Saturday, May 29, 2010

Seasons Greetings, Part 5... Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

We waited for our prescheduled ride to the airport, which arrived fifteen minutes late… of which [NAME REMOVED] was livid and pissy after only two minutes. A mad dash thru Hanoi later, we were finally at the airport. We couldn’t get any direct flights to Doha, so we decided on taking a stopover in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

We arrived in Kuala Lumpur (from now on called KL) in the late afternoon and went to find the express train into the city. After a few minutes, we boarded our incredibly clean and quiet train, and sped incredibly fast thru the dense pineapple and palm plantations. We disembarked at the main train station, a monster hub where all six major rail lines, including the elevated, subway, and monorails that crisscross KL all merge. Our hotel was connected to the train station via a network of tunnels. We had to step outside to enter the hotel, and were punched in the chest by the heat and humidity. After spending days and days in mountains and in the middle of the sea bathed in icy mountain air, the ninety degree heat and 90% humidity made me break out into a heat rash almost immediately.

Our hotel, a five-star resort was a little gift of luxury to ourselves. The concierge was worth the money. He gave us directions on how to board the crazy mishmash of rail lines. The train system in KL, while impressive in its area covered and scope, is almost impossible to comprehend at first. Each system is named and colored differently, with stations named differently on different maps. It took us about thirty minutes and several kilometers of walking just to get the right station to board the monorail. [NAME REMOVED] really wanted to try a recommended restaurant/antique store in the middle of the backpacker district. Malaysia’s trains are a lot like its people. Everywhere I have traveled, I have learned to distinguish exactly where people are from. You can tell the difference between someone from China, versus Japan, versus Korea; whereas someone less traveled may not be able to make the distinction. In KL, it was impossible. Everyone was a mix of Thai, Chinese, and Indian. There was no distinct race or culture… it was all just a jumble. We got off at the rail station, but from there we had no idea where to go. None of our maps gave us the street names or any idea on the direction we had to go. After forty minutes of walking thru the sweltering night air, we said “fuck it” and grabbed a cab. He drove us into the backpacker area, unsure of where the restaurant was located.

The row of stalls and shops filled with an assortment of tattooed Europeans and drunken Australians was like a watered down version of Bangkok. Everyone seemed to be “tourists”… not like us “travelers.” It was strange how much our ideas of whom we were and why we were traveling had changed in the past three weeks. After some more walking and being discouraged at being lost, I asked a cabbie for directions. He pointed out that we were only a block away… shit. The restaurant was mildly famous for its mixture of local cuisines. We ordered multiple soups, appetizers, and entrées of unpronounceable and extremely spicy dishes. While we were waiting, the couple next to us was looking over their Intrepid Travel books of Laos. [NAME REMOVED] explained that we had just come from there… turns out they were taking the same tour as us, just in reverse (Hanoi to Bangkok). We gave them some hints and tips, and enjoyed our pineapple and ginger ice cream.

This was it… our last big meal… our final goodbye to this vacation. We both could sense that this was the end of it. Over three weeks and thousands of miles of travel via boat, train, plane, tuk tuk, rickshaw, and monorail, it was about to be over. The cab ride back to the hotel was in silence, as we took in the city views.

After a great night’s sleep in a soft bed (the first in three weeks), we gorged ourselves on a monster breakfast buffet full of delicacies… but no pork. I forgot that KL was Islamic. We grabbed a rail into the city center to visit KL’s most famous landmark… the Petronas Twin Towers. The towers were the tallest building in the world from 1998 to 2004. In the basement we picked up tickets to go to the connecting bridge between the two towers. The bridge is only a third of the way up the towers… not worth the trouble. Instead, we hit up the gift shop and the connecting high-end mall. [NAME REMOVED] found a place to get yet another mani-pedi, and I found a science museum in the mall… perfect. While she had little ladies picking at her toes, I hopped into a dark pod and went thru the multi-level science museum… sponsored by Petronas! There was a display where kids fought a Malaysia demon that stole everyone’s electricity and natural gas that the good people of Petronas furnish to all the good boys and girls.

After our fun, we sat by the hotel pool and ordered a steady stream of Tiger beer with fried fish. Soaking up the rays, we reminisced about the past three weeks. Having our feet eaten by fish, saying our goodbyes to Flick, buying gifts in Chiang Rai, the food festival in Chiang Mai, the slow boat on the Mekong, the fire lit sky in Pak Beng, the Buddhas of Pak Ou, the beer and people of Vang Vieng , the lazy green river of Luang Prabang, the bread in Vientiane, the rice wine of Lak Sao, the excitement of Hanoi, the majesty of Ha Long Bay, and the incredible beauty of Sapa.

We tidied up our bags, packed up, and took the express back to the airport. Our flight home to Doha wasn't memorable in any way. But it was quiet and meloncholy, saying goodbye to the best adventure I've had... so far.

If you’ve gotten this far, you’ve read more than 15,400 words, over twenty-four fully typed pages, and I feel that I only scratched the surface of this trip. I want to thank [NAME REMOVED] for deciding on this trip, and convincing me to spend an extra week… well worth it. So far, I’ve spent almost two months touring Southeast Asia, and feel that I could spend another few months, or even years, without ever getting bored. But I think I have to call it a day there. There are other places I need to see and explore… so I plan on hitting up more of Africa, Europe, and the local hot spots of the Middle East...

And I hope to see you there…


Seasons Greetings, Part 4... Sapa & Hanoi, Vietnam

Back in Hanoi... we went to the same small hotel we used before and got a room for a few hours so we could shower and recharge our camera batteries. We only had a few hours to rest before we had to depart to our next destination, Sapa. Before we left, we had to figure out where our train station was. According to the map, it was just across the street from us, and we could see it from our room. But the online directions said that we had to board the train from the other side of the tracks. So we went walking around and around trying to find exactly where we had to get onboard. After a while, we stopped searching and decided to grab some dinner. [NAME REMOVED] wanted to try a much recommended restaurant that was nearby. A short walk later we found the Quan An Ngon on a quiet corner, and were thrilled we did.

The restaurant is secluded under a canopy of multiple trees, and you sit family style on long picnic tables. The menu was enormous, and had every type of Asian food you could think of. We ordered a large mix of strange foods and dived in. Around the borders of the restaurant are twenty or so stations where the chefs prepare your food. You can walk right up to them and watch from start to stop how they prepare, cook, (and sometimes kill) your dinner. We gorged ourselves before heading back to the hotel… but for the record… Quan An Ngon is the best restaurant in all of Hanoi.

We walked across the street to the train station and tried to decipher our instructions. Our new tour company, Wide-Eyed Tours, left the ticket vouchers for the train at the hotel counter, but we had no idea how to use them, or where to get onboard the train. Thankfully, and young man with a Wide-Eyed badge came up to us and said that he was our fixer. We were skeptical until he took the vouchers and rushed up to ticket counter. He came back and said that if we wanted, we could pay an additional $70 and get a deluxe room completely to ourselves; no sharing with another two strangers. Well, that sold us. We had heard that the sleeping cars were terrible, so upgrading was a definite plus. He ended up buying the other two tickets for our stateroom from a scalper, so we could be on our own. When the train arrived, he grabbed our bags and carried them about a kilometer down the track until we reached our car. This deluxe train car was really nice, well furnished, and very comfortable… definitely worth the extra cost. We gave our fixer a good tip, and departed late into the night for our overnight ride to Lai Chau, the northernmost city in Vietnam. As the train took off, I quickly realized our close this train was running next to homes and businesses… you could look out the window and be able to see what people were having for dinner or watching on TV.

The night went by slowly… as I was still not able to sleep very well with the constant rocking of the train. The porter woke us up around five a.m. for a French roll breakfast and to get ready to depart. Lai Chai station was quite small, with a non-stop stream of buses and cabs outside waiting to pick up tourists for the hours ride to Sapa. Our driver from our hotel picked us up with an older couple, including a man wearing a pith helmet. We took off into the night and started to feel the alpine twists and struggling engine of a van that was steeply climbing into the mountains.

Sapa is a very small tribal village at the northern border of Vietnam, just a few kilometers away from China. The reason this sleepy, tiny town has anyone visiting at all is the Hoang Lien Son mountain range… the precursors of the mighty Himalayas. Known for its sweeping valleys and ever changing weather, in winter the town is normally awash in rain and deep clouds. But when we arrived, the town was bathed in sunshine and a very brisk cool wind. Out in the distance was a large mountain peak, Fan Si Pan, the tallest mountain in Southeast Asia.

The village itself has very few Vietnamese people, most of the people in the village are the native Black Hmong or Red Zhao people, and the rest are small groups of one of the other native tribes. We zigzagged thru the narrow streets, staring off at the mountains, until we reached our hotel. The hotel was very nice, although quite loud since they were rebuilding a deck that was destroyed by a fire. Our room was OK… but the balcony took your breath away. We were on the third floor of a building that was built into the side of a cliff, and a deep valley just below us. We watched as billowing clouds of mist poured down the nearby mountainside and filled the valley, the wind whipping up tails of white that quickly disappeared.

We walked up and down the steep streets into town, taking picture after picture of the far away mountains. The local tribes women were scattered all over town, wearing their homemade black or red embroidered robes and headscarves; their skinned tanned dark from working in their fields. Some would come up to us to buy some of their woven goods, and we gladly purchased. [NAME REMOVED] found a local bakery that trains the young people in how to become cooks and wait staff for the burgeoning tourist industry, and made a mental note to come back to try their food.

Back at the hotel, we met with Terry (can’t spell his real name) who was going to take us on a hill tribe walking tour. We got into his small car and were dropped off about five kilometers back down the mountain. We walked down a small road until we came to the floor of a valley that was filled with small farms and villages on either side. Water buffalo were grazing on river grass while huge hogs lumbered down the gravel path with a dozen piglets in tow trying to steal a suckle. At the start, several young Red Zhao women (wearing red scarves on their heads) joined us in our walk. Terry explained that they would walk with us and answer any questions about their lives, in exchange for getting the first chance at selling their embroidery at the end of the tour. We quickly called who got which girl (Sien and Beena for me) and started our hike. As we went along, more and more women would join us, and each time we called whose were whoms… I got all the lookers.

Sien, who was about four foot five, spoke almost perfect English. I asked if he learned in Hanoi, but she said that she had never left Sapa. She learned her English by listening and talking to all the tourists that had started to come to Sapa when she was a little girl. Sien described her life to us in great detail. She and the other women cared for the animals, children, and most of the daily farming life, while the men went up into the mountains to gather wood and timber for their homes, heat, and tools. The tourists who now come to Sapa have really changed Sien’s life for the better. The money the town has made has paid for new schools, hospitals, and even the paving of the mountain roads. Every time we turned a corner we found something completely new and interesting. I came upon a stream that they had converted into a rice mill; the water filling one end of a log that they tipped over and scratched the chafe off of the newly harvested rice. At one point, we turned and climbed a hill until we had reached the apex, and saw one of Sapa’s most beautiful wonders… their terraced fields.

Carved in stunning ess curves, these fields were carved hundreds of years ago, and are still fed by narrow streams cut into the mountainsides. The deep green of the young rice shoots hovered about the surface water and mud, cutting shadows across the fields. We walked several hours up and down the vast hillsides, stopping along the way for water breaks and picturesque scenes. The incredibly clean air with aromas of fruit and trees was just so soothing… too bad it couldn’t help my worn out feet and ankles. Finally, we walked into their main village where we had some sandwiches and salads laid out for us. [NAME REMOVED] realized that she had gotten a bad burn while walking. It was only after lunch that Sien and the other ladies pulled the large woven baskets off their backs and made their pitches. We haggled, but only half-hearted, as I spent a lot of money on some beautiful pieces of cloth and little purses for gifts. The money I spent was mostly as a tip for the companionship and warmth that Sien and the other tribal women showed us as they invited us into their lives.

That night we hiked up into town and ate some really nice local cuisine with French wine, a holdover from the old French monks that settled in Sapa and converted all the tribes to Catholicism. Inside the restaurant was a wood-burning fireplace and hanging cuts of meat… nothing that would be allowed in the U.S… but my pumpkin soup and pork loin was Parisian and wonderful. Walking around the town after dinner, we kept being approached by the local women trying to sell their wares. One particularly old woman came up to us with a beautiful dark blue blanket, and we did our casual “no thank you.” About five steps later, we both realized that we both really wanted the blanket… so we ran back and bought it from her. Back in the hotel room while getting ready for bed, I noticed that my hands and fingers had turned blue. At first, I thought it was my heart! Turns out, it was just the blue dye from the blanket rubbing off on my skin… and it wasn’t coming off. {Flash forward – I soaked the blanket in my bathtub full of saltwater back in Doha that was supposed to fix the dye… but it only turned my bathtub a very beautiful and very permanent shade of midnight!}

After breakfast, [NAME REMOVED] wanted to sit out on the balcony and catch up on her reading, so I headed into town. Right around the corner from our hotel was a group of men who were constantly hawking their scooter rentals… and for really cheap, about five dollars a day.

While [NAME REMOVED] was going to rest up since she had recently picked up a chest cold, I walked over and negotiated a rental for a high powered automatic transmission scooter. I put on my ugly yellow helmet, pre-scarred with a large swath of road rash, and took off up the road. I sped along the narrow town roads, pushing the scooter’s limit on pushing me up the incredibly steep roads. I love scooters… feeling the exhilaration of the cool air against your face… weaving back and forth thru traffic just like all the locals, it’s just a fun thing to do. I drove for a few hours exploring back roads and taking the proverbial path less taken. I tried to find a waterfall that was on a signpost, and turned off onto a tight back lane that abutted against a sheer, unguarded drop to the valley below. It was here that I found the most amazing overlook of the entire valley. Always wanted to share, I headed back into town, picked up some sandwiches at the café for teens, and had lunch with [NAME REMOVED].

It took me a while, but I finally convinced [NAME REMOVED] to get a scooter with me and hit the road. I was shocked to hear that she had never ridden a scooter… even though she had lived in the Caribbean. After half-an-hour of explaining the basics of braking and turning the key, we were on the road again. I showed her the back roads and the overlooks. There was a sign again for some waterfalls about twenty kilometers outside of town, and we decided to make an afternoon of it. We pushed the bikes hard, constantly climbing into the mountains, snaking around the lanes that were cut into the mountainsides. An hour later, we reached the impressive waterfalls that cascaded down upon the roadside. We kept driving further and further up into the cliffs until we reached the Fan Si Pan Pass, the highest pass in the country. A monstrous bitterly cold wind blew thru the narrow gap in the mountains, making it difficult to reach the top. From the apex, you could literally see China in the distance. We slowly made our way back into town, stopping frequently to take photos of the majestic scenery.

We picked up some more sandwiches and tarts from the local bakery for our train ride back to Hanoi. The afternoon was spent on our hotel balcony watching the sun slowly descending behind Fan Si Pan, and the evening mist flowing down the mountains. When [NAME REMOVED] wanted to go so Sapa, I honestly didn’t want to, not realizing exactly why she wanted to come to a remote mountain village with nothing to do. I am so glad I was dead wrong… Sapa was as beautiful a place I had ever seen, still removed from the rigors and stress of the modern world. I fear that it will not stay like this forever… so if you can, please go… you won’t be disappointed.

Our driver picked us up and drove us down the mountain back to Lai Chau. We had to find a local restaurant near the train station to meet our fixer, and then waited another hour for our train to arrive. Once we got onboard, we dined on our baguettes and fruit tarts, and quickly fell asleep in our bunks for the overnight to Hanoi.

From the Hanoi train station, we took a cab to our new hotel. We arrived really early in the morning in the middle of a downpour. The gates of our hotel were closed shut, and after violently knocking for a few minutes, two caretakers climbed up from their sleeping bags on the floor of the lobby to let us in. I was able to get in a few hours of naptime before taking a long, desperately needed shower. We went out and walked around the old city, picking up some breakfast and taking in the last few glimpses of incredible Hanoi. Even in a hard rain, the city was alive with people, bikes, and motorcycles all intertwined and weaving thru the city.

Seasons Greetings, Part 3... Hanoi & Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

We climbed into the vans... and headed up into the mountains, and to the border crossing into Vietnam half-an-hour away. As we approached, a blast of icy cold air and rain started to fall. We reached the border crossing and it was very ominous. This concrete, very Soviet looking building loomed over us in the middle of a dark stretch of woods. The Communist symbols of Vietnam and large propaganda posters of sunny faced workers greeted us from behind the iron gates. Inside the room, we handed our passports over and waited until our fixer had bribed the right guy to let us thru quickly. An hour later, we were allowed to cross the metal detectors and now found ourselves in Vietnam. We walked out of the building and into the freezing drizzle to find our waiting bus. One problem, though… no bus. Mai kept trying to call the driver, but the mountains made the cell phone useless. Another problem… once you leave the building, they cannot let you reenter without invalidating your visa.

So there we were… twelve hungover tourists on New Year’s Day, standing out in rain in the bitter cold of a dark a misty Communist country without a ride.

Needless to say, some people, including [NAME REMOVED] were quite pissed by this predicament. Me? I had a blast with it! I was cracking jokes, and trying to get everyone’s spirits up by realizing just what a ridiculous situation this was! They had none of it…

After about two hours in the rain (Hah!) our bus finally arrived; slowed down by the thick fog and rain on the mountain roads. [NAME REMOVED] immediately threatened me with bodily harm if I tipped the driver. Just between you and me… I tipped him extra because other people were going to short him.

After an hour thru the mountains as we all sat for an hour in our cold, wet clothes, Mai pulled us over into a restaurant for us to use the bathrooms and get some hot tea all around. The break really helped with everyone’s morale. Especially since we knew what was to come… a solid twelve hours of driving from the Nam Phao checkpoint all the way to Hanoi. Almost the entire drive was on the QL-1A… the highway that stretches the entire length of Vietnam. Speeding along at 120kph without much scenery in one minibus just drained everyone. Once the sun set and we were all in the dark, we asked our driver if he would turn on the monitor so we could watch something. The only movie he had in the bus was “Last Stop 174”… the most suicide inducing depression of a movie about gangs in the Rio slums. After the movie, just about everyone was ready to throw themselves under the van tires. Finally… around midnight, we finally pulled into the great city of Hanoi. Before running off to our warm beds, we ran down the street and picked up some bowls of pho bo (beef noodles).

We got to Hanoi at just the right time… only two days into 2010. The city was officially established in the year 1010… making this year its 1000th year of existence. They were already prepping for the party when we arrived. We all awoke a little late, needing just a bit more sleep after the drive from hell. We walked a few blocks until we reached KOTO, a fantastic restaurant with a twist. KOTO stands for Know One, Teach One. It is a group of restaurants that are also schools. Street kids and orphans are taken in and taught hospitality, serving, restaurant management, and cooking. Our entire meal was served and cooked by a very well trained group of thirteen year olds. Afterwards, they’re sent across the world for advanced training in top restaurants and hotels… service with a smile.

[NAME REMOVED] and I took a stroll to explore the city. Hanoi is a tangled mass of people and vehicles in constant motion… most of them are motorcycles. Millions upon millions of motorcycles and scooters. We both had to learn a difficult trick… how to cross the street. When you have a massive wall of 100cc engines plowing down on you at high speed, there’s only one thing you can do… don’t stop. As soon as you step into the street, you keep moving and do not slow down… no matter what. The motorcycles all swerve to miss you, as long as you keep moving… ‘cause if you stop, you’re dead.

We checked out the Temple of Literature, where the oldest university in Asia was founded… in 1070. They still have large stone carvings that display the degrees awarded over 800 years ago. We headed north up into the city center, passing a small park with a large statue of Lenin. I had forgotten that a war was fought here up until the year I was born. The country is still Communist, but you wouldn’t know walking through the city… with exception of the huge statues.

Just across the street is the Army Museum to the American War. If you ever have the chance, learn about a battle or strife from the opponent’s point of view. The museum was almost entirely in Vietnamese, but you could tell what the little white placards were saying from the pictures and diagrams of the horrors of war… mostly from us. Captured tanks and downed American planes were parked along the side of the museum with a still intact anti-aircraft embattlement that you can climb through. The photos of devastation and helmets riddled with bullet holes, sulking soldiers and limbs blown off. It was sometimes tough to look at the images that show the brutality of the U.S. attacks. It really makes you feel ambivalent about where you are from.

A littler further down the road was the huge white tomb of Ho Chi Minh. After walking thru the large square, we simply kept walking around the city… checking out the military installations, the lakes, and the French Provencal architecture of the classic homes. We ended up scrambling up and down the narrow alleyways until we reached the Turtle Tower in Hoan Kiem Lake. I spent a good hour just winding thru the mass of locals eating street food and strolling thru the willows. We were able to find our way to Bag Street where I bought a really nice $200 trekking backpack for about $30. Plus I ate a huge bowl of incredible Vietnamese noodles with sweet spring rolls… I love Vietnam. Across the street one of our tour mates guided us to a quiet shop where we could purchase any movie or television show ever made… both legal and not-quite-so-legal… maybe. We spent a fortune buying everything we could think of… not having a selection of movies or TV in Doha makes one crave the little things… like Murder She Wrote and South Park.

Since my feet were killing me, we grabbed two bicycle rickshaws for a ride thru traffic back to the hotel. The pack of drivers saw me coming and they all tried to scramble away. Once I was on the bike, I quickly found out that if I leaned forward, the single back tire and driver would lift up off the ground and possibly go tumbling over.

After a quick nap, the group got together for our last night together. We jumped into some cabs to get to the famed Hanoi water puppet show. Unfortunately, our cab driver did not know where this famed theatre was… even though it is directly across the street from the most famous landmark in the entire fucking city. Mai was in our cab, and she started screaming at the cab driver to stop because he was lost. The cabbie finally stopped in the middle of traffic and we all jumped out of the cab without paying. Two girls were still inside when he squealed his tires and sped off… thankfully they caught up to us later. The water puppet theatre is a classic form of folk storytelling using puppets in a large pool, accompanied by several musicians playing Viet instruments and singing throughout the performance. It was really interesting, but I was a little embarrassed because the chairs were made for three year old girls… not a warm blooded American man. I was blocking the view of about four rows behind me… sorry.

A few blocks later we met up at an incredible restaurant located inside of an old timber home. We had a back room entirely to ourselves where we took off our shoes, sat on the floor, and reminisced about all the fun and adventure we had over the past two weeks. I was amazed at how much fun I had with a group of complete strangers from all over the world. We really shared a bond of close-knit travel, sleeping in the same squalor, wanting to kill all the same roosters. To all of them in our group… a huge thanks and best wishes and safe travels to all. Also, I strongly recommend both Intrepid Travel and especially our tour guide, Mai. Both the company and Mai made us always feel at home, and took great care of us. I will definitely be touring with them again in the future.

After dinner, [NAME REMOVED] and I said our goodbyes to everyone, but we had to head back to the hotel to get ready for the next day. [NAME REMOVED] really wanted to spend a few days in the northern mountain town of Sapa… I wanted to see Ha Long Bay. So we split the difference and went to both by hiring a separate tour company to handle one more week’s worth of travel. We had a bus pick us up in the morning that took us to a back alley where it stopped, the driver got out, and left us sitting alone for about half an hour. Turns out he needed his breakfast. After he finished his tea, we picked up a few more people and started out for a five hour drive to the eastern coast of Vietnam.

As we approached the water, the mountains to the north started to fade and get smaller and smaller. Suddenly, we were at the water’s edge, but the mountains just kept on going into the sea. Ha Long Bay is a maze… a true maze created by God and nature and set upon the sea. Literally translated into “descending dragon” bay, the water’s edge is surrounded by 1,960 islets of limestone, teetering hundreds of feet above the water’s surface; greened with age, algae, and ferns.

Our bus pulled into a parking lot that was filled the large touring busses and a massive swarm of tourists waiting to pull out into water. After waiting for our guide to get our tickets, we walked down the concrete steps and loaded up onto a large longtail to be ferried onto our overnight boat. Enormous boats, most three to five stories tall, were tied together along the edge of the bay. We pulled up to our boat, the Phoenix Cruiser, where the crew where on the back deck waving and smiling for our arrival. Onboard I discovered that these boats were unlike anything I had ever been on before. Made entirely of dark woods, the railings, walls, and ceilings were all intricately carved with Asian lettering and symbols. Our cabin was equipped with a full bed including a large screen television… by far the best room of the entire trip.

We headed to the kitchen area and enjoyed a sumptuous local lunch of fish, squid, and octopus. The boat slowly pulled away from the crowds and departed into the deep. The boat weaved between the narrow spaces of the limestone towers, and in the distance were overlapping formations, making a wall of rock in front of us, rising spectacularly from the ocean depths. On the roof of the boat I sat and stared off into the dark green waters and afternoon haze.

After an hour’s ride, the boat set anchor amidst a slew of islets. We re-boarded the tender ship and were dropped off at a nearby dock built into a large limestone cliff. Our group climbed a large flight of stairs carved into the rock until we reached a small cave entrance and walked in. We were at the Thien Cung grotto, a system of caves worn into the limestone from millions of years of rainwater seeping into the stone. As someone who has explored the many caves of Texas, this one wasn’t too special.

Back at the Phoenix Cruiser, an Australian family with three teen kids wanted to go swimming in the beautiful green water. Our boat crew took them up to the roof and encouraged them to try diving off the roof. Their dad climbed over the safety railing, but was too afraid to jump the twenty feet into the sea. I can’t stand to see a grown man cower in front of his kids… so I took off my shirt and started to climb the railing. At this point, our guide grabbed me and started to explain that the jump was very far, and that I probably couldn’t handle it. That was when I leapt off and did a one-and-a-half and dove straight down into the brine. The water was cool and salty, and so deep a green that you couldn’t see your own feet… it was fantastic. After my jump, the guide stared down at me with an astonished look; he obviously thought I was some lazy cripple… not the world class athlete that I am…

After an hour of diving and swimming, interrupted by the way to narrow and slippery ladder I struggle to climb back aboard, I dried off and was treated to another delicious meal in the dining room. We spent some time on the roof, gazing up at the bright, clear stars while other large cruising boats waded into our grotto and anchored for the night. Local women in small oared boats paddled next to the cruiser and called up to us, asking us if we wanted to buy batteries or Oreo cookies (I ended up buying some spare batteries and a back of Shrimp Pringles). That evening, [NAME REMOVED] and I settled into our room and fell asleep watching some of the DVDs we had picked up in Hanoi.

We awoke early the next morning for a quick breakfast and a ferry ride to Ba Hang, one of the floating fishing villages dotted among the limestone. These villages are simple huts with gangplanks, kept afloat by mixtures of barrels, Styrofoam and empty water bottles. Our guide explained that the people who live on these rafts will spend their entire lives here… never once setting foot on dry land. Between the gangplanks were nets dipped into the water where the people actually farmed their own special fish; including small sharks, abalone, and cuttlefish. Each village has prospered by the tourism industry, Ba Hang had a store of two-person kayaks that our group were renting for the morning.

Once again, my American size prevented me from sharing a kayak, and I was given a large single for myself. As the morning mist had not yet burned off, we all headed out away from the boats to explore the monoliths up close. We all silently rowed and became separated, leaving each boat the glide along in peace. I rode up to some of the cliffs and discovered that there were small caves and grottos as the water’s edge almost everywhere you looked. I pulled into one and almost got stuck, having to use my oar to force my kayak further into the rock face until I came out about fifty yards to the right of where I started… an entrance completed invisible from the outside. The serene beauty of the seemingly never-ending walls… it just takes your breath away.

Back onboard the cruiser, we had our lunch and set off back to dry land. The Phoenix Cruiser pulled into the bay and we were ferried back to land. As we were boarding our bus, we saw two members of our original tour group heading out to sea. We wished them well, and started our drive back to Hanoi.

Seasons Greetings, Part 2... Laos

Mr. Wong... took our passports, and shoved his way into the front of the mob of people that crowded around the passport window perched on some concrete steps above the water. After forty minutes of waiting and a little impatience from our group members, we all finally got our Laos visas and carried our bags up a steep hill to some waiting tuk tuks. Not five minutes later we were at the water’s edge again, this time in a secluded cove filled with oversized longtail boats… our home for the next two days. The boats, about sixty feet long and twelve feet wide were wooden pencils cutting through the water. Our seats were stolen out of minivans; their bases wrapped in pieces of old tire to keep them from slipping along the varnished teak floor, seatbelts still attached. The boat pulled anchor and we set out for a two day slow cruise until we reached Luang Prabang.

The banks of the river were at first tangled with trees and think undergrowth as we followed the valleys between the mountains. But soon, rocky outcroppings sprung up from beneath the water’s surface, polished smooth from centuries of the silt laden water. Small villages high above the tree line appeared through the brush, build high up on bamboo stilts. We slowly and steadily weaved between the rocks while the steady hum and vibration of the big block Chevy engine pushed us along downstream.

We made two stops along the way. One was for the boat captain to pay his tax for using the river for transport. The other was to visit a hill tribe village to understand their way of life. As soon as the longtail pulled up onto the shore, scores of children raced down the sandy banks to greet us; their hands filled with embroidered bracelets to sell us. They were pushy little shits… I got off the boat, played a little game with them, and spent 25,000 kip (about four dollars) on five pretty wristbands. When the other twenty urchins kept pestering me to buy their goods, all their faces dirty with snot running across their lips, I knew I was in trouble. That was when I pulled out another 10,000 kip, passed it to [NAME REMOVED] and pointed to her. And that was when I pulled the greatest escape trick since Houdini, since the kids were all following the money; I made my escape up the hill. Too bad the little shits still followed me for the next thirty minutes as we toured the very poor and rudimentary village. We departed with me only losing another 10,000 kip for more bracelets for the rest of our trip down the river. I enjoyed my premade lunch from Chiang Khong of cold pork and noodles with some Beerlao; Laos best contribution to modern society, and simply watched the scenery go by with the cool breeze on my face. We spent the time getting to know everyone on the tour, played lots of gin, and taking naps on the cushions under the warming sun.

As dusk was approaching, the boat was driven up into a sand bar at the foot of a small village. Children were running down the hill in what I thought was a greeting… turns out they would be fighting over who would get to carry our bags up the very steep rocky footpath up to our guesthouse. They jumped into our boat and scrambled like rats looking for cheese. For 10000 kip, it was worth every penny, since I could barely make it up the hill myself.

We would be staying at the mountain town of Pakbeng, a midway stop on the Mekong. With only one road, it would not be easy to get lost. The homes were mostly woven bamboo and thatched roofs on stilts over the water below. This was a very poor village of mostly Hmong and Karan people. Our room had beds… and that was it… but for about $2 a day, what else could be asked for. In the lot next to our house were a group of men playing a game similar to volleyball, except they were not using their hands. They were bouncing a woven reed ball on their heads and spiking it over a net using only their feet. The best one was also the fattest one… made me proud.

The group took a walk down the road, flashlights in hand since there were no lights except those coming from the restaurants, selling more happy pizzas and happy shakes. We checked out the one wat in the town after dark. Up in the hills directly above us we could see flames lick up the sides of trees as the people burned more of the forest to make more room for farming. It was eerie on that road, with nothing around us except forests and the ever present dogs and roosters. Our dinner was good, mostly Laotian fare with plenty of Beerlao, conversation, and happy shakes. I staggered back to the house and tried to sleep thru the constant crowing of the rooster outside of our room.

We ate a quick breakfast of simple omelets, each of us bitching about the same rooster, while the same group of small boys was waiting to pounce on our bags out the front door. The air had turned very cool, almost chilly, and the sky was filled with a heavy mist that rolled down the hills and into the river. We quietly boarded our boat, and pulled away from Pakbeng. We spent most of the morning as before, lounging on our mats, reading, and playing cards while the striated rocks seemed to be pulled out of the water around us. The captain had his work cut out for him this morning, as the wooded boat creaked and bent around the obstacles. A very nice lunch of curries, rice, and vegetables was cooked by the captain’s wife onboard, and we enjoyed our lunch while his son piloted.

After a few hours, Mr. Wong told us to get ready to climb some steps up to the Pak Ou caves. These caves were carved out of the swirling waters of the Mekong back when it was a young river, since they were at least fifty feet above the water level. During the many sieges of the Siamese upon Laos, people would hide their Buddha statues in the caves to save them from destruction. Over time, some six thousand Buddha’s of every size and shape now filled the two caves. The upper cave went back about fifty meters, and we had to bring our flashlights to see anything. A large alter was carved from the rock, and multiple gilded Buddha’s were littered around. A stunning view of the river awaited our harsh climb up the narrow stairs.

Later down the river, we made a five minute stop and a quick climb up into a village to check out the local whiskey distiller. It was one old lady who used sticky rice and yeast to make a sour mash, which she then distilled over two 55 gallon steel drums to make Lao Louke… Laotian whiskey. Tastes like turpentine mixed with tequila and diesel fuel. I could have bought some bottles with snakes and scorpions in them… but was afraid of spending the rest of the trip in the boat bathroom. I was more amazed at the ways she had converted the raw material into a perfect example of distillation… something I teach to my own students using custom glassware and digital tools.

In the late afternoon, our boat slowed and we could see the starts of a town high above upon the cliffs. We pulled up next to a large flight of steps and disembarked into the most scenic town in all of Laos… Luang Prabang.

Luang Prabang has the rare designation of being a UNESCO World Heritage City. Located in the foothills of the nearby mountains, the small city has the largest number of temples in all of Laos, thirty-two spread about the tiny village. We grabbed a few tuk tuks and drove out to our guesthouse a few blocks from the city center. Our guesthouse was nice, but had one small flaw. Our room, with two single beds and a desk, was about nine feet by nine feet. We could enter the door, turn to face the bathroom… and that was it. No other space, or even floor, existed at all. We had to place our bags at the foot of the bed just to open the bathroom door.

Everyone took showers and we had a quick group meeting about the next few days. Afterwards, we grabbed some more tuk tuks and headed out for a Laotian Christmas Eve dinner. Everyone poured into a large restaurant where Mai had them set up a large table for us. We dined on many courses of noodles, fish salad, sesame seaweed, spiced soups plus heaps of fried pork and fish… and plenty of Beerlao and Italian red wine. As we digested, I pulled out the Santa cap with flashing lights that I bought in Bangkok to start handing out the Secret Santa gifts we had purchased in Chiang Rai, since I was the most Santa-like (I said it was my jolly laugh, [NAME REMOVED] said it was my jolly gut). Everyone was really pleased with the results, as beaded sidebags, wooden puzzles, and teak marionettes were passed around the table. It was a little sad not to be spending Christmas Eve with my family, and I think everyone felt a little pang. But we took heart in knowing that we were still able to enjoy the holiday, together with new friends, in Luang Prabang.

We walked thru the streets of the town to the famed night market. A closed off street stretched in front of us with temporary red tents that glowed in the night. Women from the local hill tribes were laying their goods, mostly mahogany and ebony carvings with hand dyed textiles and bed spreads. Paintings on bamboo paper hung next to glowing lanterns and touristy t-shirts. Everyone made their way back to the house for a well deserved sleep… unfortunately our beds were concrete wrapped in bed sheets, and, yet again, there was a menagerie of roosters living behind our bathroom.

In the morning we ate omelets with fantastic French baguettes. Southern Laos is known for keeping the bread that the French left behind. Mr. Wong gave us a walking tour of Luang Prabang. We toured some nearby wats and a local silversmith. From there we headed to the waterfront to see the local shops, guesthouses, and food stalls. Every time we saw something new, Mr. Wong would explain exactly what was roasting on the stick. The food market was a packed alley with piles of strange food. We spotted barrels of live frogs and baskets of moles waiting to be skinned and cooked. I ate my favorite steamed coconut custards and unknown meat on a stick. We finished our tour at another hill tribe museum.

[NAME REMOVED] and I walked thru the town, getting a little lost along the way. [NAME REMOVED] went back to the silversmith house and bought some nice pieces before heading back to the room for a nap. Later we awoke, and ate some soup and sandwiches at a modern coffeehouse. Later I grabbed a tuk tuk because we both were hankering for some pussy… Mount Pousi that is. We both climbed the 306 steps to top, with [NAME REMOVED] getting there a little ways before me. On top was an incredible view of the sunset over the city. We climbed back down in the dark and come out in the middle of the night market. We sat down for Beerlaos and people watched for a few hours. A little sales girl saw my fifteen bracelets from the tribe children on my wrist and gave me the tough sell until I bought my now favorite leather and stone wrap. We met up with some members of our group, and decided to treat ourselves on this Christmas day with a really nice dinner. We ran back to the hotel to get cleaned up and met up with everyone at le’elepant, a very fancy gourmet French restaurant. We dined on pork filets, pumpkin soups, spring rolls, and bottle after bottle of incredible wine.

After our morning meeting, we all jumped in jumbos for an hour drive into the mountains for a trek thru the jungle. We started in a simple hill town, and strove into valleys with small crops and up into the mountainsides. Along either side of us were sheer green cliffs full of palm fronds and coconut trees. I know that I’m not in the best shape, but I can keep up with most activities without getting overly beat. But when we started walking directly uphill, and kept going for over three hours, I quickly became very tired and started to really hurt. Just when I was about to die, we came into a glade where a little lady and her kid served us drinks of salted coconut water at a cave entrance. Unfortunately, we had to keep walking. After another hour, we started to hear the rumbling of water. After climbing for hours, we found ourselves at the crest of a mountain, and made a dangerous run down tree roots to the sound of the water. At the end of the run was a narrow, wet set of stairs, and beside it was the start of the beautiful Kuangsi Falls.

The waters were running over the steps which finished up at a wall of cascading pale blue mineral waters. I huge waterfall with glistening terraced pools of green awaited us, with the misting of the falls finally giving me a reprieve of the heat. Just beyond the falls was a conservation area for the endangered Asiatic bear. We headed beyond the gates and grabbed a quick noodle lunch, then headed back to the falls. Some people were checking out the bears… I was headed for the lagoons. I jumped into the bitter cold water and felt an instant relief from the hours of hiking. The mineral-rich waters were cloudy and incredibly wonderful. Some of the others jumped in with me and we enjoyed the deep, cool waters. After drying off, we started back home in the jumbo when Mr. Wong quickly pulled us over to check out a local wedding. Down an alley were a bunch of people dancing in a circle with huge speakers blaring local music. People came up to us with cups of Beerlao and Lao whiskey. We took some chugs but they wouldn’t let us leave until we drank our fill. People got into the dance circle while others clipped money onto the wristbands of the bride and groom. Back to the homestay for a very badly needed shower. Afterwards we headed out for a deep tissue massage, in which I passed out cold and snored halfway through it. I picked up some wine first for whenever and wherever we will be spending New Year’s. A quick dinner of pad thai, and back to bed after a failed call to the family to wish them a Merry Christmas.

Everyone woke really early, around five a.m. Every Saturday, the local monks walk along the main street to collect alms from the people. We all walked a few blocks onto the main street at 5:30 to buy steamed rice and treats to give alms and ask for blessings. Soon the street filled up with devout and tourists alike. We had to rent mats to sit on beside the road, and scarves to wear around our chests. We molded the hot rice into balls, and with a nod placed the rice into the bags of the long line of monks that soon walked out of the early morning mist and descended into the village. They walked single file without a single word. They came through in order of age… little kids not older than four up to ancient looking men. We quickly headed back to the homestay to pack our bags and get ready to leave. Our new transport was a slightly larger minibus for a long drive to Vieng Vang.

The scenery was beautiful, with cresting high mountains all around us. Unfortunately, three people in our party ate a vegetarian pizza at the coffeehouse that I had suggested… and became horribly sick. One was nauseous, but alive. Our two Swiss misses were horrible ill. The drive was a nonstop climb through the mountains; continuously weaving back and forth up the mountains. We had to stop a few times to let them either puke or shit in the bushes. At one point, one of the girls actually passed out… we had to break an ammonia capsule to wake her. We all felt really bad, but there was nothing we could do but try to put fluids into them… also, it was kinda funny. We stopped in little villages to use their version of bathrooms and to pick up more fluids. One village was in the middle of a mountain pass, with billowing mist raging over the road. I picked up some fried banana, mulling over whether I was going to try the rat-on-a-stick I saw cooking over some hot coals.

We drove for eight hours until finally arriving in Vieng Vang. Vieng Vang is a little strip of backpacker heaven. The only things around are guesthouses, restaurants, and internet cafes for rugged Europeans. Vieng Vang is the Daytona Beach of Laos… party central. We checked into our homestay, and quickly booked a tubing trip for the next day. We walked over to a restaurant that is also an organic farm for nice fried noodles and rolls and dark Beerlao.

I got up early for fresh banana pancakes and eggs back at the farm cafe. A quick tuk tuk out of town about five kilometers and we jumped out on the banks of the Nam Song River. The river is twice as wide as Guadalupe, with water incredibly clear and cold. So cold, in fact, that the ladies didn’t really like it so much since the sun wasn’t even out yet. I… loved… it…

All around the banks were rickety bars made from bamboo and twine. Each bar had big rope swings and zip lines into the middle of the river… most for the cost of a single bear. After floating for a little while, I saw a huge water slide jutting over the riverbank. At least thirty feet tall, made with a mixture of bamboo and concrete blocks… I had to try it. I swam up to the bank, bought my expensive beer (15ooo kip) and started climbing. The stairs were tied together driftwood planks circling up the tower. I had to climb over a stagnant pool of water to get to the main ramp. As I approached, I realized that the slide was even larger than I expected, with the surface made entirely of ceramic bathroom tile and a garden hose for the water source. I sat down, holding my shirt in one hand and my Beerlao in the other, and started to slide. It started slow, and then I hit light speed, and hit the sharp ramp at the end. It felt like I was airborne for ten seconds as the water rushed up to my face. When I reached the surface of the water again, everyone was screaming about how far I flew… that ramp at the end really added some distance. And someone found my Beerlao that was knocked out of my hand!

As the bars faded behind us, the river opened up into a calm and quiet river with sheer ebony cliffs, caves, and farms all around us. Several hours of slow tubing and swimming later, we finished up under bamboo foot bridges, as people were driving their motorcycles across. A quick shower and a quick noodle lunch followed. We walked around town, snacking on pancakes of banana and Nutella. Back in our room, we laid back and watched some Aussie television. In the late afternoon, we boarded two vans (ours was decorated with Winnie the Pooh, racecars, and had a karaoke system installed) for a long drive to the capital of Laos, Vientiane.

We left the mountain terrain and drove into the serene farms and rice paddies. Entering Vientiane late in the night, our first large city since Chiang Mai, the noise and congestion seemed almost alien to us. We checked into our very modern hotel, which was a huge change from the “bed-toilet” rooms we were used to. We walked thru town at night for dinner at favorite place, not very good noodles. Easy walk back, checking out the New Year’s decorations. New hotel, very nice, best room yet.

We headed down to breakfast of a beefsteak sandwich and dark Laotian coffee. With Mr. Wong as our guide, we headed into the city for a walking tour of Vientiane. The city was once enormous, but after a Siamese purge, fell into disrepair and was deserted. It was only when the French came in to colonize that it started to regain its glory. French colonial buildings are interspersed between small bamboo homes and small shops. As I write this, I am having a chocolate and cashew muffin and a 7Up in a small café overlooking a large fountain square where children and dogs are jumping thru the flowers, an old American military jeep painted pink parked out front… very Parisian.

We walked around checking out the prime minister’s house, the old royal palace, and the oldest wat in Laos, Si Saket. A crumbling shell of its former beauty but still in use, Si Saket houses over 10,000 Buddha statues, some very large, with many small ones placed into its walls in small alcoves. Mold and time have coated the once bright orange tiles of the roof, and its color filled facades are slowly fading into obscurity. Mr. Wong was extremely proud that during the US bombing of Laos, this was the only temple not destroyed due to pressure from the entire Southeast Asian community. As so it stands.

The midday heat was starting to come out as the temps rose into the nineties. We walked a few kilometers to see the morning food markets, and came upon Laos’ most glorious monument, the Patuxai. From afar, it looked as though someone has begun building a copy of the Arc de Triumphe in Paris, and then found religion with the spired suppa points on the top. But as we approached closer, the grandeur of the structure faded fast. It was mostly concrete with very little decoration. Uncut rebar stuck out like pins from all sides of the gray tower. There is a sign put up saying that the building of the arch was started in 1962, but was never finished due to the tumultuous history of Laos, and called the structure a mostly “monster on concrete.” Kinda sad when one’s own people have to apologize for their ugly failures on such a grand scale. We still climbed the stairs to the top, each level filled with junky vendors of dubious merchandise. The view was nice, as a large water fountain beneath us danced in rhythm to a very loud Laotian song… like an ugly version of Epcot Center.

At this point, it was time to say goodbye to Mr. Wong. He had served us very well, and we gave a nice tip to say thanks. I hope he books only rich couples from here on out.

[NAME REMOVED] and I walked for a few hours thru the city, checking out wine shops and bookstores along the way. We saw the old That Dam tower, and walked along the Mekong delta. While looking for a place to eat, we came across a bar called Sticky Fingers that offered really nice BBQ pork ribs with fish and chips, washed down with a couple more Beerlaos.

Making our way back to the hotel, we both took naps after a long day of walking. [NAME REMOVED] headed out for a three-hour full body massage, facial, body scrub, defoliation, colonic, and mani-pedi. I took the free time to check out the national museum (not very good) and the cultural hall (very nice). While on the sidewalk, a fleet of official looking cars drove past with sirens blazing, and a lottery ticket vendor told me that it was the prime minister… cool. And now I find myself at my Scandinavian café watching the sun go down and the mosquitoes come out before hitting the bed.

After a hurried omelet downstairs, we all boarded our vans again for another long day of driving. After a few hours of nothing but farms and small villages, we started yet another climb into the mountains. The Swiss girls were still a little under the weather, and were taking it easy. We reached a scenic overlook where we could see jagged outcropping of limestone fading into the horizon. Three more hours later we pulled over after crossing a tall bridge over a dark river. The girls needed some personal throw-up time. While they were puking over the bridge, Mr. Wong pointed out the boats the people were using on the river. Long and thin with sharp points on both ends, he told us that these are “bomb boats.” They are made from the millions of tons of discarded shells and bombs that the U.S. dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War. He said we could ask for a ride if we wanted. Four of us headed down the steep embankment while everyone else tried to not get ill from the smell of sick. We boarded two boats with our drivers and headed off into the river. The bomb boats cut a perfectly clean line thru the inky water… but the lack of a keel with a perfectly smooth and round bottom made for a scary ride. Any movement across your body (leaning forward, moving an arm, turning your head) made the boat rock on its yaw.

After half an hour of up and down the river, we climbed our way back up to the bus. We found the rest of the group chatting with Mai and a bunch of teenagers. The kids were prepping to drink some homemade rice wine. They had a large grey clay flowerpot that was filled with a mixture of rice and yeast that had been fermenting for several weeks. They shoved a bamboo rod into the rice and started to pour water into the rice. The water pulled the alcohol out of the rice mash, which they then took turns sucking up thru the bamboo straw. They offered us a hit, and I jumped at the chance. I crouched down and took a huge swig on the bamboo… and my mouth filled with a sweet and delicious concoction. It was really good! We all took turns sucking down the booze for a little while until it was time to go. But since it was New Year’s Eve, Mai asked if we wanted to buy a wine pot for the night’s celebration? We all said yes and loaded up a dry pot full of the mash onto the bus.

Several more hours later, and we finally arrived at our overnight stop in Lak Sao. Our homestay was nice and was the only two story building in town… if you can call it a town. The entire village consisted of a single intersection. We walked over to have our New Year’s meal at the only restaurant in town… literally called “Only One Restaurant.” We ate a large but not memorable meal of local dishes. We decided to head back to the homestay to have our New Year’s Eve party in the lobby. As we walked back, I was carrying our rice wine pot along the side of the road. All the people who were passing me by were honking their horns, laughing that a large white westerner had a keg of their wine.

Once again I must mention that they love me in Southeast Asia. Every day on this trip at least someone would come up to me and ask to take my picture with them, mostly because they were amazed at my size. Such a cute and tiny people.

In the lobby, we tapped our rice keg and pulled out all the bottles of wine we had been buying along the way. The table was loaded with any extra snacks, nuts, chips, and dried fruit we all had left over from our frequent gas station stops. Someone suggested that we wear our sombreros that we picked up in Chiang Khong, so we did, and everyone joined in by wearing any strange hats they could find. The Aussies even made hats out of handkerchiefs for our drivers. We spend the night telling tall tales and seriously imbibing as much of the wine as we could. In the end, only three of us could stay up until midnight, and we drank the night away before I took the rice keg up into my room.

The next morning we had to wake early for a full twelve-plus hours of driving and a border crossing. Hungover? You betcha I was hungover. What made it even worse was that the rice wine keg was a handmade adobe shell… and it turns out it is very porous. Over the night the rice wine had seeped out of the pot and coated the floor of our room. We had to wade thru a sticky booze marsh to reach the bathroom. Parts of my bag had soaked up some of the booze, and the smell did not help with the hangover.

Seasons Greetings, Part 1...Thailand

I told Mom and Dad... that I would not be coming back to the states for Christmas. I told them that last year. They were supposed to join me in Switzerland or France for a snowy Christmas with skiing, roasted chestnuts, and European coffee. Instead, my sister decided to have another kid, so my plans had to be altered. So instead of the Swiss Alps and cocoa, I decided on dense marshes and cobra wine.

[NAME REMOVED] was looking for a travel partner for a trip she had wanted to take for some time. We booked a trip through a tour company called Intrepid Travels… a company that specializes in more rugged, backpacker, adventurous style of travel. Our trip… Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam… with a stopover in Malaysia. More specifically, Bangkok to Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong down the Mekong River with a stop in Pakbeng onto Luang Prabang then Vang Vieng onto Vientiane to Lak Sao then up to Hanoi to Han Lon Bay back to Hanoi then to Sapa back to Hanoi to Kuala Lumpur to Doha.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year indeed.

My Thai friend Flick had arranged to depart Doha at the same time as us, since his postdoc was finished and he was moving back to Bangkok. We arrived in the evening and met up with Flick’s dad and his driver and drove to his house. We pulled up to his beautiful house in a southern suburb of Bangkok and gave the greeting “Sa-wah-dee-cah” to Noi and the other housekeepers. His dad had prepared a major spread of fried fish, tom nom soup, special chili paste made with beetles (“for taste”), and finished off with tamerlol and my favorite stinky fruit… durian.

I tried to give [NAME REMOVED] a taste of Flick’s area with a walk around his neighborhood, but everything was closing shop… but you could still smell the frying pork in the air. Flick and his driver took us to our hotel, the Vietang near the Grand Palace… right off the famed backpacker district of Khao San Road (one block over). The room was very sparse and very warm, but very respectable for $40 a night.

The Khao San road is backpacker heaven. Filled with people from all over the world… hippies, dropouts, sexpats, trustfunders, and addicts alike. Western style restaurants mix with tattoo parlors and noodle carts. Women with dreadlocks wearing crocs were carrying their brood in slings; trying to bargain down the price of beaded sidebags. I’ve never seen so many hipsters with tribal arm tats. We took a walk around the road and back, taking in the cooking smells, music, and adventure waiting to happen… then we went to bed.

Neither of us slept very well, since the room was too warm and the beds were too stiff. Even worse was that [NAME REMOVED] was on a weird internal clock... having traveled to the U.S. only a week prior and a high-rise apartment fire only three days before. We slept in and met up with Flick around noon for lunch. He took us to his father’s favorite Chinese food where we ate family style of roasted pork skin and spicy soups, with plenty of pork and shrimp dim sum.

After lunch, we drove around different parts of Bangkok that I had not seen before. We stopped at the two pillars of the city, where some of the first inhabitants sacrificed themselves and are buried underneath… their spirits protecting the city. Next up was the famed food market from my previous travels. Walking into the mammoth open market filled with stalls after stalls of hanging pork and fresh fruit almost felt like love. I stuffed myself on pork on a stick, durian, exotic fruits and drinks alike. After some coconut ice cream with corn and green beans, we crossed the street into the massive flea market of Bangkok and crowded around for a while until our feet started to hurt. We decided to head back to hotel in time for our first meeting with the Intrepid tour group.

At an intersection on the way, the driver rolled down the window and signaled a lady who quickly ran over to the van. He purchased a few small white bags and passed them back to us. Inside were tiny battered bananas that were deep fried… warm, sweet and chewy. On the way back, I joked that our tour group was made up of mostly women… lucky me. [NAME REMOVED] rolled her eyes while I laughed. Out our window were two very bullish looking lesbians with pink streaks in their hair… I joked that with my luck, those would be the women on our tour.

While [NAME REMOVED] took a brief nap, Flick and I took in an hour long foot massage… passing out cold before they changed feet. Flick went walking around the street, while I woke up [NAME REMOVED] for a walk before our meeting began. The street was filled with vendors, and was riotous with energy. As we were walking, she saw a sign for a special type of massage… one where you let little fish nibble on your feet to exfoliate them. Eww. Pretty soon we saw several more of these fish tanks spotted around the street, and [NAME REMOVED] started to price out the treatments... mostly because she hates my feet. We were heading back to the hotel, unable to find Flick when he called out our name… his feet immersed into the tiny little piranha tank. His words, “at first, it feels really weird… but gets better.” [NAME REMOVED] was determined to try it…so it went on the list of things to do.

We met up with the group and its leader, Mai, in the hotel lobby. She was very quiet and a little disorganized, but the group of twelve listened intently as Mai explained our itinerary for the next 15 days. Nothing new about orientation, but the two gothish lesbians I spotted earlier… oh yeah… they’re on the tour. Turns out they’re a mother-daughter on their yearly vacation.
We took off with Flick for our final meal together at his favorite Vietnamese place. We were served gorgeous portions of twisting fried fish, spring rolls, pork balls in rice paper, and banana fritters with watermelon shakes. Flick was a great host (and has been twice for me). Big thanks to Flick… and I wish him luck from here on out as he begins his new life as Professor Flick.

Afterwards, we took a taxi back to Khao San, and walked the street again. First thing… getting our feet devoured by our aquatic friends. We headed back to the stall where Flick had his feet eaten. The lady running the place was a little too giddy to have us come in… mostly because she knew what was in store for us. After a quick foot wash, [NAME REMOVED] slid her feet into the tank, where the fish lunged on her toes like piranha on a cow carcass.

It was gruesome! She started frantically laughing, mouth agape in a mixture of fear, comedy, and hysterics. Her words, “it feels so WEIRD!!” I took the pictures as she tried not to shake the fish loose from her soles. A placard on the wall stated, “Please don’t step on me. Please stay still or you will scare me. Please do not put anything but your feet or hand into the tank… this is my home.”

Next up was me. As my feet hit the surface, it quickly felt like I was calf deep into a very fizzy soda… until you feel the ticklish sensation of the fish rooting around your feet. For the first five minutes, you just can’t stop laughing!! It simply tickles so much! Occasionally one would hit a really sensitive spot that would throw me into spasm, shaking the fish off for only a few seconds before they would descend right back onto my feet for a second helping. The manager took our picture for the scrapbook that we signed, “An experience that cannot be missed! Loved it… Ben and [NAME REMOVED]!” Definitely one of the strangest things I have ever felt… but you really must try it if you can… you should feel how smooth my feet are.

We spent some money buying souvenirs and Santa hats (since it was almost Christmas). [NAME REMOVED] once again proved herself a cold-hearted master of the haggle… negotiating 75% off our purchases. We finished the night with a Singha beer while listening to an awesome Thai singer cover Top 40 hits.

The next morning my back was really stiff from once again not sleeping that well. We awoke and got prepped for the first tour day. In the lobby we joined with the group after putting all of our stuff into one holding room. From there we walked to the Chao Phraya River and boarded a longtail for a tour of the traditional klongs, or waterways. After that was a tour of Wat Pho, followed by the Grand Palace. But since I have seen all of these places before, I will refer you to “Three Guys in Thai… Part Two”. One special item… we saw two very rare and endangered water monitor lizards… both about five feet long bathing in the sun. Giant lizards lounging on rocks just outside of homes… I guess that means I’ll never get Mom to visit me in Thailand.

One neat little item. As you enter the Grand Palace, tour guides come up and ask if you would like to hire them. I was joking to [NAME REMOVED] about my tour guide from my first trip, Kip, about how she would take off and pray at the temples while leaving Tex and me standing all alone. Suddenly, Kip jumps out and asks if I want a tour!! I cried out that she had been my guide before, and she seemed to remember me… how cool is that?

We took a tuk tuk back to the hotel, where we cooled off with a quick dip in the secluded hotel pool. A quick massage and some street noodles and roasted corn later, we met up with the group again. We all taxied together to the Hualampong train station to catch our 13-hour overnight sleeper train to Chiang Mai. We noshed on Dunkin’ Donuts and waffles while waiting for the train. When it was time to depart, we crossed onto the platform and started suffocating on the dense black diesel exhaust that filled the station. Turns out that Thai trains aren’t nearly as clean or efficient as the ones in Europe. People were shoving into a kiosk for smokers, since it had the cleanest air. Our car was sparse, sitting across from one another on wide seats with our luggage racked above us. A simple dinner and conversation passed the time until the sleeping berths were unfolded. [NAME REMOVED] took the top bunk before me… she was scared I would break it and decimate her underneath. Everyone was sharing the bottom bunk playing cards and reading, and this closeness made a good recipe to get to know our travel mates.

We had a really good group of people. Besides Mai, we had two Swiss girls who were close friends and traveling partners. Then there were the Australian married teachers, both older but incredibly sweet and kind. Next up were the Australian newlyweds who were on a whirlwind month-long honeymoon. Of course the mother-daughter duo with matching pink stripes in their hair. And finally there was the other American, a well-traveled librarian and her Austrian “I work for Defense” buddy. All in all, a varied and incredibly fun group.

The train was very quiet except for the unexpected starts and stops that rattled everyone; making it almost impossible to sleep. Most of us were up and around thru the night… cozying up two people to a cot, talking about where we were from and discussing all of our travels. It turns out the tour group was filled with some serious travelers: Moscow, Cambodia, Australia, New Zealand, Africa, and all parts of Europe in just the past year alone. During the night we pulled up to a platform in the middle of nowhere Thailand and a giant golden plaster monkey with huge golden balls greeted our train.

The next morning we all awoke, still very tired from our broken night of barely sleep. We ate our quick breakfast of fruit and eggs, and hurriedly unfastened our luggage from the racks while the porters stowed away our cots. The platform at Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city was barely larger than the one in College Station. We jumped off the platform and into the backs of awaiting mini trucks, and were whisked away thru the city.

Chiang Mai is quite large with 400,000 people, but it feels like one big neighborhood. A beautiful and near ancient wall stands inside of a moat that guards the old city. Our hotel was on the outskirts of the downtown, and the rooms were minimally furnished. But that was all we needed. Our tour quickly split into two groups for our separate excursions… six went elephant riding and bamboo rafting down a nearby mountain river, while my group jumped into the back of a truck for our half day of Thai cooking school.

The school was the Baan Thai Cooking School, a very popular one that is mentioned in all the guidebooks. A small house and restaurant awaited us down a back alley, and we were shown the cooking stations in the back of the house. Woks on gas burners were lined up, with a very low table in front of us with gorgeous plates of exotic fruits to try. We donned our aprons and head scarves and watched as our afro’d teacher explained the dishes we would be cooking.

We started off preparing our sticky rice for the dessert, since it needed a few hours of steaming. Our first full dish was something I had tried preparing before in Doha, the classic pad thai… or Thai fried noodles. We added some spices to the hot woks, followed by tofu, chicken, and an egg. Next up was the par cooked rice noodles and dried shrimps (that was the ingredient I keep missing), and finished it off with bean sprouts and green onion. It turned out delicious… just as good as the street vendor fared I have loved throughout Thailand. I was even praised by the teacher that it looked as if I had cooked before… right on. [NAME REMOVED] was reasonably skittish, since normally she starts a dish, almost destroys it beyond recognition, and begs me to step in to save the meal. She actually did really well, and made me proud… and just maybe I’ll be able to eat her food from now on.

After we crouched down on the floor to enjoy our meal, we got out the large mortar and pestles for our next dish, green papaya salad. I didn’t know that everything was crushed before served. Once again, it turned out great, even though I tried to show off for the instructor by adding multiple small chilies (called mouse shit chilies… seriously) and burning a hole through my bowel. Following that was a Thai chicken curry with fried noodle that was so simple it was disturbing.

Finally for dessert, we made sweet coconut sticky rice with mango and fried mung beans that were to die for. It was amazing how quickly we fully prepared these meals, and even more amazing how quickly we devoured them. I truly loved the experience, and will definitely try to do more cooking schools along the way.

Back at the hotel, we took a quick walk around the town, letting [NAME REMOVED] get her favorite green tea soy latte from Starbucks… soy not being something found in Doha. Hundreds of empty pushcarts lined the streets in preparation of the night market that was soon to come. [NAME REMOVED] went back for a nap to catch up on her sleep, while I checked the internet news.

At four, the group gathered together again and boarded our minibuses for a trip to a famous temple in the mountains. Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep is located high in the neighboring mountains, and the long, slow, meandering road took us high into the forest. We reached the top of the mountain where carts and stalls lined the entrance to the temple. The location for this temple was chosen when a rare white elephant carrying a monk into the mountain kept climbing higher and higher until it circled three times, laid down, and died… the elephant walk. The monk then started to build a temple on the site. Unfortunately, it meant climbing 306 steps to the top… stupid fucking monks…

I could have taken the tram, but that would have put me with the woman in our group with a bad ankle, and I didn’t want to be pitied. So with a deep breath and a prayer to all the gods, I started climbing the steep steps. The rails were one long dragon’s tail paneled with glistening painted tiles, and colored streamers and lanterns hung from the trees nearby. After six stops for rests, two bottles of water, and one defibrillation, I finally made it to the top and was pleased I had made the trek.

Atop the mountain was a glistening gilded spire surrounded by Buddha of all shapes and sizes. Monk were busy cleaning the areas and doing crafts as tourists and devotees alike bought incense and candles to pray. Slowly the late afternoon light started to fade, as we snapped photos of the golden Buddha’s and the twinkling Chiang Mai far below, the monks prepped themselves for their evening prayers. We silently sat outside of the main temple and listened as the monks began their low, guttural chants that carried across the valley below.

After sauntering the 306 steps back down, we boarded the vans for dinner. We headed to the night market and dined outside at one of the larger sit-down food markets. We gorged ourselves on green curry, tiger prawns, pineapple rice, pad thai, and tom yum soup.

With dinner filling our bellies, we walked it off by searching thru the night market. Stall after stalls of vendors selling souvenirs, clothing, jewelry and the like. I had a special task while shopping in that we decided that since our group would all be together for Christmas that we should have a Secret Santa. I pulled Trish, a mid-thirty goth girl with pink in her hair (turns out her spiky pink haired older partner is actually her mother… my mistake). I ended up buying her a multi-colored side bag that matched her shoes, along with a mortar and pestle to remind her of our cooking class. I was going to buy a neon glow-in-the-dark velvet painting of a Buddha… but [NAME REMOVED] said otherwise.

The next morning we awoke late for our group meeting to go over the itinerary for the next two days. We split up and boarded our minibuses for a day long travel to Chiang Rai and then Chiang Khong. We spent a few hours reading and chatting in the bus, headed straight north towards the Myanmar border. On the way we had a rest stop at a natural hot spring where we soaked our feet while buying up fried banana chips. A little while later we stopped and toured a small cashew factory, where we watched them pry open the nut from the fruit one by one. At this point we got into a little trouble… since they had an entire showroom dedicated to delicious multi-flavored coated cashews and macadamia nuts. I only bought bags of chocolate, sesame, and spice coated nuts with durian chips and roasted coconut… but that was all.

We re-boarded and spent another two hours in the van. The countryside quickly passed by our windows. Rice paddies with Thai people knee deep in the water checking on the fields. Hundreds of motorcycles passed our way; used for transporting people, families, and entire homes. We finally reached Chiang Rai where we visited the Hill Tribes Museum. Six tribes of people roam the northern mountains of Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos. Their bamboo tools and colorful beaded clothing were on display, along with a history of the opium trade in the famed Golden Triangle. Opium is still sometimes legally grown in the area, and definitely illegally grown. Laos is known for its “happy” food, where you can buy food from restaurants with as much opiate or methamphetamine in the pizza topping as you like. Of course the museum shares a building with the famed restaurant, “Condoms to Cabbages.” The proprietor wanted to spread the word of using condoms to stop the spread of disease, and opened the restaurant to help fund his project. Turns out both his endeavors have been extremely successful… and delicious!... the food, not the condoms.

A few minutes later we pulled up to the most trippy wat temple me, or anyone else, has ever seen. A young artist with the ego of a cult leader decided to build a special temple that he saw in a dream… most likely ecstasy induced. The Hidden Temple is anything but hidden… bone white with intricate mirrored scaling across its surface. Skulls radiate on top of the traffic cones at the entrance, and hands in not polite gestures reach out from the fountains. It is an acid heads nightmare come to reality. The inside of the temple is simple enough, with an eerie wax statue of a long dead monk at the foot of the Buddha. But along the back wall were small paintings of cult movie characters: Star Wars, the Predator, the Terminator, sumo wrestlers giving you the finger, Neo from The Matrix, cell phones, and graphic images of people fucking… never seen a temple with Spiderman in it…

On the way out past the skulls screaming out the dangers of drinking and smoking, we picked up a few small posters of the designer’s art. He is a very controversial figure in Thailand, as many see his temple, as beautiful as it is, as a mockery of conservative Thai Buddhist beliefs. Right when we were leaving, the artist actually showed up! Thai people were flocking around him asking him to sign their postcards and to get their picture taken with him. Turns out he is truly becoming more of a cult-like religious figure than just any other nutjob artist with a grudge against his dad. But we figured that while we were there, we might as well have him sign our stuff… never know when he’ll die…

Near the temple we had a simple lunch of noodles, and took off down the road. We drove thru the farm filled valleys and snaked our way thru the mountains headed northeast to the border town of Chiang Khong. While driving, I witnessed an amazing red sky of the sun setting against the daughter mountains of the Himalayas.

We arrived at our guesthouse in Chiang Khong, a small house/inn that was nestled on the banks of the Mekong River. The town is only about three streets long, and we waited for the other van with a beer until we could check into our room. We lucked out that the town was having a “Good Food Clean Food” festival just down the road. We walked to the town square where I feasted upon banana and coconut milk gelatin, fried pork, grilled cuttlefish and large steins of Singha beer. Women and girls from the local tribes danced in their bright costumes against a backdrop of a smiling dinner plate where a bad rock band had just finished their set. The whole square was filled with locals eating their home-style dishes, laughing and singing with the too loud music overhead. A few of us left to head back to the hotel, slightly buzzed from the Singha, and ended up buying sombreros from an old lady’s corner store. We got some strange looks from the locals, but enjoyed them nevertheless.

The next morning I awoke to the stunningly beautiful sunrise over the Mekong River. This river is the lifeblood of the region… the water highway of Laos, which was just across the river. The pink and purple sky gave way to the blue as the sun rose over our breakfast on the patio just over the water. The heat and humidity had given way to a see-your-breath cool morning. Everyone was dressed in their fleeces while I was laid back in shorts and a tee, taking in the crisp mountain air. We all reminisced about what we had done the previous night, and said our goodbyes to Thailand. Our luggage was stowed aboard a motorcycle sidecar, and we all piled into the back of a truck for the ferry across the river and into Laos.

The border crossing was only five minutes away, and five minutes after that we were all aboard a barren longtail for the two minute ride across the river. Upon landing, we met up with our Laotian guide, Mr. Wong. Due to the laws of Laos, only a Laotian may be guides on tours… so Mai took a back seat and acted like any other tourist.