Return to Luang Namtha

Our return to Luang Namtha was, as expected, awesome.  We spent our first day riding around and catching up on the local news.  We visited Anic and Moneylins new restaurant out of town with a lovely view, the temple to see the new Buddha being built, and the rice fields for a lovely sunset over the paddies.

Food in Luang Namtha

After spending a few days around town and getting to know everything that had happened at the shop while we were away, (during which time a berry tree got cut down just beside Forest Retreat Laos and we scored hundreds of sweet red Old Stupa, Luang Namthaberries), we headed up to the old Stupa and saw all the awesomeness of wet season staring to happen – so many different insects everywhere we turned. We ended up seeing 15 different insects in about an hour, and then went back down the stairs and found some kids who proudly showed us their find of the day, a large black water beetle.

We spent some time setting up another website Living In Laos where  you can read about daily antics involved in living here, and also continue to write more information on Luang Namtha Guide for people coming to the area.

We then decided to head up to Muang Sing for a few days for another mini-holiday while getting back into life here.  Beautiful Nam Ha NPA on the way to Muang SingWe ended up mostly just chilling out up there, and didn’t visit any villages or any of our usual places.  Even the restaurants in Muang Sing seemed to be on holiday with almost everything closed for low season, so we ended up eating mainly at the market and the Chinese supermarket.  We headed up to the Muang Sing Stupa, which is the most important stupa in Luang Namtha province, and spent most of our time up there not admiring the stupa but the abundance of wildlife that we once again found.  Wet season wildlife in Luang Namtha provinceWe found awesome spiders, beetles, lots of different kinds of ants, butterflies, dragonflies, grasshoppers and other insects.  We also found a little hut to hang out in surrounded by huge old trees so we decided that this is a good hang out spot for wet season.

Wet season so far has actually been awesome, we’ve only had rain a few times per week and then for an hour or half an hour a day usually.  So it’s enough to bring out all the cool animals but not yet enough to put a damper on daily activities.

Namha NPA Luang Namtha

On the way back to Luang Namtha we decided to stop at the Nam Ha NPA at the river that borders the Natinal Park.  It was awesome to just relax and hear sounds of nature and nothing else.  Road to Muang Sing from Luang Namtha

Then it was time to drive back through the National Park, dodging the usual traffic of cows, goats and water buffalo.  The drive is so stunning and we’re probably said it a hundred times but it’s so hard not to stop and take in the beauty of the National Protected Area.Namha NPA in Luang Namtha  When we returned to Luang Namtha town, we got back into the swing of things and got the progress for Forest Retreat underway.

Our pizza oven has been planned for over a year and with one delay and another, and then being so busy during high season that we couldn’t really use our precious courtyard space to build it (with the building materials and process taking up so much space we had far too much foot traffic and customers to even think about starting in high season), it has taken us until now to see a window of opportunity to actually make it reality.  It began with taking the time to learn exactly how to build it, and a couple of phone calls to Karen’s dad later, we were ready to go.  Forest Retreat Laos building our pizza oven in Luang Namtha LaosWe met 2 Canadians who said they were really excited to help us, so we thought we’d get started right away.  As it turned out, the next day they changed their minds, in a lot of ways though it was good because it meant that we were mentally ready to forge ahead.  We bought the materials and started fumbling around making attempts to lay the base of the oven, when we met Ella and Grant.

Delicious pizza is coming to Luang Namtha!This was a hugely fortunate meeting, because Grant helped us in so many ways to understand the building process, even little things that were super important like how wide to make the base to be strong enough to support the concrete slab on top, cementing the bottom layer of bricks to the ground (OK so now this really does seem like common sense, we still didn’t think of doing it until Grant suggested it though!) and just knowledge on how to make cement, and make it stick to the bricks.  He even rigged up his iphone as a make-shift spirit level when we couldn’t find one in town.

Building a pizza oven at Forest Retreat Laos

So day by day we managed to increase the height of the oven base. In between all of that, we managed to have a day out for Karen’s birthday. We had planned to go to Muang Noi for a few days, but with all the pizza oven progress Karen didn’t want to leave the shop for that long. So we spent a day out in the rice paddies soaking in the beauty.

Luang Namtha's beautiful rice fields

Being surrounded by mountains in the huge valley of newly planted rice was definitely an awesome way to spend the day, and the sunset was stunning.

Luang Namtha - another awesome sunset

Sticky rice growing in Luang Namtha valleyDuring this time we also had the privelege to meet Lincy, a lovely Dutch girl who we really hope to meet again in the future. She ended up staying in Luang Namtha a lot longer than she originally expected when she broke her leg.

Lincy’s daily visits to our shop were great, with her cheering us along with our pizza oven progress and generally being great company.  When her insurance company finally figured out that she was in Luang Namtha, and not Vientiane (even though she had never mentioned Vientiane to them, they just assumed that since she was in Laos, she must be in the capital!), they decided to transfer her to Bangkok to receive proper medical attention.  We were stunned Meeting Lincy at Forest Retreat Laos, Luang Namthato hear from Lincy the next day telling us that her x-ray in Bangkok had revealed not a broken leg but in fact a broken ankle, and the cast that had been put on in Luang Namtha had probably hindered her healing process.  So she how has a proper cast and has returned home to Holland to heal for the next month before continuing her Asian travels which will hopefully include eating some awesome pizza in Luang Namtha!

We are so lucky to constantly meet so many new friends here.  Definitely a percentage of the people we meet at Forest Retreat will remain friends in one way or another, whether by email or by future meetings somewhere in the world.  We are now in Chiang Rai, taking a few days out, buying more stuff for the shop and mainly taking the opportunity to relax and see some English movies.  On our return back to Luang Namtha we will continue on the pizza oven, and hopefully get to hang out with Grant and Ella a bit more.  Here are some more photos of the past month’s antics.

Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai temple stupas

We thought we’d do some more exploring this time in Chiang Mai, and Dre picked out a CBR 250 to cruise around on. We rode up into the mountains to escape the intense heat, and the cool clouds and crisp mountain air was a welcome relief.

Riding CBR 250 around Chiang Mai

The ride up the mountain was stunning, with clouds literally moving around us and the views taking our breath away.

Through the clouds up to Bhubing Palace
Our first stop was Bhubing Palace, where the king and queen of Thailand spend their winters. The grounds were extensive, with many different buildings, guest lodgings, a royal temple, and a huge fountain.
Bhubing Palace, Chiang Rai

We then spent some time riding around the mountain roads, and visited Doi Pui, a coffee growing town, and a Hmong village. It was really modern compared to Hmong villages in Laos and most of the villagers seemed to speak fairly good English.
Giant Bamboo in Bhubing Palace, Chiang Mai Stupa in Chiang Mai
We also spent some time in Chiang Mai town itself, seeing the oldest temple (which despite being here many times before we hadn’t actually seen), and visiting the walking street to buy some goodies. We are now really looking forward to getting back to Chiang Rai and then Luang Namtha, Chiang Mai is so hot at this time of year so we are hanging out for cooler weather and familiar faces.
Image in Chiang Mai at a temple Chiang Mai's oldest temple

KL

Little India, Kuala Lumpur

Stopping in Kuala Lumpur seemed like a logical thing to do; we didn’t fancy the idea of many flights in a row and had to fly into somewhere as the starting point for getting back to Laos, so since we know our way around KL pretty well now, and have our regular hotel and restaurants, that’s what we did.  One of the main things we were looking forward to was eating our favourite Masala Dosai that we’ve found so far – in a little restaurant very near to our hotel.  We managed to do that once per day over the 3 days we were there.  We also found our new favourite Assam Laksa place, conveniently right next door to the Masala Dosai place, so we reckon we’ve got it completely sorted now!  We decided to do our usual KL activity and see a movie in the Petronas Towers, and also paid a visit to Little India, where we have been briefly before but have never explored so much as we did this time.  Overall it was nice to just chill out and do not much at all, which was exactly what we had wanted in KL.

Little India, Kuala Lumpur

Sydney

Sydney Harbour Bridge at sunset

Sydney was full on, beautiful, busy, and reflective for us.  We started off arriving on Sunday night; Nerida and Paul picked us up from the airport and we had a casual dinner at their house in Bondi.

Monday:  We went over to Manly on the ferry and saw our first magnificent Sydney sunset over the bridge and opera house.  We were reminded of Sydney’s beauty – the harbour, bridge, opera house, national parks, north head – there are definitely parts of Sydney that will stay in our hearts forever and the Sydney Opera House is still our favourite building in the world.  We had dinner with Andy, Steph, Janie, Iain & Sandra in our old hometown pad of Osborne Court.  It was awesome to catch up with everyone and hear of future plans, all while sitting in the neighbouring penthouse to where Sydney stole our hearts.

Tuesday: We spent some time on Bondi beach and had our first pies of the trip – there is a vegetarian pie store that has about 10 different vege options to choose from as well as gluten free options – yum.  We then travelled to Neutral Bay to meet up with Tim, Anita and Sean.  We had hoped to have dinner at our former favourite Japanese restaurant, Dan Dan, but it’s sister restaurant Sushi Samurai had taken over both and so we ate there.

Wednesday:  A long trip over to Cromer Heights.  We found Jen’s house and knocked on the door and Steve answered (at this point in time we hadn’t met Steve yet) “Hi, is this Jen’s house?”, Steve, looking very confused… “Yeah….”, “Hi, I’m Karen and this is Dre, you must be Steve…” Jen leaning over stairs “I was expecting you guys tomorrow!”  “Really?”  “Yeah… you said the 9th didn’t you?”  “Ummm….  well, today’s the 9th?  Isn’t it?”  Haha.  So we arrived at Jen’s house a day earlier than she thought we were, but yes, it was the 9th, and she’d invited everyone else to come the following day.  Not to worry, we were here for company, so let’s cook and then eat!  So we raided Jen’s fridge and proceeded to cook dinner while she phoned friends who were meant to come tomorrow.  Lee turned up, so all was not lost.  Sadly we didn’t get to catch up with Gracie, maybe next time.  A delicious dinner and lots of wine was had by all, and all in all it was an awesome night.

Thursday: We made it back to Bondi from Jen’s by about lunch time and arranged to catch up with Julia and Sam.  We were going to meet them in the city but then we all decided Bondi was the place to be.  So we walked down to the beach and met up with them.  We all did the beginning part of the Bondi – Coogee walk, sat on the beach until the sun started going down, and then walked back into town for some drinks and snacks.  We then proceeded to have a yummy dinner cooked by Paul, a fish curry.

Friday:  OK so by now we were realising that we should have allowed a few extra days for Sydney!  We met another Paul in Lane Cove, and proceeded to sell him many of our worldly possessions that we no longer need for our Asian lifestyle.  We then moved on to our beloved Manly, where we had a typical “Lauren” meal, nothing less than a 5 star restaurant quality, 3 course, wine matched meal.  Ben cooked prawns and yabbies on the bbq while Lauren made a delectable tuna cevice, a cauliflower puree with Marlin and salads, and a berry compote for dessert.  YUM.  Lauren, you remain our favourite chef.

Saturday:  Stop off in Lane Cove again on the way back from Manly to Bondi.  Arrive in Bondi hungry and in need of a shower, late for our own party.  Nerida has organised almost all of our friends to come around and catch up with us (eternally grateful to you Nerida!) along with amazing snacks, like cucumber and smoked salmon and dill, homemade guacamole, veges for the bbq, and an amazing gluten free dessert.  Nerida, you are an amazing chef too.  So we spent Saturday lunchtime/afternoon catching up with Mikey, Costa, Nick, Amber, Hunter, Soph and Ryan as well as Nerida and Paul.  It was fantastic to meet Hunter, Nick and Amber’s son who is now one.  He is so much bigger than our nephew Storm, and of a similar chilled out temperament, exploring his world with curiousity.  Also it turned out to be our only chance to see Nick and Amber, and Mikey and Costa, so we were really pleased to have this time to chat and find out what’s been going on for these guys since we left.

Sunday:  Well, we had originally planned to have a chilled out morning and afternoon, after the Saturday, and then see Nick and Amber late afternoon and evening.  Alas, it was not to be, and we ended up seeing Anita for a coffee/fruit juice, Charlie and Deb for an awesome catch up at their newly purchased house in Frenchs Forest, and then stopping at Ry and Sarah’s house in Manly where we also managed to catch up with Steve, Carly and Cyrus by chance.  Catching up with Deb and Charlie was really good – they are 9 months pregnant and absolutely glowing with the prospect of their baby daughter being born, and their house was pretty cool too.  Then Ry and Steve entertained us for a couple of hours while Cyrus (Steve & Carly’s baby) slept and the girls were out in Manly.  It was an unexpected pleasure to catch up with Steve and all that has happend in his life over the 4 years since we saw him last.  Ry was just the same as we remembered him, and we honoured the night by getting tried and true Chat Thai for dinner, our favourite restaurant in Manly from when we lived there.

Monday:  We caught the train up to Woy Woy on the central coast, to see Scotty, Soph, Sammy and number 4 Paton who is currently cooking in Soph’s tummy.  It was a really fun day with a great Aussie seafood lunch, a trip to Sammy’s favourite park, where we rode the swings and watched Sammy ride the flying fox, then went to the beach, where it was far too cold and windy to stay, and coffees and afternoon tea at another park on the water before heading back on the train.  It was cool to see beautiful wee Sam all grown up, at 3 years old she has an awesome personality and is heaps of fun.  We then had our final dinner with Paul and Nerida; Nerida had picked up on the fact that the one thing we do miss in Laos is Salmon.  And so, we had a perfect last meal to end our Sydney experience:  Crispy skinned Salmon on the bbq, with a delicous salad.  Nerida, we really hope you know how much we appreciated all you did for us, especially the Saturday get together and the Salmon on the last night.  Heaven.  All of it.

And so on the Tuesday morning Nerida took us back to the airport to fly back to Asia.  We were left with so many feelings about Sydney that it’s hard to even begin to write about them all.  It was weird how everything felt both so normal, and yet so far removed from our current life, all at the same time.  It was sobering to see everyone ‘plugged in’ to their iphones/laptops/facebook/whatever else the current trend is.  “The Matrix” has reached reality big time.  It was sad to see so many people looking so disheartened and downcast about their lives or whatever it was they were headed off to do.  It was interesting too see how much a part of the rat race life in general here is.  It was awesome to see Sydney harbour in all it’s glory.  It was the best thing to see all of our friends.  We do miss all of our friends, and often think of all of you guys.  But in the end, right now, there’s not much on earth we’d give to exchange the life we have in Laos.  The freedom we have created there and the life we have is just something else.  We can’t wait to get back.

More New Zealand

Mt Eden view of the Sky Tower in Auckland

Just before the Tongariro Crossing, we spent an evening climbing Mt Eden and watching the sunset over Auckland and then having an awesome dinner with Kate and Marcos.

Golf in Havelock North

We then spent a few days down in Havelock North, visiting Tom, Lili and Alex. We went on lots of walks and one day went on a 20km bicycle ride to the ocean and back, through vineyards and rural views along a fantastic bike pathway that has been developed all over the Hawke’s Bay area over the past few years and is apparently going to stretch the entire length and width of NZ soon.

Biking to the back, Havelock North

Other than doing walks and runs and cycling around, we mainly chilled out, drank good wine and caught up on the past year or so since we’d last been together. Visiting George and Sue was also great, it was really nice to see them again and hear about George’s budding photography career!!

Sheep in the vineyard at Hawke's Bay

On our way back up north, we spent an evening with Sam, Bronwyn, Ben and Todd who we’d met in Laos; they told us to come and visit them next time we came to NZ, so we did and had such a fun night. Todd and Ben were pretty much our first customers in the shop after we opened the bar, and they got their friends Sam and Bronwyn who were visiting later in the year to stop by as well and ended up staying for New Year in Luang Namtha so we all had a great time catching up again.

Matakana Kitchen with Karen's parents

In the last week it was the usual rush to see everyone before we left; we spent a night at Brian and Vicki’s house with Jiggy and Brooke, had a lovely dinner out with Karen’s parents, another lovely dinner with Tim and Jillian, a lunch with Karen’s grandparents, and spent some time excitedly watching our little nephew Storm starting to learn to walk with his toy wooden truck.

Storm walking with his truck

It has been really cool to be back and see him grow so much even before our eyes, just in the few weeks we’ve been here he has gotten taller and learned so many new things.  It will be amazing to see him next time, so much more grown  up!

Karen's sister and nephew, Jana and Storm

We then spent a couple of days with Dre’s mum, walking around Gulf Harbour and then Shakespeare park and eating yet more yummy food.  Our final day on the way to the airport we had lunch with Kate and also visited an art gallery with paintings of NZ’s iconic people which were so amazingly life like.  We don’t know the name of the artist, but he/she is awesome!

Gulf Harbour walk with Dre and his mumThe photos of the rest of our NZ trip can be seen here.

Tongariro Crossing

Tongariro Crossing

We couldn’t have wished for a better day to do the Tongariro Crossing.  Before we came to New Zealand we decided that we’d love to do this walk as long as the weather was right for it.

Dre on the Tongariro Crossing

We mentioned to Kate and Marcos that we were doing the walk and they decided to come along too, and managed to score us a batch in Turangi as well so it worked out very well!

Walking the Tongariro Crossing

The walk itself started of fairly level, but quickly turned into a series of stairs up the mountain until eventually we had amazing views of the surrounding area and the crater.  The view of Ngauruhoe along the first half of the walk was stunning and made so much better by the beautiful blue day.

Tongariro Crossing

Crater on the Tongariro Crossing

One of the cool parts of walking on an active volcano was the geothermal activity we saw, with hot steam rising from the ground in several places and the beautiful Emerald lakes near the crater.

On the way down the Tongariro Crossing

The way down from the top was the most treacherous, with one section being quite steep and slippery, but overall the entire walk was really well formed and we were quite amazed after being in Asia for 2 years to be reminded of how well-made and safe everything is in New Zealand.

Emerald Lake, Tongariro Crossing

No sooner were we saying that it would be nice to be walking in the NZ bush, than the trail started going into the forest so we felt very lucky to have scaled a volcano, walked up and down rock formations and seen mineral lakes and also spent a bit of time walking in the forest.  The 20km adventure was well worth it and we’d definitely do it again!  Our photos are here.

Tongariro Crossing

Julia and Sam’s Wedding

The main reason for our visit to NZ this time was to attend Julia and Sam’s wedding.  In the week leading up to the wedding we had fun at their respective hen’s and stag nights, and helped them to organise the little last minute details for the wedding.

Julia looked absolutely stunning to marry her perfect match, local farmer Sam.  It was awesome for us to see another couple happily married, especially when they are so clearly made for each other.  The wedding was in the same beautiful setting that we got married in; mum and dad’s garden.  It was so cool to be a part of Sam and Julia’s style, with John Deere tractors as the wedding vehicles which drew crowds of people tooting and waving at us all when we drove between photo locations and the reception venue.

 

The reception was also great with good food, wine, and company and we quite happily danced the night away.

Congratulations Julia and Sam, we can’t wait to see you grow old together!  Some photos of the day are here.

New Zealand

Tawharanui

Our first couple of weeks in New Zealand were spent mainly visiting beaches, national parks, and catching up with family.  We started by visiting Omaha Beach for our first taste of the ocean in 9 months and Dre braving the water for his first ocean swim in about a year.

We spent a day walking around Tawharanui regional park through the bush there and around the coast too.  We stopped for quite a while to watch some Tui’s playing and singing to each other and overall had an awesome day.

Tim came to the beach with us the next time, and this was followed a few days later by the three of us going kayaking together at Whangateau.  This was another fantastic day out with weather that we were really thankful for.  We also accepted Tim’s invitation to join him at his bucket racing practice day where Dre got to ride for several hours on the track – a real highlight of the trip for him!  During the day Kate came to whisk us away to collect Jillian from the airport and after briefly catching up we returned to the track for Dre to ride until the petrol ran out.

The following 2 days we caught up with Jillian for dinner and then lunch, and went for a long walk along Orewa beach.  A couple of days later we then caught up again with Jillian and Tim for another awesome day walking around the coast of Leigh and Goat Island.  Again the weather was just perfect and much appreciated!

The rest of the week was spent playing with our gorgeous nephew Storm, hanging out with Karen’s family and on wedding preparations for Julia and Sam’s wedding; photos of this will follow!  To see the photos of our NZ adventures so far, click here.

Chiang Saen

We decided to spend a day riding to Chiang Saen and seeing the ruins and surrounds there.  We’ve been thinking of going to Chiang Saen for probably the last year but hadn’t got around to it until now.  We allowed ourselves quite a few days to chill out in Chiang Rai before heading to NZ, so although our timing wasn’t fantastic to see a new place (because of all the fires in northern Thailand at the moment there is smoke everywhere) we decided that we’d already delayed enough; now was the time to take the journey to Chiang Saen.

Outside a temple in Chiang Saen

Our visions of quaint country back roads similar to those we drove on in southern Thailand when driving from Koh Lanta to Malaysia were quickly dashed when we realised that the road was pretty much a highway, in preparation for the expected traffic increase when the bridge to Laos goes in later this year.  And, after we’d been on that big, wide road for probably 45 minutes, it turned into a really long stretch of dusty, not-yet-complete road with muddy patches as well.  At one point we considered turning around, because the dust really was thick and combined with the smoke it wasn’t the most pleasant way to spend a day, but thankfully we decided ‘just 10 more minutes’ and after about 5 minutes we arrived in Chiang Saen.

Chiang Saen  Archaelogical ruins, Northern Thailand

The town itself  was pretty much non-existent, the view of Laos across the Mekong looked like it would have been really lovely on a clear day but was quite hazy when we saw it.

Old stupa in Chiang Saen Chiang Saen

The main attraction was meant to be a lake (which we didn’t find) and lots of archaeological ruins and a few temples.  The main temple turned out to be really cool, up there with one of the coolest we’ve seen in Asia; partly because it was surrounded by loads of trees filled with loud cicadas and partly because it was half ruins and half open air, giving it a really unique feel.

Temple in Chiang Saen, Northern Thailand

We spent some time sitting in the grounds just soaking up the awesome atmosphere and then decided to head off to see the other ruins, which were also quite nice.  We found some trees covered with huge amazing flowers that smelled really nice too!

Chiang Saen

By the time we got back to Chiang Rai we were both orangey-brown, covered in dust, and still both thought we’d had a pretty good day out.  We decided that was enough energetic sight seeing for this time, so decided to spend the rest of our days chilling in Chiang Rai before heading to NZ.  Our photos of are here.

A month of farewells

Chiang Rai Tea GardensWe have been spending about one week in every 3 or 4 in Chiang Rai and lately we have been seeing a few new things each time and really getting to know northern Thailand well.  Recently we drove out of town to a newly opened restaurant that was getting good write ups in the papers for having not only good food and wine but also extensive gardens and tea plantations.  It turned out to be a pretty fun day out which involved eating a lot of fresh tea leaves and wandering through the gardens.

Red Moon, Luang NamthaWhen we got back to Luang Namtha we had to say goodbye to our friend Jacob, the guy who has been doing his PhD on the minority tribes in the area for the past year or so.  We made a party for him in the shop and had a night starting at the shop and then the Chinese disco.  There was a cool red moon too!

Temple, Luang NamthaWe also decided to get a bigger bike and ride a few hours through stunning views to stay on the Mekong again. The journey was really enjoyable and we stopped many times along the way to relax in ride paddy huts or just a good view points.

Motorbiking Luang NamthaThe couple of days that followed our friends Phil and Abigail came to visit, and we had a great time catching up and showing them some of Luang Namtha’s beauty.  This included time at the river, in the rice fields and eating some more of Paet’s awesome food.  We met Phil and Abigail last time they were here in Luang Namtha a few months ago, and they had a spare week before they returned home to Switzerland so came back again to hang out with us and soak up some more of Luang Namtha’s awesomeness.

Feasting at Minority Restaurant with Phil and Abigail, Luang NamthaAnother farewell was then to be had – it was Anna’s last visit to Luang Namtha while we are still here (her final visit will be when we’re in NZ).  Anna is one of the guides on the Stray bus that comes to town twice a week, and Forest Retreat always serves them cocktails and breakfast and so we get to know the guides quite well.  So again we made a cocktail party and went to the disco.  The Chinese disco is always an experience – normally a strange one, and not always a fun one, which is why we don’t make it there that often.  This time though we had a ball and danced for hours.  There was a guy there wearing his bike helmet inside, so Dre convinced another guy who was dancing that it would be cool for him to wear his helmet too, and so a hilarious scene followed with him dancing with his helmet on… only in Laos.

Chinese Disco, Luang NamthaLess than a week later we had our own farewell, we had a bit of a party in the shop and prepared to say our temporary goodbyes to Luang Namtha and our friends here while we return home for Karen’s sister Julia’s wedding and travel a bit more.  Before we leave for NZ, we’ll hang out in Thailand again for a while.  Our photos of the past few weeks are here.