Posted by: Heather | September 30, 2009

Would You Drink the Water?

Everyone keeps asking Ted and I if we ever get tired of traveling.  The answer is, “No.”  Sometimes we miss having a home base (don’t misconstrue this statement with a need for having an actual home) for a while, since we are constantly on the move, an average of every four days.  Our inspiration is constantly being renewed with the next encounter of a different city or a different country.

Welcome to Burma (Myanmar)- our new FAVORITE country in the world (sorry Cambodia).  These are the faces of Inle Lake, where water brings life.

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After more than 60 countries (Heather) and 50 countries (Ted) respectively, we finally found a place that feels untouched by the modern world.  Fire guns and kill a few monks protesting, hear unimaginable stories about how the government/military represses the people and top it all to off with a tsunami and you magically get a place that tourists aren’t climbing over each other to visit.

How wonderful to step back 100 years in time to a place where fishing boats are foot-paddled across the river and goods like garlic and beans

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are being moved by ox carts, cigarettes are smoked through bamboo bongs and grandma is not too old to paddle a boat.

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Imagine a family living on $1.00 a day and being extremely happy. Welcome to Burma.

I’ve seen houses and development along the river before, but I have never seen any life living OVER the river (the dumpy shacks on the canals in Amsterdam don’t count).  Bamboo poles host one-room, bamboo weaved walled shacks over 10 feet of water.

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There’s no need to worry about where to park your car.  Navigate your canoe off the lake onto your “street” and steer the boat up next to the “stairs” to your house and climb up.  Simple.

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Move around by canoe, fish for food (if you have incredible balance) and visit the floating markets around the lakes for your fresh vegetables.

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Make money by selling your fish or pulling up seaweed from the river to protect the floating gardens of tomato plants in-order to retain the moisture and soil that needs constant maintenance.

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Or, you could choose to roll cigarettes in your house for extra money…if you don’t smoke them all!  You can make as much as $0.45 a day.

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Then there’s the question, “Would you drink the water?”  I wouldn’t, especially because they won’t.  All waste and trash goes in.  Granted packaged goods and paper aren’t common, but you’ll see a little bit of everything else floating in the lake.  Everyone washes their clothes in the water although whites don’t stay white for long.

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Life is a simple existence.

Posted by: Heather | July 9, 2009

Johnnie Walker and Chicken Parts

It’s wedding season in Laos.  Dry air and hot heat, smoke from slashing and burning the fields making you choke.  A perfect atmosphere for a white tent outside on the street in front of a bride and groom’s house with a 25-year old generator going and a high-decibel chug-chug spitting black smoke out.

The more people that come to your wedding, the more luck you have for happiness in your marriage…so the custom goes.  A thousand people at a reception is not unheard of if you are rich by Laos standards (a whopping $10,000 USD) will give you all the best of everything….the white tent outside the bride’s house, special dried river kelp from Luang Prabang, bamboo shoot soup, papaya salads, “chicken part soup” (even the feet are boiled up),

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plentiful Lao beer (the national beer) and of course Johnnie Walker (for some reason it’s revered here as the liquid of the Gods) and Lao Lao (the local, take your breath away moon shine that’s previously been poured out of an oil container into recycled plastic water bottles).  Wedding_ 85

The “qualified professional photographer” is a hired gun that likes to take photographs with a Fuji point and shoot set on full automatic.  When our guesthouse owners invited us to the wedding, an invitation to really see Laos culture, we gladly accepted.  Of course Ted had to mention that I was a professional photographer next, so instantly I was told to bring my camera since “Laos photos not good.”  Here’s a picture of the wedding photographer “in action”.  She doesn’t even look through the viewfinder!

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The guesthouse owner shared with his brother that a famous photographer from the USA was going to come and take pictures at his wedding.  I was flattered and the groom was honored.

The ceremony begins at the groom’s house with the groom and his family.  We were invited to be part of his family that day- what an honor!  The family gathers around the bamboo leaf and flower arrangement set on a table with two chickens and two boiled eggs.

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Evidently one is an unlucky number in Lao culture and two is much better.  The groom’s makeup artist (the groom wears lipstick) finishes the final touches and many adornments are put over his shoulders.

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The white socks with black shoes are a really nice touch.   The bag the groom wears over his costume is for money.   Throughout the day, the family gives the groom cashola.  A generous contribution is from 20,000 to 40,000 kip, 40,000 kip being less than $5USD.

Following the family’s well wishes, the groom takes the bamboo flower piece out of the center of the arrangement on the table and prepares to leave to see his bride.  In cases where the bride’s house is close, the family parades behind the groom

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to they reach her house.  In other cases, everyone caravans in available vehicles instead… assuming there are no flat tires.

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The parade proceeds to her doorstep.  The groom takes off his shoes to enter her house, and must cross over a threshold of chains and such.  Once the family gathers together on the floor mats, the bride sneaks in behind the groom and joins him at the “altar”.

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During the ceremony, it’s hard to hear what’s going on.  People are passing money forward for the couple at the same time that special family members are reading special words (even though no one can hear them over all the talking).

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It’s not a quiet, religious atmosphere for sure.  Several other customs ensue.

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Everyone ties strings around both of the bride and groom’s wrist with money attached.

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You have to make sure to tie a string around both or it’s bad luck. It’s the one-two thing again.  The ceremony officiant then ties the bride and groom together and then breaks the knot….repeat twice.

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Finally, the bride and groom take shots of lao lao (moonshine), bite into the hard boiled eggs and the ceremony concludes.  It’s very anticlimactic.  There’s no fairy tale kiss at the end.  The two virgins don’t run of to be alone.  They are so innocent, that they don’t even hold hands.  Family photos at “the altar” are followed by family photos in the new couple’s bedroom.  It’s a tradition for family photos to be taken in the couple’s new home.  Since the couple was going to be sharing the three story house with 12 other people, they took photos in their new bedroom…ON THE BED- blue sheets and all.

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Everyone climbs on and smiles on top of the blue sheets and in front of the torn out magazine posters on the wall.  Finally…the upper eschelon of all photos..the bride and groom on their bed with the matching mosquito net that has been hung by a relative.  It was fun to observe the photographs being taken and the posing…I could laugh for hours.  The photographer actually closed the windows so no light would come in for the pictures, when just the opposite was true.  The natural light was so beautiful!   The bride and groom didn’t have a moment to spare for me to work my magic, so I just accepted the situation and played the role of second photographer. I captured this photograph during the official photographers photo session on the bed.

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The drinking and eating following the ceremony only lasts about an hour…followed by a short break.

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Notice that most of the men aren’t eating?  They are in the other room getting completely drunk.  They sit around on a mat on the floor taking shots until their wives help them to their feet.

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After eating some food (don’t ask me what all of it was) with the family following the ceremony, I had fun wandering around outside watching the preparations for the evening meal for 1500.

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Pigs were being chopped up, chicken entrails being fried, sticky rice being stored in bamboo leaves and salads being prepared.  If you ignore all the flies everywhere and the fact that it’s now noon and dinner is at 7pm, you know you can stomach dinner that evening.

The party resumes at 6pm.  Over a thousand people flood through the “gate”- a welcoming committee consisting of the bride, groom and their respective families.

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A monetary gift is dropped into a heart-shaped box and the bride offers you a shot of guess what- Johnnie Walker.  What is the obsession with Johnnie Walker people?!!!   Being a germaphobe, it took a lot to muster the courage to take a shot from the same little glass that many people before me had had a drink from. Throughout the whole reception, guests were offered more shots.

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I politely took my shot, using my finger on the edge as a buffer, and proceed to bow and give thanks down the line.   Inside, I was shocked to see the rows and rows of plastic tables and chairs covered with food and beer.  The reception was in a basketball stadium, a very large one at that.

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There was no cake, no real flowers and no stupid guest favors.  They simply had a 5-tier design with fruit and silk flowers and additional silk flower arrangements throughout.  Nice!

For hours, people poured in to be seated, immediately partaking in the communal food and beer and listening to the loud and obnoxious D.J. that talked more than he played.  The dancing was extremely subdued, but Ted and I gave it shot.  Ted broke out with a sprinkler move and made the crowd laugh.

All and all, as much as I’ve made fun of the experience, I really did enjoy it.  The following day, our guesthouse owner approached us and thanked us for coming to the wedding.  The families of the bride and groom were happy that we looked happy dancing at the wedding, which made them very happy….you get the idea.  In fact, they assumed that having us at the wedding was good luck for the couple.  I hope that’s true!

For years, I have wanted to meet the National Geographic, comercially fantasized, “Long Neck” women that fled from Myanmar (formerly called Burma) to Thailand for political refuge.  There are still many Padaung women “stuck” in Burma, although they live in areas of the country deemed “unsafe” for tourists to travel. In fact, we tried to find a way to meet the ones on the Burma side, but the government still restricts where you can and can’t go in the country under the military-run government.

While the Padaung women (and their children) are a profit-making machine for the Thai government, Ted and I really wanted to learn about these women…more than the normal 20-minute-flyby-on-a-tour tourist would see or notice.  We decided to spend a full day in each of the two villages housing these refugees learning the “other” side of the story.

The ladies are absolutely stunning with their long necks.  After all, the rings around their necks are for beauty.



We drew quite a curious crowd while making the video.


This little cutie didn’t want to give the tripod back, so we let him hang out for a while while taking hand-held shots.


Here’s Ted’s awesome video!  This piece really tells the story from “their” side.  It’ll surprise you.

A little side note to go along with our experience…. Ted lost his wedding ring shortly after we were married in 2006.  Knowing that we were going to be traveling the world, he opted to find a new one that had special meaning from somewhere in our journey, rather than replacing it with the same one.  After our experience in the long neck village, one of the women made both Ted and I rings out of the same brass that they use to make the rings around their neck.


Here we are with our new rings….



Posted by: Heather | March 31, 2009

A Piece of Cake

It’s one of those travel moments that you cherish forever.  When you are traveling, you have to slow down occasionally and reset the pace so you can live the journey, not just take it.  There’s a slight distinction, but an important one.  When you put the guidebook away and discover things on your own, the list of “things to see” goes out the window and you start to EXPERIENCE things around you.

One such opportunity presented itself in the middle of the afternoon in Luang Prabang, Laos.  While other tourists were out riding elephants and visiting waterfalls, I decided to visit one of the many wats I kept passing on my walk around town.  What caught my attention were the several young novice monks walking about in their orange and yellow robes. monks_-14731Monks are allowed to talk to woman, but are forbidden to touch them. Perhaps there’s too much temptation with the vow of chastity.  Conversations with them are few and far between for a female, especially a foreigner.

Luck was on my side and a monk named Bounthanh, approximately 20 years old, struck up a conversation with me about his daily routine and the commitment he had made to the order.  Following a 3:45am wake up call (banging gong), 6am walk through the streets collecting alms (food and money from the locals) he attends college to study English.


An orphan, his goal is to one day return to his village to teach English.  Wanting to improve his vocabulary, a 20-minute casual conversation at a 10-foot distance led to a 2 hour English lesson across a table covering slang expressions such as “piece of cake”, “He’s a mess” and how “Let’s go get a Coke” can mean you actually want a Sprite.  When asked to explain the difference and appropriate times to use “approximately” instead of “about”, I was definitely challenged.  Finding words he already knew to describe what these words meant threw me for a loop. How would you describe them in the most basic of English?  It’s difficult.

Returning with Ted the next day, Bounthanh allowed me to photograph him for a few minutes

monks_-147302while Ted hunted for simple explanations of “Intrinsically”, “Administration”, “Executive”, “Purpose”, “Objective”, “Appearance”, words that can be used as both a noun, adjective or verb.  Ted and I returned two more days to give English lessons and met Bounthanh’s best friend at another wat for the same.


The day before we left the city, we surprised him with a book, Dr. Dolittle written in both English and his native language.  He was thrilled!

I was the one who got the best lesson.  Put down the camera for a while.  Enjoy a chat with a monk for an afternoon and the reward will be plenty.

The new train service connecting Bangkok and Vientiane (using the Thanaleng Station) is now open as of March 5, 2009. To clarify the misinformation on blogs and websites, we decided to take this journey on March 26, 2009 and report our findings to


The new Thanaleng station is 20km outside Vientiane, near the Friendship Bridge that connects to Nong Khai. The new track allows you to cross the border between Laos and Thailand without using the Friendship Bridge by Nong Khai. Here is what you need to know:

TRAIN SERVICE and PRICES (Updated March 2009)
One train runs daily each way at night.
#69  Bangkok THROUGH Nong Khai, Thailand TO Thanaleng, Laos (outside Vientiane).
#70  Thanaleng, Laos (outside Vientiane) THROUGH Nong Khai, Thailand TO Bangkok.

Prices for the Thanaleng – Bangkok route are:  (in Thai Baht)
1st Class Aircon Sleeper       1167B Upper     1367B Lower       about $72 per room
2nd Class Aircon Sleeper      738B Upper      808B Lower       about $44 per room
2nd Class Fan Sleeper           538B Upper      588B Lower
2nd Class Fan Soft Seat                                     438B  (soft seat)
3rd Class Seat    (open windows)                     303B  (hard seat)

NOTE: This is the same price schedule as the Bangkok-Nong Khai route but 50 Baht per person is added for the 13-minute connection between Nong Khai and Thanaleng. You will receive two tickets. One for the Bangkok-Nong Khai segment and one for the Nong Khai-Thanaleng segment. They may have different train numbers on the ticket but it is the same train.

The old route terminating in Nong Khai, Thailand requires multiple ‘legs’ through the Friendship Bridge hopping on and off tuk-tuks, busses and customs lines. The new route allows you to jump off the train, “stamp out” or “stamp in” and get right back on the train without leaving the station.


Thanaleng, Laos (Vientiane) Local Transport
DEPARTING: Arrange your own transport for the 20km from central Vientiane, Laos to the new train station at Thanaleng. The station is in the middle of nowhere so don’t expect bus services to drop you there (yet). If you are dropped on the main highway, you are still several kilometers from the station. Tuk-tuks will start negotiations at around 180,000 kip (about $21) one-way but we finally agreed to 50,000 kip (just under $6) for two people and 4 large bags in our own tuk-tuk.

ARRIVING: Best bet is to make prior arrangements for transportation to pick you up in Thanaleng upon arrival. You are 20km from central Vientiane. On two different days at the end of March 2009, we never saw a tuk-tuk, bus or songethew ready for passengers, only random drop offs. You might arrive stranded without a ride to town or have to pay a hefty fee for a ride into Vientiane.


As of March 27th, 2009, ticketing in Bangkok has not changed. You can only purchase the Bangkok-Nong Khai route. On arrival at the Nong Khai station, simply purchase an onward ticket to Thanaleng for 50 baht per person. You will have about 2 hours delay waiting for that departure.

As of March 26, 2009, no travel agents in Laos could sell tickets on the newly opened segment connecting these two countries. Most didn’t know it was open. Those who know about it revealed that they do not have a commission structure negotiated yet and therefore cannot sell the tickets. They continue to push the old Nong Khai to Bangkok “inclusive” packages which include bus and Tuk-Tuk transfers across the friendship bridge. It’s a longer and more involved journey and travel agents make more money this way. Most in Vientiane sell this old travel method for 1650 baht per person booking the 1st Class sleeper or 2950-3250 baht for the room.  Actual cost is 2434 baht.


To originate your travel from the new Thanaleng, Laos station (Vientiane), you must make arrangements yourself, in person at the Thanaleng station. Best we could arrange was 80,000 kip for a round trip tuk-tuk to and from the Thanaleng station to purchase tickets.  (about $9.50 for 40+ km roundtrip)

The Thanaleng, Laos station opened March 5, 2009 but services and procedures are still being developed. They had no equipment or capability to print hard tickets at this office yet but hope to around May 2009. You must buy your tickets in Thai Baht only, in cash in advance at the Thanaleng station. THERE IS NO CURRENCY EXCHANGE THERE. You will not get a printed receipt, as this cannot be done either. They will have your tickets printed in Nong Khai and sent on the next day’s train to be held at the ticket window for you in Thanaleng so plan ahead at least 1-2 days. This feels a little scary with no receipt but we found the process to be straight forward and honest. Two other daring couples also did the same thing and had no problems. In May 2009 they hope to have these issues resolved.


ADVANTAGE: You will get your tickets at actual face value without paying the commission markups from agents. You will also save time and money on the transfers across the Friendship Bridge and the slower customs procedure.
DISADVANTAGE: You will spend most of what you saved on a separate round trip tuk-tuk to the Thanaleng station to buy your tickets in advance. You will have a 2 hour layover in Nong Khai until continuing to Bangkok but there are places to eat and drink.


This is supposed to depart at 3:45pm daily (not 4:15pm as often noted) but nothing is guaranteed so arrive a little early to be sure. You will “stamp out” at the customs window in Thanaleng, Laos in about 1-2 minutes. When the train arrives, board a 1st or 2nd class SEAT for the 13-15 minute ride to Nong Khai, Thailand. NO SLEEPER CARS WILL BE ON THE TRAIN YET.


In Nong Khai, disembark the train, go to the customs window and ‘stamp in’ for your Visa On Arrival in Thailand. You have about 2 hours to wait while they load cargo, transfer passenger cars and add the sleeper cars to the same train you arrived on. Smile and toast the other passengers arriving from their 90+ minute bus / tuk-tuk / Friendship Bridge Customs journey who didn’t know about this option.


A couple times each week, the train runs late from Nong Khai or they have locomotive problems. If you originate in Thanlang, do not worry about making the connection in Nong Khai to Bangkok. The same locomotive is used for the whole trip so you will not be “stuck” in Thanaleng. On our journey originating from Thanaleng, the locomotive was stuck in Nong Khai and would not start. The train could not come up to Thanaleng to pick us up and begin heading back through Nong Khai to Bangkok. After a 4 hour delay, the Thanaleng supervisor was instructed to drive the six passengers the Nong Khai station in his car! You can’t imagine how quick and easy it is to pass through the Friendship bridge and the Thai-Laos customs when you have a railroad supervisor AND customs officers riding with you! They escorted us through the process in expedited fashion and directly to the train platform in Nong Khai, then refunded the 50Baht per person cost for the Thanaleng-Nong Khai segment with smiles and apologies.

Coming from Nong Khai, go to bed as early as possible. The first half of the ride is very smooth so take advantage of this to sleep if possible. The second half of the tracks are in need of repair and it is a very bumpy ride in some places. It will feel as though a jack hammer is drilling the underside of your bunk for about two hours. You will not sleep soundly at that section but it is still better than 14 hours on a bus.

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Posted by: Heather | March 15, 2009

Thailand: Top 20 “What’s Up With That?”

Having a fresh perspective on Thailand again, reminds us that the things that were new and surprising our first visit here, are still funny to recap for our blog readers.  In an attempt to show how different countries work, we hope you’ll enjoy this list of the things that really stand out in Thailand.


Everyone reveres the king, especially the poor.  It is a finable offence to criticize the king or talk about any ill will that could befall the king.  We asked a local about the king’s age (80 something) followed by the question, “Will the king’s son take the throne next when the king dies?”  Huge mistake!  We were shushed immediately.  Offending the king or any member of the royal family carries a minimum 2000 BHT ($65 USD) fine up to 15 years imprisonment for talking about the king in a negative manner.  Oops!  When Bush was in office, Americans could have paid off the national debt if this rule was enforced. Before every movie in the cinema, the national anthem is played.  Postage stamps with an image of the king must be moistened with a sponge, not licked.  Finally, Thais refer to the king as “my king”, not “the king”. 

Thais love any occasion to celebrate and decorate.  Different festivals happen throughout the year.  They even decorate for Christmas, even though they don’t celebrate it.  We happened to time our visit to Chang Mai with the Flower Festival, the Thai version of the Pasadena Rose Bowl parade, by accident. blog_-1The highlight of the parade is the floral floats, colorful costumes and “beauty queens”.  Even the hilltribes put on their best and join in. blog_2Valentine’s Day is huge!  It’s the event of the year.  Check out this great video Ted made about this highly celebrated holiday.

Every day of the week has an associated “king color” tied to it.  You know it’s Monday when yellow, short-sleeved shirts with the insignia of the king are worn.  Pink, light blue, purple, etc. are the chosen colors for other days.  Miniature yellow flower necklaces in honor of the king are sold on the sidewalks.  Purchasing them brings good business to you all day. Street vendors hang them from their food stalls.  Cab drivers hang them from their rear view mirrors in cabs. blog_3


Painted lines on the streets within cities are JUST paint, not indications of street lanes.  Traffic in Bangkok is worse than rush hour in any large city 24 hours a day. There are 10 million Thai drivers on the road alone.  Add in the expats and other foreigners and you have a big traffic problem.  If you are on a motorcycle, driving on sidewalks, in gutters, and in between cars when there’s no median is perfectly acceptable.  If you are in a car, at least two cars per lane is the standard.  Needless to say, traffic jams don’t move at all, especially in China Town.  Dare you choose a tuk-tuk, you’ll be sucking in the exhaust from all the cars and motorcycles.  Until emission regulations are instituted, I wouldn’t recommend it.


The better quality guesthouses can be identified with a sign out front forbidding prostitutes. Prostitution is a widely tolerated profession in Thailand, so prostitutes are a dime a dozen in most Thai cities considering that minimum wage is only $3-4 USD dollars per day. Some mask themselves as “massage therapists” while others sit on chairs in front of their place of business waiting for “karaoke customers”.  It’s hilarious that places actually have to put up signs stating that no prostitutes are allowed past the gate.  blog_4


Rice is perceived as the main dish for every meal, not an accompaniment.  If you order a fish dish or chicken dish for a meal, a plate of rice COMES WITH fish or chicken.  The perception of rice is very different.  Starting your meal with a spoonful of rice is good etiquette. You would think you would get sick of rice after eating it for a week, but you really don’t.  Rice with every meal is like having a fork to eat your meal with every meal.  You simply stop thinking about it. blog_51


Elephants are BIG here, literally and figuratively and they roam the streets like Gods.  Even one of the national beers Chang means elephant.

Everyone is related.  Guesthouse owners will gladly recommend restaurants, telling you the food is great.  Just know that the restaurant is owned by the guesthouse owner’s brother.  The tuk tuk driver who takes you to the restaurant is his cousin.  The travel agency that handles your onward bus tickets is owned by his aunt.  It all stays in the family.


Everything is negotiable.  While many tourists come from abroad on short-term vacations and don’t mind paying outrageous fares by Thai standards for transportation or paying three times the price for souvenirs, those of us who are traveling longer must bargain harder to get a fair price.  The only prices that aren’t negotiable are airline tickets and large ticket items in department stores.  For all us, it’s up to the skill of the negotiator.

Cab drivers don’t like to use the meter.  You may have to jump in and out of 4 taxi cabs before you’ll find one that will agree to use the meter.  It’s a pain.  Again, thanks to the uninformed tourist, taxi cab drives love to turn off the meter and request 5 times the actual fare amount for short journeys around town.


Disagreements are handled in a calm and “cool” manner.  Showing your temper or “hot heart” makes you “lose face” or respect.  If you are not happy with the internet speed at the hotel for which you paid $20 for the day for, you must politely and with a smile, ask for a refund.  If you can present a good case up the chain of command, one step at a time, you might be lucky enough to get your money back.  The minute you raise your voice or begin to sound impatient, the negotiation is over.  Guess who handles these situations, Ted or I?


There are two different prices: local price and tourist price.  Tourists rarely pay the same price for food, bus tickets, entry fees to museums or the like.  That’s just the way it is. Considering a Thai may only make $3.00-$4.00 USD a day, I doubt they could afford the $10.00 USD admission fee to the Royal Palace.


Thais understand English better if you drop propositions.  Instead of saying, “Where is the bathroom?” you will be understood better if you say, “Where bathroom?”


It’s impolite to wear your shoes into homes, temples and some businesses.  Ever walk into a doctor’s office and be asked to take your shoes off?



Businesses are closed from 2-6pm during the heat of the afternoon.  After a nice, late lunch, the world shuts down around you.  Try finding food between these hours.  Everyone is closed for an afternoon nap.  Frankly, it’s just too hot to stay open.  Remember that most shops open their “garage door” to the street and thus don’t have air-conditioning.  Many shops and restaurants are run out of huts such as this one. blog_8

Most beauty products sold over the counter for women contain “whitening” ingredients.  While we fry ourselves in tanning beds back home, spray on color and bask in the sun by the pool, Thais run for cover.  The whiter your skin, the higher your class.  People who work outdoors on the streets, on farms or are hired labor naturally develop darker skin.  Products over the counter promote whiter skin.blog_9


Setting up shop anywhere is permitted. If you can sell it, you can sell it anywhere.  Massage on the street anyone?blog_10aAs long as an entrance remains to the property a vendor camps out in front of to sell anything from food to flip-flops, it’s allowed.blog_10


Most trash is burned since there are no “garbage trucks” that pick up trash in villages.  Early in the evenings, the smell of burning plastic wafts through the window.  Smoke covers the streets.  The more trash, the more you hack. blog_11


Many Thais live where they work, even if it’s not their business.  Construction laborers often build shantytowns behind big construction projects, massage therapists sleep on the mats at the massage clinic and tuk-tuk drivers sleep in their “cars”. Often in hotels, the front desk staff will sleep on a mat behind the front desk. 


Electricity for the taking, if you dare touch the wires.   If you hear sparking noises from above when walking down the street, you might want to walk on the other side.  If a new business is built, another wire is added to the already overloaded power poles.  blog_13


Which one of these twenty surprises you the most or makes you the most uncomfortable?  Post a comment.

Posted by: Heather | February 26, 2009

Pretty Painted Parasols

Say, “Pretty Painted Paraols” three times fast.  Ha ha.


A smart traveler finds his/her own way to duplicate what tour companies tout on their own for a fraction of the price.  In Thailand, a full-day tour can cost upwards of $25 USD per person for no actual guidance, but instead a minivan ride to/from tourist place to tourist place.  A smart traveler, armed with a guide book and a little luck overcoming translation issues can duplicate the exact same itinerary for under $5 USD.  The money saved can go towards a nicer guesthouse room the next night or even a bottle of rare Italian wine with dinner.  A combination of a tuk-tuk and and songethaw truck with a group of monks got me out of town to the middle of the pretty painted parasol (or umbrella) village.


As a photographer, I love COLOR.  Bor Sang, Thailand, just outside of Chiang Mai is full of umbrella “manufacturers” (a.k.a. slave wage laborers making handmade rice paper umbrellas).  All umbrellas are made one-by-one out of a combination of bamboo, wood and rice paper and hand-painted by different artists.  These umbrellas have no functional use, but they sure are beautiful.  Get the rice paper wet and it’s bye bye umbrella.  Ted thinks they should be called parasols instead, since they only block the sun, not the rain.  Does it matter, really?

mae-hong-son_-126091To make the umbrella process a little more interactive, I hope you’ll enjoy the quick video I’ve uploaded so you can see it for yourself.  My little Canon point in shoot takes great video!

Posted by: Heather | February 9, 2009

Floating Market at Damnoen Saduak, Thailand

It’s always a great day when you can get out of the big city of Bangkok. Gradually, the noise subsides and you can breathe fresh air again.


The Damnoen Saduak floating market in the Ratchaburi Province west of Bangkok still functions as a legitimate floating market.


To get to the actual floating market, it’s fun to take a long boat that weaves in and out of the houses on stilts as you approach the market.


Locals paddle around on hang yaws, bumping into each other like bumper boats as the crowds appear.  This lady got caught in a 4-boat traffic jam.

yellow-ladyFruits and vegetables are weighed and traded…


…while others turn their hang yaws into floating kitchens or souvenir boats.


We were there to capture images of the market, but a tour group of school children found us to be a more interesting subject.


We opted to stay at the market most of the morning, foregoing the elephant rides, snake shows and other tourist traps, but we did visit the wood carving factory on the return trip.  Carvers work with hand chisels and mallets to create masterpieces out of different types of wood.  The intricacy of details is beyond belief and pictures hardly to justice to their work.


Many works take up to 3 master carvers over 9-months to create.  Look at the detail!


I’m saving the best photos from the day (more specifically the market) for a new website gallery.  It will be posted when more time is available to get online.

Posted by: Heather | February 1, 2009

Subways and Sushi

Goodbye Dallas-Fort Worth, hello Tokyo! We’ve been waiting far too long to say that and it feels terrific. Even though it’s winter (and we have no winter clothing to speak of) this stopover is a much-needed diversion from flying directly to our final destination in Thailand.  Stopping in Tokyo breaks up the 24.5 hour flight into two manageable halves.

Right after arrival, we set out on a food run.  Prepared for restaurant menus only in Japanese, we had our finger pointers ready to explain our selections: Basically you walk around the restaurant with the waiter in tow and point to what other customers are eating if it looks good. It’s  an effective technique that yields good results and few surprises.  But in Tokyo, we holstered our pointers as soon as we saw the most elaborate displays of plastic food imaginable outside each restaurant.


The plastic versions of restaurants’ best offerings look so realistic you want to eat the displays. Seriously, this is all plastic.


Food artists meticulously recreate any type of food in plastic to look exactly as it should and diners have come to expect perfection in the actual plates delivered to their table.

With the little time we had in the Tokyo area, we decided to ride the intricate network of subways, buses and high-speed trains into popular areas to explore. We set out to Shinjuku station, the busiest train station in the world where more than seven million people pass through each day. Imagine a larger version of the Galleria Mall with about eight train tracks running underneath, each handling a full train arrival every 2-4 minutes! Despite millions of people, it’s remarkably clean…


Once you arrive at Shinjuku station, there’s enough to keep you busy for hours- restaurants, shopping, groceries, people watching…(but wait, there’s more). Inside the Keito department store is an entire floor that looks like the cosmetics section of Neiman Marcus.  The showroom cases aren’t filled with jewelry or cosmetics, but instead display beautiful boxed food ready to purchase as take-away.  Equate the floor to the Japanese version of Central Market or Whole Foods, but with higher presentation standards.  “Barkers” mingle around the customers announcing the day’s specials in a pleasant, non-intrusive manner.  Here you’ll find incredibly fresh sushi, Italian, French, American, Continental and other delicacies as well as hundreds of specialty choices ranging from fresh ice creams and hand made chocolates to Danishes, breads, gourmet items and more. We opted for sushi boxes and were hardly surprised at the freshness.  The different fish in our box were probably swimming earlier that morning before landing at the 4am fish auction on the pier. With no tables available we actually stood around the train station area eating piece by piece and people watching.


Speaking of people watching, we did spend enough time in Tokyo to make a few cultural observations:

  1. The soft-spoken, incessantly smiling Japanese have an ingrained sense of order.  Even the simplest of maneuvers like boarding an airport shuttle bus has a protocol. The doors open and passengers quickly file straight to the back of the bus filling up rows from rear to front in an expeditious and neatly organized fashion so as to use every available space. Nobody is guiding them, it’s just understood.  Jet lagged and none the wiser, we planted ourselves in the first row behind the driver each time because those two seats offered more legroom. We completely overlooked the confused glances from others passing by us wondering why we didn’t “get it” and move to the back.  You know that confident, almost cocky feeling you get when you board the airplane, settle into 2B in first class and survey the parade of economy passengers filing past you on their way to coach hell? Well park that attitude at the ticket counter pal because that doesn’t apply in Japan. It took us a couple of bus rides around town to catch on to our behavioral error.
  2. Unlike SE Asia where crowds simply rush forward, Japanese queue for everything. At the train platform are neatly organized rows of people in single file line waiting to step up to the exact spots where the train doors will eventually stop and open. There are no ropes or painted lines on the ground. It’s just understood that you stand behind the last person in line. When those doors open, the Japanese actually create “two-way” traffic through the same train doors. New passengers step on through the left side (because they also drive on the left) and exiting passengers step off on the right as though they were entering and exiting the kitchen doors at a restaurant. You can imagine the glances we got when we assumed our best New York City subway attitude, rushed the opening doors and grabbed the few remaining seats available. As the train pulled away we caught the expressions on faces left behind (because of the traffic jam we caused) and realized our mistake. It’s enough to make you feel ashamed. Well, almost ashamed.
  3. It’s all about tall boots with short skirts for girls even though it’s only 40 degrees outside.  In fact, the last car on some trains is for women only during rush hour.  After a little research, we found out that during peak times in the morning and evenings, some men love to put their hands up the girls skirts while people on the train are packed like sardines.  A girl would never know who did it.

Bundled up from head to toe, we made it back to our hotel, laughing the rest of the evening about how obnoxious we must have appeared that day on the buses and trains.  We’re learning.


Posted by: Heather | October 18, 2008

Cross it Off the Bucket List

When I was 15 years old, planning my future and determined to be on the CEO track, I was told in a Junior Achievement course that if you want to succeed, you have to have goals.  All you have to do is write down the list of things you want to accomplish and set off to achieve them, right?  Wrong.  There’s a formula to follow supposedly.  I don’t remember all of the steps or what the acronym was to remember the steps, but I do know that they have to be achievable and measurable.  I had more insight back then than I realize.  On this old tattered list was not just a list of things to accomplish personally, but also a list of things I’ve always wanted to experience.  You could equate this list to my “bucket list”.  Some of the goals included: getting featured/published in a magazine for positive reasons, becoming the CEO of a company, graduating from business school, getting hired to photograph someone famous, buying my own car, and having $100,000 in the bank.  Then, if you read down the list, I started adding those things I wanted to experience like: climbing to base camp at Mount Everest, seeing the Great Wall of China, skydiving, and taking a hot air balloon ride.  Cross another one off the list!

Ted and I have been discussing our bucket lists recently.  Since we will be resuming our trip around the world soon, why not start knocking out the rest of the list?   Thanks to Steve Lombardi and REMAX, Ted and I got to crew for the REMAX hot air balloon at the Plano Balloon Festival and I got my first hot air balloon ride.

Kudos to Christian Sculpher at Christian Sculpher Photography for taking this photograph of me.  Ted and I had accidentally locked our keys AND MY CAMERA in the car that morning and would have had no way otherwise to document the big event.

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