word loosely) I didn’t look too close at the kitchen knowing it would do bad things to my appetite later on, but Grant poked his head in earlier to chat with Hey and decided to skip dinner as well. Hey brought dish after dish out of the rudimentary kitchen and some were quite lovely. (although the fish with head and skin still intact was a bit creepy) They’d even brought peanut butter for Jessica as I’d requested!! Jess had a few bits of dinner and discovered a Thai fruit that I can’t remember the name of but that we christened “hairy berries” from that point forward. Once again there was a LOT of flies. I ate a bit, but didn’t even make a dent in the massive amount of food they’d brought us. Grant had another beer for dinner.

We’d invited Hey to join us for our meal, but he’d declined again as he had done at lunch and gone off to eat with Pong. So, we called him over to take the leftover food to someone who wanted it. He was quite upset that Grant wasn’t eating anything at all, so I told him that Grant just wasn’t feeling very well and that the food had been lovely. Which it had….but the flies were just a bit too much. I felt I had done a pretty good job of keeping them out of the food amidst much hand waving and napkin covering, but Grant informed me later that the kitchen had been completely full of them, and none too clean either. Precisely why I didn’t look all that closely before dinner! Between the flies and the dirt, and the smells of the livestock running everywhere it’s no wonder we didn’t have much of an appetite!

After dinner we all had a wander through the village. I’d had a brief walk before dinner, but Hey offered to show us around a bit more. I marveled at the rudimentary huts with satellite dishes sticking out the sides of them and the juxtaposition of the primitive toilet facilities and the teenagers taking pictures of each other with their cell phones! It was a weird mishmash of old and new….emphasis on old, however. Lines of washing were strung everywhere, the roads were made of dirt, and cars were few and far between. Kids were playing with old bicycle tires and other home-made toys, although the odd professional soccer ball made an appearance.

This was not a wealthy village and most people looked as though they lived in quite simple wooden houses with minimal modern amenities. Animals shared living spaces with people and as I looked at the proximity of the many pigsties to the houses and the families of chickens running everywhere, I realized how difficult it would be for this part of the world to control a bird-flu epidemic…if not completely impossible! Chickens were everywhere and I warned Jessica again not to touch them or pick up any feathers. This was hard because there were tiny chicks everywhere and it would have been really nice to let her cuddle some.

We wandered back to our hut and we sat outside for a while watching Jessica play with the local children. She was having a blast, and I’d changed her into her somewhat grubby long pants and long sleeved shirt because it was starting to get dark, and I was worried about malaria-bearing mosquitoes. The little boy she was playing with found some charcoal from an old half-burned log nearby and they merrily decorated the fence and got completely filthy in the process. It was starting to get dark so I cleaned Jessica up to the best of my abilities and we headed in to bed.

Pong had been setting up the mosquito netting while we were outside visiting so I was feeling pretty confident about a bug-free evening. Until, of course, I actually SAW the net he’d set up! There were more holes in it than a swiss cheese…some big enough to stick my hand through. (and, thus, let that big ass spider in!!) It was ancient and had obviously been mended many times over with varying degrees of success. There was tape stuck to it all over and some resourceful individual had even used band-aids to cover some of the holes. I was really upset and worried about mosquitoes and both Hey and Pong helped me “fix” the netting by gathering the material and tying twine around the holes. The net got smaller and smaller as I watched. Eventually I just told the guys to give up or we’d end up with no net at all! It was going to be a tight enough squeeze with the three of us in a double netting as it was. I slathered everyone with repellent and made Jessica wear her long sleeves and pants to bed despite the warm evening, and how dirty they were!

It was NOT a comfortable night. Jessica was wired for sound because of her nap earlier. She was wiggly and squirmy and alternately hungry and thirsty and needing to pee and there wasn’t really much room for the three of us on those narrow mats. It wasn’t as hot as I’d suspected it might be because the cracks in the ceiling and walls let in lots of breeze…unfortunately they also let in random whiffs of the nearby pigsty and all the nocturnal noises of everyday village life. At one point some guy was shouting at his TV at the top of his lungs – must have been some sporting event on or something. When we did finally sleep, our lovely malaria meds kicked in and gave us some brutal dreams! But, there didn’t seem to be any mosquitoes around and none of us woke up with mysterious bites, so I considered the night a grand success!

We were a bit groggy in the morning after our less than successful night’s sleep and barely made in out in time to have breakfast and buy a few things (finally) from Pong’s wife. We got to meet the newest addition to Pong’s family, his little daughter who – surprisingly – was blonde!

After a hurried breakfast….which Grant again did not eat to Hey’s great dismay, we had a quick wash and packed up our things to get ready for our elephant ride! We’d ridden an elephant before in Cambodia, but that was only for about 15 minutes and this was meant to be a trek through the countryside for an hour and a half to two hours. I was pretty excited!!

We bought some bananas to feed to the ellie and Hey led us to where we were to mount. THIS ellie was a LOT bigger than the one we rode in Cambodia. We fed her the bananas and then climbed up the platform to get into the basket mounted on her back. Wow, were we up high! I can’t imagine what riding an African elephant would be like if the Asian ones come this big! Once again, we were seated on a small platform with a low railing around it. This was perched rather precariously on the back of the elephant, while the mahout rode on her neck, using his feet behind her ears and a small switch to steer.

NOT a comfortable ride, I must say! It takes a while to get used to the elephant’s gait because we’re sitting on a platform that tilts quite dramatically every time the animal moves. It’s not like riding a horse where you can anticipate the horse’s movements and move with them. Jessica is sandwiched in between us, but I’m very worried she’s going to fall out. I don’t let her ride a tricycle at home without a helmet on and here she is on back of an elephant with not even a seatbelt to hold her in! So, I’ve got a death grip on Jess, while trying to maintain my own balance, AND hold her damn box of milk that she’s finished but that I don’t want to toss onto the ground! How, exactly, am I supposed to take photos?? The platform is nowhere near as cushy as the one in Cambodia had been, and the metal bar is banging our backs with every step. After a few minutes, though, we figure out the stride and start to relax a bit and enjoy the spectacular scenery.

About half an hour into the ride, the mahout asks if one of us would like to change places with him and ride on the neck. Grant looks horrified at the thought, but I’m all over that!! Amazingly, we manage to change places without any major mishap and I’m riding astride the elephant’s neck! Oh very very very cool! THIS is an entirely different experience than the silly old platform. She kept flapping her ears around my legs and they are way stronger than I anticipated. I think she could sense that I had no idea what I was doing and was helping me keep my balance. I was grinning ear to ear for the remainder of the trip, although it did a number on my inner thighs. I thought that the mahout would only let me ride a little while, or that Grant would take a turn, but I ended up riding up on the neck for the remainder of the trek. YAY!! Happy happy Tammy!!

When we arrived at the next village that was our destination, I looked around for the boarding platform that I – as an “experienced” elephant rider – had come to expect. We were on a narrow path in the middle of a forest, and Hey was standing (beaming, of course) waiting for us. Just as I was beginning to wonder how on earth we were going to get down, the mahout told the elephant to kneel. Now, I’m sitting on the neck, which was precarious enough while she was walking, but I had no idea how I was going to dismount with any sort of grace at all. My legs were cramping and my bum was asleep by this point and I figured I’d settle for not breaking my neck on the way down. There wasn’t even a mane or a rope to grab onto and I wasn’t sure she’d take too kindly to me hanging off her ears to dismount!

Everyone hung on tightly as the elephant slowly kneeled on the ground and then the mahout helped Grant and Jessica off of the platform while I – somehow- managed to slide off her neck without injuring myself, or (hopefully) annoying the elephant. We unloaded our bags from where they were tied on the back of the platform and headed off for a short tour of the village in which we had arrived.

This village was fairly similar in nature to the one we’d experienced the night before and we wandered around for a little while. It was a bit more “modern” here, though, and I spotted several solar panels dotted here and there amongst the houses. We had another walk ahead of us before the van picked us up, but we were all in a much better mood than the previous day, if a bit sore from a night on those mats and a couple hours on an elephant!

We walked for maybe an hour and Jessica was cheerfully walking this time. (we promised her a foot massage if she walked enough to get sore feet) Grant did carry her some of the way, though, just to speed things up a bit. But, overall, a MUCH more pleasant experience than the previous days’ trekking had been. Pong made us all laugh by making himself a silly sunhat out of a big leaf, and we all had a nice walk through the countryside.

After our walk, we met up with the van and our driver in yet another small village. A quick tour of this village and we were on our way to the river for a ride on a traditional bamboo raft. I had bought along Jessica’s life jacket again but was completely amazed when Hey pulled a child-sized jacket out of the back of the van that looked as though it would actually fit. This company really did cater well for children – peanut butter AND kids’ life jackets!

I didn’t get any photos, unfortunately, because I didn’t want to chance getting my camera wet. The raft was just a bunch of bamboo lashed together with some larger bits of bamboo tied on top to sit on. Again, not the most comfortable sort of transportation, and our legs and bums were numb by the time we finished our hour and a half ride. The scenery was lovely along the river, though, and we acquired a small hitchhiker along the route in the form of a local child. Another kid tried to sink us when we passed a group of them playing in the water and our river guide had to kick him off the raft. Jess had fun and we were all hungry and ready for lunch by the time we got back.

Hey brought some lovely western-style boxed lunches out and we all had a picnic lunch at some tables nearby. To my great amazement, Jessica actually ate an entire cheese sandwich. Guess she was hungry! Once again, Grant didn’t really eat much, and Hey was getting very concerned. After lunch, we headed back into the city and Hey told us funny stories about his experiences as a tour guide on the way back. We gave him a huge tip and were really sad to say goodbye to our lively little guide.

We were very happy to see our big comfy bed upon our return to the Novotel. A night in the village has certainly put an end to any of Grant’s complaining about less than perfect hotel accommodation!

Our final day in Chiang Mai was spent primarily at UPS shipping all the stuff we bought in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand home. One thing I totally forgot to budget for on this trip was shipping fees….and boy do we spend a lot of money on shipping!

New pics

July 24th, 2007

Just uploaded a few new pics for Malaysia……eventually I’ll get caught up……


July 19th, 2007

We were pretty happy to see Starbucks and McDonald’s upon arrival to Chiang Mai, although Starbucks doesn’t do my favorite drink in Thailand. It was nice to have food that tasted familiar…even if familiar is crappy junk food! We took Jessica to McDonald’s to help speed her recovery after her traumatic hospital experience, and then got her nails done and headed to the night market for some shopping.

The night market was amazing! We spent a few evenings wandering around there taking it all in. Several square blocks of people selling everything imaginable, open-air massage parlors (of course, Jessica had to have a foot massage and the ladies thought this was adorable!), food stalls, and tuk tuks lining the streets vying for business. There was a free dance show going on in one of the food courts that Jessica loved, and we wandered around browsing for more stuff we didn’t need.

Grant bought a pair of shorts and ended up going back to exchange them THREE TIMES because they either didn’t fit or the zipper was broken…the guy was getting so sick of him, we were almost afraid to walk past that stall! I bought a sparkly t-shirt and was a bit put out by the teeny woman who laughed at me trying on a medium: “NO NO for YOU a size LARGE!”

There were stalls and stalls full of artwork by extremely talented portrait artists. All of them seemed to be copying the same few famous photographs from National Geographic, with amazing skill and accuracy. We decided to have Jessica’s portrait done and the guy took her photo on the spot and agreed to have it finished within 24 hours. The price was so reasonable we didn’t even bother to bargain, so he shook his head at the stupid tourists and gave us a “discount.”

We returned the following day to pick up Jessica’s portrait and she was SO excited to see it! It was really well done, but lacked that certain something that made it perfect. Jessica loved it though, and every time we passed that stall in the following nights she kept asking to see her picture.

There was one shop selling some really wonderful wood carvings. They had a massive display of an aquarium entirely made of wood. They even had a panel full of water across the top to give it the proper lighting effect. I am sad they wouldn’t let anyone photograph it – a truly amazing piece of work that belongs in a museum. We debated buying something really impressive, but worried about it cracking in Calgary’s dry weather. Some of the pieces in the shop had already started to crack in places, so we contented ourselves with a cool carved elephant’s head and crossed our fingers that it’ll remain intact!

Jessica’s bartering skills were improving daily by this point. She was already negotiating most of our tuk tuk rides…much to the delight of the drivers!

Based on our lousy experience with the overnight train in Vietnam, and our really positive impression of the budget airlines in Asia, we had decided to limit the number of places we visited in Thailand and Malaysia and fly between them rather than take the train as I had previously intended. We’re also finding it a lot easier to spend several days in one place rather than packing up every night or two. For this reason, we ended up spending ten days in Chiang Mai, instead of the four I had planned. The hotel we were booked into had been full and we ended up switching hotels halfway through our stay from the Holiday Inn to the Novotel.

Turns out we arrived in the midst of the New Year’s festivities and they really swung into gear just as we switched hotels. As a result they were playing some truly horrific, repetitive music in the hallway of the Novotel. It repeated itself every few minutes and was loud enough to hear throughout the room. I called the front desk two days running to complain and they turned it down for me. THEN I find out it’s some sort of traditional celebratory thing and I feel like a big jerk for complaining!

We hadn’t done too much the first few days aside from visiting the hospital and recovering from food poisoning, so we kind of missed our opportunity to see the city before it was completely taken over by the New Year’s events. Thankfully, our tour company had allowed me to change the dates of our hill tribe trek to after the festival because I was sick during the originally planned dates. But this left us only the days of Songkran to really see the city and surrounding area. Well, ok then! Let’s celebrate New Year’s – again!!

Now, in Thailand it is customary to throw water on someone to wish them luck in the New Year…much like we’d experienced in both Fiji and Laos…..but NOTHING could have prepared us for Chiang Mai’s version of the custom! The day before the festival we went out and bought some cheap water guns so we could join in the fun. People were already gearing up and there were a few gangs of little kids set up with barrels of water on the sidewalks soaking the passers-by. On the walk back to the hotel we got a bit wet and had a blast shooting passing cars and mopeds with our guns. We even got into a shootout with a cop which was a bit unfair given that we had cheap little water pistols and he had a garden hose! Jessica loved her water gun and was quite excited by the whole prospect of shooting people with impunity. We had to pry it out of her hands when we got back inside the hotel and she only relinquished it when we promised she could shoot some more people the following day.

We made plans to get out and see the elephant camp and the monkey school on the Sunday of the festival weekend because we had no other day to go and do it. We attempted to book a taxi the day before, but they were either busy or more expensive than we wanted, so we ended up grabbing the first tuk tuk that we could find on Sunday morning. We agreed to hire him for the afternoon for some stupidly low (to us) price and set off.

Now….a word about this tuk tuk. It was essentially a motorbike with a bench seat in the back that was barely wide enough for the three of us to sit comfortably. There was no roof, but the day looked like a nice one – not too sunny as to sunburn our heads and not too cloudy to as to rain. Perfectly overcast, in fact. We figured that we’d get a bit wet on the drive through the city because of the festivities and associated water play, but there was a half hour drive through the peaceful countryside on the way to the elephant camp in which to dry off. Of course, I’d dressed everyone in their quick dry clothing for the occasion and packed a towel and a spare t-shirt for Jessica, wrapped my camera gear in plastic and we were ready to go play. To our great delight, the tuk tuk driver had thoughtfully equipped his vehicle with a big barrel half full of water so that we could reload our weapons at will! Plus there was a small pail if we really wanted to get serious about it. Water pistols in hand, we set off on our afternoon adventure.

Everywhere you looked there were people shooting each other with water pistols and lining the streets with huge barrels of water and buckets – some people even had high powered hoses! Trucks filled with teenagers cruised the streets with barrels of water in the back and people shot each other from the back of mopeds…it was one massive city-wide water fight! COOL!!!!!!! Out came our guns and we were ready to do battle! The fun lasted – oh – about ten minutes.

Ten minutes into the ride we were soaked to the skin and freezing to death, and we’d pretty much given up shooting back with our puny little guns. People thought it was great fun to add ice to the water. So not only was it cold, sometimes it actually hurt. Apparently loads of people die every year due to traffic accidents caused by the water fights, and I can believe it.

The tuk tuk driver gave us an umbrella to try and shield Jessica from the worst of the onslaught. She was, by this time, huddled in a small wet bundle on the seat between the two of us freezing half to death. Of course Mommy didn’t think to put on her rain suit! It’s only a little water and it’s hot in Thailand, right? Well, with the addition of ice to the water we were all pretty cold and wet and miserable by the time we hit the edge of town. The umbrella was ruined within a few minutes and we had no protection at all in our topless tuk tuk from the overzealous teenagers in the back of pick up trucks who pulled up alongside and blasted us with water. We began to look forward to the buckets that weren’t icy cold….at least they warmed us up a tiny bit!

Eventually we left most of the pick-up trucks full of teens behind as we headed out of town towards the elephant camp. We had a water-free few minutes and the wind was starting to dry us out a bit. We had a laugh at our naivety and we were looking forward to the elephant camp when we pulled into the little town that surrounded the camp. Uh-oh….stretching ahead of us was a veritable gauntlet of water buckets and manically grinning Thais. Jessica squealed and dove for cover and our former ally – the tuk tuk driver – who had previously attempted to avoid the worst of the onslaught…..STOPPED dead in front of the first of the bucket brigade. An entire five gallon bucket full later we were all soaked to the skin again, Jessica was screaming, and we had only just begun….

Several very wet minutes later we pulled into the elephant camp with a seriously annoyed Jessica. We noted that the water level in our bucket was actually HIGHER than when we started out – despite our best efforts at fighting back! We went inside and were just in time to catch the final show of the day. We spent an enjoyable couple of hours drying off while we watched elephants kick soccer balls and paint lovely flower pictures. Of course, just as we were about to leave……it began to rain. Well, pour is really the word for it. Fantastic. We have a topless tuk tuk and it’s raining and we have a 45 minute drive back to the hotel. Ah well – we were wet anyway, right? And hopefully the rain will have driven most of the water throwers indoors, right? Not so much. We ran the gauntlet again back towards the monkey school which we had passed in our haste to make the last elephant show.

Wet to the skin and shivering, with Jessica screaming blue bloody murder, we arrive at the doors of the monkey school – again just in time for the show. Might as well go inside because at least there’s a roof and maybe the rain will stop. The monkey show is a bit hokey, but fun. They show us how they train monkeys to pick coconuts and they do various tricks like ride a bike. Grant asks if he can hold one after the show and the lady brings out a little one for him to hold. For some reason it doesn’t like Jessica at all and every time she reaches for it, he swats her. Then it was my turn to hold him and he tried to do some unmentionable things to my ear whilst Grant laughed his ass off and kept filming!! Thanks for the help mister!!

It was still raining when we left and we decided to give the adjacent snake park a big miss. Our valiant tuk tuk driver had ripped apart two broken umbrellas to give us the material to wrap Jessica in. (I put her in shorts why?) We bundled her up in them and stuffed her in between the two of us, took a deep breath, and headed off into the downpour. What a nightmare. Sheeting rain and cold wind from the drive, interspersed with buckets of ice water coming in from all sides. There was more traffic this time, so we got stuck beside even more of those delightful teen-filled ice-bearing trucks!

Jessica huddled between us, giving a little moan now and then to let us know she was still alive. Once in a while we’d hear a plaintive little voice at a stop light: “Is THIS our hotel now?” (I am convinced THIS was the start of the ‘are we there yet?’ trend that we’ve been enjoying since.) I spent the ride cursing the entire Thai community under my breath (mostly) and huddled in my seat trying to simultaneously protect my camera and my daughter’s head. Grant varied between fighting back with our puny little guns (he’d long since broken the driver’s bucket) and cowering under the onslaught.

We tipped the driver almost as much as we’d agreed to pay him for the afternoon. Poor guy was completely soaked and freezing. I can almost forgive him the stopping in front of the one bucket guy!

“Wet to the skin” does not do justice to the state we were in when we arrived. Even the bills in my wallet were wringing wet. Thank GOD I thought enough to bring a plastic bag for my camera. Even though it was covered in plastic, the case was still wet. The hotel staff had a good laugh as we squelched our way through the lobby. We jumped into a hot bath, ordered a pizza, and didn’t go out until evening the following day!

I have few pictures of this event given the high probability of my camera being ruined but you can check out this link for some idea: Songkran

Welcome to Thailand

July 7th, 2007

It’s our first day in Thailand – Chiang Mai, and I am sick. Run to the bathroom every ten minutes, cold sweats, think I might die, kind of sick! The suspiciously pink Moroccan sausage I had the previous evening in the nicest restaurant in Luang Prabang is a likely culprit. Typical – pay a fortune for a meal (relatively speaking) and get food poisoning! I promised Grant I’d go to the doctor if I still felt this awful in the morning. Thank GOD we’re not still in Laos where there’s no good health care and I’m just very very thankful we have a toilet that works unlike the one in the guesthouse we JUST left.

Morning came and I felt a bit better but still rough enough that I thought I should get it checked out. I called International SOS for advice on a doctor in the area. I figure if I’m paying that much for my membership, I might as well get some benefit from it! They recommend that I go to a hospital across town rather than the one right next door to the hotel we’re staying in. Oh well, apparently the Doctor speaks English so hopefully that will work out. Just to be on the safe side, I get the front desk to write down “I need to see Dr. Whats-his-name” in Thai for me.

I sent Grant and Jessica off to the Chinese embassy to try and get our visas for China and jumped in a tuk tuk to head for the hospital – a bit worried about exactly what a Thai hospital might be like! I shouldn’t have worried about it. There were enough English speaking staff around to help me out and the Doctor was really professional and spoke excellent English. The place was sparkling clean, super organized and I was in and out of there in an hour, prescription drugs in hand, for something like $30 US. Amazing!

Food poisoning, the doctor thinks, but we’ll keep an eye on it in case it’s Dengue, Malaria or who-knows-what-else! After all, we’ve been in Southeast Asia for over a month and Cambodia is having a Dengue outbreak. At least the rest of the family isn’t symptomatic, and the Doc agrees that the Moroccan sausage is a likely culprit. No worries.

No worries, that is, until Jessica has blood in her poo the following morning! Given my symptoms, I’m slightly worried. But, she’s been a bit constipated (and – how to say this delicately – been going through a “bum exploration” phase lately) and she’s having no other symptoms. I decide not to worry about it. This lasts about ten minutes and I end up calling International SOS for advice, hoping they’ll tell me not to worry.

Once again, I’m immediately connected to an English speaking doctor for advice. This membership is starting to pay for itself just in peace of mind! The doc says: “Blood in her stool? Hmmmmmm…… I’d take her to the hospital to be on the safe side. We’ve seen some weird stuff come out of Vietnam… never able to diagnose it, of course. But still…” So, off we go to the Chiang Mai Ram Hospital…again!!

This time I think I know the drill and ask for the same doc I saw the previous day, thinking he knows my symptoms and I know he speaks excellent English. This throws the whole system into a schmozzle and they usher me into a waiting room while they find someone with enough English to patiently explain to the annoying tourist that the doctor I have requested is, unfortunately, in the emergency room today and would I mind seeing the resident pediatrician? Ok – we’ll go to the pediatrics wing then!

Once again, I shouldn’t have worried! The English speaking pediatrician is wonderfully competent and not too concerned given Jess’s lack of other symptoms. But to be on the safe side we need a stool sample. Uh-oh. Jessica just went, and given her almost constant state of constipation, is NOT likely to go again for a LONG while. Well then, we’ll stick this pill up her bum and force the issue.

Jessica bares her bum for yet another inspection (one by me, one by the doc, and now the nurse) and up goes the pill. “THAT HURTED ME!” Many tears and a VERY affronted little person, and immediately she says she has to poo. We make a half naked dash across the hospital waiting room to the lab (which is in the hospital itself thank God and not six blocks away like it would be in Canada!) where I’m handed a teeny plastic cup and a miniscule stick and shown the bathroom. We’ve left Grant behind somewhere, but no time to stick around to explain. Hopefully someone will tell him where we are!

How, exactly, does one take a screaming, panicked three year old and a tiny cup and get a sample? Not easily. She doesn’t want to poop on me and is convinced that if she poops they will stick something else up her bum. Twenty hysterical minutes later, Jessica starts to calm down. I decide I’d better let Grant know we’d be awhile, so I open the door to look for him. He’s in the waiting room opposite the bathroom. Thankfully he’s sorted out where we’ve gone.

As I’m talking to him, Jessica sticks her fingers in the door jamb and I partially close the door on a little finger. Fantastic!

Now we’re BOTH in tears but the finger is ok and we get an ice pack. We’re still in the bathroom, Jessica naked from the waist down: a poop time bomb sitting on my lap. Why didn’t I grab the emergency diaper or a spare set of clothes? Not to mention the fact that I am still sick, and would REALLY like to use the toilet. But, the only toilet around is the one my daughter (hopefully) will need soon, and she won’t settle for Daddy at this particular moment so I can go off and find other facilities. So, I grit my teeth and wait, and wait, and WAIT. Half an hour for this pill to work – I don’t think so!!

Jessica falls asleep on my lap, and the half-hour time frame for the pill to work it’s magic is long over, so I take her out of the bathroom hoping she can have a little sleep on the bench Grant is sitting on. Nope. She wakes up immediately and a nurse spots us and comes over to take a scraping from a strange insect bite on her leg. We’d decided to get the bite checked since we were there anyway, and it had been there for ages without clearing up.

The bite is on her ankle, so the nurse asks Jessica to lie on her tummy so she can examine it. She’s not falling for THAT one again! I had to promise to hold her bum so that nobody could stick anything more up it. I figure they’ll use a cotton swab, but out comes the scalpel. They scrape and she screams, and screams, and screams! It’s just a little scrape but she’s had more than enough of this place by now.

We resume the poop watch. Finally she has to go, but she’s afraid it will hurt. After more hysterics, she finally poops and I – amazingly – catch some in my hand (those plastic “sanitary disposal” bags came in handy) to deposit into the teeny cup. Hurrah!

We wait with a fairly grouchy and bum-sore little bean for about half an hour. The tests all come back OK and the pediatrician prescribes some antiseptic cream for the bite and something to help with constipation.

Amazingly, the whole thing only took three hours! The hospital staff was all friendly, helpful, and spoke a LOT more English than I do Thai. The hospital itself was clean, extremely efficient and it cost about $50 US for all the lab work, three types of meds, and the exam fee. I had been concerned about the quality of medical care available in Thailand, but I’d have to say Canadian hospitals could use some pointers from the Chiang Mai Ram Hospital!

Jessica has weathered the experience fairly well – she’s had her nails done and a foot massage and she’s a new woman. She is also now taking the “do not put things in your bum” warning most seriously!!

Cambodia and Laos Updates

June 13th, 2007

Every time we switch countries, we have to go through a major process to find stuff for Jessica to eat and drink. Drinks became a major issue in Cambodia because Jess refuses to drink water no matter HOW hot and thirsty she gets, and the “Twister” drink that became her favorite in Vietnam was no longer available. She was refusing to drink ANYTHING and it was making us crazy. When it’s over 40 degrees out and you’re walking around outdoors for hours you start to get a bit worried when your kid won’t drink anything! Everywhere we went, we’d buy some new can of something from some vendor or another for her to try – she’d have a few sips and then say she didn’t like it. ARRGGHH. Finally we hit on iced lemon tea and diet coke. Not exactly the best fluids for a three year old, but we’d exhausted most other options! With a few popsicles thrown in for good measure, we managed to keep her hydrated.

Our third day in Cambodia we were templed out. We took a tuk tuk to Lao Airways (Saturday morning) to pay for our flight out of Cambodia – tickets have to be issued at least one day in advance. They are closed. The sign says they are open, but nope gate is locked and they aren’t open Sundays and we’re leaving Monday afternoon!!!! The tuk tuk driver had a cell that he let me use to call them and the guy said come in Monday at 8am. Of course, I’ve heard all the nightmare stories about booking with this airline – cancelled flights, etc. (let’s not even talk about their unpublished safety record…that I hadn’t mentioned to Grant yet) So, I’m freaking out wondering if we’ll make it out of Cambodia on schedule.

We head to the Blue Pumpkin Café for lunch and, while we’re waiting for the food, I took off to try to call the airline. I called the office in Thailand and it was like something out of a Monty Python film. Bad, echoing, delayed, connection and two people speaking two different languages trying to sort out a ten digit alpha-numeric confirmation number that has repeating digits. We do that for about five minutes and she’s still getting it wrong. I hang up. Instead, I emailed the France office. (Never get a response.) Finally, I decided to just chill about it and we’ll stay in Cambodia for an extra week and skip Laos entirely if necessary!

We did some shopping and some swimming and ate at the Blue Pumpkin twice in one day. It’s lovely and cool and air-conditioned and they have good food AND ice cream! They also had free wireless, so I figured I’d bring my laptop the following day.  We spent the afternoon looking all over town for the ‘perfect’ sandstone carving – finally went back to the first one we found for $120 at the really expensive shop and Grant argued them down to $60! (Worth about $30 in the markets maximum, but hey we like it and it’s hard to feel bad about leaving extra money in Cambodia!)

Cambodia is a bit of a heartbreaking place to travel. Everywhere you look there are land mine victims and other cripples and beggars. (My wallet was a lot lighter on the way out of there!) Our hotel was located right beside the Children’s Hospital and we had to pass the long queue of sick kids every time we went into town. There was a big sign outside the hospital asking for blood donations to help combat a recent outbreak of Hemorrhagic Dengue Fever …listing MY blood type as one that was desperately needed. This made me feel totally guilty that I didn’t have the guts to donate blood in a country where I wasn’t 100 percent sure of the medical facilities. Not to mention the fact that I was concerned about Jessica coming down with Dengue and winding up in the hospital! (We’re well past the incubation period now Grandma she’s OK) I found out later that I wouldn’t have been able to donate blood because of the malaria meds we’re taking, but it didn’t stop me from torturing myself every time we saw that line of sick babies.

Sunday morning I headed back to the Blue Pumpkin for brekkie and wireless chat with mom and Grant and Jess met up with me a bit later on. That day was MORE shopping and swimming and our hottest day yet at 42 degrees in the shade – the pool hit 34 degrees which was like swimming in soup. Our hotel was lacquering the floor in the room next door and the smell was making everyone sick. It took some doing to get them to open the window due to security issues, even though we were on the second floor facing into the courtyard. We had a very nice Indian dinner in town (Note to self – when your tummy is feeling bad, do NOT go for Indian food no matter how yummy) and stayed out late down on bar street which is closed off to traffic and really nice atmosphere at night. (And…ahem…some MORE shopping…) We were feeling pretty melancholy about the prospect of leaving Cambodia in the morning, and I was half-hoping we wouldn’t sort out the plane tickets in time!

Grant was still feeling the pain of his recent encounter with the dishonest taxi driver in Bangkok. He’s getting terribly cheap with tuk tuks and is VERY gun-shy about getting ripped off by drivers now!!! Jessica, however, is bargaining like a champ!

Up early Monday and I’m still feeling really sick from the Indian food and lacquer smell. Grant did most of the packing the previous night because I wasn’t feeling well. They had offered to move us, but the open window before dinner had helped and we had thought they were finished all the coats – not so much. They did another coat right before we went to bed which really did my head in.

I dashed out early to get the plane tickets and mail some stuff with DHL. I managed to get the tickets sorted out which took ages as the guy had to write them all out by hand, and there were three flight segments to deal with. What cracks me up is they’ll be all ready for e-ticketing in the next few months, meaning they’ll go straight from hand written to e-tickets! Bizarre. Hope the ticket writing guy still has his job. Afterwards, my tuk tuk driver couldn’t find DHL, and after driving round aimlessly for half an hour, I decided not to ship the stuff and just carry it onboard our flight.

I got back to the hotel still feeling quite ill, and it was time to take our Malaria meds. Joy. Jessica flatly refused to take hers and no amount of coercion or cajoling would work. Threatening didn’t work either and eventually I had to hold her down and force it down her throat. She spit some of it back up and gagged like crazy and both of us were in tears by the end of it.  Grant and I were devastated because she had previously taken them so well and we had weeks and weeks left on these meds…not looking forward to that at all. I was so upset after the rodeo with Jessica that I gagged and threw up in the sink taking mine. God, I hate this medication! I ended up taking another half a pill myself that evening to make sure I had the right dose, but I don’t think Jess got the right dose at all – another thing for Mommy to worry about.  There was no way I was going to risk an overdose by giving her any more, though. Luckily there weren’t too many mosquitoes around because of the heat.

(Since then Jessica has been really good taking hers and we have wised up and started taking them after dinner to minimize “grumpy time” and things are definitely looking up for Mondays! Funny, though, we’ve taught our daughter to hate Monday long before work or school came into play: “Oh man, is it MONDAY today Mommy?”)

We said a fond goodbye to our driver Johnny at the airport – what a nice guy! He even had a little speech prepared that he’d obviously been working on to get his English just right to say how much he’d enjoyed our company and wished us well in our travels, etc. Very heartfelt and sincere, and it increased our sadness at leaving Cambodia before we’d really had much more than a taste of it. We were early for our flights so waited in the lobby for ages before checking in. I was pretty nervous about flying with Lao Airways but keeping it to myself because at that point I still hadn’t confessed anything about their safety record to Grant. I mean, just because it’s not PUBLISHED doesn’t necessarily mean it’s BAD right??

The plane was tiny and we had to walk out to the plane and climb the steps, which was pretty cool. But we were also lugging tons of stuff because I hadn’t been able to ship any of our shopping home. Jessica hadn’t eaten much (no big surprise there) and was a bit grouchy. The plane was so small I gave her travel meds and she fell asleep through two take-offs and landings. Grant thought we were crashing when the plane landed the first time – he didn’t realize (or, more accurately, didn’t pay attention to me when I told him) we were scheduled to land in Paske. Scared the crap out of him! We got to Luang Prabang and discovered the security tags cut off Grant’s bag where we couldn’t lock it – annoyed, but nothing seemed missing. The driver wasn’t there to pick us up, so fearing the worst we headed off to our guest house.

During the dry season, farmers in Laos burn down large sections of the forest to make room for more farming. This results in permanent haze of smoke hanging over the city that burns the eyes and irritates the lungs – not to mention ruins any hope of taking good photos of the spectacular landscape. Obviously, the first thing we noticed about Luang Prabang was the air quality and the surreal smog hanging over everything creating sort of an eerie twilight effect.

The guest house was on a lovely quiet street and they did have our reservation. Turns out that the driver was just heading out to pick us up but our plane had been early. Oops. Oh well, the taxi was only a few dollars. The lady at the front desk spoke wonderful English (amidst several other languages) and she instantly hauled out her new puppy for Jessica to play with. The puppy’s name was “short knee” because he’s got such little legs, and Jessica fell in love with him instantly. The room was big with four beds and a tiny TV and wooden floors that echoed. There were signs everywhere saying “be careful with your feet.” Jessica made an unholy amount of noise running round on the wooden floor – it’s the only time I’ve ever ASKED her to tiptoe! Of course, this is the ONLY time in her life where she doesn’t!!

Before I go on, a word about the toilet in our room; the bane of Grant’s existence for six days. (For those of you familiar with Grant’s toilet “issues” bear this in mind…) first of all, it leaked out the back every time we flushed it. But that was OK because we’re pretty sure it was clean water leaking out and the toilet was right in the shower anyways! Generally the seat was always wet from somebody’s recent shower and you certainly didn’t want to use up all the toilet paper just to dry the seat. There wasn’t enough water pressure (when the water was even working) to flush down even the most minute portion of toilet paper so we’d have to use the high pressure hose next to the toilet to break up the paper and help the toilet flush. (Note: DO NOT use this hose as substitute for toilet paper) Eventually we developed a little ritual for anything remotely “serious:”

1)      Poo

2)      Flush

3)      Wipe

4)      Spray

5)      Flush

6)      Pray

7)      Wait for toilet to fill up again

8)      Spray

9)      Flush and spray

10)  Repeat steps 4-9 as necessary

Of course, every time you flush the toilet everyone in the hotel loses ALL shower pressure!!

We fell completely in love with Laos. The people are wonderful and the atmosphere is laid back and life just moves at a wonderfully slow pace. Laos is so laid back and mellow that we didn’t really care about all the things that went wrong. In Canada we would have been livid at some of the problems with the hotel: the toilet issue, the shower was temperamental at the best of times, the pillows were rocky and the bed uncomfortable and had the odd flea. Breakfast was barely adequate. They made the beds and hosed down the bathroom (we figure with the toilet hose thingy) and that passed for “clean.”

On the plus side there were no rats and no cockroaches and the people were unbelievably nice. The man running the guest house spent ages showing Jessica how to fish with a bamboo pole and there was a big lawn for her to run around on and, of course, the puppy to play with! The place felt homey and secure even though the door barely locked. My laptop wasn’t locked up and, amazingly enough, I wasn’t worried at all when we went out. They destroyed some of Jess’s knickers and pjs in the laundry which was hilarious because Grant INSISTED we pay the extra money to have the guest house do our laundry because he didn’t trust the folks next door! The lady at the guest house wouldn’t feed us chicken because of the bird flu scare, but there were omelets on the breakfast menu and chickens running through the yard – so go figure! I spent half my time trying to make sure Jessica didn’t pick up any feathers off the ground. Thankfully, she hasn’t felt the need to pet the chickens anywhere yet.

Food in Luang Prabang wasn’t very good overall, but we eventually found one or two restaurants that we kept going back to. Jessica made friends with the little boy at one of them and there was a fish pond where they let her feed the fish so we ended up going there quite a bit. Grant even took a cooking course, which, unfortunately, put him off eating full stop after he saw the state of things in the kitchen! Jessica still wasn’t eating much at all but she started drinking milk again which was a relief for Mommy. We managed to find some more of the sweetened long life milk that she had been drinking in Vietnam.

It was cool compared to Cambodia – I never thought I’d ever hear myself say: “Hey, it’s only 34 degrees out let’s walk into town!” Not really much to see because of the forest fires so we decided not to do an elephant ride or trip to the waterfalls or caves. Turns out it was a good decision because everyone we spoke with said the waterfalls were pretty dry in that season and the views were mostly obscured by smoke on the elephant ride. So, with nothing but time on our hands, we spent most of it shopping and getting fabulously cheap massages! Jessica is becoming quite the foot massage addict and the ladies at “our” spa adored her. She wanted a body massage but we wouldn’t let her get one. Internet was also really cheap so I spent a lot of time online catching up with friends.

It rained a bit one of the mornings which cleared away some of the smoke so we headed up the hill to the golden pagoda to take some pictures. It was something like 400 stairs and Grant carried Jessica up all of them again, but it was worth it as the view was spectacular. We watched some farmers unload some massive pigs into the river and made them swim to shore which was hilarious, and caught a photo exhibition. We also discovered that their New Year’s was just round the corner because, similar to Fiji, the kids sprayed everyone with water guns and some even tossed buckets full. I caught a bucket full of water on my walk back to the guest house one evening; poetic justice because I’d been laughing at some other tourists who’d gotten pretty soaked.

We loved the night market and shopped our hearts out buying silk products and paper lanterns. The entire main street in town shut down every night at about 5pm until 10pm and whole families would bring in their wares for sale. Each family would spread out a blanket and hook up a light above it and sometimes a frame to hang lanterns or silk from. Babies tumbled everywhere and fell asleep in piles of cotton or silk. Yummy smells wafted through the air from the food vendors selling hot pancakes, or submarine sandwiches, fresh baked muffins, etc. The textiles were amazing; in the course of six days, I developed a serious woven silk addiction. It was such a great market, nobody hassled us to buy and everyone was amiable during bargaining.

Once the market was over, however, the town completely shut DOWN. Grant went out one evening at about 10pm to get some cold drinks for us and he literally could not see his hand in front of his face because there was no light whatsoever on the street. Our guest house was on a quiet street, true, but you’d think there’d be some light from either street lights or from the windows of neighboring houses. Nope. Also, the smoke obscured any moonlight that might have helped light the way. Our guest house was set back from the street and so the only available light on the street was the weak bulb illuminating the tiny storefront a few doors away so he had to kind of stumble his way there and try to remember to bring a flashlight next time!

We felt totally comfortable letting Jessica run around (within our sight, of course.) and play. There was a surprising amount of kids traveling in Laos; it’s a really good place to take kids – safe, cheap, and fun and absolutely no real hassles. It would have been nice if we could have taken the elephant rides, but we passed on them because we had one planned for the following week anyways. The only – and primary – concern was the lack of adequate medical care which is why we only stayed for a few days. I could have stayed there a lot longer, it’s just so relaxing. (ooohhhh….and did I mention the SILK?)

Temples of Angkor

May 26th, 2007

We had decided to catch a plane to Siem Reap instead of taking a long boat or bus ride. It turned out to be a VERY good decision, if a bit more expensive. The flight was really short – just over ½ hour, service was superb, and they fed us a nice snack. We grabbed a cab from the airport, got chatting with our driver Johnny and booked him for the next two days to see the temples. Johnny also found us a fantastic guide for the next morning, impressive considering it was already 7pm. We paid $25 for each of them and I’m quite sure it was a bargain compared to what the hotel would have charged. Worth every penny as well!


7am came back-breakingly early, but the morning was comparatively cool (30 degrees instead of 40) There are simply no words adequate to describe the temples of Angkor. Get a plane ticket and go see them for yourself. Get a guide for at least the major sights on your first day so you know what you’re looking at. Our guide certainly added to our appreciation of this amazing place. I was taking a million photos, and Grant was super-Daddy and carried Jessica through the temples and up about a million stairs! My hero!! We spent three hours touring temples before it got too hot to move anymore. Thankful for our air-conditioned car and rock-star temple-to-temple service, we made our way back to the hotel to have a swim and some food.


Grant took Jessica to the pool while I caught up on some work (yes, WORK – I am the travel agent here!!) They only lasted a short while before Jessica pooped in the pool (thankfully wearing a swim diaper, which we don’t often use anymore) and yelled: “Daddy I POO-ED” across the pool at Grant. He beat a hasty retreat back to the room and was too embarrassed to go back to the pool that afternoon!!


Our driver and guide showed up again at 2pm and we toured some more amazing temples. Jessica had a pony ride around the lake in front of Angkor Wat, which gave Daddy’s back a break for a bit. Angkor Wat is certainly the premier attraction and our guide was wonderfully adept at avoiding tour groups so I got some good photo ops. Photos just don’t do it justice though.


Jessica was much more awake in the afternoon and at one point was skipping though Angkor Wat singing: “Cambodia is GREAT!!” I think she’s enjoying herself on this trip. True, she spent more time digging in the loose dirt between ancient temple flagstones and exterminating ants than looking at the artwork on the walls, but – hey – as long as she’s enjoying herself! There WAS one notable moment of ‘art appreciation’, though, when I turned around and caught her investigating the nipples of one of the stone apsara dancers carved into the side of the temple. I have no idea why she was doing this, but I got a picture of it to embarrass her with later!


We took an elephant ride up the hill for sunset. Our very first elephant ride and we all loved it, although I will say that it is NOT a comfortable mode of transportation. Three of us were crammed onto a small platform balanced atop the elephant’s shoulders. It swayed and lurched with each step the ellie took and we were also going uphill which tipped us backwards too. An exciting ride, though, if not a comfy one!!  We hung around at the top of the hill and checked out the view. The sunset didn’t look all that amazing so we decided to get back to the hotel because we had dinner and a show booked and we were all in desperate need of a shower.  Of course, the instant we get to the bottom of the hill, the sunset becomes absolutely spectacular and we end up having Johnny pull over to the side of the road so we could take some pics.


We had enjoyed our guide so much that we’d decided to book him for another day. But, he had school and he’d already cut classes to guide us for the first day, so we ended up not bothering with a guide on our second day there. (at some point, I will dig out his card and give the guide’s name and contact info because he was AWESOME) So, we contented ourselves with booking Johnny and his mobile air-conditioning for the following day.


We made a quick dash back to our hotel for a MUCH needed shower before catching the evening Apsara dance performance at the hotel. We really should have gone into town –  it would have been much cheaper than the $90 we paid for the three of us. But, the stage was set outside in the hotel gardens, our table was right next to the stage, the dancing was wonderful, and the meal was nothing short of spectacular.  All in all a fantastic and long day and we hit our pillows hard.


Morning came early again and we met Johnny downstairs at 7am. Turns out that Johnny was almost as good a guide as the other guy, and although he couldn’t be onsite with us, he gave us enough of a rundown before we entered each place that we had a reasonable idea of what we were looking at.


The previous day we’d hit all the ‘major’ sites and this day was devoted to picking and choosing amongst the remaining zillion ‘lesser’ temples. Although these weren’t on scale with the grandeur of Angkor Wat, we had just as much fun exploring some of these sites. They were comparatively deserted, and we’d often go ten minutes or so without seeing another person. We felt like Indiana Jones clambering through these deserted, overgrown ruins. It was wonderful! TONS of photo ops, and we were exhausted again by the end of the day.


My GOD is it hot in Cambodia at this time of year! The locals don’t go anywhere or do anything from about 10am to 2pm and we swiftly learned to follow suit. We met a few hardy explorers who decided to tour all the temples during this time because there was nobody around. Good in theory, but bad light for photos and I wasn’t about to put Jessica or ourselves through that kind of hell. We retired to the pool during that time of day. It was bad enough as it was. We were relatively comfortable until 8am. Then, as the sun climbed in the sky, so did the temperature….to around 42 degrees or so. The POOL was 34 degrees – like swimming in soup! By 8:10am we were all completely drenched in sweat, Jessica was generally passed out in Grant’s arms and he was carrying her up and down a million stairs. The only way to keep sane was to hire an air conditioned car (yay for Johnny!) to drive between temples and to do it in short bursts. We decided that, even though the temples were absolutely spectacular and there was definitely more to see, two days was enough. Grant could barely walk after carrying Jessica so much and we were templed out.

Out of time again…….

Classic Jessica Moment

May 24th, 2007

Yeah yeah – I know – I’m three countries behind on the blog… so sue me I’m having too much fun to write stuff!! 

Just a quick Jessica moment to share with you: 

Picture this – we’re in Kota Bharu, Malaysia. We’ve been there two days and I’ve seen maybe MAYBE ten white people. Most people are Muslim and it’s an ultra-conservative city. I’ve been very careful with what Jessica and I are wearing, and Jessica causes even more of a commotion than anywhere else in Southeast Asia thus far. 

We’ve decided to go to the night market, which is open from 8pm to 2am. We hire a taxi to take us and, because it’s in the middle of nowhere and taxis are hard to come by, the driver is going to pick us up again in two hours. Or so we thought. Turns out he brings his lovely wife with him and they tag along with us through the market for two hours waiting for us to finish shopping! Very lovely people, sweet and smiling and helpful – and very obviously devout Muslims. 

We’re walking through the wonderful maze of stalls selling everything from Viagra (go figure) to watermelons, and the place is just gearing up for the evening but already pretty busy. We are the ONLY white people in sight and drawing some attention. Jessica is walking with Grant and the taxi driver and his wife are walking beside her. I’m ahead looking for fabric to buy. Just then my adorable daughter announces at the TOP of her lungs: “Mommy, my VAGINA just FARTED!” Well, if everyone wasn’t looking before, they are now! I can only pray that the lovely people with us didn’t know THAT much English!