Even though we don't leave until Saturday (today being Monday) there are actually only four more sleeps given that we are scheduled to depart at 2AM Saturday morning, arriving in Bangkok 11 AM on the 30th. There is still much to do before we sleepily shuffle on board.
Friday, Jan 28, Vancouver Canada
We are in that delicious state of anticipation that departure day brings. Sure, there are still lots of last minute things to do but today the ticks on the list and the tick of the clock progress in happy unison. Along with the anticipation is the excitement of new places, new tastes, new people, new insights, unexpected discoveries and unknown adventures. Well, not entirely unknown given that we have a day by day itinerary but these mere words now start to manifest their reality: a month in Southeast Asia!
Monday, Jan 31st - Bangkok Thailand
After a long, long flight to Hong Kong we endured a 2 hour delay in our departure to Bangkok, however we finally touched down mid afternoon yesterday. As it was Sunday the roads were fairly quiet and we arrived at our hotel with enough time to shower & then meet on the deck to sample the local beer before we were whisked away to our first event - a dinner then theatre show at the Siam Niramit restaurant.
I call it a restaurant, but not so much restaurant (a buffet of marginal quality) it was the show that took us by surprise. It was a huge theatre able to hold 2,000 or so. The show featuring dozens of actors in incredible costumes, elephants, weather (rain, thunder and lightning) boats, goats, musicians - it was truly over the top. If any of us had been able to stay awake to actually experience this extravaganza I'm sure we would have enjoyed it. It was pretty disorienting to be jolted awake by a loud clap of thunder and the sound of a downpour only to find yourself in a huge theatre room with actors and actresses in incredible costumes floating through the air, swimming, riding elephants or experiencing a torturous purgatory where, depending on your sin (adultery, drinking, lying) you suffered different indignities.
We are almost ready to leave for a day in Bangkok so i must leave you now.... more later
Wednesday, Feb 2 - Bangkok train station
We are waiting now to board an overnight train to Vientiane, Laos. I have much to say and not enough time to do so - but I will do what I can.
Our Monday in Bangkok if I can boil it down to one question would be: "how would you like your Buddha?" Would you like him made of five tons of pure gold? This Buddha spent centuries encased in an outer shell to conceal the golden likeness. Would you like your Buddha reclining - & enormous - almost 50 meters long?
What about a Jade Buddha? This is the king's favourite. Not that one? well then you can choose the Buddha that watches over the day of the week marking your birthday.
If you can't decide then simply go to the Temple of Dawn where there is more an a thousand Buddhas gracing this amazing place.
At lunch on Monday the highlight for me was discovering this small little coconut dumpling or perhaps custard. Delicate & sweet, it was delicious.
After a day of temples we returned to our hotel with 4 masseuses in tow and had full body massages in the comfort and privacy of our own hotel rooms. Then we ventured out that evening to the Khao San Road area, which was wall to wall people with shops of every description lining each side. It was carnival like. On a Monday night. We ate a dinner at a Thai restaurant - Tom Yung Kung - and was enjoyed by all. OK, my choice of steamed seafood in a red curry paste ended up tasting more like fishy tomato aspic, but everything else was very tasty - especially the Singha beer.
There are two images represented here that repeated themselves many times over during our trip that kept reminding me of how different things are in this part of the world compared to home. The first is the long tail boat and we saw many variations in both size of boat and size of engine on the different waterways we explored. These Bangkok-based speed boats were fast (and noisy) while others, with less horsepower moved at a more stately pace. I'm not sure when we'll see the first of these in Burrard inlet, but they are endemic in Southeast Asia.
The other image - a display of flowers as an offering at an alter - is also something that we saw time and time again everywhere we went. Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam - didn't matter. There were alters and shrines venerating, mainly the Buddha, but also shrines honouring family ancestors or other gods or spirits. Without exception we would see at least some form of offering sitting there - flowers, food, money or special momentos. Unlike North America, these shrines are seen everywhere - churches, museums, public buildings, private homes, city parks, sidewalk alcoves or some random place along the side of the road. Public displays of worship - not of groups but of individuals - was also a common sight and it was things like this that reminded me how different society is here versus where we live.
We left Bangkok very early on Tuesday for the River Kwai - yes we did visit the famous bridge, but before we did, we visited the cemetery where so many of the POWs as well a Thai people who died such miserable deaths are commemorated.
After touring a museum we boarded a train that carried on the same track bed and I must say that while is was great thing to do it was also a sobering thought to think how this was built not that long ago.
After getting off the train we then went off to ride elephants. We later learned that a few days after a tourists died while riding an elephant (not at our venue) when there was a fight between two males, but, they all behaved when we were riding and so lived to tell about it. To kill time while waiting for our turn we wandered in to watch the elephant show - two elephants doing party tricks in a sort of performance corral. One of the tricks involved having an elephant administer a massage. Once again Mary leapt to her feet as the first to volunteer, this time followed closely by yours truly. In retrospect, I'm not really sure why I did it, and I now realize how risky a thing it was, but who knew that ever since this night my erotic dreams now involve elephants.
Next on the agenda was a visit to the Tiger Temple where we went to view and pet tigers before setting out via longtail boat to a floating hotel situated on the Kwai.
It was a terrific place - beautiful and peaceful. It took about twenty minutes or so going against the current to reach that night's abode. It was late afternoon when we boarded a boat after a long, tiring and busy day. Sitting in that open boat we were the picture of contentment watching a smoky, golden dusk descend on the steep jungle shores of the river Kwai. The hotel - a series of barges linked together and floating at a long bend in the river was very funky as these pictures attest. We all agreed we could have stayed at this location longer - but - no rest for the weary as we were off again first thing the next morning.
Thailand and Bangkok have been great. The traffic chaotic but somehow everything works out. The sights and sounds are so different. Alas I am yet again out of time so must leave. The train ride is about 12 hours - overnight - we have first class sleeper cabins. We arrive in Laos on New Year's day.
ps - all healthy and over jet lag pretty much
Friday, Feb 4, Vientiane, Laos
New Years Day did I say? Well, as we learned from our guide Laotians have 4 of them - ours, Chinese, Vietnamese & their own - sometime in April I think. Just one more indication of the fact that when you think you have understood or figured out how things work you discover yet more layers of complexity.
The overnight train was a real trip - Brian, we couldn't help but wonder how you might have fared in the tiny sleeping compartments. They were long on novelty but somewhat short in length. While I was pretty sure I would not catch one wink given the noise, the jolting motion and confined space, I did manage some sleep, as did we all.
It was last Wednesday that we said goodbye to our guide Vittaya and driver Rodney at the Bangkok train station after the journey back from the floating lodge. En route we had visited the Chedi Pagoda (the world's tallest) which was very busy given Chinese New Year was upon us. All of us received a blessing from a monk who splashed holy water on us - but not before he advised me to keep my camera out of range - a very considerate fellow. We then stopped at the Human Imagery Museum. Not really sure what to expect, we found ourselves (with several hundred school children) at a wax museum where notable people are commemorated. It was very well done. School children are the same the world over. Always ready to enjoy a field trip outing - the bolder ones waving and giggling at the tourists, but all of them noisy with their teachers admonishing unruly behaviour.
Anyway, back to the train station where prior to boarding the train we sat down at a restaurant that had one or two tables inside, several on the sidewalk and then a growing number encroaching onto the road, which is where we sat eating green curry, Phad Thai and morning glory in a black bean sauce all washed down with beer. Despite the fact that we were sitting at a table on a road with cars whizzing by, the weather was warm, the food was good and we were about to set out on yet another travel adventure and so all was right in our world.
We arrived at the Nong Khai train station yesterday morning at about 8:30 where we were met by Mr Tan who took us across the Friendship Bridge (more on this friendship later) into Laos. He then helped us navigate through the acquisition of a travel Visa and then drove us to our hotel in Vientiane where we gratefully showered and changed. We met again for lunch and then off for an afternoon of touring. As Laos is also Buddhist we visited two temples - well one temple and the other now a museum. At Wat Sisaket (the museum) there are housed a collection of statues of the Buddha back to the 15th century. Hundreds of them in various states of repair. There were also thousands of small statues in niches that lined the walls behind the larger statues.
The building itself was also old with faded, largely ruined murals gracing the walls, wooden support beams that seemed ready to finally find rest after a couple of centuries of duty.
The whole effect was to leave an air of reverence that I did not feel as strongly in any of the Thai temples. Similar to the difference between Skagway, Alaska & Dawson City, Yukon. Both places trade on the Klondike gold rush, but Skagway is a re-creation whereas Dawson City still has the original buildings in all there mouldering glory.
At the Haw Pra Keo temple is the small replica of the Emerald Buddha, which, as we learned from our guide Mr Tan, had been stolen from Laos by the Siamese back in (I think) 1779. Despite promises to return it the original remains firmly ensconced at the Grand Palace in Bangkok and as this is the King's favorite Buddha it is not likely to be returned anytime soon. It seems the Friendship bridge is a start, but Laotians pray for the day of it's return.
Oh yes, I must take you back to the Tiger Temple, where we all had the opportunity to get up close & personal with several full grown Eurasian tigers.
The story goes that some years ago someone brought a sick & orphaned tiger cub to the local monastery where the monks tried to nurse it back to health. While this first one died several more were brought and today they have something like 80 or 90 tigers. We arrived very close to closing time and were rushed to an area where there were about a dozen tigers chained in a open area. One by one, we were led by a volunteer to each of these beasts where we would pet them & pose for a photo op. It was bizarre. The cats seemed oblivious to us and did not really react to our tentative caresses. Other than creating a tremendous tourist attraction we couldn't really understand how raising these tigers in captivity is helping them. Most of the tigers have been born in captivity and remain there.
Well, enough for now. A few more hours in Vientiane & then we fly this afternoon to Xieng Kouang Province and the mysterious Plain of Jars.
Saturday, Feb 5, Luang Prabang, Laos
As we have been moving about quite a bit it seems we have a different guide everyday and so it has been hard to get to know any of them very well or establish much rapport. While all of them speak and understand English to some extent it is difficult to have nuanced discussion. We met out current guide, Tue Vue (sounds like 2V) when we arrived in Phonsavanh yesterday afternoon. Tue Vue is a 29 year old Lao, the eldest of 10 who left the family rice farm several years ago and has been guiding for a couple of years now. He has a great sense of humour and while English is still a bit of a struggle we are all getting along very well with him. When asked, he revealed that he is single and that at the ripe old age of 29 he is really past the marrying age. We challenged him on this given his charm, good looks and generally sunny outlook. He explained that there is much competition and in his more rural part of Laos girls are marrying later in life, say 19 or 20 as opposed to his grandparents era where marriage at 13 or 14 was routine. His problem is that the eligible girls are looking for someone their own age. There is also competition from older, more wealthy men, also looking to marry young women. To put it into Tue Vue's words, the 'old buffalo are eating the young grasses'. Then with a twinkle in his eye he mused that he may well have many children, just not with his name on them.
The weather to date has been wonderful. Sunny and warm although last night on the plateau it was down to maybe 10 degrees. I was feeling hot on the long roadtrip to Luang Prabang today but once the sun set the air cooled to a warm silky texture.
I haven't said much about the food we have been eating, which, now that we have not had buffet since leaving Bangkok has been wonderful. We are glad to have our guides in the smaller places as none of them look very appealing (or sanitary) but everything is prepared with fresh ingredients and very tasty. Our first bowl of noodle soup was yesterday. A clear broth in a large bowl - I'm guessing a litre or more - is full of noodles chopped green onions, chillies, cilantro, a couple of varieties of mushrooms and is eaten with chopsticks to slurp down the noodles and a spoon to get the last drops of the broth. Served with the soup was a plate of lettuce, fresh mint and flat leaf parsley that one would push into the bowl before eating. Condiments included fresh lime to squeeze in and any one of fish sauce, soy sauce, hot chillies, pepper, etc, etc. The cost? 10,000 kip per bowl. What is a kip worth you ask? Well, you can exchange $1.00 for 8,000 kip.
It is now getting rather late and we have had a long 9 hour drive over a very twisty mountain road and so I am getting tired. I do not want to be tired when I relate the events of yesterday (Plain of Jars) and today's journey to our present location, so they will have to wait until sometime tomorrow when I hope to get the chance to put them down while still fresh.
Sunday, Feb 6, Luang Prabang
It's about 6:30 AM after a good night's sleep. The air is clear and cool but we are headed back to the plain a jars where the air became choked with red dust a we traveled along a very rough gravel road to the first of three sights where the jars were located. There are many sights scattered about the area but only these three are open to the public (for now). These giant jars were carved out of sandstone something like three thousand years ago. They came from a quarry miles away and speculation is that elephants were used to transport them (Laos means land of the elephants). No one is really sure what they were used for - religious or practical purposes - but, we enjoyed viewing and photographing them. The last sight was about a kilometer from where we parked and we walked through/between rice paddies and farmer's fields.
Perhaps more interesting during this day (ie last Friday) was that it was our first real encounter with a part of Southeast Asia that had been touched by the war. Laos had the distinction of having more bombs dropped on it than any other country as the communists & royalists fought for control over an eight year period. While this struggle is over people are still dying as a result of the unexploded bombs still buried in the soil. Tue Vue has lost a brother and an uncle to the bombs and this is a typical story. At the jar sights there were markers indicating what area had been cleared. It's hard to imagine not being able to ramble about the countryside of your home for fear of stepping on one of these close to 40 years after the bombings stopped. The UXO work continues. We saw a hillside that was set up to be cleared - marked in a grid, the workers dressed in protective gear used metal detectors in an inch by inch search. There are still hundreds of square miles to clear. Meanwhile, with a growing population, there is pressure to use this arable land and so people take risks...
Yesterday it took us about 9 hours to travel 230 kms over a paved road to our present location, Luang Prabang.
This was through a mountainous area, the two lane track relentlessly twisting and turning, up and down and around. In the steep sided jungle forests tigers, snails, deer and wild boar still roam. Think of the stretch of road around Port Alberni (without the tigers) traveling out to Long Beach and you have an idea. Only the road bed is much narrower and the drivers much more relaxed about which side of the road to drive on, not to mention when it might be safe to overtake that lumbering truck in front of you. This road is only about 10 years old but along its edges villages hug the road and dozens of small children play and adults work inches away. These villages, built with thatch are very traditional and it would seem that most of them do not really live in the modern world. We saw dozens of women who were harvesting grasses that after being dried and pounded on the road to remove the seeds could be fashioned into brooms with which to sweep their dirt floors & compounds or to sell. The children were everywhere (avg 8 per family countrywide) and mostly shy. Mary got some great photos at one of our stops. I think I'll have to wait 'till I can load photos to do this topic justice.
After a long, long day, we arrived in Luang Prabang with just enough time to watch the sun set over the Mekong river, whilst sipping a Beerlao, watching fishermen cast their nets. Oh! My! Buddha!
Monday, Feb 7, Luang Prabang
When I went to a 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat in 2009, our teacher S S Goenka in his nightly Dhamma talks made the point that Buddhism is not a religion it is a way to live your life in harmony with the law of nature and a way to end your own suffering. This must be a westernization because after the time we have spent in Thailand and now Laos, I see that Buddhism has all the trappings of organized religion. The focus of attention seems to be on the Buddha himself. Splendid shrines lovingly cared for. People undertaking ritualistic acts of veneration and prayer. Offerings of food, wonderful floral arrangements, candles and incense burn at his feet. Also, alas, conflict between neighbors over religious issues. Thailand and Cambodia have a long standing border dispute that was in the news again today and some Buddhist temples figure prominently in the disputed territory. Lao people want the Emerald Buddha back.
The Buddhist artifacts and temples are wonderful and we have seen many sights that are amazing testaments to the love and devotion directed to the Buddha and his teachings. I thought I had a basic understanding of the eightfold path, but now I'm not so sure. For instance I thought that all practicing Buddhists are strictly vegetarian. Not so in Laos as I am told that even the monks eat domesticated meat - chicken, beef, pork - but nothing considered wild game. In any event, as we prepare to leave Laos today for Viet Nam I know my questions will remain but the strength and beauty of the physical objects and the obvious love and reverence so many hold in their hearts for their Buddha will also remain.
Now, back to our trip: Yesterday morning we boarded a 'slow boat' for a two hour trip up the Mekong river where we visited the Pak Ou caves where, over the centuries, devotees have placed thousands of Buddha statues. The caves were pretty interesting but the journey on the river observing life along the shoreline was the highlight. These long, narrow boats - ours was perhaps 50 feet long with a beam of maybe 6 feet - vary in overall size but not in proportion. Dozens of these boats make the journey up to the caves each day and it was interesting to observe how deftly they were maneuvered about the river finding the spots where the current was weakest. Docking was always an adventure. Giving other vessels a wide berth was simply not an option.
In any event, we saw lots of children playing, Monks walking on the beach, women washing clothes in the river, men dredging up sand for construction work, their narrow boats with barely any freeboard left. At one section several people were apparently panning for gold. Gardens hug the river edge, the occasional water buffalo is to be seen. It was very serene.
Then back in Luang Prabang we visited a couple of temples built in the 1500's, one with Khmer influence. Near sunset we climbed hundreds of stairs to Wat Tham Phousi to watch the sunset.
Jostling for position with a hundred or so people in a small space was not so great so after a couple of shots we exited before the sun did.
I must sign off now as we are ready to leave for our last few hours and last few sights in Laos.
Tuesday Feb 8, Ha Noi, Viet Nam
We had a relaxing final day in Laos, visiting a beautiful waterfall and a not so beautiful Hmong village. After browsing a bookstore for an hour or so we were off to the airport. A one hour flight later we found ourselves at the Hanoi airport. Magically, there was no lineup going through customs and so we were through in the blink of an eye to meet with our guide, Mr Tan. The 45 minute drive into the city old quarter was, in a word, hair raising (OK two). While traffic was said to be light due to the lunar new year holiday of Tet our driver found it necessary to constantly bob and weave through hundreds of motorcycles, constantly flashing his high beams to encourage slower moving buses or cars to give way.
Hanoi is notorious for its traffic and we had just a small taste last night as we walked to a small restaurant a few blocks away. Vehicles do not stop for pedestrians, they go around them. If you want to cross the road you need to step out into the traffic. Our guide has given us one piece of advice so far, which is "don't stop, don't run". Today, with everyone back to work after the holiday we will have the chance to put this advice into practice. Our tasty meal ended up costing about 300,000 Dong and consisted of soup, stir-fried veg, salad rolls and a beef and veg combo along with four Bai Ha Noi (the local suds). This amounts to about 15 dollars.
We are off for a day of touring today and I admit to some trepidation given the traffic reputation this city has. More later.
Thursday, Feb 10th, Hanoi
It is about 4 in the afternoon and we have just returned to Hanoi after an overnight trip to Ha Long Bay, a Unesco World Heritage sight of awesome beauty, but first I must go back to Tuesday and our tour of Ha Noi - the city amoung the lakes. If I had to sum up my experience for that day, it would be: Sensory Overload. This is a city of somewhere between eight and ten million - nobody is really sure. There are about eight million registered residents and at least two million that live and work here, but are not officially registered as being a resident. The traffic, as I mentioned previously, and the way drivers make it all work, has been fascinating to observe. The don't stop, don't run method actually works. This is a city that is so exciting that it is exhilarating just to cross the road and live to tell about it! Some have compared the traffic to water flowing around a rock in a river. It's not quite so placid as that. I would say it is more like the stampeding buffalo in a spaghetti western - you know the ones - some luckless cowpoke sees a herd bearing down on him and so he clings to a tree and when the herd has passed by, there he is, alive, but in tatters - not a leaf left on the tree. Here, the herd is comprised of thousands and thousands of motorcycles, cars, trucks, buses etc., all bearing down on you as you step out into the fray. But it works. We survive with the only thing in tatters being my heart rate. I have a lot of respect for the drivers. I think there is more of a sharing attitude to the road than what we experience at home.
Anyway, we began our day (Tuesday) with a visit to Uncle Ho. Yes, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum contains the mummified remains of Viet Nam's liberator. As this is still Tet, we paid our respects with thousands of others. The line ups were very long but everything moved very efficiently and the crowds incredibly compliant with every instruction given. You would be too given that the instructions are given by bayoneted soldiers. No talking; arms at the side; single file - photographs strictly forbidden. Every year, right after Tet, Uncle Ho makes the journey to Moscow, where he and Lenin (also on display in Russia) enjoy various beauty treatments to keep their coif fresh and lifelike. It was a trip. I want to see Lenin next.
The temples in Hanoi are not all Buddhist in origin although the Buddha's teachings came from India in the 2nd century and China in the 6th, thus there is an interesting mix that we did not see in either Thailand or Lao. Confuscious is big here as well as several legendary heroes now revered for various reasons that I can't remember now. In any event, as we were in the middle of Tet all of the temples we visited were very crowded - not with tourists but with Vietnamese people praying and making offerings. The air was thick with incense and the various alters piled high with gifts of food and money. The food (much of it candy) could be taken home if you wished/needed. The money - not so much. At each temple there was also some form of fireplace where people were burning money - ghost money intended for their ancestor's use. This was not real money - what we saw was counterfeit US bills that you would purchase in order to burn them. Even though things were very crowded, I loved these temples. Ancient though they may be, they were alive with the prayers and hopes of the people that were there, celebrating the new year.
The afternoon closed out with a performance at the Thang Long Water Puppet theatre. I'm not going to describe it now but it was great. That evening we met with a friend of my cousin Vanessa for dinner. Tinh left Vietnam with his family near the end of the war. He lived in Canada for over 20 years but returned here 12 years ago. We had a great evening with him and gained yet more understanding and layers of complexity to Vietnamese society, politics and opportunity.
Yesterday, we headed for Ha Long Bay and after a three hour thrill ride arrived noonish and boarded our junk with 29 other tourists. Halong Bay has thousands of limestone islands. Think Broken Island Group only with islands whose cliffs look like the Chief. Some large, some small but fantastic shapes. Ha Long means descending dragons and the legend (which I won't go into now) is great. We toured through a series of caves discovered by the French that were immense and absolutely wonderful to behold. (Sorry Blake, I have some great photos but you have to wait)
This morning we launched kayaks at 7:30 and after paddling though a short tunnel came into a lagoon and watched a family of monkeys cavort about. We ended up at Titov beach (named after the Russian president) and climbed to a pagoda perhaps 150 meters elevation that commemorates the day in 1963 when he and Uncle Ho (71 years at the time) climbed to the top. (The pagoda needs a facelift and a bit of structural work).
To sum up, it was a great trip to Halong Bay. Paddling kayaks in the South China Sea was very cool. Our wakeup call tomorrow for a flight to our next stop - Hue - at 4 AM is definately NOT cool, and so I must sign off for now, having, once again, only skimmed the surface of so many spellbinding sights, sounds, tastes and tales.
Saturday , Feb 12, Hue (sounds like whey)
Hue, located in central Viet Nam was the country's capital from 1802 until 1945 when Uncle Ho moved it back to Hanoi, the ancient capital of the northern area. 1802 was the beginning of the Nguyen dynasty which was the first time after centuries of civil war that there was a consolidated government. Hue is much smaller and in the city itself there are very few private cars, lots of scooters and many bicycles. Traffic is just as noisy but with less volume it is less chaotic. Central Vietnam struggles economically and this is evident. Our guide Ty (Tee) was a high school teacher for a few years, but given low pay, he decided guiding was the better option. His wife has been a teacher for 10 years now and she earns a salary of $190 a month. Ty is paid $14 a day for 10 hours of work with us. He is full of information but we struggle to understand much of what he says.
One highlight from yesterday was the citadel - a huge, walled area and the home of the kings. The entire area reminded me a bit of Topkapi Palace in Istanbul in terms of opulence, however, all but one of dozens of buildings were completely destroyed during fighting first with the French and then with the Americans. Another Unesco site, it is being slowly restored to its former glory. The other highlight was an hour or so out in the middle of the Perfume River, listening to traditional music. Just the four of us, our guide and the seven musicians. It was wonderful. The musicians were all young(ish)students and were quite good and except for the fact that several were answering their cell phones during the performance it was great. We also launched candles burning in little paper boats - very touristy but - hey - we were on the Perfume River at night listening to beautiful and exotic music. Julie was very taken with one performer who reminded her very much of our Lauren. A beautiful girl with a beautiful smile with much charm and sparkle.
Today (Saturday) we toured several war related sights given Hue's proximity to the DMZ.
I have to say it was not what I would call an 'enjoyable' day, but it was very interesting all the same. Seeing the horrors of war and how they were visited on the Vietnamese was terrible. Walking though the Vinh Moc Tunnels, seeing the bullet holes in a destroyed church, visiting Khe San airport - all very sobering. The Vietnamese are very proud of their victory and it was interesting to view the war from here on the soil where it was fought.
Alas, my time is up again. We leave early tomorrow for Danang and Hoi An and there is still an adventure in dining before this day is through.
Monday, Feb 14 - Hoi An
Yesterday, I had one of those moments that will remain imprinted in my memory for a long time. After an early departure from Hue we travelled south on Highway 1 (The Mandarin Hwy) to the city of Danang. During the war, Danang was a place where US soldiers came to R&R. As Ty describes it with much giggling, they came for 'crazy drinking' as well as 'happy massage'. (I'm sure everyone reading this blog gets the picture). Anyway, we didn't come here for R&R (although Julie did remark that my birthday is coming up...) and so one of our stops was at Marble Mountain. Jutting out of an otherwise very flat terrain are several mountainous outcroppings and yes, there is a lot of marble in them thar hills however we learned later that they no longer quarry any marble there - it is imported for the 4 corners of the world (but mainly Lao & Thailand). Now the guidebook warned that this spot would be quite 'touristic' and sure enough at the base there was shop after shop of marble objects from the tiniest of carvings to huge statues weighing tons.
In front of every shop was someone trying to lure the tourists in. With some relief we started trudging up the stairs and after ascending maybe 50 meters we arrived at a Buddhist temple. This one commenced quite recently - in the 1970s I think and is quite small with only 10 monks in residence. (We're getting close to the moment - I just need to set it up a bit first given I can't show a photo). After admiring the temple for a while, Ty took us to a smallish cave where a statue of the Buddha and an alter resided. It was quite peaceful and serene. For those of you that have seen them, the caves in this area reminded me of the cenotes in the Mayan peninsula - only these are high up in the mountain and do not have water in them.
We then went to another cave and another Buddha a bit larger than the first and equally serene. It was coming upon the third that my moment arrived. To enter the third we walked along a short cave section that bent around to the right. You come around a corner and all of a sudden the cave opens up to you and you gasp at the sight (well I did. Julie said she felt like Indiana Jones).
For this cave you enter perhaps 10 or 15 meters above the ground level. I'm guessing the cave is perhaps 60 or 70 meters high and 30 or so across. Directly across from the entrance, sitting in a niche is a very large Buddha.
What really enhanced this enchanting vision was the fact that this cave had several holes to the sky and the sun was sending a shaft of light down through the slightly smoky interior - the smoke being from the incense that was burning at the various shrines on the caverns floor. So - there is my moment - in a few weeks I will be able to substitute a picture for all these words except that I know my photos will never do this scene justice.
Today was an unstructured day but Dave had the foresight to book a cycling tour for us here in Hoi An.
It was terrific. Hoi An, a seaside town has several islands nearby and our tour guides (the owner a French expat who married a local girl as well as a young women who grew up here) took us over by local ferry to one of them. We spent the day exploring about making several stops to learn about not only some traditional crafts but also a bit about traditional lives.
It was a very relaxing day. The weather was overcast and cool (Maybe 20 - 22) and was perfect for a day of cycling. At one point we watched how two people inlaid mother of pearl into different objects. At another we saw how the local wooden boats are constructed. Oh, by the way, just like the marble, Vietnam imports all of it's wood. This is a relatively small country containing close to 90 million people and they are very strict about how the natural resources are utilized. I think the Beechwood came from Lao. The Vietnamese also construct a round boat (a junk) constructed of split bamboo, cow dung (to plug the holes) and resin.
After seeing how they were made the group was challenged to try using these difficult to maneuver vessels. Mary leaped at the chance and showed great skill, as did Dave and Julie (yours truly staying on dry land). At one point in the morning we had the chance to sample a soybean curd that was mixed with a bit of ginger and cane syrup. This was delicious! We ate lunch at the home of Pascal's inlaws - a very traditional home (that showed a high water mark about 5 feet up the walls). After a delicious lunch we were offered a chew of betel leaf and aricca (sp?) nut. Didn't taste so great, but we all enjoyed sticking out our red tongues and yes, it was a mild but pleasant buzz.
Tonight is our last night here and we are going out to the #1 rated restaurant in town which we are all looking forward to. Tomorrow we fly to Dalat where we will rendezvous with our friends the Normandeaus from Armstrong BC who have been traveling in Vietnam for several weeks now with their two small children and can't wait to hear their adventure stories. But, right now it is cocktail hour where we will soon discover whether the Johnnie Walker purchased today is bootlegged or not, so I must end here.
Thursday, Feb 17, Dalat
First of all I should say that the dinner we had in Hoi An was excellent. We had an interesting chat with the owner, a Dutch expat who had been wandering most of his life then married a Vietnamese woman and thus Hoi An. He wasn't sure where he would go next if circumstances required they leave but all the unrest and uncertainty in South East Asia and beyond is clearly on his mind.
We departed Hoi An last Tuesday and after a short flight from Danang to the coastal town of Nha Trang we set out for Dalat. This town in the central highlands was really established by the French colonists as a health resort and an escape from the heat and humidity. While the humidity is definitely much lower, ironically we experienced our hottest temps yet.
The trip from Nha Trang to Dalat, maybe 120 kms took close to four hours as we wound our way up steep, twisting and sometimes precipitous roadway. There were several sections under construction and many spots where the rain torrents &/or mudslides had washed away the road in the really steep sections where, despite their best attempts and largest culverts, the water goes where it wants to go. Unlike the mountainous roads of Lao, there were no villages hugging the sides - only jungle. Blake and the entire longboarding community would have a wonderful time here but, in order to survive, it would probably be necessary to equip their gear with airhorns or something given that the pecking order on the roads seems to be busses, then cars, then scooters, then bicycles, then pedestrians. With airhorns they might dupe the larger, stronger vehicles into believing a longboard was the new king of the road. They would certainly turn heads.
I had the pleasure of spending my birthday in Dalat. Julie and I spent the day with the Normandeaus. It was like spending the day with celebrities as their two young children, Max three & Stella five are a huge novelty for the Vietnamese people. I think there were more photos taken of them than the local sights we visited. Thanks to Max, we were invited to share tea and have a chat with a monk at the Truc Lam Zen monastery. Tinh Dam's English was pretty good and we had an interesting conversation that ranged over many topics. The quote of the day came from Tinh. There were two large bowls filled with all manner of sweets - right at eye level for Max and Stella and of course they took full advantage of the situation until Jeff and Tan (who would suffer the post sugar-high crash the most) decided to put a lid on it (literally). Anyway, Max was having a hard time sitting still and was required to at least take one small sip of the tea (which he refused) before he was to be excused. Seeing all this happening - the will of the parent to have the child do the polite thing and the will of the child to follow his own heart's desire, the monk looked at Tan and said, "Let him be free". Even the monks are taken in by the adorable cuteness of these two.
The beautiful grounds were a profusion of flowers and many Bonzai. Then on to a lovely waterfall that you reached by riding a bobsled down a track winding through the forest.
All eight of us met again at our hotel and then went out for dinner. The tour company had arranged for a cake which we all enjoyed back at the hotel. This being a birthday cake, there were supposed to be candles, but having none on hand, Max and Stella helped me blow out some ghost candles. They were very difficult to extinguish as we had to try several times before the deed was done.
One last thing I must get off my chest and that is that on Valentine's day I know I disappointed mine as for the first time in many years I did not include a poem with a card. Well, OK, I didn't even include a card. I did compose a poem on the 14th. Well, OK, it was already the 15th here in Vietnam when it was written, but back at home (you know, where the heart is) it was still the 14th and while time is really a construct of man and does not really exist in nature, I am going to use that construct anyway and say that it was written on Valentine's day. Now I know the whole idea is that you are supposed to deliver things on the appointed day, not simply think about them, but, I think about my Valentine a lot and I know she is filled with loving kindness and forgiveness (especially for the unworthy). Anyway, I still have not presented my poem to her and yet I am about to publish it here. I did this once before when I faxed her poem to her when she was on a business trip to Calgary. Several people read the fax before it made it to her office but she didn't seem to care about it that time and I am confident that history will repeat itself this year. So, here you are, my love:
Your love is like my ocean,
Like a cleansing tide,
With waves of tender motion
So vast, so true, so tried.
Sunday, Feb 20th, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Well Saigon is now a bygone as is our Vietnam adventure. It is early Sunday morning and I'm sitting in the New York Hotel here in Phnom Penh. I felt I wanted to get my thoughts on our travels there before we really start our Cambodian chapter.
We departed Dalat last Thursday for the 300 km drive to HCM City. We left at 8:30 and arrived at our hotel at about 7:30 in in evening. We had a lunch stop at a lovely waterfall but otherwise it was either twisty, rough road or, as we started to get near the city, traffic. Brutal. Our Saigon hotel was in District 1 - the old section - but somehow seemed a bit rougher than central Hanoi. Brutal. We of course were tired and hungry when we arrived and after asking the hotel for a restaurant suggestion and directions headed out to find it. We didn't find it and after wandering about the streets for something suitable ended up back at the hotel for a 'safe' meal.
Things picked up the morning when we met our guide Tai, a young man with a good sense of humour, a love of food and understandable English. The balance of tastes was very important to him and as he described his favourite sweet and sour soups and how the various ingredients worked together we could almost taste it. Another delicacy he talked about was chopped cobra served on BBQ rice paper. Topped with some chili sauce and followed by a rice wine chaser, the sweetness of the snake, together with the heat of the chili, all blended together with the rice wine is, he said, not to be missed. (We missed)
The highlight of this day (and for me one of the highlights of the trip so far) is spending several hours aboard a Vinh Long boat cruising through the waters of the Mekong Delta. In a small town called Cai Be there is a floating market where merchants sell food produce and clothing etc. This is not a tourist activity but the way local people trade.
There were dozens of boats in the river and up the flagpole would be whatever product they had to offer. Each shore was crowded with ramshackle mostly wooden, metal roofed buildings (just so you don't visualize Venice) and also a handful of more recently constructed concrete homes. It was fascinating. It was a hot day and it was wonderful to be sitting in our Vinh Long boat with the breeze in our faces watching life on the shores and in the waters of the Mekong delta slide by.
Lunch that day was excellent. We started with a bowl of sort of a corn chowder only it was a clear, thick base and had several different kinds of beans - some of which we recognized. The next dish was a rice paper wrap that was assembled at the table. You started by dipping the rice paper in water to soften it then placed a slice of pineapple, some cucumber and some fresh mint into the centre. Placed on top were a few morsels of elephant ear fish caught that day (we hope!) in the Mekong. This was then all wrapped up and dipped in fish sauce spiced with chilies. It was great. Next came whole prawns which was cleaned for us at the table. Then came a sort of pork curry with steamed rice then Jackfruit and bananas for dessert.
After lunch we cruised some more then back in our bus for the trip back to Saigon. This being our last night in Vietnam we cleaned up then headed out to the famous Rex Hotel for cocktails on the rooftop and a very nice dinner at the Lemongrass restaurant. Having just described our lunch I won't go into detail, but we had a great meal and felt our last full day had been a terrific one.
Once again - out of time. Goodbye for now.
Monday Feb 21st, Siem Reap, Cambodia
Perhaps I shouldn't be, but I am surprised (not quite sufficient) astounded that our human race can produce societies in one small part of the globe that could create places like Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat both near Siem Reap but could also create places like the Tuol Sleng Prison in central Phnom Penh and Choeung Ek not far away.
Tuaol Sleng Prison was a high school until the Khmer Rouge turned it into a prison where some of their victims - 20,000 of them - were processed prior to being transported the 15 k or so to Choeung Ek, a former orchard, to be killed. Why? I am not sufficiently versed to understand why but during the time Julie and I were courting and planning a wedding and making plans to move west, Pol Pot and his crew were trying to establish an égalitarian' or classless society. An impatient bunch, they decided educated &/or city dwelling people did not fit in and thus had to be disposed of.
The high school is now a museum, a chilling one with the classrooms turned cells and torture chambers left pretty much as they were - the only added touch being a few graphic scenes of what could only have been unbearable suffering leading up to a grateful death. Every one of the 20,000 were photographed and in one of the buildings we see thousands of these photographs - thousands of people - mostly Cambodians - staring straight into the camera (as required) with expressions mostly of fear but also of anger, defiance, bewilderment, terror. It was very powerful.
As if this wasn't all enough we then made our way to Choeung Ek - one of the killing fields - where we walked amoung the mass graves. Orchards were all around and it was quite ordinary and lovely countryside really except that bones and clothing remnants still work their way to the surface during the rainy season.
I won't dwell any longer on this. I'm glad I have seen it. I'm glad I had Julie sleeping beside me that night as I feared the pain of those ghosts paying me a dreamland visit and I thank them for sparing me.
That evening the four of us had a meal at the Foreign Correspondence Club - a famous landmark in Phnom Penh.
Well, I have said nothing of our visit to the Royal Palace or the marvelous National Museum which houses hundreds of Angkor artifacts. We spent our Sunday morning touring these places, but I'm going to save any description for another time as I need to be in a different frame of mind than what it is right now to do these treasures justice. We have three nights here in Siem Reap so I will have more time in the next few days to cheer up and catch up.
Thursday, Feb 24, Siem Reap
Tai was right; snake is delicious with a superior flavour to that of crocodile. Perhaps a little chewy but not much different than the squid or the eel. I'm afraid Julie won't be able to help you differentiate one from the other, but Mary, Dave and I approached our mission last night with gusto. Wednesday night was also a great dining adventure. Mary had tried to make a reservation from Vancouver but did not get a confirmation back from a place called Nest. It was only a block or two from the hotel so we poked our heads in and sure enough our reserved table was waiting for us. The food was delicious (and the wine was cheap). After finishing our mains we waddled over to these bedlike structures where we took coffee, dessert and just lolled about, digesting.
I don't know what to say about Cambodia. Clearly the people both individually and as a country are struggling. I think 80% of the population live in the country. In and around the cities, sanitation and safe drinking water is a big issue. Child mortality rates are high. But we met loving and kind-hearted people everywhere we went. In Phnom Penh our guide was a bit nervous about our safety but we never felt at risk there or in Siem Reap. During the Khmer Rouge regime children started work at the age of six (schools of any kind having been abolished). Now, these six year olds go to school for half a day and then many of them head for the various tourist destinations where they hawk post cards, sell drinks or pose for photo ops with pythons wrapped around their necks. We saw evidence of significant investment in tourist infrastructure both here and in Phnom Penh and are told it is mostly Asian money as investors are less fussed about the levels of bribes and government corruption. It was hard to get a fix on how people felt about the king.
Despite all of this the temples of Angkor deserve their reputation as a world wonder and words cannot do them justice. The centrepiece - Angkor Wat (city temple) is huge in scale. But there were smaller temples such as Banteay Srai that were equally as stunning. The bas relief carvings - Buddhist themes, Hindu legends or the exploits of the Khmer kings - which were a feature of most of the ones we visited, some well over a thousand years old, are intricate and beautiful and remarkable in the level of preservation. Our guide was terrific in helping to give us some context for some of these carvings. Also remarkable is the fact that the structures themselves - constructed of dry-mounted sandstone - still stand. The central tower at Angkor Wat stands 65 meters high.
These temples, abandoned long ago were rediscovered by the French. Archaeologists have left one temple, Ta Prohm, more or less as it was with the giant fig and banyan trees growing amongst and in the temples, their roots snaking all around. Several scenes from a Laura Croft movie were filmed here (and as a result is now known as the 'Tomb Raider' Temple).
Thurs Feb 24th - Bangkok airport
We are waiting for a flight to Trat which is on Elephant Island for the last couple of days of our trip before heading home. This morning I noticed the temp in Seattle was a chilly -3m a far cry from the mid thirties we have been enjoying lately. Cambodia was much more humid than Vietnam and from the moment you step outside in the morning until the moment you enter something airconditioned, you sweat. You avoid standing in the full sun (of which there was much). You avoid moving too quickly and you make sure your water supply is not getting too low. Still, all this heat and humidity does have at least one liberating element to it in that you can drink water by the litre and not have to worry too much about how close the nearest WC is or what kind of shape it might be in because not much fluid makes it as far as your bladder. But I digress. Back to Angkor. Most of the sculptures and statues have been removed either by thieves, archaeologists or the Cambodian government (not clear who is who sometimes - for instance while Angkor itself is owned by the crown, the tourist franchise is private - owned by a senior government official). The Royal museum in Phnom Penh houses an incredible collection of Buddha statues along with an assortment of the Hindu gods etc. Few remain in situ but this really didn't detract in any way from the structures, their beauty and their mystery. I can't wait to share some photographs. I also can't wait to try out a few recipes, like traditional Khmer Amok - a combination of steamed fish/chicken/veg (your choice) with coconut milk, ginger and other spices wrapped in a banana leaf (which may be tough to procure at home).
Alas, my time is up at this expensive internet shop and we will be boarding soon. It' starting to feel like the trip is winding up and I hope to be able to tear myself away from the beach long enough to do a few final entries.
Saturday, Feb 26, Paradise Beach Resort, Koh Chang Island, Thailand
For almost a month now we have been getting out of bed usually by 6 or 6:30 to have enough time to eat breakfast and get ready to meet our guide and be off for that day's adventure by 8:00 or 8:30. With each action-packed day we would rarely be back to our hotel before dark, our minds and cameras full of new and amazing images. Then after a quick shower and a cocktail hour (of varying duration but unvaryingly neat single malt or blended) it would be off to find a restaurant for dinner. Several times we found ourselves the last ones in a restaurant watching the kitchen staff heading for home and the waiters hovering, too polite to try and rush us along. Then back to the hotel to pack and then fall into bed ready to begin again the next day.
This hectic pace came to a very abrupt end the minute we arrived on Koh Chang. This island reminds me somewhat of some of the places we have been in Mexico (Sayulita and maybe the Mayan peninsula) but with much better food and fantastic beaches without the huge mega resorts.
With only one coastal road there is the inevitable strip of shops lining it but once you hit the beach it is quickly out of sight and out of mind. Our resort is in a quieter stretch of beach perhaps 3 or 4 km long with several stretches undeveloped. It is pretty quiet with the largest group of people playing cricket on the beach. The surf is gentle, the water warm and the beer cheap and cold. Yesterday we did nothing more than swim, walk the beach and searched for the beachside bar with the cheapest and coldest beer. (Water still not safe to drink here)
This morning (Saturday) we jumped in a taxi - a pickup truck kitted out with padded bench seats in the canopied box - and went to the southern end of the island to a fishing village called Bang Bao.
The concrete pier must be more than a kilometer long and is lined on both sides with shops, restaurants, small hotels etc. We spent the morning doing shopping then gorged ourselves with a seafood lunch and have now returned to the hotel. This is siesta time and while I do feel my eyelids drooping a bit it is only 2 right now. Who knows, maybe I'll skip my nap all together and just go straight to the beach for a swim followed by a cold beer chaser.
It's hard to believe that this trip is almost over. Dave and Mary depart tomorrow. Julie and I leave Monday, stay overnight in Bangkok and fly home Tuesday morning.
What have been the highlights of this trip, you ask? This is a tough question I'm afraid as there have been many. As far as places we went, I would not have missed Halong Bay, our first sight of the Mekong River in Luang Prabang, that cave in the Marble mountains or the temples in Angkor. I have seen the Buddha. He is everywhere to be seen and in all shapes and sizes but perhaps more importantly he is also to be seen in the hearts of the people.
A definite highlight is the ease with which the four us seem to be able travel together. Ask yourself how many people do you know that you could spend morning noon and night together without a break for a solid month and still feel like you want to more? We are lucky indeed to have found such great friends and even luckier to know we are even better friends at the end of the trip. In only a couple of days we four will be flung back into the reality of life at home. While I do look forward to home I also find myself already thinking about our next trip which is to meet with Kim in NZ this fall. This is not like me. Usually all I can think of at the end of a long trip is getting home and doing and being among all those domestic and familiar and comforting things we associate with 'home'. Julie and I have talked about a future where the B&B is open for only 6 months and while the other six months are still largely a blank in my mind I have to admit to being in a few places this trip where I thought to myself, hey, I could be here for a while - weeks or months, not just days skimming the tourist-directed surface. If, as Kenny Rogers tells it, the secret to happiness is; someone to love, something to do and something to look forward to, I am indeed a happy man.
OK, the beach and the coldest beer yet is calling my name and I must yield to the siren call.
Wednesday, March 2nd 611 Beachview Drive, North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada,
Ahhh. Home. The place of heart. The place we know best and the place we miss most (when unhappy or sick or lonely). Also the place of our own bed and our own familiar things. After Dave and Mary departed last Sunday the notion of home started to push into my thoughts. I was still able to savour that last full day of tropical beach time but couldn't help visualizing our arrival home and being surrounded once again by all those familiar things. I wasn't disappointed, just a little tired but very contented as we have had a marvelous trip. But now we are home, that single place on this earth where I like most to be.
Yesterday I downloaded the 2,000 or so photos I took and now face the difficult task of choosing which ones to use to illustrate this journal. This will unfold during the next couple of days and I will send an email out to let everyone know. Until then, faithful readers, thankyou for staying tuned in. The thought of you reading along was somehow comforting and also inspiring. I haven't reread anything yet but I know I have missed many, many things I intended to record. For example we visited several Unesco World Heritage Sights that I have not even mentioned yet but plan to correct these deficiencies in the days to come.