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Laos

I'm coming home

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I'm coming home

In just under a week I'll be on a plane back to the U.S., ending one of the most incredible years of my life. Trying to sort out a year of memories and experiences is futile, but here are a few things I've already realized: 

The people were even better. I got to meet some of the most playful and generous people on this planet. In the midst of reading about all that is going on in Paris, Beirut, Nepal, and Syria, despite all of the horrific things that have happened, I am still convinced that this world is full of good people. People whose kindness and compassion blew me away. I was given the benefit of a doubt from Vietnamese who suffered in the war. I was invited into someone's home that was the size of my bedroom growing up. I was given couches, equipment, food, directions, hugs, and so much encouragement from strangers. People are incredible and I can only hope to pay it forward someday when I have a home. 

The adventures were way bigger. Last week I ran with (okay, away from) a bull with flaming horns in Spain. I will never forget what it felt like to trek with a 15 kilo pack to 5,416 meters, or to wake up on a mountain in the Austrian Alps the morning of my birthday. I got to climb the longest routes of my life in the Dolomites and Arco, care for 433 wild dogs in Thailand, swim in waterfalls in Laos, jump off a moving train in Prague, compete and actually place in a climbing competition in Kathmandu, trek in the Laotian jungle, the high Tatras, the Alps, and the Himalayas, and volunteer with the most inspiring organization I've seen in a long time in Nepal. 

And the hard times were worse than I imagined. I struggled with being developing country sick, injured, exhausted, more lonely than I've ever felt in my life, and injured again. I've had bed bugs, wiped out on my motorbike, almost drowned in a tunnel in Vietnam, fainted a few times, had a lung infection (maybe altitude sickness, actually?) at altitude, left my purse on a train, slept on the sidewalk, cried every time my tendinitis kept me from climbing, unknowingly hosted generations of lice in my hair for a month, and shit my pants in public...twice. 

Even though there are always going to be more places I want to explore, I couldn't be more ready to see my family and friends again. Truthfully, I can't wait to settle down and have things like a toothbrush cup, mugs, books, a dresser, a bike, a garden, and heaps of chipotle. America, you're beautiful. 

I don't know what's next or where's next yet and that scares me. So don't ask about that yet, just for now join me in saying, holy shit this happened. Thank you for believing that it would happen and for encouraging me along the way. Thank you, thank you, a million times, thank you.

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Babes in Thailand

How do you know you've found a good one? When he flies 8,000 miles across the world to spend two weeks with you. And when he arrives he says things after dinner like, we should get some chocolate tonight. And when I'm tying in to the sharp end, you've got this babe, swift and brave. And when I ask him what we should do tonight, oh I don't care, I just want to hang out with you. All of this following the time he pulled rain pants, a steripen, a solar charger, and tampons out of his bag. Freaking love this guy.

We had our ups and downs. Days filled with brapping around the island in search of chocolate and coffee, reading by the sea, and getting to explore the beautiful limestone rock in Laos together. And we had long travel days, filled with sticky humidity, heavy bags, miscommunications, bad sleep and bad food. 

The best parts though, were the parts we didn’t bring a camera for. That long afternoon spent hiding from the rain in a veggie café, drinking beer and ginger tea while listening to the old rasta hippie owner talk about everything from the Thai political system, to his beliefs in what happens when we die. The mutual excitement over filling our bellies with banana nutella pancakes, psyching out on tufus and stalactites, being lazy in the mornings and little punky gremlins in the evenings. Here are a few of my favorite moments with this sweet dude of mine.

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I used to have things

"And we'll arrive at 6:00 am, yes? On a sleeper bus? With beds?"
"Yes, yes, 6 o'clock, yes. Sleeper, yes." 

We're talking to our hostel owners in Vang Vieng. I had met Alex, a cool British dude, in my last hostel and we decided to travel together to Luang Prabang, home of the most beautiful waterfalls you can imagine. We'd both had rough experiences on SE Asian 'sleeper' buses (janky buses with no beds), so we're springing for the more expensive tickets on the sleeper bus, because we are such clever and proactive travelers. 

"Okay, then. 6:00 am arrival on a bus with beds. We'll take two tickets."

Fast forward to that night. Our bus pulls up and we climb on to see two rows of...seats. Okay, so no beds. Whatever, I can sleep sitting up. We settle into watching a few episodes of True Detective and miraculously fall asleep around 1:30 am, heads gently banging back and forth. 

You know how you can get woken up and feel terrible? Like it would have been better to not sleep at all? An hour later Alex is shaking me awake, we have to get off the bus. HUH? It's the middle of the night, what the junk? I look out my window to see our driver tossing my backpack on the dark street. So...we're in Luang Prabang? Uhh yeah, its a few kilometers up the road, Alex explains.

Pounding headache that can't be squeezed out of my temples. Sticky eyelids that keep forgetting to open. Sore back and butt from leaning against the window. 

We start walking toward the dark town, the only ones awake apart from the stray barking dogs. There were only six of us on the bus and each pair seemed to have a different strategy. Two opted to sit on the curb outside a cafe and wait for it to open...in five hours. Two more pounded the pavement, pathetically attempting to wake hostel owners by rattling fences. Its 2:30 am. This is not good.

And then it hits me: this is going to be my first night sleeping on the street. For no reason at all, this cheers me up. Maybe its some sort of right of passage. How could I travel the world and never get to experience this? 

We manage to find a market (pictured right) with a cement ridge partially concealing an elevated sidewalk from view of the street. Concrete below us, backpacks threaded through our arms, we park it for the night. I used to have things, I think. A job. A car. An apartment...huh. Night Alex. Night, Elizabeth. 

We're woken to a broom and man telling us to move. I start singing riff raff, street rat (Aladdin song) as we scramble to our feet exhausted, but proud. We did it. 

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My favorite day in Laos

Swimsuits on, no plans other than to check out the river and find the best (okay, cheapest) cocktail in town. The stuff the best days of traveling are made of. 

We hopped in the river and two local punky kids started splashing us, which quickly turned into a game of chicken. 

After proving how cool we are, a group of girls recruited us to play volleyball. After a few unsuccessful volleys, Charmaine asked, 'futbal?' A dozen smiles and shy nods.  

Oh wait, you're all secretly amazing at this? Of course, of course you are. 

The best day in Laos, bar none. 

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Trekking: A lesson in getting what we paid for

You'll spend three days and two nights in the jungle in the National Park. The first night will be a village home stay, where you'll spend time with locals and eat local food. The next night you'll build your own camp out of materials we will find in the jungle. Your meals of sticky rice will be supplemented with food we collect in the jungle.

I'm in northern Laos, eating up whatever rubbish the trekking salesman behind the counter feels like telling us. Seated next to me are badass Israeli girls Amit, Bar, and Dal, and Dutch dude, Jelte. As I watched the girls negotiate our trekking cost in half (Israeli style!), I immediately knew I liked them. Jelte and I had already bonded in our van ride from hell on the way there (mountain roads + 95 degree heat + pissed off driver - aircon  = all the bad things). So I knew he was down for adventure too. 

And we did have adventure. That adventure meant the surreal feeling of having someone shake your hand, saying 'Hello, I am Namthee, welcome to my village.' It meant a lovely night playing sweet village kids, doing cartwheels, playing wheelbarrow and teaching them hand claps. Words not necessary. And it meant bonding with my new friends, playing dumb games, slipping down muddy river beds, and getting drunk serious over the bonfire. It meant watching our guide make a water bong out of bamboo and tap out beats while making up quirky songs in broken English. 

But other times it meant joining up with another group of 10 trekkers on thin trails, heads to butts style, so our pace slowed significantly. And it meant only going into the National Park when we begged, and even then being snuck in to the edge of it, as we learned our guides hadn't paid the entrance fee. And most importantly for me, it meant not getting to collect our own food or build our own camp, since the language barrier made it no doubt easier for the guides to do it on their own. 

Even still, my memories of this trek are warm. I grew close with the other trekkers, as you do when you are in a make-the-best-of-it type of situation. And besides, its impossible not to respect a guide who can make a water bong out of bamboo. 

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Kuang Si Waterfalls

Kuang Si Waterfalls: bigger, taller, and way more beautiful than I imagined.  

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Pro tips:

  • Definitely rent a motorbike instead of taking the tour, not just because its cheaper, but because you can spend as long as you want there. We petered around, exploring different paths that led to huge, beautiful infinity pools and caves. 
  • If you want to see the bears, go early. We thought we'd see them on the way back out and missed them, as they go to sleep around 4pm. 

 

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ode to the squatties

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ode to the squatties

Yeah sure I may have had dead ants in my toothbrush, a frog in my toilet, and slept on the sidewalk last week, but one of the hardest things I've had to get used to in SE Asia are squatty potties. But I'm proud to tell you that I'm no longer a squatty struggler. 

For those of you who haven't had the wonderful experience of getting low, a squatty potty is supposed to be bomb for at least three reasons:

  1. Health - lowers risk of constipation, hemorrhoids, colon disease, and helps with pelvic floor issues, says the squatty potty makers).
  2. Sanitation - think of how many butts have touched the last toilet you used. 
  3. Efficiency - no one is scrolling through any feeds on these mofos. See ya never bathroom line. 
It's always best to face the wall to minimize splatter. You get used to it, promise. 

It's always best to face the wall to minimize splatter. You get used to it, promise. 

 

 

 

 

 

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buy back the bombs

Probably one of the hardest things to stomach when traveling as a westerner is seeing, up close, the damage your country did to another. Exhibit A: Laos

During the Vietnam war the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of bombs on Laos - equal to a planeload every 8 minutes, for NINE YEARS. This makes Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. To make matters worse, about 30% of these cluster bombs failed to explode, so now a huge chunk of North-Eastern Laos can't be developed until they are removed. Which at the current rate will take, you know, about 800 more years. And the collateral damage will make your head explode, 98% of the victims of these late-to-explode bombs are civilians and 40% are children.

buy back the bombs

Signs like the one above in night markets breaks my heart. How could I begin to apologize for something like this? Or even, why didn't we at least learn about this in school? I know, the skeptics will remind me to not trust the government, yadda yadda. I know. But its still frustrating that I have to travel 8,000 miles to hear the truth about the 'Vietnam' war, even more so since I'm learning the situation in Cambodia is very much the same as Laos. 

These sorts of experiences are what challenges me to to keep questioning our history books and asking questions of other travelers and locals. Traveling serves as a sharp, in-your-face reminder that there are a million perspectives on each war and the more people I talk to, the more the world gets even more gray and complex. 

You can read more about the bombs in Laos and how you can support here

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