Eleven Months of Traveling Complete

In the last month we have traveled to seven cities in two countries: Pai and Chiang Rai in Thailand; and Huay Xai, Pak Beng, Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, and Vientiane in Laos. Today is our last full day in Laos before we fly to Hanoi, Vietnam!

Month 11 Observations

  • Mattresses in Southeast Asia are some of the worst we’ve slept on in the world. They usually tend to be rock hard - so much so that your arm will fall asleep after laying on your side for thirty minutes - otherwise you can feel every. Single. Spring. This was also true in India. When we look at reviews for lodging, we’ve started prioritizing mattress comfort in addition to wifi quality.
  • After a month in Thailand, we can safely say that is the country where we saw the most American tourists. Traveling in Thailand is super easy: many people speak English, there’s a huge expat population, and you can find Western food anywhere if you’re craving a taste of home. If you’re looking to travel somewhere exotic but are worried about language barriers or cultural differences, Thailand is an easy place to start. Plus, it’s cheap!
  • And since Thailand is cheap, we were surprised to find that prices in Laos are often double to triple what we saw in Thailand. Laos is still relatively inexpensive, but it’s annoying when we’re getting half the quality of what we got in Thailand.
  • No one pronounces the “s” in Laos. It’s just “Lao.”
  • Laotian people are some of the nicest we’ve met around the world. Everyone greets you with “Sabaidi” (hello) and always says “khob chai” (thank you). Even when we end up pantomiming or using broken English, everyone we’ve spoken to has always been willing to try and help us out.
  • Full page visa stickers are annoying - at least, they are for Vesper whose passport is nine years old. He only has two blank pages left! We didn’t realize Laos and Vietnam would both be full page stickers, but at least the Vietnamese Consulate helped us out and decided to slap their sticker over one of his pages full of stamps (is that even allowed?). We’re probably going to end up getting him a new passport when we go back through Thailand.

Fast Facts:

  • Favorite city in Thailand (so far): Pai
  • Favorite Northern Thai food: Khao Soi
  • Runner up Thai food: Pad See Ew
  • Craziest backpacker party city we’ve visited yet: Vang Vieng, Laos
  • Number of times we wanted a stupid rooster to die a slow and painful death: Too many to count

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Taking a Breather in Pushkar

After visiting three cities in six days we were ready to take a break and relax for a bit, and the small city of Pushkar was a nice place to do just that.

Do you think our hotel offered enough services? Also, check out the Hindu customs.

Pushkar is an important pilgrimage site and holy city for Hindus, containing one of the only temples in the world dedicated to the creator of the universe, Lord Brahma. Legend has it that after the demon Vajra Nabha killed Brahma’s children, Brahma struck and killed him with a lotus flower. One of the petals fell here, creating the holy lake around which the city sprung up. Hindus take a pilgrimage here to walk around the lake and then go down its fifty-two ghats, or steps, to bathe in its waters.

The first thing we noticed about Pushkar was that it was noticeably cleaner than every other city we had visited. Not pristine - for example, when someone noticed Vesper holding a food wrapper he said “it’s ok, my friend, just throw it [on the ground]” - but still better than others. It was refreshing to walk around the shop-lined streets without staring at the ground to avoid stepping in trash. And if you’re into shopping, Pushkar probably has the nicest street market in all of Rajasthan. Every street had colorful and sparkly decorations, and you could stroll along and find all sorts of religious, festive, or kitschy souvenirs to buy.

Powder to use durring the Hindu spring festival of Holi.

The part we enjoyed most about Pushkar was that it was the most laid back and least pushy city we had been to yet. We were free to walk down the street without having to triple decline rickshaws or turn down offers for hotels, restaurants, etc. The part about Pushkar that we did not like were the scams around the lake. We had been warned so we were prepared, but we have never met such pushy “priests” before. Like it or not, they try to give you a blessing and then insist that you give a donation of $30-50 per person. Don’t worry - they take credit card! That being said, this was easy to escape by simply avoiding the lake. It’s sad that this tainted the most important part of the city for us. We basically went our first day, took a few pictures between forcefully replying “no” to inquiries about blessings, ignored the group of six “priests” ready to make sure we gave a large donation, and never went back to the ghats.

Some delicious food we ate. We have no idea what it was.
Avoiding the scams and enjoying some R&R on our hotel rooftop.

Because it is a holy city, Pushkar is a place where you can try bhang lassi. Its use dates back to 2000 BC, and it’s now a legal, government-regulated form of cannabis often used in religious ceremonies. The ground paste is mixed with lassi, a drink made of water and yogurt commonly blended with fruit. We tried many types of lassis throughout India (mango being our favorite), and we were game to try this one too. We had read numerous comical blog posts of travelers asking for strong versions of the drink and stumbling back to their hostels in a stupefied haze, so we scoped out a well-rated cafe and took the owner’s recommended dosing. It wasn’t the best tasting lassi we’ve ever had, but I’ll tell you what: the tikka masala flavored chips we had later that night were DELICIOUS.

Trying some of the special lassi.
We'll leave you with a picture of this cow trying to be a camel.

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Jodhpur: The Blue City

Jodhpur is the second-largest city in Rajasthan and located in the Thar Desert, giving us much different scenery than we had in Udaipur. Jodhpur is known as the “Blue City” because many of its older buildings are painted blue, although the reasons why vary depending on who you ask. The three main theories we heard:

  • Blue is associated with Brahmans (priestly caste) who owned many of these houses
  • Mixing insect repellent with the paint turned it blue in the sun
  • Blue was a good color to keep the house cool in the desert heat

The best views of the city are from the Mehrangarh Fort, one of the largest forts in all of India. In classic Vesper and Laura style, we woke up late and decided to hike up to the fort in the middle of the day. A poor choice in the desert climate, but we just aren’t morning people. Despite the heat stroke, we were rewarded with magnificent views.

The view of the fort from our guesthouse rooftop.
Inside the fort.
This guy asked if we wanted to take a picture with his "excellent" mustache - sure!

A short walk down the hill from Mehrangarh Fort is Jaswant Thada. Built in 1899, it is a monument to Maharaja Jaswant Singh II and serves as the cremation ground for the royal family of Marwar. The white marble walls are so thin that sunlight gives it a nice rosey hue.

There are markets everywhere in India with overly pushy vendors, but Jodhpur’s was the first where we got so fed up that after five minutes we decided to leave and not come back. Before we even got to the market we had several people trying to “help” by asking what we were looking for and not taking no for an answer. A common gig for young men is to funnel tourists to their “friend’s” shop in exchange for a commision later.

Grabing a snack on our way to the market.
The market surrounds the clock tower.

We did manage to find one charming clothing store near our hostel where we bought some “Ali Baba” or “harem” pants. No one wears shorts in India so we needed something cooler than jeans to beat the heat.

Look how cooling and well ventalated those elephan print pants are!
A random goat, smelling something good under that door!

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Udaipur: City of Lakes

Udaipur was our first stop in Rajasthan, and compared to Mumbai, it felt like we were out in the country. It’s a much smaller city located in the northwestern corner of India known for it’s lakes, beautiful scenery, and history. Udaipur is pedestrian-friendly so we spent most of our time exploring the city by foot. Fun fact: if you’re a James Bond fan, you may recognize scenes from Octopussy as much of that movie was filmed here.

The Taj Lake Place Hotel and views from the lake shore.

We had planned to take the train from Mumbai but that got complicated (more on that in a later post), so our first experience of Udaipur was the hour long cab ride from the airport. Unlike Mumbai’s gridlock traffic where you never went very fast, we were able to fly down the highway. Families of five on motorcycles cruised down the edge of the highway while we careened through the middle weaving between trucks and around cows. We were white-knuckling while our driver was cool as a cucumber. We just barely avoided hitting a scooter, and he laughs saying, “Funny, right?!” A few minutes later we pass a cow that lay dead in the road, and he can’t believe it - he was speechless. Cows are sacred and revered in India.

Cows roam wherever they want through the city.

In addition to taking pictures of cows, we also visited the City Palace, which dates back to the 1500s. Built on the banks of Lake Pichola, the stunning palace also has beautiful views of the city and surrounding area.

City Palace front gate.

We also visited the Jagdish Temple, one of many Hindu temples inside the city. Built in the 1600s, the temple is covered in beautiful carvings.

The temple hidden above the chaos of city life.
Intricate carvings cover the temple walls.
A day in India wouldn't be complete without fried snacks and a steaming cup of chai!

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Mumbai: Our Gateway to India

After three months in the cultural familiarity of Europe, we were excited to start our journey in India. We were going to be meeting friends in Thailand at the end of November so we only had time for India’s 30 day e-visa. To be honest, the only thing we knew we needed to see was the Taj Mahal; the rest of our plan was to ask around for recommendations and go where the wind blew us.

From talking with other travelers, it sounds like everyone’s point of entry to India is a special place for them. Whatever city it might be, your jaw drops at how different everything is. Our experience was no exception. Mumbai still boggles our minds! It has some of the most absurd traffic we have ever seen. We spent most of our time in cabs just trying to get around the huge city. Although they were long, these were some of the most fascinating cab rides ever.

Let’s talk about the traffic for a second. We thought we had seen some crazy driving before, but it is worse in India - way worse. One local told us that everyone only focuses on what is in front of them, never behind. You can see how this plays out in traffic patterns and car horns. For example, when we change lanes, we put on a turn signal, check our mirrors and look back to make sure the way is clear, and then move over. If we fail to execute this properly, someone will honk to indicate that we are doing something dangerous. In India, you just honk and go. People behind you will put on the brakes if necessary. When you are about to pass someone, you honk to let them know you are there. When have you finished passing, you might honk to say thanks. You honk behind someone to ask them to move over. You honk at an intersection to let pedestrians know you are coming through. You honk at any animals sleeping in the road so they get out of the way. Honking is literally non-stop, but almost never in anger.

Some other interesting things:

  • Don’t confuse the lines on the road and street lights for rules and regulations - they are purely for decoration.
  • There might be three “lanes” painted on the road, but there will be at least five cars across - not to mention the motorcycles, tuk tuks, and pedestrians filling in the gaps.
  • Driving the wrong way is normal. Oncoming traffic will flow around you.
  • As a pedestrian, crossing the street is an exercise in faith. We used the local-as-a-body-shield technique until we went pro.

All of it was fascinating, appalling, and above all hilariously inefficient. A two mile drive could take over 45 minutes!

Apart from observing traffic through the cab window, we were also able to see many different areas of the city. We passed so many crazy things. Villages - complete with storefronts and houses - all built from trash. Literally hundreds of high rise buildings in progress. Canals completely clogged with garbage. We only ventured out to a few tourist attractions as we quickly learned the journey was always far more interesting than the destination. One such example was the Gateway of India across from the famous Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.

The Gateway of India and the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.

These were both mildly interesting, but on our walk back home, a local named Amar struck up a conversation with us asking where we were from, what our plans were, etc. Hoping to practice his English, he invited us out for some chai. We spent the next few hours with him learning a few key Hindi phrases, where to shop in the markets for reasonable prices, and what his favorite spots in India are.

Chai, learning Hindi phrases, and wandering around with our new friends Henriette and Amar.
Trying on some Indian clothing.
Cricket in the park.

After a few days in this crazy and bustling city, it was time for us to move on. Between visits to tourist information centers and gathering intel from other travelers, we heard over and over that northern India would be less crowded and better weather this time of year so we decided to head into Rajasthan. Next stop: Udaipur!

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