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Day 14 and 15 – G Adventures’ Cambodia and Laos Mekong Adventure

Day 14 and 15 – Saturday May 31 / Sunday June 1   

In the morning we had breakfast then took a medium tuk tuk to a temple of course, an Arc de Triumphe look alike and the COPE museum which is an agency that helps kids with disabilities like club foot. There were a few of these kids there and it made the experience uncomfortable – I’m not sure why. They also showed us an hour long documentary on the leftover bombs from the Vietnam War and how an Australian man was training the Lao people to deactivate the bombs and bombies (little bombs). It was really terrible to see how my country had ruined these lands for decades. People are still dying because of the war and the US is doing nothing to help. They haven’t even signed an agreement like other countries to help get rid of the bombs. I really should research and read to learn more about these things. Traveling makes me realize how uneducated I am about life and history.

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After all that we went back to the room for 45 minutes and then had to say good-bye to the Italians and travel on the bus for 45 minutes to the train. We had to pay 10,000 kip to leave the country. We walked through a checkpoint to be in limbo between Thailand and Laos and then took a free transfer bus to the overnight train station where we waited another hour.

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We finally boarded the train and it was worse than I imagined (I had pictured private rooms like I had in Egypt). It only had a curtain for privacy and the bed was very tight. In general the bed was comfy but it was so noisy from people snoring and walking that it was hard to sleep. (Yes, I realize to other travelers I sound like a whiny brat, but by this point of the trip, I was so hot and tired and fed up with everything that everything felt like torture.) Roomie and I watched part of a movie but were falling asleep. I spent another 2 hours in the middle of the night watching another movie. We got woken up early with people mulling around and the crew putting the beds back into chair formation.

From there we walked underground to the street the Centra Hotel was on. We dumped our bags off then most people went to a restaurant for breakfast but a few of us went downstairs to the grocery store to eat instead. Nothing looked appealing to me but I settled on Frosted Flakes and milk. It was good enough. Roomie and I spent most of the day sitting, reading and chatting. I wanted to go to a place where you could pet lions but she didn’t want to spend the money and I didn’t want to go by myself. (Yes, I know they are drugged and probably tortured……I am a terrible person and wanted to do it anyway.) We tried to find a spot for lunch but it was too hot so we went back to the grocery store where I had a sandwich. The tour operator loaned us his room to shower which was nice. We had ice cream on the roof deck then said bye and took a taxi to the airport. We checked all of us in then went to my gate. Took a selfie then said bye and kept waving until we couldn’t see each other anymore…. was a nice time.

The first leg of the flight was good. Had an empty seat next to me. Started to feel stomach sick during the flight so couldn’t really eat. Got off the plane and had to go through security again. The Abu Dhabi airport was really odd. It’s shaped like a circle and there aren’t many places to sit – just lots of places to eat and shop. Then all the terminals are offshoots and the bathrooms are blocked off to passengers only. It’s very strange and inconvenient. I went through security again and then was blocked from the bathroom area again – not fun! Luckily my belly behaved itself. Got on the second leg of the full flight. Couldn’t eat most of the dinner because it made me nauseous. Watched lots of movies and slept some.

Overall, I think I had a negative experience because I did not research this trip at all prior to booking it. I booked it solely on the facts that it was somewhere I had never been before and the tour matched up with the dates that I wanted to travel. It was also the hottest it had been in that part of the world in a long time – even the tour guides were sweating.

Had I planned better – packed different/more snacks, somehow been prepared for that unbearable heat (I think a different kind of sunscreen would have helped), massive bugs and rats, perhaps I would have had a different experience. Because I have been on tour that maximized time better and were more forthcoming in what you were doing and when, this experience was knocked down a few stars right off the bat.

Day 12 and 13 – G Adventures’ Cambodia and Laos Mekong Adventure

May 30 (Maybe) Day 12 – This morning we were supposed to go see the monks collect food on the street in Luang Prabang but my roomie and I woke up and were both stomach sick. Fortunately, we had 2 hours to feel better, but we were still sick all day on the 6 hour bus ride to Vietvienne. Fortunately at the rest stop there was a really nice bathroom that had stalls – one of which was western. The stalls were open on one side overlooking the mountains in the distance. It was private but gave you the illusion of doing your business in public – yet had a beautiful view.

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Our hotel room was okay. No major visible bugs, just a few geckos including a dead one being cooked by the sun on our balcony. There were several rat droppings all around the room so again we slept with the lights on. Dinner was at a restaurant down the street but I think I had food poisoning so I only got vegetable soup and then there was a bug in it so I didn’t eat it. I went back to the room and was sick all night. Fortunately, the TV started working but the AC never worked. It was a pretty unpleasant night.

The next day we went to see the elephant cave then tubing into Tham Nam water cave. The elephant cave was very simple but when we were standing there, a dog came running and slipped on the floor and flew right into the back of my legs…..it was pretty funny.

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My buddy. I wish I could have saved them all.

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Elephant Cave

Then he followed us – actually led us to the spot where we were going to tube into the cave. The walk to the tubing spot was pretty long especially since it was all in the blazing sun. The cave itself was pretty neat. The water was cold but refreshing. It was convenient to view the cave from a lying position. There were a lot of interesting formations. The only issue was the guide was going so fast that it was hard to absorb the beauty of the cave.

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From there, we walked back to the truck and drove to the kayaking spot on the Nam Song River. Supposedly it used to be a big drinking adventure, but I only saw maybe 5 spots along the way and they were all empty – perhaps because it is not high tourist season.

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G Adventures has its tours screwed up because in this town there was another good cave and the blue lagoon but there was only time to do one option. They really should figure out how to time things better. We don’t need to drive to the next spot in the middle of the day. Curfew isn’t until midnight in this country, so there’s plenty of time to drive off-hours. There also isn’t enough time after tubing to grab a proper lunch before you have to head off to the next city. Random but in the drive to the next spot, there were several trucks full of army men. I wonder who Laos is planning on getting attacked by.

I also started sharing my money with my roomie and ran out so I had no money for food. I kept reminding the CEO that we need to stop for an exchange but he told me we stopped at an ATM last night. I tried to explain that it is not the same thing and the ATM wasn’t even working but he liked to ignore me. At this point in the trip I figured I would cut his tip in half. At the beginning of the trip, I thought I would give him a huge tip but my liking of him dwindled every day.

On this day we had a crazy driver who drove really fast and hit all the bumps so we literally flew off the seat. By this time, I only had two days left on this trip but felt the end couldn’t come soon enough.

On Friday night upon arrival to the hotel, we showered and got ready for dinner. We went to another charity spot where the food was okay, but the prices were high. It was our last dinner with the Italians. I thought that perhaps we would stay out late or drink or have a toast or something but there was nothing. After dinner most of the group wanted to go for a walk – a walk to nowhere. Roomie and I declined and they had us walk back to the hotel ourselves even though we weren’t sure where it was. We went the right way but weren’t sure, so we had to ask directions. Luckily we were right down the block from the hotel. The night consisted of rat shit on roomie’s headboard, and she thought someone was breaking into the room so she woke me up for that as well.

Flying back early was a bit consideration at this point, but it was just another couple of days so I toughed it out.

Day 11 – G Adventures’ Cambodia and Laos Mekong Adventure

May 29 – Day 11 – (Honestly, the days start to get fuzzy with my pics and notes at this point, but you’ll get the gist)

We had breakfast then hopped on a bus to the elephant sanctuary where we rode elephants (in a chair on their back – two people per elephant). It was pretty fun. Even on the head, you never really felt like you’d fall off. Before riding them, we fed them which was cool because they were right next to you eating. After the initial ride, we were able to ride them on their head into the Mekong River to scrub them clean with a scrub brush. It was cool, but you got covered in poo because when an elephant’s gotta go, he’s got to go!

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We were able to rinse off and change then we drove to a dock where we took a boat across the river to the Pak Ou Buddha Caves (Tham Ting and Tham Phoum) which as you would guess, had lots  of buddhas. The caves were okay – nothing spectacular.

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From there we took the boat to a Ban Xang Hai (Whiskey Village) where they make wine and spirits. It was basically a tourist trap, and they sold jars of liquor with all kinds of insects and animals in them – even a bear cub. It was really horrible. Bears are endangered in Asia, and they kill them for profits. Complete monsters! At first I was going to purchase a scorpion liquor but decided I didn’t want to contribute to people with that mentality. (Yes, I realize it’s their culture and heritage, but I don’t have to like it or agree with it.)

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After that we took the boat back downstream to a spot closer to the hotel where the bus picked us up. Roomie and I showered then went to the night market again and bought some stuff. Then we joined the group at Lao Lao restaurant which had a really nice atmosphere with plants and jungle-like things. The only problem was that it was very dark, and we got a hot pot where you cook your own food on the table, so we couldn’t really see what we were doing. There were also a lot of bugs. For dessert we went back to the market and got 2 crepes to take back to the room and made tea.

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Day 10 – G Adventures’ Cambodia and Laos Mekong Adventure

May 28 – Day 10 – Breakfast was in an area a couple of doors down from the hotel. They served eggs, breads, juice, tea, water – overall good meal. Make sure to take a couple of tea bags to save for later as they supply a tea kettle in your room but no tea.

After breakfast, we took an open air taxi to a museum where they showed us how certain Lao people lived. A video showed us how they abuse and kill animals for sacrifice when they marry: it was terrible.

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Tourmates watching the video. I’m glad I didn’t

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Fortunately we had a nice change of pace and visited a beautiful waterfall with many levels. We swam in one of the lower pools and had a really great time. We should have packed a lunch and just ate there on the bank, but we ate at one of the cafes there instead. The food was good and cheap. Also, on this journey we saw bears that were rescued and are now being cared for. They were really cute..

 

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After lunch, we came back to the room and rested for a few hours then roomie and I dressed up nicely and went to the night market for an hour – where we sweated through our nice clothes, and I became a hot mess. Then we joined the group for karaoke; it was really fun. (This was our only night out of the whole trip. Quite depressing!)

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Karaoke always has interesting pics to go with videos but this one topped everything

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Day 9 – G Adventures’ Cambodia and Laos Mekong Adventure

May 27 – Day 9 – The morning of the homestay is a complete waste of time. Since you get woken up at the crack of dawn with the roosters and then the island is so noisy, you have no hope of sleeping in. Everyone just sits around and waits for the ferry. My roomie and I watched a movie on my phone. This whole day is a complete waste of time.

Finally, at 9:30am we boarded the boat back to the mainland. We then went to a market that was both indoors and out, but it was more of a local market with day-to-day clothes and food and lots of fancy jewelry. We didn’t buy anything and ate ice cream instead. Next we had lunch at a place with AC, Wifi and a Western bathroom. The food was okay – not great. There was a mall down the block so we went there to kill time. It was nothing exciting either – it mostly had stuff for locals. There was a supermarket there too so that at least that was interesting.

There was also a cage on the street with animals in it. It was really sad.

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From there we went to the airport for our flight to Luang Prabang. The airport is small but efficient. Once through the security area it has air conditioning. The plane was small but nice. They even feed you on the 1.5 hour flight – a fish stick in a bun with brownie and fruit. Upon landing we went to our hotel which was pretty nice – although anything would have felt nice after having a rat invade your bedroom! But really, I think this was the only room I took pictures of because I was so impressed. It was within walking distance to restaurants and the night market.

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CIMG1205Right after check-in, we went for dinner at an Australian pub. The food there was good and the atmosphere was fun. Afterwards, we went to the night market, but I wasn’t feeling well, so I sat on the floor and didn’t shop.

At least I got to sleep in a nice room that night!

Day 8 – G Adventures’ Cambodia and Laos Mekong Adventure

May 26 – Breakfast was across the street and not included so it was self-pay. It was very slow but good; I had french toast sans syrup. After breakfast it was back to the bus to the ferry to a temple then to the home stay.

On the way we went to see Wat Phu (mountain temple) UNESCO World Heritage site –  that had a lot of steps (77 at one point). We ate fresh mangoes off the tree. At the top, there was a fountain that claimed to have holy water. They had us put some on our heads 3 times and made a wish – which is kind of odd because if it was truly holy, we should have prayed or something instead, I would think. The experience was all very hot; my skin felt like it was literally melting off. I have never been that sweaty in my life. During the hike, we saw rocks that resembled an elephant and a crocodile.

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After we finally dragged ourselves (okay, maybe I was just dragging myself) back to the bus, we took a people-only ferry to the home stay. Well, “ferry” is generous.  It was a very skinny boat that only held 4 people. From there, we walked a long way on the beach to our homes. My roomie and I ended up with a house on stilts that we thought would keep the snakes and rats away. Instead a rat ran at the foot of our bed in the morning and roomie had heard them scratching all night in the wall by her head.

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We were lucky and our bathroom had a western toilet and was overall decently nice. Our beds were in a corner of the room where the owners slept in so that was a bit weird. Our house had no walls so it felt like modified camping. We slept under mosquito nets but bugs got in roomie’s bed anyway. We could hear the bats all night. Early in the morning the roosters began singing and all the people got up. When they walked, the whole house shook. Breakfast and dinner were served on the floor in a communal room.

When we arrived first arrived on the island, we walked around the island for a tour. Overall the houses and properties were well-kept. There was a resort on the island that was several hundred dollars per night and was very beautiful.

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I feel homestays are always a waste of time. You don’t socialize with the residents – they don’t even eat with you. My owner came with me to the bathroom in the middle of the night to turn on the lights and that was all the interaction we had. You are basically there to give them money and gifts.

Side note: Bring pens and paper from home so you don’t waste time and money hunting for these things during your trip. Anything you have that you aren’t going to use anymore bring it with you and stop letting it take up space in your house.

Day 7 – G Adventures’ Cambodia and Laos Mekong Adventure

May 24 – Day 7 started with breakfast in a building outside of the hotel but no one could tell me where it was. I found it only by finding another tourmate. I almost shouldn’t have bothered. There was only a small fried egg, bread with jelly. No water or juice, just hot tea and coffee. I was starving afterwards. Thank goodness I still had snacks that I brought from home!

The drive to Laos was a very bumpy road so no option to sleep. What should have been a fairly short drive took several hours longer because the driver had to go very slowly (although sometimes he didn’t and we literally fell off our seats!) These roads were paved only 3 years ago by the Chinese but cheap materials plus wear and tear makes it seem like they were never improved in the first place. We also had to do our first and only pee in the bush stop. After all these squat toilets, we were pros! During the ride, we also had our first taste of sticky rice that was made in bamboo chutes – was quite tasty.DSC01631

The Laos border was interesting. One bus drops you off, you hand your passport to a guy in a building through a window, pay your $10 or so and then you walk down a road to the border crossing. then you get on another bus.

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Our first Laos hotel had a gecko and a million ants in the bathroom. The AC also didn’t work. Soon after arrival, we went bicycle riding for 10 miles to the beach where we watched the sunset then quickly rode back in the dark. The road was full of holes, so it was dangerous and painful to ride. You also had to ride at a fast pace, and it was very  hot. Fortunately it was not as hot as it was during the day. The bugs came out and I ate at least one and I felt like a human windshield. I don’t know if I have ever felt that dirty in my life – bug spray, sunscreen, bugs and sweat. Awesome! At least the sunset was very nice.

We had dinner at the restaurant across the street which was okay. I  had banana pancakes and two big beers so I got a little tipsy which led me to ask to get our room switched. Our new room had working AC, was bigger, had a television and had no bugs. This didn’t prevent my roomie from waking me up to tell me there were geckos walking in the ceiling. The electric went out in the middle of the night so the room got hot again and was unpleasant. Since I was awake anyway, I went across the street to see the sunrise across the river. It was very nice. Then I went back to bed. We had to pack an overnight bag for the home stay.

I love how the boat is right in the rays of the rising sun

I love how the boat is right in the rays of the rising sun

Day 6 – G Adventures’ Cambodia and Laos Mekong Adventure

May 23 – Day 6 was a 4-5 hour bus ride to Kratie. Along the way, I noticed new types of houses of worship – Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah Witnesses in Kam Pong Chan. I thought it was interesting since up until that point (and for the rest of the trip) I only saw buddhist temples.

Soon after arriving in Kratie, we dropped off our bags at the hotel and went to lunch down the road. I had a big plate of rice with sausage and pork for only $2. It was quite tasty too. After lunch we rested and then took a tuk tuk to see the dolphins. It was pouring rain during the ride there, but it cleared up by the time we got to the river. At least my rain jacket was getting some use! The temperature while on the water was nice and cool which was such a relief after so many hot days. We managed to spot a lot of dolphins but you could only see a bit of their backs and their top fin. The boats we used were fairly small, so we only had 4 people in each boat.

DSC01628On the ride back to the hotel, there was a wedding taking place, so we stopped and they let us take pictures with the bridal party. They took pictures of us as well since we were as much of a novelty to them as they were to us. Further down the road, we spotted a nice sunset through the trees along the river. Fortunately, our driver stopped to let us take a picture but unfortunately it didn’t photograph well..

For dinner we ate at the restaurant right next to the hotel and it was quite disappointing. The food wasn’t good and it was much more expensive than our lunch spot. Also the electricity kept going out so that was kind of unsettling.

Upon returning to the room, I realized that management had been in our room when we weren’t there. When I brought this up to them they said perhaps it was to turn off the electricity. Now, I don’t know about you, but I would be willing to give them an extra couple of dollars for the electric to be left on so we could have a cool room and less bugs. I didn’t notice anything missing, but it was a reminder that we should never leave anything valuable in the room.

The room had a bunch of bugs in it at this point, so we sprayed repellent all around (I’m sure that was great for my health!) and went to bed early around 9pm. Fortunately, the cable started working again, so we were able to relax and watch a bit of television before sleeping. Unfortunately, the roomie thought there was a bat in the room, so she woke me up a few hours later. I thought she was nuts until I heard the sounds as well. I Googled and listened to bat sounds online; they sounded the same! I did figure that the bats were outside near the AC unit, but she was so convinced that it was in the room that I went to find someone to check it out. The hotel was a ghost town except for a few friendly roaches, geckos and a giant waterbug. I gave up and went back to sleep! Overall the hotel was okay, not disgusting. It had an all-in-one shower / sink / toilet bathroom but the water was warm and there weren’t too many mouse turds. It did look kind of dirty though. I did kill a giant mosquito on my pillow and it left a ton of blood behind. I decided to not be a diva and just slept with my head on the other side of the pillow.

 

Days 4 & 5 – G Adventures’ Cambodia and Laos Mekong Adventure

May 21 – Day 4 had a late start of 8am which was nice; however, the day consisted of a 7 hour drive on a private bus to Phnom Penh. The roads were really bumpy – the kind where you actually get tossed out of your seat at times. We stopped to use the restroom at a gas station and the squat toilets were clean and actually flushed. You will always have to bring your own toilet paper though – otherwise you’ll have to use the hose. Along the way, we stopped for lunch where they served tarantula. It was really disgusting looking but smaller than I imagined (smaller than the palm of your hand). A couple of tourmates ate the whole thing, but I only ate a leg – it tasted like crispy nothing.

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May 22 – Day 5 consisted of visiting Choeng Ek / the killing fields which was interesting. They haven’t excavated all the bones yet, so you actually end up walking on some which are still partially buried under the walkway. We then went to the museum which was where the victims were held and tortured. The cells were very small and it looked terrible. There were two survivors there as well selling their books.

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The white on the ground are bones.

 

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Many people didn’t know this was their last photograph before death.

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This building was full of skulls organized by age and sex

From there we went to lunch at a restaurant that helps homeless children. Then we went to the silver palace which had many buildings but also had lots of sections blocked so you couldn’t view them. There were nice gardens there at least. CIMG0640

From there we went to the Russian market where they sell goods that fell off the truck. The tuk tuk that took us to the palace market and hotel only cost 10 dollars and they actually wait for you while you explore and you just pay them at the end. We also walked to the central market where we bought pens and paper for the children of the house that we went to for dinner. The central market was more interesting than the Russian market. It seemed to have more quality things. The Russian one had a local section which was interesting but gross. Because it was raining and the market didn’t have proper roofing or drainage, the floor was very slippery. I didn’t take a close look at what they were selling, but I know there were full dead animals for sale, and it smelled really bad. I was happy that the vendors were not as aggressive as they were in Peru. However, I was not happy that prices were not super cheap like I thought they would be. I only bought fancy chopsticks for my sister. Afterwards, we showered and dressed for a dinner hosted by a local family which had mostly curry dishes, so I only ate a few shish kabobs, rice and some spring rolls. Unfortunately, they also served duck fetus, which was so gross to think about that I had to remove myself from that part of the table…..that meant I also couldn’t partake in the tarantula wine which was wine in a bottle with tarantulas. Overall it was a fine dinner except for the mouse turd on the table.

I do find it uncomfortable that the family does not join you for dinner. They simply host the meal and serve you. I would appreciate the dinner more if the family would eat the meal with me and have a conversation with us (even though it would have to be through a translator). Instead, you are solely there to pay them to feed you. There is minimal socialization which is disappointing.

The hotel in Phnom Penh was okay – pretty clean and only one gecko in the room. The elevator got stuck at some point so it was a bit nerve wracking to use it. The breakfast was a mix of Western and Eastern so it is overall good if you could ignore the mouse turds and roaches.

 

Day 3 – G Adventures’ Cambodia and Laos Mekong Adventure

CIMG0297May 20 – On day 3 we got up very early to watch the sunrise at Angkor Wat. It was nice but not amazing. Our guides also didn’t have us wake up as early as they should have in order to see the nicer views of the sunrise. After the sun was up, we went to see Ta Prohm where Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom was filmed. It would have been more interesting for me at the time if I had actually watched the movie, but now I can watch it and remember that I was there in person! Archaeologists are trying to put the pieces of the ruins back together in their original formation.  It’s amazing how they can figure all that out. There is also a fun picture to take – you can stand under rocks that look like a booty and legs and take a picture from the doorway. BAM! I stood under Angelina Jolie’s ass!

Stones that still need to be put back into their original places

Stones that still need to be put back into their original places

After those ruins, we went back to the hotel for breakfast which consisted of both Western and Eastern foods, then went back to Angkor Wat. I know I should have been impressed, but I’ve seen so many ruins in my life that I no longer am. There was also a dog on the ground that didn’t move, and I was worried the whole time that he was dead (he wasn’t). Being an animal lover, the stray dog population of Cambodia ruined many parts of the trip for me.

The highlight of the day was getting to feed wild monkeys. There were several babies in the mix and they were so cute! Luckily my roomie and I brought snacks to feed them.

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From the monkeys, we crossed the street to see another ruin (Angkor Thom) full of smiling Buddhas, but the day had gotten so hot that we rushed through it. I did manage to get a picture of my nose touching a buddha’s nose, so that was kind of fun. CIMG0513

After all that, it was only lunch time. Our guide brought us back to a spot right across from Angkor Wat which I felt was an odd choice – very touristy and average taste (I’m guessing he got kickbacks again.) My $9 lunch was expensive for Cambodia – I got pork with vegetables, a mixed fruit shake and a big bottle of water. I took my leftovers to feed stray dogs (FYI, the dogs must not be starving because they only ate the pork, not the rice!)

We all skipped the optional activity of riding an ATV to see the sunset; roomie and I had a couple of drinks in the pool instead and then napped. After the nap, I didn’t feel well, so I only had the worst cheese fries for dinner – french fries with two tiny pieces of cheese placed on top. Dinner took place at a restaurant that included a free dance show (not sure if this is because I requested to see Cambodian dance or if it was already on the agenda). The show was interesting- the dancers move slowly and tell a story with their dance. After dinner we got what they call ice cream, but it was really more like a sorbet or gelato.

To end the night we wandered around the area looking for a place to drink even though no one really seemed into it. A few of us attempted to get fish pedicures which have little fish (some bigger ones, too) eat the dead skin on your feet. It felt really creepy so I could only do a few seconds at a time. Ultimately we only sat there for a few minutes. However, because it only cost $3 and included a free beer, it was definitely a great deal! That would have cost at least 10 times as much in the states and is banned in New York!

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We ended up sitting at an outdoor bar where a couple of people got their obligatory drink. We stayed out until 11:30pm which was wild and crazy for that group.

Day 2 – G Adventures’ Cambodia and Laos Mekong Adventure

May 19 – Day 2 started off with a delicious Western-style buffet breakfast. This was the best breakfast of the trip, so eat up! Although if you get car-sick, you may want to rethink that as the bus ride to Cambodia was several hours long and very bumpy.

Don’t bother to get your Cambodian visa ahead of time. Crossing the border was quick and easy. It was really strange though. The immigration station in Thailand was big and formal; then you exit that building and enter a dirty, crowded area. You cross over the street to a tiny building where you stand outside and fill out an immigration form and hand it and your passport to a person behind a window. When he finally gives it back, you walk to another building to stand on another line in the heat to get all your fingers fingerprinted and a photo taken of you. Finally you are released and are free to roam Cambodia.

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Traveling to and entering Cambodia took most of the day. Upon arrival at our hotel, we checked in and then roomie and I got spa services. I got a Cambodian massage which was very odd. They had me undress (leave underwear on) and put on a full long sleeve and pants outfit which you wear the entire time. Then the lady gave me the worst massage I’ve ever received (and I’ve had some pretty bad Chinatown ones in NYC!). I was sore for days afterwards and not in a good way. Save yourself the $10; 5 beers will make you feel better than that massage! My roomie also got a heat rash from her body scrub. Perhaps try a Swedish massage instead. In the late afternoon, we visited the outside courtyard of where monks live and walked to the town to have dinner.

The hotel in Siem Reap was the best one you will have while in Cambodia. Don’t get used to it.DSC00479

Day 1 – G Adventures’ Cambodia and Laos Mekong Adventure

In 2014, I decided to take a trip to coincide with my boss’ vacation so I had very limited flexibility in which tour to take. I had originally decided on South Africa but the particular tour I needed sold out before I could book it. With only 3 weeks prior to my trip, I finally settled on G Adventures Cambodia and Laos Mekong Adventure as it fit snugly into my allotted time slot.

I’m still torn on whether or not this was a good decision. Over the next dozen or so blogs, you will be able to form an opinion of your own.

 

May 18 – Once you arrive in Bangkok, you must go to the lowest level of the airport to find the public taxis. The first thing I noticed as I exited the airport to get to the taxi stand was the heat. My glasses actually fogged up because of the heat and humidity. I thought I had experienced heat before…..I was wrong.

The taxi stand was very easy to find. To get a taxi I simply greeted the woman at the stand and handed her Centra Hotel’s address. She called a driver over and handed him a form she completed and off we went. Unfortunately, my driver didn’t actually know where the hotel was and he had to stop to ask directions. Luckily this didn’t add much time/cost to the meter. He also tried to have a conversation with me, but his English was so bad and I didn’t know any Thai so I had to just apologize and stay quiet.

The Centra Hotel was one of the nicest hotels of the tour so enjoy it while you can. Rooms are very clean, no bugs, working AC, great breakfast, free WiFi. It has a nice lounge area where you can leave your bags if you want to roam the city, relax on their couches or use their computers.  They claim it has a small pool but in reality it has wooden lounge chairs sitting in a few inches of water. The chairs are not shaded so this is not very refreshing.

I  had connected with another tourmate via the G Adventures meetup page. Since we were both arriving  on Sunday morning, we planned to tour the city together once he arrived. G Adventures does not make it easy to find one another upon arrival. It turned out two other tourmates arrived early that day and others a day earlier, but I only found one other tourmate because she was my roommate. Other people had to explore on their own.

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All 3 of us squished in the back. Watch your head!

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Big Buddha wasn’t actually so big compared to other Buddhas

My two tourmates and I ventured out and managed to see a lot in just a few hours. We took a tuk tuk from the big Buddha (which was on the same block as our hotel) to the river and only got charged 30 baht for the ride. This was because we agreed to pretend to shop in a store where the driver got kickbacks. We then went on an hour long khlong boat ride which cost 1500 baht – we haggled them down from 2000 baht. I also bought food to feed the fishes which was supposedly good luck. This was the highlight of the ride for me as the fish went crazy for the food. Our guide was silent for the duration of the ride so we didn’t learn about anything we saw. During the ride we saw various living accommodations which ranged from the crappiest hut to big beautiful houses – sometimes right next to each other. The ride ended in Chinatown which was just like the Peruvian markets I visited last year except these had a better variety of goods.

After Chinatown, we bargained with tuk tuk drivers until we got a 100 baht ride to the Royal Palace which a guard told us was closed to tourists (only Thai people were allowed in after a certain time).  We tried to get in anyway via a different entrance and were quickly approached by a tour guide who offered to bring us in and show us around for only 700 baht. This sounded like a great deal and it was! The entry fee to the palace was an additional 500 baht. Having a guide to show you around is definitely the way to go. We saw and learned about things that we would have completely missed.

I also had my first experience with a Thai bathroom. This one was very clean but had a variety of Western and Eastern toilets. You would think that perhaps they would line up the Eastern on one side and Western on the other…..nope! They were just randomly put in stalls so it was a crap shoot (hehe) to find the one you wanted to use. After the Royal Palace, we walked around the outside of the gates to see the reclining Buddha which was directly behind the complex. This Buddha was HUGE! Entry cost another 100 baht. From there we went to eat some street meat which was delicious. I also got some hard boiled fried egg in dough – kind of like a wonton – also delish. After that we went to the hotel via another 100 baht tuk tuk ride.

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Very difficult to get a good shot of the entire Buddha

We showered and got ready to meet the rest of the group for orientation and travel insurance check (I only used the insurance on my credit card which technically is not okay with G Adventures but the guy let it go). We all went to dinner at a restaurant diagonally across the circle from the hotel. The food was okay but was nothing special and overpriced. I’m sure the tour CEO got kick backs for bringing us there. Also a huge waterbug found a way to terrorize me all the way from America (they stalk me, I swear). I accidentally made a scene as I jumped up and tried to get away from it.  After dinner, we got water and ice cream and went to bed.

Driving from NY / NJ to NOLA for Mardi Gras!

Got an invite to Mardi Gras? Check!

Got a place to stay? Check!

Got transportation to NOLA? Ch…well, wait a second? Flights were $800 from NY to NOLA so we had to pass on that, which lead to a ROAD TRIP!!!!!!!!

I absolutely love road trips. There are so many things to see and do in the US that we miss out on because we are so intent on where we need to be instead of thinking about the journey of how to get there. New Orleans is approximately 20 hours from New York City so we had a lot of hours to fill.

I created a long list of things that I thought we may want to see along the way but because of timing, this is what we ended up with:

Our first stop was a guitar shaped building in Bristol, TN. You can easily see the guitar from the visitor’s center parking lot which is immediately after the first exit in Tennessee. We did a quick stop to take a couple of pictures and continued on our way.

Our next intended stop was Pigeon Forge, TN, but somehow we missed the entire town. We saw signs for a scenic natural park which I can only assume was Great Smoky Mountains National Park but wanted to know if there was a particular route we should try to venture on that would not take us too far out of the way. We ended up stopping in a town (which I have sadly forgotten the name of) and stopped in the visitor’s center to ask driving advice. There we met a lovely lady named Catherine who had stories galore and even remembered to show us a route that would bring us into an area of the park that was preserved from the olden days. Unfortunately, because we were driving south, it was out of the way for us but we hoped to see it on the way back.

Our next stop was the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Alabama. It is basically like a giant Goodwill so it’s hit or miss on whether or not you will find treasures for yourself. For us, we didn’t try very hard to find bargains, but we still were able to purchase cute cowboy boots for $30, sneakers for $13, new ink for my printer, new socks, a hat, a purse, and we could have bought a lot more. Everything we found was in great condition. There were things like camping gear that I debated on purchasing but decided against it because I didn’t want to risk not having all the pieces, or damaged pieces. Overall, it was just a fun shopping experience.

Our last stop on the trek down to NOLA was Natural Bridge Park in Alabama. After dealing with wrong directions from Google Maps and driving all over timbuktu trying to find this place, we finally decided to call them and ask directions. Once you know where it is, it is really easy to find. Just continue west on 278-W past Route 5, go down the hill and you will see a sign for the park on the right side. Turn on County Road 3500 and BAM! the park is right down the road.

We were welcomed to the park by a little dog running up to our car. I opened up the door and said to come in. He hopped in the car and promptly gave us kisses and cuddles while we parked the car. As we exited the car, two little brown puppies came over to welcome us as well! We were in heaven!. We were also fortunate enough to arrive at the park when Barbara and her husband were were working. They were such lovely people. Barbara looked at my friend and told him that he has native blood in him. We stayed and talked with them for a bit, then continued on to see the bridge. The puppies joined us for the trek.

If you have time, definitely stop in at this park. It is a beautiful space that doesn’t take long to enjoy. Continue on the path past the bridge to enjoy a wishing well and additional bridges/ledges. We arrived late in the day so we had the trail to ourselves (and the puppies!). If you bring lunch, you can even stop and eat on a bench at the wishing well or near one of the many little waterfalls along the paths.

We ended up arriving in NOLA at a pretty bad time – 11:45pm. We were staying at the Marriott on Canal Street and didn’t realize that parades go right along Canal. We drove around for almost 2 hours trying to find a decent parking lot to put the car in. We couldn’t even get close to the hotel to unload our bags. Had we arrived just a couple of hours later, we could have easily parked the car and been on our way.

Ultimately, we threw the car into a lot about 6 blocks away that cost $40 a night (which was the same price as hotel parking and $10 cheaper than a slightly closer lot). We dragged our bags through the Mardi Gras revelers and checked into the hotel…………then promptly fell asleep!

SNB files are evil, which means that Samsung sucks monkey balls

Why Samsung can’t just make snb files work with other programs is beyond me. If you don’t know what an snb file is, you are lucky……..but I’ll tell ya anyway. Samsung has a note taking program called S-Memo. While traveling, I thought this would be a good program to use for my journal writing as I could easily export the files to Drive, so when I took my daily trip notes, they could easily be backed up without having to always be connected to the Internet. Well, I was wrong.

Finding a program that could read S-Memo files on the PC is next to impossible. I Googled and Googled but couldn’t find an easy (or any) solution. Originally, I exported all the files directly to Drive expecting to be able to simply open and edit them but found that neither Drive nor any program on my PC could open the files. Finally by searching around on the Internet, I found that I could export from S-Memo under the “MyFiles” tab to either jpg, pdf or snb.

So obviously neither jpg or snb would be helpful as I wanted to edit my notes. I thought PDF was an option because on my computer, I have the full version of Adobe Acrobat. Unfortunately, this is not a real solution as the conversion basically gives you crap that you then have to decipher and put into actual words – much more work than just starting from scratch.

Overall, S-Note is a completely useless program and I will end up just reading my notes from my phone and will retype them.

priate cat

Tip of the Day! Keep travel docs handy

When traveling, make sure to scan a copy of all of your IDs. Email them to yourself and a trusted friend or family member. You can also keep them handy in Dropbox or Google Drive. Remember to also print a copy or two and bring it with you in case you don’t have Internet access and need them.

Tony tip meme

“You haven’t been to Machu Picchu unless you hiked the Inca Trail” Say What?????

I recently received the following comment from jazzy_almond@hotmail.com.

…everything you want to know….about riding the bus/train?!?!? Ha… you’ve not been unless you’ve hiked the Inca Trail…and there are bathrooms there near where you disembarked. That would require more walking and you rode the bus/train because that’s not what you wanted to do. There are 13,000 stairs along the Inca Trail, not including the ‘tons’ you mentioned… wonderful wonderful experience until we ran into tourist complaining about the walk up from the bus.

So…what a bummer. I hadn’t realized I actually hadn’t been to Peru or Machu Picchu. I’m really sad that I spent all that time and money on an experience I didn’t have!

I’d like to address a couple of the things mentioned in the comment.

  • Hiking the Inca Trail is not an option in February as it is closed for cleaning. It really is a shame that everyone that visits Peru in February is not able to actually say they have been to Machu Picchu …. according to Jazzy Almond anyway!
  • Bathrooms in MP – The bathrooms at the bus area are not “in” MP. They are at the entrance, outside of the gated area. In order to use them, you have to leave MP, even if you are all the way at the other side, travel down the many stairs and then do the trip in reverse. This is not very practical for families or for people who have issues breathing or walking up many stairs.
  • Taking a bus….not really sure what Jazzy is referring to. Does taking the bus from Aguas Caliente up to Machu Picchu make MP less awesome? The road up to MP is a very long, steep, windy and ‘unsafe for walking’ road. Why anyone chooses to walk up and possibly get hit by a bus is beyond my realm of comprehension. The bus costs hardly anything; do yourself a favor and ride it!
  • Train rides…..again, was the only option to get to MP in February; however, did Jazzy hike the Inca Trail to MP and then back again? Perhaps, using any technology at all while in Peru makes your trip null and void. Who knew!

I’m guessing Jazzy isn’t a follower of my blog so he/she/it didn’t realize that I had done 3 days of hiking prior to seeing MP. Still, I don’t think hiking anywhere in Peru makes the visit to MP any more genuine. Machu Picchu is an amazing experience, no matter how you get there. I hope in your travels there, you don’t encounter bitter people like Jazzy Almond who seem to think they are better than everyone else because they made different choices in their travels than you may.

Peru is made for the young, the old and yes, even the bitter/cranky/better-than-everyone people like Jazzy.

rollinhatin

A better packing list for Peru

Previously I wrote about what I was bringing to Peru on my Pre-Peru post. While I didn’t pack a lot, I found that I could have packed better. I’ve included my original packing list below.

packing list after 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I only used one black sweater so one just hung out in my suitcase the whole trip.

I only wore 2 out of 3 of my long sleeved shirts.

I never wore any of my tank tops.

I probably could have done without the leggings. I did wear them but perhaps another clothing item would have been more beneficial. At the very least, I could have just packed one pair.

I could have also done with just one pair of jeans. I only wore both pairs because I had them. There’s laundry everywhere so if you do happen to get your clothes dirty, you can easily and cheaply get them washed, dried and returned to you in a few hours.

I never wore my pair of heels. Everywhere we went was very casual which was a bit of a disappointment as I did want to get dressed up and be fancy at least once.

I never used the hand warmers. I tried to use them one night when camping, but I forgot to read the directions and I really didn’t need them anyway.

I never used my water purifier tablets. I found that if I filled my water bottle up in the morning of our hiking treks and then again at lunch, I had more than enough water to last the day. There also weren’t many options to retrieve dirty water along the Inka Quarry Trail.

I did end up buying a fake pair of North Face pants that converted into shorts. I strongly advise bringing a pair of pants like these. I wore them the entire time we hiked and would not have been happy in jeans or leggings as the temperature varies a lot during the day. It also rained and even with a poncho, your pants are going to get wet. You’ll be much happier wearing quick-dry pants.

I also bought a pair of plastic shoe covers but they were just annoying to wear and I ended up throwing them out after hiking. Just make sure your shoes are waterproof (mine weren’t) and you’ll be fine.

Another useful thing I bought was an over the shoulder purse/bag that was sold everywhere. This came in really handy as I didn’t want to carry my backpack around on days that we weren’t hiking. I guess sometimes I’m just a bit of a fashionista!

So this is what I could have left home: 1 black sweater, 1 long sleeved top, 2 tank tops, 1 pair of jeans, 1 pair of leggings, heels, hand warmers, water purifier tablets. That’s like an armful of stuff!

I also should have switched my messenger bag with a nicer day bag and a pair of jeans for North Face-like pants.

Every time I travel, I become a better and lighter packer. I am still always amazed at the people who pack just one or two outfits and make them work for the whole trip. I don’t think I’ll ever be one of those people, but I’m determined to always pack in a carry-on no matter how long my trip is!

Colca Canyon to Arequipa to home

IMG_1682My last day in Peru was also the last day of my mini tour from Puno to Arequipa. Once again the tour bus was exactly on time to head to Colca Canyon and Cruz del Condor. It was a nice scenic drive. We stopped several times to check out the views and we were able to see the town of Yanque while another few people were picked up at their hotel. Yanque was a boring town just like Chivay (town square and a church) and had children performing a dance in traditional clothing asking for tips. The music was blasting and it was only 6:30am. They also had hawks and llamas that you could pose with (for tips of course). Everything in the country is about getting money out of you, which I guess is understandable since there aren’t many other jobs available.

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Definitely a condor

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Maybe a condor….maybe a hawk

At Cruz del Condor we saw a couple of condors and supposedly some other birds that weren’t condors but looked similar. It was pretty dull but it was a nice weather day so sitting around was relaxing and pleasant. After an hour or so, we left to drive to Arequipa. We stopped for lunch and some people switched buses again depending on if you were traveling to Arequipa or Puno. In Arequipa, I was dropped off at the airport so that was a great savings and perk to the tour. I had hours to kill in the airport so I found a bar and had some beer. They didn’t have Wi-Fi which was a bummer, but after I got bored, I walked to the other side of the airport (about 5 feet, jk) and found the other restaurant which did have Wi-Fi.

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lower level of the condor site

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Traffic jam

The highlight of the day was being upgraded randomly to Business Class on the first leg of the flight which was pretty cool even though the flight was only 1.5 hours. I got a full meal, champagne upon boarding and vodka with sprite during my meal. Unfortunately, I was not upgraded on my flight from Lima back to the States 😦

View of the Freedom Tower from the plane

View of the Freedom Tower from the plane

Overall, I think this 4m tour is a nice way to get from Puno to Arequipa or vice versa if you have a couple of days to kill. Otherwise, go ahead and take a flight.

I think my 2.5 weeks in Peru was just enough time for me to accomplish everything I wanted to do. Intrepid Travel has a lot of kinks to work out but since I got the trip on a major discount, I feel it was a wise decision to use them. Hopefully in the future, they will have the perfect tour with great tour guides. I do advise to press for as much information you can get from any tour operator you use – either for a full tour or for daily trips. It seems they all like to do a bait and switch kind of thing, so anything you can get in writing is a good idea.

Happy travels!!!

cats classes

The beginning of the end……… Puno to Chivay

After my crazy fun birthday night, I slept for an hour and then headed out to jump on a 2 day tour to Colca Canyon where I’d see condors flying around in their natural habitat. I used Colca Tours to book this tour but I wouldn’t recommend them. If you do use them, be sure to get the name of your lodging prior to the trip along with their address and phone number. Also, confirm whether or not you will be picked up at your hotel for the hot springs tour in Chivay and at what time. Most, if not all, tour companies book you on the 4m tour. This means you will possibly switch buses at a rest stop when you stop for a snack on the way to/from Chivay. Find this out when you book your tour so you aren’t confused when it happens. Since I didn’t know about any of this, I spent a good part of the two days being confused and a bit stressed. I like routine and am not really fond of surprises. Tell me who, what, when and why and I’ll be a happy camper.

Anyway, the bus was on time and had a friendly tour guide. As is typical, a small bus picked up everyone in Puno, but what was surprising was that the little bus took us all the way to Chivay. We made a few stops at Lake Lagunillas and at a volcano viewing site, Patapampa. At the viewing site was also a place where Peruvians stack rocks and make wishes. We also stopped to see spindly legged animals, Vicunas, and a huge lot of llamas in Pampa Cañahuas.

Lake Laguinals

Lake Lagunillas

Vicunas

Vicunas

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wishing rocks

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Upon arrival in Chivay, I was personally escorted to find my hotel since the tour operator didn’t tell my tour guide where I was staying either. Chivay is really tiny so I think no matter where you stay, you’ll be in a decent location. Although, some of the nicer hotels might be on the outskirts of the main center. Fortunately, my hostel was just off the beaten path so I only had to walk a few short blocks to the center which had a nice park, church, food, etc. Since you only spend one night in Chivay, you really don’t have to splurge on anything more than a hostel with heat and hot water. Although you if you shower properly with shampoo and soap at the hot springs, you can do without the hot water as well! My hostel was located off of Av Siglo xx a block or so past the college, down one of the blocks to the left. Of course I can’t remember its name to recommend it. 😦

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With the toIMG_1658ur, you arrive in Chivay in the early afternoon. This gives you plenty of time to have lunch, people-watch in the park, take some pictures, walk down the pedestrian only street with the statues and shop the market. The market in Chivay is more for locals than tourists but you may find something interesting. You can also partake in lots of street food if you so desire.

 

The hot springs bus picked me up around 4pm. It was a short ride to the springs. There you are given a free locker and access to showers and changing room. There are several tubs to choose from – both indoor and outdoor. They give you about 45 minutes to spend at the springs which is plenty of time. Make sure you remove all your jewelry prior to going to the springs as the water will damage the metals. I advise only using the outdoor springs. We had to switch to the indoor one after a violent thunder-hail storm suddenly started and it just wasn’t as good.

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After the springs, you are dropped back at your hotel and you have just enough time to shower, go out to eat dinner and come back and pass out as by this time, you are going to be exhausted and not want to do anything but sleep!

Puno and Lake Titicaca – go ahead and giggle….you know you want to

After spending the morning in Machu Picchu, we had lunch in the MP town, then took the train back to Ottalaytambo. Immediately upon arrival, we were ushered into a bus and whisked away for a 2 or 3 hour drive to Cusco again. I don’t understand the logic of the timing of going back to Cusco via bus, but that’s a question that Intrepid Travel must answer.

Only pic taken on my Cusco free day

Only pic taken on my Cusco free day

It didn’t seem to make sense to take the train to the bus when we could have gotten there faster by staying on the train. I also don’t understand why we didn’t just spend an extra day in Cusco when we were there in the first place. For me it ended up being a day of rest because I wasn’t feeling well and the group left me so I didn’t even have the option of spending any time as a group. I hit the shops but didn’t buy much as I am not one to buy lots of touristy trinkets. I also had a great dinner at a restaurant near the hotel. The place even had a live band so that was fun.

The next morning we took a bus to the bus station in Cusco and got on a bus to Puno for a 5-7 hour ride. The bus was two levels. I had a prime seat in the front of the bus although the window had a huge crack in it.  The bus was very hot but I was able to sleep, watch a movie and listen to music so the time went quickly. I hear the lower level was the air conditioned with leather seats, but I don’t know if that was accurate. Interestingly  our tour guide sat on that level…….

Random church in Puno

Random church in Puno

In order to get to Puno, we had to drive through some really dingy looking neighborhoods and when we arrived at Puno, it didn’t look much better. Fortunately, our hotel was right near the main center so the area was good. We went out for dinner as a group at what seemed to be an American Italian restaurant then went to bed. Talk about a boring two days!

Fortunately, the trip started to pick up again. Our last trek together was to Lake Titicaca. We were joined by other random people. The tour was in both English and Spanish. Upon arrival toIMG_1282 the homestay island of Amantani, we were separated into groups of 2 and were escorted to our home for the night. My roomie and I ended up staying in a house with the tour guides as well which was nice because they were able to translate for us as the owners didn’t speak any English, only Quechua. Our house was nice with a flush toilet and even a shower but others were not as lucky. We helped our lady shuck peas from her garden which was an odd experience since it was pretty much in silence. Other than that we didn’t really have any interaction with her. She didn’t eat with us or try to communicate at all.

IMG_1265Soon after we settled in, the group trekked up a mountain to see the view but I stayed behind because I was tired of being abandoned on the trail. Turns out that wasn’t the best idea for two reasons – one the trek was easy so I could have done it and two after sitting by the polluted shoreline for a while, I got IMG_1367lost trying to get back to my house. I had to play charades with people to try to get home. Ultimately, someone took pity on me and brought me to his house which was conveniently right next to a bar! My house lady found me eventually and we went back to the house to have dinner. Next we were rushed into costume …..well, their native clothing and ushered over to a party. (I don’t know how they keep that black cape on their head. Mine kept pulling my head and tilting my head back!) The party turned out to be a lot of fun, but again, we were rushed out at a certain time when the natives were ready to go to bed.

IMG_1436The next morning we took the boat to Taquille Island for no real reason. You have to hike all uphill again and while you do see a really nice view, it seems to just be an excuse to charge you for lunch. Overall, not worth the bother. On the way back to the boat, I was again left behind but this time it was with two additional people. We ended up asking directions and had to trek over giant rocks on the shoreline to find the port. This was another huge fail on both Intrepid Travel and the local guide. They didn’t even look for us and we were missing for a long time – enough time for everyone to take a swim in the lake.

Finally we went to the reed islands which is the whole reason you go to Lake Titicaca. Surprisingly, there were a whole lot of mini islands instead of a few bigger ones. It was interesting to see them, but of course, you then get pressured to buy the stuff they are selling. They only sell a few things that they make and they import the rest of their stock – seems a bit silly but as they have no other income, I guess they have no choice. IMG_1487

Once we got back to Puno, we settled back in and then got ready to go out for our last night together. We went to a dinner at a place with a show, Balcones de Puno. The show was fun – native dancing with lots of energy. Afterwards, a couple of people came out with me for my birthday and that was a ton of fun – bars, Latin dancing and karaoke. Great night! At the end, we were locked out of the hotel……might be nice if they told you ahead of time that they were going to chain the gates and make you stand outside banging on them to be let back in. It also makes me think that if there was a fire, these hotels are probably not the safest places to stay. Overall, it was a fabulous way to end my time with the group!IMG_1529