Our trip is now complete. Life is a little bit different here in the states (mostly much colder), but we’ll get to talking about that soon. For now, it’s time to take a look at how much we spent in Southeast Asia. This segment was the longest; all in, over 3.5 months. Originally it would have been a little bit shorter, but changes in plans to nix Australia and New Zealand put us in SEA for a while longer. More sunshine, more rice, more noodles, and more cheap beer is more my style. Let’s take a look at the numbers:
Part 1: Major Transportation
Transportation in Southeast Asia is made for the backpacker. Five hour bus rides can go for $10 or less; Taxis, tuk tuks, and songthaews can be had for just a few dollars, and some routes can be easily done on a train across Thailand and Vietnam. When we decided to nix Australia and New Zealand form the tail end of our trip, we were left with quite a big cushion in the budget. Because of this, we added a few flights to the mix rather than going overland and booked the best class bus or train when we could.
Estimated Expense: $2,400
Actual Expense: $1,358
Variance (+Better / -Worse): +$1,042
Even still, we ended up on the right side of the line, well under budget.
Part 2: In-Country Costs
Estimated Expense: $12,320 (112 days at $55 / day / person)
Actual Expense: $9,323
Variance (+Better / -Worse): +$2,997
But just like before, we need to account for the fact that our budget was based on a different time period spent in Southeast Asia. We spent 11 days less than we planned and we should compare apples to apples.
Adjusted Estimated Expense: $11,110 (101 days at $55 / day / person)
Actual Expense: $9,323
Adjusted Variance (+Better / -Worse): +$1,787
We did really well in Southeast Asia. There were not too many times where we had to turn down an activity for the sake of money. We did everything we wanted to do and we ate everything we wanted to eat. We even stayed in some nicer hotels to mix things up a bit (but mostly because after several long months in hostels and dirty guest houses I needed a little bit of luxury in my life). We visited a rice farm and Kristin learned to weave and dye fabric in Laos. We did some snorkeling tours, some kayaking tours, and some food tours in Vietnam and Thailand. We ate at more upscale restaurants in Saigon, Phnom Penh, and Bangkok. All in, we lived with a whole lot less restrictions than we did in Europe and Africa and still came in far under budget.
Slowly but surely, but really quite quickly, a food movement has taken hold. Part of this movement is the demand from the foodies and hipsters of the world to know where their chicken comes from. Is it from Illinois? Iowa? What did it eat? Did it have friends? What was its name? Can we visit the farm? While not many people take it to the extreme and actually visit the farm that their food comes from, we happened to have the opportunity; and we took it.
Being in SE Asia, we’ve eaten a lot of rice. And although at home we may not give a second thought to the blood, sweat, and tears that go into growing and harvesting those tiny morsels of deliciousness it’s really hard to ignore it here. Rice paddies spill out in front of you as soon as you leave any city and reach the countryside. Rice farming goes way back. Every day you can see the conical hatted farmers in their fields- sowing their seeds, fussing with their rice shoots, reaping their crop.
While in Luang Prabang we had the chance to visit the Living Land Farm on the outskirts of town. It’s a relatively new venture started by two brothers with a long family history of farming. But these guys are of the new generation. Turning a profession that leaves most living barely above the poverty line into a program that’s pushing them into the towns elite. The farm sells the best organic produce to the top restaurants in town and spends most mornings educating tourists on rice farming while charging each person what would equate to a weeks pay for the average farmer.
The program takes you through each stage of growing rice.
Prepping the Land
First step is to plough the fields. Fill the paddies with the right amount of water and put your tractor to work prepping the soil for new seedlings. Traditionally, this is done with a water buffalo. For most farmers this has a two-fold benefit: 1) Buffalos are way cheaper than a real tractor. Under $1000 compared to up to 10x that amount for a tractor. 2) Buffalos provide fertilizer. That’s right. These friendly beasts are a rice farmer’s best friend.
Our water buffalo for the day was named Suzuki. There’s another on site that we didn’t get to meet named Yamaha.
While the farmers are busy prepping the paddies, one section of the farm is closed off for germination of this season’s harvest. Lumped close together these young seedlings are nurtured until they are ready for the next step, transplanting.
Here’s where the pain begins. The seedlings that are properly germinated are picked by hand and transplanted to their final home. Arched over, ankle deep in the mud we planted each seed, one by one, 20cm apart, in a nice little row. Well at least it started in a nice little row. The guide laughed at us a little bit as we are hard at work and mentioned that most of the time he has to re-do what had been done by the day’s visitors. We tried. We’re told this process takes a minimum of 240 man hours of back-breaking work for each hectare of rice.
Once the rice has dried out it’s time to harvest. A sickle, which you can find for sale in any market in town, is the tool of the trade here. Harvesting is also a plant by plant operation. Each individual shoot is sickled by itself. Take hold of the plant, place the sickle at the base of the plant, and pull to cut. Once you have a handful of these you have your first bundle. Use one of the plants to tie around the bundle in your hand. Now repeat until you’re finished harvesting the field.
Now that you have your bundles of rice it’s time to remove the seeds. Something to the likes of a nunchuk are involved in this process, alone with something that looks like a cornhole board without the hole and the party game. Put the rice stalk bundle in the nunchuk and then beat the bundle (with the seeds facing down) on the board. This will send the rice flying off the stalks and onto a mat. Once you’ve completed this with all your harvested rice you fan any of the remaining stalks off the rice pile with a rice dance and song (pictured).
The rice in the current form still has the husk on it. You’ll notice it’s brown in the picture and not white like the grains we are used to seeing. Removing the husk is a two step process. A scoop of rice gets put into a stone bowl in the ground. Then using your foot and a lever contraption with a stone at the end, you push the lever up and down to ‘beat’ the husk off the rice. For one batch this takes about 40 minutes. Yikes. After all that your rice and your husk are still living in the same place and they need to be separated. This involves a highly skilled technique of flipping the rice around in a tray and blowing the grains out. Apparently, if you’re a woman and don’t know how to do this, then no one will want to marry you.
And that’s it. Hours of our hard work and we were left with just a few cups of rice. Enough to feed a few of us, which is exactly what happened. The day ends with a few snacks: some sticky rice (with a buffalo skin chili paste for dipping), sweets made from rice flour, and some sugar cane juice to wash it all down. It was a pleasant day on the farm where we learned a lot about the work ethic of rice farmers. If there’s anything we can do to thank them for all their work it’s this: next time you order rice with a meal, you better eat every last morsel on that plate. We will.
It’s been done many times before. The tour groups have long pushed this route along the banana pancake trail and it’s in every guidebook on ‘an experience not to be missed’. The slow boat down the Mekong starts just over the border of Thailand and Laos and takes you into Luang Prabang. It’s a long journey, but after our mis-adventures in Africa I assumed we could handle it.
Chiang Rai to Chiang Kong (morning of Day 1)
The trip started easy enough out of the bus station in Chiang Rai: we showed up, hopped on a rickety, old bus and were off. This was a local bus, however, and with all things local come surprises. Just outside of the bus station we were waved down by someone trying to a hitch a ride. He had his pickup filled with produce, some rice, maybe a few motorbike parts, and a few boxes of who knows what. We loaded up, he hopped on, and we continued down the pothole-filled roller coaster road to Chiang Kong. 65 baht lighter, and 3 hours and a sore back later we had reached the Thai frontier.
Crossing the Border (afternoon of Day 1)
I was looking forward to a nice, easy border crossing into Laos, leaving us enough time to buy tickets for the next day’s slow boat. But after getting off the bus, we were accosted by tuk tuk drivers eager to take us to the new bridge in town. Just a short two weeks earlier the Thai-Laos friendship bridge had been opened, closing the old boat crossing in town, and sending Thais and farang alike 10km out of town to the new land crossing. So Kristin, myself, and a curious Turkish guy, who spoke no English, hitched a ride across the border with a smiley tuk tuk driver who must have been super excited about all the new business that would be coming his way.
We arrived at the crossing 15 minutes later and I’ve got to say, the new buildings and bridge are quite impressive. Nothing like the land crossings we had seen before, and brand-spankin’ new. There was no funny business after that and we exited Thailand, payed 20 baht for a shuttle across no man’s land, got our visas processed into Laos for $35 each, and continued onto Huay Xai.
Huay Xai to Pakbeng (Day 2)
For some, Huay Xai may warrant a stop over for more than a night. We met a German fellow who was there for the Gibbon Experience, a highly-rated trek to swim under waterfalls, zipline through the jungle, sleep in tree houses, and for the lucky- spot some local gibbons. But we had places to be and headed for the boat landing to buy tickets. Unfortunately, it was closed for the day and we made plans to get up early the next morning to make sure we got a nice seat and not one crouched inside the engine compartment as we had heard from others. Our hotel did offer to buy tickets for us at $40 a pop, including a nice $12.50 commission above the normal price of $27.50 (220,000 kip). How nice of them, but I’ll pass.
Instead, at 8:00 am flat the next morning we made our way back to the boat landing. We were the first to arrive. No sign of life besides a guy stripped down to his underwear bathing in the river. Eventually we found a guy hiding behind the ticket office and bought tickets for the day’s boat. And then we waited. And waited some more. Some people showed up. More waiting. We loaded our bags on the boat. And continued to wait. At 1:00 pm, with 200 people and 2 boats loaded up we were finally starting our journey on the slow boat down the Mekong.
It was peaceful. The sun was shining and we gazed at the sparkling temples on the hillside. We laughed at a few Thai and French children warm up to each other and then laugh and play while running up and down the aisles. But not more than an hour or two later I had gotten bored. I started to take swigs of the Thai whiskey that I had bought the night before. I ate the chicken sandwich we bought before leaving. I practiced some Thai. I went and bought an overpriced coke and then poured a liberal amount of whiskey into the can. Kristin gave me dirty looks while telling me that I looked like an alcoholic. I fell asleep.
As the day wore the sun started to hide behind the hillside. It started to get cold and I began a ritual of 15 minutes in my seat and then another 15 minutes hovered over the exhaust pipe of the engine trying to stay warm. Eventually, just a short 7 hour hours after we had left Huay Xai, we were pulling into Pakbeng.
It was dark, we couldn’t see much, but we eventually found our bags and made our way up the hill to the guesthouse that I had emailed. I should have expected it in a town like this, but we were told that the place was completely booked up and they had no record of my emails. We were out of luck and stumbled around to other places in the area trying to find a place to sleep to no avail. The one place we found with availability told us $45 / night. Another couple had just wandered into this place at the same time as us and told us they scouted the other side of town without any luck on availability. So we spent the money for a night’s sleep, an amount that we haven’t spent on a room since we were in Europe.
We ate an Indian restaurant while enjoying some Beer Lao. Our server was wearing a Cleveland Indians hat and I told him I liked it. He smiled and walked away, likely not understanding what I was saying. We watched a 10 year old cooking in the kitchen and eventually our food had arrived. The “mixed salad” was a sliced up tomato and cucumber arranged on a plate. The “naan” was a flour tortilla. Before arriving in Pakbeng, we had heard people describe the place as a bit of a hole. I’d have to agree.
Pakbeng to Luang Prabang (Day 3)
The next morning we loaded up and headed to the docks for our second day on the slow boat. This day was colder, partly due to the fact that we were leaving first thing in the morning and partly due to complete lack of sunshine. I repeated my routine from the prior day- a little whiskey, a little Thai practice, a walk back to the engine room to warm up. Nothing eventful on this trip, and I spent a lot of the time staring at the map trying to figure out how far we had traveled and when we were going to arrive.
At 4:00 pm, we were pulling into the outskirts of Luang Prabang. The boat dock has changed a little bit from what I had read and we weren’t landing directly in town. Instead, we fumbled up a muddy hill where tuk tuks were waiting to take us the 15 minutes into town where we were dropped off at the entry of the night market.
This trip took us 3 full days. Some describe the journey as either love it or hate, and I fell in the latter category. I was left sick for a week afterwards and we didn’t see too much along the way. So my recommendation for the trip- take a bus to Chiang Mai and catch the 1 hr direct flight into Luang Prabang. And then if you’re itching for a ride on the Mekong, hire a boat from town to take you to the Pak Ou caves. I wrote previously about a journey that we did the right way, from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. This time, however, we clearly took the wrong way from Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang.