Return to Southeast Asia
August 12th, 2011
Hello friends near and far,
The travel bug has struck again and I am headed for some more sweaty adventures in Southeast Asia. The general plan is to poke around Cambodia, Vietnam and maybe a bit of Laos. I will be meeting my o-so-bold girlfriend Kristi who has been busy out-globetrotting me this year. She has already spent 5 weeks in Thailand meditating and rock-climbing her way to an alternate plane of existence. We have many fond memories of our trip to Thailand in 2009 and hope to unlock more mysteries of the region this time around.
I wonder how many of you have been following my travel ramblings since the beginning?(mom!) This is the 3rd time I have jumped to a new blogging page since my humble beginnings back in 2003. It is crazy to look back on all of the amazing times documented on this blog. Again and again I am amazed at how lucky I am to witness the beauty and diversity of the world. It truly keeps me energized and curious for more. I hope you still enjoy reading and watching me plod along these odd places. I have always thoroughly enjoyed your readership and delicious comments. I hope travel writing and pictures provide some amount of inspiration for your own journeys.
Angkor Wat and the Temple of Doom
August 24th, 2011
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So a pleasntly uneventful 20 hour flight to Bangkok, a 9 hour bus ride to Cambodia avoiding scams and fake border officials and a glorious reunion with Kristi in Southeast Asia, we begin our adventure in the ancient temples of Angkor Wat. Perhaps you remember Angelina Jolie hopping around them in Tomb Raider or saw the sets inspired by them from Indiana Jones?
The temples themselves are huge and magnificent. As always, the pictures I have seen on the Internet do not do them justice. (nor will mine). Even just the approach to the temples are impressive as you walk across bridges adorned with giant stone dragons or wander along walkways lined with what appear to be smaller “guest temples” for the visiting gods of the era. One particularly exciting moment found us scurrying inside one of these smaller abandoned temples to escapes the sudden down pour of rain. Watching (and listening to) this welcome gush of wetness from a stone window felt like traveling back in time.
Every wall is intricately carved with designs or in-laid with decaying statues. Unlike many beautiful places of the world, we were allowed to climb and walk all over it. This did not feel like a museum at all but instead a living example of the past. Perhaps the most amazing part of these structures are how they are intertwined with the environment. Some stones are covered in vibrant hues of green moss, others have jungly plants squeezing out of their cracks and most impressively…enormous trees have literally been smashing through the giant stone arches and walls for 1000′s of years. Some of these clashes of stone and tree almost seem like an impossible frozen moment in time where the whole temple is about to collapse around us. I’m glad it didn’t!
We also visited a “floating city” called Kompong Phlukk. During the wet season (now), certain sections of land in the very flat Cambodia are flooded by the Mekong River. This particular community has adapted to this climate pattern by building all their homes and structures on tall wooden stilts. All modes of transit are done by some form of boat. The result feels like something out of a National Geographic film documenting a culture that has not changed in centuries. A few enterprising locals have done a nice job organizing western tourists into various longtail boats through a wetland and a tipsy wooden canoe paddled by a mother and daughter through a flooded forest. We even ate at a modest “floating restaurant” at the end of the trip.
As with many of these wonders-of-the-world, we are surrounded by a dramatic contrast of extreme poverty and egotistical wealth. It is not uncommon to see mal-nourished children begging for food in one minute and an Air-conditioned Lexus full of wealthy westerners whizzing by in the next. Although I try my best to eat at local restaurants and stay with family run hostels, it is hard to tell if my tourist dollar is helping or hurting their community. On one hand, I am definitely bringing money into their economy. On the other hand, I can see how this kind of money is having a large impact on their culture and behavior. The Cambodians are trying their best to cater to our western tastes by offering pizza at sports bars or driving us around their ancient temples in large buses. This is a far cry from the traditions of their ancestors. The competition can get so fierce that our perception of the locals can turn negative as we have to continually turn down offers of transport, food, tours, etc. I find myself searching for a normal conversation with a Cambodian that does not involve any kind of transaction or service.
Today we took a bumpy 15 hour night bus over the border to Saigon, Vietnam. The adventure continues!
Adventures in Relaxing – Mui Ne Beach
August 27th, 2011
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Rewind 2 years ago and I was learning how to kite-surf in Bali. Although I loved it, about half of the time I was waiting for the wind to pick up to a speed high enough to carry us around the water. The instructor spoke of a place in Vietnam that “always” had wind. It was called Mui Ne. Fast forward to the present and we find ourselves arriving in this so-called wind mecca. Although we are here in the low season, this place is definitely one of the kite-surfing hot spots in the world. There are a whopping 27 kite-surfing schools on a tiny strip of sand ready to teach eager travelers how to fly on water. Compare that to the paltry 3 schools in Bali.
Lucky for us, the wind lived up to its reputation and we got to fly some kites. I took a “refresher” course to jog my rusty memory. Our instructor Hai was super cool. He made the whole process feel like hanging out with friends. People who live in these kinds of exotic/adventurous locations tend to develop a zen-like mellowness that is infectious. I was able to remember my Bali skills and spent some decent time riding on the board on the 2nd day. It is still a bizarre combination of technical kite flying skills with athletic board riding skills while trying to adapt to rapidly changing wind and water conditions (not to mention approaching jet skis, swimmers and other kiters). My main goal was to renew my love for this sport and vow to really learn it one day. Mission accomplished!
We also tried some Stand Up Paddle boarding. Kristi and I have previously tried this in the flat waters of the Venice Beach Canals. The waves of Vietnam were a bit more challenging. We were able to get past the breakers ok but overall it was a bit too sketchy for us. On the way back in Kristi got a sudden sting in her leg. Jellyfish! We treated her with Vinegar and ultimately got her some anti-toxin shots from the hospital to reduce the inflammation. Yummy! Apparently this is very unusual for the low season as the instructors are in the water all day every day and never get stung. But all is well now.
Overall, Mui Ne was a perfect combination of relaxing meals on the beach with some adventurous water sports. Next up, the clothing copy capital of Vietnam…Hoi An!
Tuxedo and Board Shorts in Hoi An
August 31st, 2011
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A big topic of conversation among travelers in developing countries is how they get from point A to point B. There are usually many options ranging from extremely slow/cheap and uncomfortable to moderately paced/pretty cheap and kinda comfortable. The 2 most common ways to get around Vietnam are by overnight buses and soft/hard sleeper trains. There are numerous scams and outright lies about how long a trip will take (in one case, 10 hours instead of 4), if a bus has a sleeper seat (or a barely reclining squished non Air-con seat) and if there will be any transfers (sitting on a filthy street at 3am for 2 hours). The cheater option is a quick and still-quite-cheap flight to the next major hub. Although fast, it skips over so much of the country. The trick for a budget minded traveler with limited time and a desire to see at least some of the “real” Vietnam is to balance the quicker posh way with the nitty-gritty hassle of the slower way. Accordingly, Kristi and I have used an appropriate blend of these forms of transit (along with boats, motorcycles, bicycles, tuk-tuks, kayaks, inner-tubes and feet) to get ourselves around the region. In other words, the journey is indeed a big part of the destination.
Hoi An is the next stop on our journey. It is almost exclusively known as a clothing tailor mecca. The idea is that you give them some picture or example of a fine piece of clothing (gucci, armani, etc) and they will make cheap copy for you in 24 hours. Most tourists go with the flow and try to get a slick suit or formal dress made. Although this seemed like a decent idea, I spoke with a few road worn travelers who advised against it. Apparently they look good from afar, but over time the material thins and the stitching falls apart. I did end up getting a few odds and ends that I am pretty happy with but we shall see how they hold up over time. Kristi and I also had the idea of getting a few pairs of Poi made out of all the fancy fabrics. It was pretty fun demonstrating why we wanted these odd shaped pieces of cloth made by spinning our poi balls in the store.
Aside from the normal tourist fun in Hoi An, I actually needed to get something important accomplished. One of my best friends from growing up in St. Louis is getting married in a few weeks. I foolishly thought I could get fitted for my tux after I returned from my trip but they actually needed my measurements sooner. So my mission was to find a tailor in Vietnam who could give me these magic numbers! The 1st attempt was a miserable failure. Since he could not speak any English and I can only say “Thank you” in Vietnamese, it took 15 minutes to somberly explain that I did not want him to craft me a fine suit, but that I only needed him to measure me for one. I offered to pay for that service but he did not want payment. He also didn’t want to use my pre-formatted chart for him to enter the numbers. Instead he scribbled and sketched some pictures and unintelligible letters and numbers on a scrap of paper. Although I appreciated his effort, it was of no use.
The 2nd attempt was even more ridiculous. This tailor shop had a troupe of energized women that seemed to laugh at everything that happened. This time we decided to buy a few things 1st and then tag on the measurement at the end so the transaction would go smoother. As we discussed the various clothing options, these ladies kept smacking us on the butt and talking about my “banana”. They were using this same frisky behavior with another couple in the store. When it finally came time to get my measurements, the older lady sprung into action with measuring tape in hand. She then made a big production of measuring my oft-referred to “banana”. The whole store erupted in laughter and I was duly embarrassed. But after this brief tailor hazing, I finally got the tux measurements. Success!
Ruckus in Halong Bay
September 4th, 2011
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No trip to Vietnam would be complete without exploring the world famous Halong Bay. The bay is a carved out section of land in northern Vietnam that is filled with 1000′s of giant limestone cliffs jutting out of the ocean. It has a remarkable resemblance to Krabi, Thailand. The only real way to experience this region is by spending a night or 2 on a boat in the bay…so that’s just what we did.
We selected a younger party/activity style boat that promised lots of adventure with 1 night on the boat and 1 night on their private island in the middle of the bay. It was quite a hoot. As soon as the boat left the harbour we were surrounded by ancient pillars rising to the sky. Each one had it’s own habitat. Some of these islands actually have Langur monkeys living on them…apparently one of the rarest primates in the world. The party/activity aspect of the boat was good fun for awhile as we had 50 adrenalized backpackers from around the world ready for action. Cards games, drinks, boat jumps, high speed tubing, wake-boarding, rock-climbing, volleyball, ping-pong, kayaking, caving and spinning poi. We did all of the activities but eventually bowed out of the party action. There is just no keeping up with those drink-swilling Brits and Ozzies.
We departed from our party crew and headed over to Cat Ba Island with our minds set on more rock climbing. The only reputable climbing shop in Vietnam exists on this large island and opened a short 4 years ago. Organized rock climbing is still a young sport here and that adds to the feeling of adventure. They hooked us up with a few days of regular rock climbing and… some Deep Water Soloing! You may remember Kristi and I’s 1st experience with this fantastic form of climbing in Thailand 2 years ago in Krabi. The basic idea is that a small boat drives you up to one of these large pinnacles…you grab onto the rock…and climb as high as you can until you fall. You don’t need ropes as the deep water below will catch you. It is climbing in its most natural form, unencumbered by ropes and gear. The mental struggle that everyone must encounter is the higher you climb, the farther you fall. The 1st few climbs I jump off quite low…but as the afternoon stretches on I get more comfortable with the feeling of falling into the water and climb a bit higher. We finished the day with some incredible kayaking through caves and into jellyfish filled coves. Halong is quite a magical place if you give yourself enough time to escape the tourist mobs.
Next up, vrrrroomm vroooomm!
Motorcycles and Rice Paddies
September 7th, 2011
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Kristi and I have just returned from the final adventure of our trip…and it was a doozee. We chose to take a detour from the traditional tourist sights and took a local bus to a lesser known small town called Ninh Binh. We had heard this was a good jumping off point for the “real” Vietnam. I am always skeptical of phrases like this but I thought it was worth a try. Our hostel proposed the idea that we take motorcycles out with a guide to spend a few nights with local families in small villages throughout the countryside. Our 1st objection was that we don’t really know how to ride motorcycles…and the road conditions here in Vietnam are not exactly beginner friendly. But they insisted we would learn fast. and that we would spend most of our time on isolated country roads and out of the busy cities and highways. Ok. Lets do this!
So Kristi, our guide “Binh” and I shared 2 bikes…meaning that Kristi and I took turns driving. Getting out of the city was hectic but driving in the country was quite exhilarating. There really is a connectedness and freedom that you just can’t experience from a bus, train or car window. Every bump, dog bark and rain drop is a part of your experience. And the ever-changing road demands your constant attention. Our 1st stop was at a peculiar river called “Tam Coc” that runs through rice paddies and large limestone cliffs. This area has been dubbed the “Halong Bay of Rice fields”. That was pretty accurate. The only way to see the area is via a small wooden row boat that a poor old women rows for us for 2 hours. She spoke no English but we still shared some funny moments. I couldn’t help but wonder how this frail women of 60 or 70 years old could manage to row tourists around in the hot sun for hours day after day. I hope I am at least half that fit at her age.
5 hours of riding later and we arrived at our 1st homestay with a Vietnamese family. The area was quite magical. It felt like a set from Waterworld or Avatar (or the game Myst). There were multi-layered rice terraces framed with huge wooden water wheels and long bamboo chutes to serve as a very aesthetic irrigation system. It really felt like being sent back in time. The children seemed healthy and happy and would run after us to say hello and shake our hands. This stood in sharp contrast to the terse encounters with kids trying to sell trinkets in the tourist centers. Although some of the adults kept to their own business, many would give us a warm “Sin chao” if we smiled or said hello to them. Everything was made from Bamboo trees from the local forest. All of the food was farmed right there in their backyard. The animals roamed freely everywhere we went. It truly seemed like a peaceful and content place. I am glad places like this still exist.
The dinner was delicious. One of the best meals we have had on the trip. We ate it simply on the floor in the middle of their nearly empty yet beautiful bamboo hut. We drank homemade rice wine. Lots of it. They kept pouring us more and would not accept our pleas of surrender. Eventually our guide taught us that turning the shot glass sideways means pour me a half shot next time and turning the shot glass upside down means you are finished. Feeling clever, we employed this new technique…to total failure. Our host just laughed loudly and poured us another round of rice wine. It was good fun. After dinner, we snuggled into our little mosquito net bedding and fell asleep to crickets and thunder.
The next morning we did an incredibly scenic hike to a waterfall. The water was so clear, cold and refreshing after the crushing heat of the hike…and we had it all to ourselves! Another magical moment in another magical place. Feeling relaxed, we hoped on our motorbikes to head for the next village. Although it is the rainy season, it has not rained on us very much. And when it does rain, it is usually in the evening. Well…on this particular day it decided to rain early. Motorbikes and mud and rain and mountain trails and new riders do not mix that well. On 1 seemingly simple turn, the bike slipped out from under me and I took a little tumble. Lucky for me, I landed safely and suffered only a few scrapes. But laying in the mud in the pouring rain feeling a stinging pain in my arm and seeing my motorbike tires spin freely in the distance was a pretty sobering moment. I drove very safely for the rest of the trip. This little slip also slathered a nice dose of reality over any future biking trips that my adventure brain was conjuring.
Overall the trip was amazing. I do feel we saw the “Real” Vietnam. Sometimes I wonder why I am so focused on escaping the tourist trail and if maybe I need to chill out. But this trip reminded me why I have this traveling tendency. It is to have truly new experiences that cause new thoughts to fire in my brain. There was something special about being surrounded by the working and playing and relaxing people of Vietnam for 3 days straight. I felt I could see them more as a regular person like you me…even if they live on the other side of the planet and chase water buffalo for a living. Also, experiencing the hard work and generosity of people with much less than me is undeniably humbling. Being face to face with these new experiences helps these good emotions and thoughts to enter directly into my consciousness. I hope I can keep them there!
Now for some logistical travel to get back to Bangkok and then return home. Kisses and hugs to you all.