Below is my blog from the 6-month trip Loren and I took across Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Zealand in 2012-2013 before we settled in San Francisco.
Today we are finally setting off on the second leg of our trip, but really to me, it is the first. Over the last ten days, we have been in Jay, Maine, my childhood home, the home of all of my memories from birth to age 18, the place where I learned to read, drive, love, and the place where many of the most momentous events in my life occurred. As we drove into my mother’s driveway last Tuesday, a shaking kitty in tow after 12 hours in the car, I walked into the house knowing there would be mostly relaxation but also a little stress awaiting me. Over the next ten days, we set Marmalade up in his new home, a home to which he took immediately. We visited my friends who still live in Maine, went to look at the leaves and take pictures, and picked apples. My mother and stepfather showered us with love and attention, and my mother cooked tirelessly in hopes of fattening me up before we head to Southeast Asia. I hate to admit it, but I think I did gain a pound or two.
But no trip home would be complete if it were not punctuated with the bittersweet. As much as I love the comfortable feeling of sinking into my mother’s couch and sharing hot family meals, my visits home are complicated. My mother still lives in the same home where my parents divorced and where I often sat for hours day- and night-dreaming about escape from that small town. All at once I love home and want to leave, as though my freedom of the last 15 years may be suddenly taken away without warning. I know my mother will hate reading this because she will think it has something to do with her and that she doesn’t make it wonderful to be home. If only she knew that she and that house are separable, and that she will always be home to me no matter where she is. It is the place that I want to leave and the sometimes painful memories it conjures, not my incredible mother.
Every time I go home I sense more distance between those years I lived there and the present, as though the bridge between my current life and my old one has lengthened by a few yards. On this visit, my most apparent realization was how different I have become from my roots. My father worked in the paper mill, many of his relatives worked in the trades, we were working-class Mainers. We lived in a mill town that stunk of the pulp mill, worshiped in the single Catholic church, and all went to the same school. The world beyond Jay was foreign and unknown, and to many it still is. But on this trip I was more at peace with that distance, as though the past now is in the past and I don’t have to rebel against that. I can just accept it. Many of the people I knew have moved away, the town has moved on, and so have we. My mother will be leaving in a few months, and we will simply remember our time there instead of constantly reliving it.
Leaving home today, no matter how much I don’t want to stay there, was difficult. I kissed Marmy’s furry face one last time and looked at him as I closed the bedroom door where he is now staying (my bedroom) and broke into tears. Marmy, as silly as this may sound to some, is my first baby. We’ve been together for 6 years and I have lived with him longer than I have my husband. His sweet face and soft fur comfort me every night when I get home. Not seeing him for six months will not be easy. But I know my mother will love him like he’s her own, and that he won’t even know we are gone.
So, off we go on our grand adventure, with one more pit stop in San Francisco to see my sister and some good friends and to go neighborhood hunting. We have left so many dear things behind: our first home together where we got engaged and learned to garden; the third member of our family; my engagement ring which I didn’t think I should have on my finger on our trip; and Bob, our beloved Nissan Sentra. It’s hard to believe we are actually doing this, leaving it all behind and setting off on this journey. I am simultaneously excited and clinging to home, even though I know with certainty that this will be an amazing experience. My trepidation comes from my ever-present practicality, which I am unable to quiet despite years of attempts. I suppose sometimes it is good to be careful and thoughtful. I am just proud I am brave enough to take this chance. And that I have an incredible partner with whom to share it. We are Fugitives, on the lam, leaving it all behind, running free. Here we come.
Heading into my durian experience in Singapore, I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into. My friend Hieu, a Singapore resident for the past few years, told me it was a “delicacy” and his friend was visibly buzzing with the possibility of eating this coveted fruit. Little did I know that I was hurtling headfirst into a gagfest of epic proportions.
I was already pretty grumpy on the way over to the fruit stand where the durian laid in wait, having my usual bout of indigestion after consuming too many beers followed by too much spicy food. Needless to say, I was not in a good stomach place to begin with. On the walk over there, my stomach rumbled and roiled as though it knew better than me what awaited us a few blocks away. Let’s just say that I should have listened to my all-knowing stomach.
To give you some background, durian is a spiny fruit that is considered a delicacy in Singapore, as well as some other Southeast Asian countries. Fruit stalls specialize in selling this fruit, and some are set up to provide seating and preparation for those who want to sit and sample the food with their families. Durian is known by all who have tried it as especially odorous, and as most people like to say, you either love it or you hate it.
Now back to my story – I think you already know on which side of the durian divide I landed. As we approached the fruit stall my friend shouted “Do you smell it?” and oh yes, I did. As we got closer, it smelled very similar to walking through a back alley in the New York during the summer, when the trash cans are leaking and the trash fluids and ooze are baking in the hot sun and sticking to the asphalt, creating a sickeningly sweet smell of rot. I instinctively expected the fruit to smell this way, but as the vendor cracked one open after Hieu and his friend carefully selected the stinkiest one they could find, my nose fell victim to a direct blow, as though I had just thrust my head deep into that city trash heap. My stomach groaned and I suppressed a gag so as not to upset the very friendly vendor selling his wares.
I liken the next part of the experience to that feeling I get just before I do public speaking – like you know it’s coming and you wish you could stop it because you hate it so much, but the seconds and minutes are passing too quickly and you know you can’t escape. As the man opened the durian, I felt like I had no control over what was happening to my senses. All at once I was met with a scent that in nature is meant to tell you to run the other way, don’t eat me, I’m poisonous. And yet, my friends dug their fingers into that soft yellowy white flesh with fervor, and to my visceral horror, started slurping and sucking its guts into their mouths and moaning with pleasure.
Hieu told me to put a little on my finger and try it, and the only thing I could think was that I was touching something that looked like alien larva and smelled like rotten onions and trash put together. As I tasted it, I knew – rotten onions mushed up into a banana-like consistency – good lord, I do not like durian.
I’m no food connoisseur, but I’m not the only one that doesn’t like durian:
Finally after two fruit cavities in that spiny devil were effectively swallowed by my friends, we were free to escape the fruit stall into the clear Singapore air. Freed from that bondage, I sighed with relief, and so did my stomach.
We only spent 5 days in Singapore, but we came away with a few lasting impressions about the city-state that sum up for us the standouts from our visit. Overall, for us, visiting Singapore was like being in an Asian version of a US city, with a few quirks and impressive qualities that make it unique. Here is a rundown of our Singapore standouts.
Shortly arriving in Singapore and jumping into a cab, we were flying down the highway and immediately struck by the enormous skyline that erupted in front of us. We arrived at midnight Singapore time, so the lights were shining over the city as we made our way from the east side to the west. Over the course of our several days in the city, we spent much time gazing upward with our mouths gaping open. And it isn’t just the height of the buildings that impress but also the modern and creative architecture that dominates the skyline. Developers in Singapore have not been shy to erect angular, twisty, geometric, or curvy buildings with shining glass exteriors, complete with miles of underground malls, ornate gardens, and marble lobbies. With these enormous buildings, Singapore seems to make the statement that they have arrived as a an economic force, and judging from the hundreds of cranes dotting the sky, I get the impression that they are just getting started.
Now I like shopping as much as the next person, but wow, Singaporeans love their malls. Over the course of our five days I think we ended up in seven or eight malls, and only one of those on purpose. There are malls under buildings, in hotel lobbies, and then there are just plain giant malls littering the main shopping street, Orchard Road. And these aren’t your ordinary malls with mid-range shops like Gap, and Forever 21. Of course those stores are there too, but it seems like every other store is a luxury brand like Louis Vuitton and Dior. In a normal US city, there might be about one or two Dior stores. In Singapore, there must have been at least 15. And the best part about all of these shopping malls is that we rarely ever saw anyone buy something. It was as though people just wanted to peruse, window shop and eat, rather than buy. That and the one mall complete with a waterway and gondola ride. I do have to admit, the mall air conditioning was a welcome respite from the humidity outside and the toilets were relatively clean. So, rather than fight it, we gave in to this consumer culture and amused ourselves with people watching.
Food, Food, and More Food
We had been told that the best thing to do in Singapore is eat, and whoever suggested that sure was right. Our friend Hieu is a bit of a foodie, and proceeded to take us to numerous delicious, trendy restaurants where we sampled a plethora of different cuisines, including traditional Singaporean fare, which I have to admit was a almost too spicy for me. Over the course of our time there, we visited a traditional Chinese restaurant, a Singaporean restaurant, ate Italian and what you could call New American food, and also attended an expat supper club where we ate the most amazing burger I have ever tasted. We also sampled wanton noodles and other traditional snacks at the hawker center in Hieu’s neighborhood, where street vendors are packed together into one area selling their wares. The best meal we had was an accidental find in Little India where we ate South Indian dosai and a rice platter, which Loren and I clumsily ate with our hands in the traditional style. The waiter took one look at us and brought us plastic forks, but we were determined to eat like all the Indians surrounding us. The food was reminiscent of my time in Delhi, and we walked away stuffed and happy. And my favorite drink in Singapore was always the fresh sugar cane juice, a guilty pleasure of mine. Overall, the food was the highlight of our time in Singapore, thanks mostly to Hieu’s dining skills.
Melting Pot of Cultures
By far the most impressive aspect of Singapore in my opinion was how many different ethnic groups and traditions comingle there to create the fabric that is Singapore’s culture. As we wandered through Singapore’s streets, we passed through Arab, Malay, Chinese, and Indian neighborhoods. We learned a bit about the Eurasian and Paraná khan cultures, and also the history of Singapore. We admired the traditional dress of the Malays and the impressively colorful architecture in Chinatown. The history of Singapore lends itself to this melting pot, and we enjoyed observing how all of those people live peacefully together on one little island.
After five days in Singapore we boarded a flight to Vietnam with Hieu, leaving behind a comfortable city that was our easy entrée into Asia. We appreciated it for introducing us to Asia and for welcoming us to this part of the world.
Settling Into Hanoi
We arrived in Hanoi on October 25th, joined by Hieu and his cousin. We landed in the afternoon and took the hour taxi ride into town. As we entered the Old Quarter where our hotel was located, the crazy buzzing by of motorbikes, honking horns, cramped streets lined with people squatting on stools, and the smell of burning coal and incense hit us. And at that moment, I felt like our trip had really begun. We were swallowed by the hustle bustle of a busy city in a developing country, and all at once we had to adjust from our comfortable visit to Singapore to this hectic dusty city. And we did so relishing every moment.
Hanoi is a major city in Vietnam, punctuated by the Old Quarter neighborhood where the streets are still named after the goods that were sold one each one – flowers, fish, silk; Hoan Kiem Lake where teenagers kiss and Hanoi residents exercise; the Metropole hotel – a relic of French colonialism; and Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. Our days there were filled with artfully navigating the crazy, packed streets in the Old Quarter, sipping bia hoi (homemade beer sold for 25 cents on the sidewalk) and eating delicious Vietnamese food, including bun cha, a Hanoi specialty, and of course, pho.
With Hieu and his cousin, we visited the Temple of Literature in the center of Hanoi, which is the city’s first university. The most interesting aspect of the visit wasn’t the building complex itself but instead the bus loads of Hanoi teenagers dressed in traditional Vietnamese clothing who arrived in waves and infiltrated the peaceful temple, who we surmised were having their senior class group photos taken. We watched the girls primp and pose for photos, all teetering on impossibly high pumps, the boys looking on longingly.
For the first few nights in Hanoi we stayed in a fancy boutique hotel and once Hieu and his cousin left, we moved to a more budget guest house in the Old Quarter. Loren I wandered around taking pictures most of the time. We did visit the Prison Museum, which is the prison that most Americans know better as the Hanoi Hilton, where American POWs, including John McCain, were imprisoned during the Vietnam War. Most of the museum was dedicated to talking about the treatment of Vietnamese prisoners who were held there under the French, many of whom were executed for resisting French rule. However, at the end of the visit, there were two rooms about the American prisoners. Loren and I were both struck by the portrayal of their imprisonment, which was framed as comfortable and a good way of life, in comparison to the treatment afforded the Vietnamese under the French. Needless to say, they glossed over a lot of detail… Walking away we agreed that the story is complicated, and in some ways we can see both sides. After all, we are Americans visiting their country, and we want to understand their perspective as well as our own. But the museum, unfortunately, suffered from a dearth of facts.
After sipping beers on the sidewalk, Vietnamese coffees in top floor cafes overlooking the lake, and taking numerous photos of Hanoi for several days, Loren and I boarded a train for Sapa, to get away to the mountains. Overall we really enjoyed the sights and smells of Hanoi, and once we return from the mountains, we may spend a couple more days there before heading to the coast. Overall, we highly recommend Hanoi. It is a bustling city but comfortable and welcoming, and still retains the charm of its past.
Visiting the Tam Coc Caves
One day while we were staying in Hanoi, we decided to do a day trip to Ninh Binh to visit the Tam Coc caves. We booked a guide and driver through our hotel, and set off in the morning for a 1.5 hour drive. We had a very nice SUV and on the way, we bumped and slugged along first on a reasonable highway, but then on a much dustier minor road that put us all to sleep with its thumps and turns. At one point, Hieu shot up and shouted “Wake up, this is where our family is from!” That was a nice surprise. It was great to get a chance to see the town where Hieu’s family originated.
After being on the road for a while, we were suddenly surrounded by limestone mountain formations (karsts) that jutted up from the otherwise relatively flat terrain. We knew that where we were headed, we would get a chance to get up close and personal with them. Finally after a couple of hours, we arrived at our first stop, the Hoa Lu Temple.
The temple was actually a complex of two Confucian temples, both seemingly alike to a temple novice like me. They were nestled at the foot of a few karsts, tucked in between. I took lots of photos of the grounds, which were quiet and peaceful. Our guide talked with us about the history of the area, and we wandered around for a while, listening to the quiet, aside from the few folks who tried to sell us trinkets and cold drinks.
After we left the temple, we got back in the car and drove amongst the karsts, passing fishermen working in the streams alongside the road, and folks on bicycles with baskets full of fruits, vegetables, and bread. After a while we arrived at the harbor along the river where our Tam Coc boat trip would begin. After a quick pho lunch we boarded two small rowboats, each one costing about $7 for two people. Each boat could seat about a total of four people, but only two foreigners are allowed on each boat. A bit fishy, but of course they are trying to maximize their earnings. There was one rower at the back of the boat, and as Loren and I boarded and we were pushed back from the dock, another woman jumped on to help row. Our paddler actually rowed with his feet which were clothed in colorful socks, leaving his arms free to hold his umbrella to shield the sun and to sip his water.
Most of the trip was spent just sitting back and enjoying the scenery, and taking shots of all the fishermen and farmers who were busily working in the shallow waters. Some people were cultivating rice on the shallow banks. I sighed and relaxed in the sun as we paddled along, through a peaceful 7km ride. At one point one of our paddlers opened a hidden tin box and tried to sell us trinkets but we waved them off, and she got the hint quickly, sliding everything back into its hiding place. Overall, Tam Coc was a very peaceful, scenic day trip, and very worth the visit. We very much enjoyed paddling along and gazing upward at the magnificent caves. And of course, we slept all the way home.
On our third day in Sapa, the mountain town in Northern Vietnam we visited after leaving Hanoi, we rented a motorbike for the day for $7 and headed off into the hillsides to get a better understanding of the landscape and the people who live in the hills. It was a bit of an adventure finding the gas station and “charging” our tank, but we managed to figure our way through and were quickly off, map in hand, to explore the green hills and winding roads of Sapa and its surrounding villages.
Sapa is perched high up in the mountains in Northern Vietnam at over 1,000 meters above sea level. As you wind your way up its roads that cling to the sides of the hills and switchback with every few meters, it is hard to comprehend the astounding views that fall away before you. The lush green vegetation blankets rocky mountainsides and terraced in every direction are rice paddies and plots of onions, root vegetables, and greens, seemingly about to fall off into the valleys below at any moment. The misty cool weather settles clouds amongst the peaks that drift lazily as the wind blows.
On our ride up into the mountains, I was uneasy at first about riding a motorbike. Of course, Loren was the driver, and I was just perched on the back, clad in my rain jacket to block the wind and a silly yellow helmet from the rental office. I clutched Loren’s waist as we began our trip upwards, and worried uneasily with every corner we took. But as we went along a few more kilometers, I realized what an incredibly safe and skilled driver Loren was, and my grip began to soften.
We first visited a towering waterfall on the side of the road after we drove about 15km, followed shortly by a windy trip around some corners where in front of us suddenly appeared the most lush green view we had seen so far on our trip. Excited, we pulled off to snap photos and then rode a short way back to stop at a national park to take in more of the view. We hiked to a small stream, ate a quick peanut butter sandwich lunch and then hiked to another impossibly high waterfall (Golden Stream Love Waterfall (a bit of a hilarious name).
A short while later we were back on the motorbike and heading out another country road recommended by the guide at the rental office. Once we ventured a couple of kilometers down the quieter, more scenic road, our mouths dropped open as we came around each bend to see yet another incredible view, gazing down at the rice paddies that covered the hills. We turned this way and that, sailing down the open road, no other cars or bikes in sight. Suddenly, after we passed a couple Hmong villages and rounded a bend, the hillsides leveled and the road crossed a ridge right through the middle of the rice paddies. The green fields flanked us on both sides, pigs and piglets ran alongside us, the smell of burning grass hung heavily in the air, and we made our way around water buffalo as they lumbered along the road. Children ran and played in the village as we passed, some waving and smiling.
All at once, as we sailed along that winding country road, so far up in the clouds in Sapa, I felt the thread that tied us back to home start to stretch and fray, and I began to sense a bit of freedom creep in. We were flying untethered, free to roam through the hills at our own pace, to explore the views, to seek out even better ones. We were on our own out there, together, riding wherever we wanted to go, and I smiled because I knew we were just getting started.
As we worked our way back to Sapa with sore bums and cold cheeks, we couldn’t stop smiling. We washed the day’s ride down with cold beers overlooking the valley beneath the town, and laughed about our ride. And we vowed that we would keep searching for those impossibly beautiful views around every bend.
Our Night on the Sleep(less) bus
We knew we were in for an adventure when we booked our onward travel from Cat Ba Island on the coast of Vietnam, but the options were grim to say the least. We could either take a bus-boat-bus back to Hanoi, stay overnight and then take a train from Hanoi to Hue, a journey sure to take 24 hours, or, we could take a combination bus-boat-bus to Haiphong in the afternoon and then get on a sleeping bus from Haiphong to Hue leaving at 7pm and getting in at 10 am (that’s right folks, 15 hours). Loren argued for the former, but in my continual hatred of backtracking, I argued for the latter. And man, I should have listened to him, just this once…
The trip from Cat Ba to Haiphong was uncomfortable but uneventful and we arrived about two hours later at 3:30pm. We searched around the train station for an hour to find a restaurant to no avail, so we settled for several bia hoi ($0.25 fresh beers) from a stall on the street, parking our butts and bags there for three hours, and chatting with a fellow traveler. We then made our way to our bus, and were met with an unpleasant site upon climbing in (after removing our shoes and putting them in a plastic bag per the very aggressive attendant). Our seats were on the top level of the bus, wedged into what looked more like a luggage compartment than a row of seats. We were dismayed and very worried to say the least.
I awkwardly climbed up, almost blowing out my hip, and realized in this “seat” I couldn’t even sit up. The seat was basically a plastic covered pad with a pad-covered metal hump at the head (for the feet of the person behind you) and a foot compartment for your feet, and in theory you are supposed to be able to lie down. Basically it felt like a cramped compartment on a child’s amusement park ride. Metal bars surround you, but not enough to keep you from feeling as though you will plummet to the bottom at the slightest lurch of the bus. Loren had it so much worse given his height, and we looked at each other with a moment of utter disgust and dread, knowing what lay ahead. But we really had no idea that the seats were just problem #1.
We set off, and immediately it became clear that we should vie for bottom row seats, but even with fellow Vietnamese bus riders’ support we were unsuccessful. Apparently more people would be getting on throughout the night. And they did. We stopped about every hour so the driver could take a whiz or get a snack, or to pick up more passengers, who as the night went on got louder and louder because they all had longer to wait (and drink).
We also realized to our dismay early on that the toilet was clogged. Upon learning that nice tidbit, my anxiety set in and my mind gradually raced to a crescendo of worry. What if, as I lay there in my sardine can with the street lights flashing by, I had to pee? What was I going to do? Ask the driver to stop and let me off? What if he left me there on the side of the road? So I’d better bring my wallet. But if I brought my wallet Loren wouldn’t have any money. So I’d better put some money in my pocket just in case. I should also make sure I have tissues in my pocket because there is no TP on the side of the road…it went on and on.
As I lay there trying to sleep, 10pm, 11pm, the time slogging by so slowly it seemed to be going backwards, the pressure in my bladder steadily increased. It was all I could think about. And then…all of a sudden as we were speeding along, the driver slammed on the breaks and we also smashed into our metal rails and sat up, and I watched through the windshield ahead in the dusty headlight-lit road as the driver slammed on the brakes and we skidded to the right to narrowly avoid an oncoming bus due to a poorly executed pass of a large truck to our right. As we braked, we heard a loud bang and then a dragging sound. (In Vietnam, the highways only have one lane in either direction, so larger vehicles spent almost the entire trip passing and swerving in and out of the proper lane. And this time we barely avoided an accident.) As the bus then slowed to a crawl, I realized we had blown out a tire. I was torn between anger at the crappy driver, annoyance at the impending delay, but also intense happiness as I realized this meant I could go to the bathroom! We pulled over at a conveniently located 24-hour tire shop (a ramshackle shack on the shoulder with one naked light bulb and a pile of spares) and I jumped out of the bus after replacing my shoes and being yelled at by the driver, and hopped happily over a pile of dirt to pee behind a discarded table and next to an equally eager elderly Vietnamese woman. Rejoice! But my happiness was short-lived.
We sat for 2 hours waiting for the tire to be changed with no air conditioning. I could have used this time to sleep on one of the bottom bunks but my fellow passengers were playing the guitar or listening to techno music on their cell phones, so there was no peace. I settled for a viewing of Eat, Pray, Love on my laptop instead, trying to block out the world.
After the tire was fixed, we set off again, and shortly I had to return to my upper bunk due to more passengers. The AC was barely on, my next door neighbor was singing along to his cell phone and the lurching of the bus at the top was so intense I felt as though I could fall at any moment. Needless to say I barely slept, even with earplugs and headphones over those. I did get about two hours by putting my camera bag in the bag space at my feet and bending my knees up over that with my feet dangling in the face of the poor man in front of me, but that was little respite.
In the early AM, we made another pit stop at a bus station and I jumped off the bus again to visit the nastiest toilet in Vietnam. We also stopped for shitty pho at a roadside restaurant, followed by another toilet stop due to the begging of another female passenger. However, this time the driver just pulled over past a toll booth and we had to scale down a cement embankment to reach the grass. Full moons shone in the sunlight as the traffic passed. I also had an unfortunate squatting encounter between one cheek and a sharp stick jutting up from the ground. Injured, I slugged back to the bus. That may have been one of the lowest moments of my life. Great, just great.
Holding onto my emotions for dear life, we made one more stop for lunch an hour away from Hue, and then we were off again, finally reaching the city four hours late. Loren and I were sweaty, sticky, unhappy, hungry, dirty, and traumatized. We checked into our hotel, took long showers and watched movies after getting some French fries for lunch. That night I even had a nightmare about being on the bus, although in my dream it was a dark prison with metal walls. In the end, we realized we ended up going with a very bad bus company, Hoang Long, and that it should be avoided at all costs. Not all sleeping buses are like ours. We were just the unlucky ones who had the sleepless night from hell. We have vowed, NEVER AGAIN. Trains from here on out.
Throughout our travels in Vietnam, while we have seen beautiful settings, learned about the people here, and been welcomed by friendly faces and smiles, there has been a darkness lurking beneath: the legacy of the Vietnam War and the role of Americans in the conflict. I don’t pretend to understand the mindset of that time or the experiences of any of the people, whether American or Vietnamese, whose lives were touched by the war. However, while we’ve been here I have done my best to try to gain a better understanding of the Vietnam War and to come away more educated than I was before. I didn’t expect though to be so emotionally affected by this education.
I have heard my parents tell a few stories about the 60s and their friends who fought and died in Vietnam. I have seen the movies, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Good Morning Vietnam, and seen the gruesome images of the war in textbooks and on TV, the jungle scenes with helicopters blowing the palm trees as they took off, the spraying of Agent Orange, the returning GIs. But being here and understanding a little better the everyday lives of Vietnamese people, I have felt a deep sense of regret, and honestly, embarrassment, for what happened here.
We have traveled overland through Vietnam, from its northernmost border with China to its southwestern border with Cambodia. We have passed hundreds of miles of peaceful rice paddies, waterways with fishermen on small craft, women selling fruit and vegetables in markets and tea in stalls along the road. And now that I have seen this place, so many miles of it peaceful, quiet, pastoral, I can now understand better the images from the war. Children running down dirt roads away from bombs and GIs, frightened faces of mothers, terror in the eyes of young men. And I also understand much better the confusion and trauma that American soldiers experienced when they didn’t know whether someone was merely a village resident living life or a Viet Cong guerrilla lying in wait with guns hidden under a woven basket.
The stories that are told here about the Vietnam War are one-sided, telling of the “American Imperialists” who invaded the South and fought the Northern armies, of the bombing campaigns that were initiated by the American government against the Vietnamese Revolutionaries. But we know that with war, there are so many more sides to the stories, sides that I can never begin to comprehend. The stories told here are through the eyes of the Vietnamese. But of course, we have our own perspectives in the US.
While in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon to locals), we visited the War Remnants Museum and entered the galleries there in good spirits. But after about ten minutes of viewing the large glaring images of mutilated bodies, dead children in ditches, and deformed Vietnamese babies whose parents were poisoned by Agent Orange, an uncontrollable sadness swept over me, and I had to leave and sit outside the gallery in the hallway, and sobbed by myself in the corner. I looked around the rows of chairs along the walls and saw a couple of other American women sobbing into their hands. As I cried I thought about how I will never understand what happened, but I can see that many of those ugly images could have been prevented. And then I thought about Iraq, in my opinion a war without cause, and wondered if one day my children will sit in a chair like the one where I sat, feeling regret for the actions of my generation.
There is no simple story behind the Vietnam War. It was a symptom during a time of great fear of Communism, and I can’t begin to understand that. But the legacy of the conflict lays bare that we did horrible things to these people, whether necessary for some political aim or not, and they are still recovering. And they in turn did horrible things to us. It also illustrated to me that whether we agree with their choice of government or not, their resolve to fight for their country is very similar to our own, and we have more in common than we think.
Finding My Groove
We have been traveling in Southeast Asia now for almost two months, and throughout the journey I have found myself elated by the beautiful places, experiencing life through the lives of people completely different than us, and the important things we’ve learned, as well as exhausted, yearning for the comforts of home, and wondering if taking this much time off to travel was a smart decision or a mistake. There have been highs and lows, a cycle of days when I wish our trip could be a year long rather than five months and others when I am already excited to return home to start our new life in San Francisco.
When we reached Nha Trang in Vietnam, I hit my first low point. My stomach was really bothering me, I hadn’t eaten a decent breakfast in a couple of weeks, and despite being away for so long, I was thinking about work a lot and feeling guilty for leaving. Was this a good idea to come all this way and take so much time off? Or should we just cut this short and head home while we still have a decent amount of money in the bank? I was pressuring myself to have “the time of my life” because so many people said that is what we would experience, and I was wondering what was wrong with me that I really didn’t feel like I was having as much fun as I should.
Anyone who knows me well knows that I like to have control over my life and that I’m a very hard worker, having had a job since I was old enough to work. When I was 16 I got my first job working as a grocery bagger at the local supermarket so I could earn enough gas money to visit my boyfriend who lived an hour and a half away. Throughout college I always had a part-time job, and the summers in between my years of college I always got a job and an apartment, never returning home. And here I am, 33, and I’ve never really taken a break, until now.
So what does it take for someone like me to slow down? And how long does it take for the anxiety and feeling that I need to work to dissipate? When we were in Nha Trang about to spend a day lying on the beach, Loren picked up a discarded copy of The Alchemist in the hotel lobby, and told me I needed to read it. He said it would help me figure things out. He knew I was struggling to settle into long-term travel, that I was grasping for control and feeling guilty. So, skeptical, I read it in one day lying on the beach with the breeze blowing through my hair.
The book is about a man’s spiritual journey to find his destiny, and he learns that he just needs to follow the omens and he will find his way. Reading it, I realized I needed to let go, and not the way I do when I go on a normal vacation, when I put on blinders and just don’t think about work or being home for a few days. That’s easy. But really turn off my instincts and accept the good and the bad of this experience and have faith. Stop worrying about not working, we have enough money in the bank. Trust that my cat is fine with my mother. Recognize that freedom is what I wanted, not something I should fear. After all, it’s not all about having fun, but also learning and experiencing new things. And over the last couple of weeks, I have managed to finally let go.
I still have my ups and downs and frustrations – with scammers trying to cheat me out of money, or bad food when all I want is something good to eat, or buses that take much longer than advertised. But I’ve also had incredible highs, biking around the ruins in Angkor, getting lost in the dark back alleys of Bangkok, breathing deeply for hours on a sandy beach in Vietnam in front of clear blue water. The ups and downs are why I’m here. To learn something, to change myself, and to become a bit more free. Around the corner from every low is an amazing experience just waiting for me, and all I need to do is let it happen.
Wandering Around Agkor
When we started planning this trip, to the extent that we did any actual planning, we knew we wanted to visit Angkor Wat. We knew it was supposed to be the 8th wonder of the world and a must-see in Southeast Asia, but we didn’t understand very much else about it. Upon arriving in Siem Reap and nabbing our first map of the Angkor Archaeological Park, I was simultaneously pleasantly surprised and a little intimidated upon learning how expansive the park actually is. I had always been under the impression that you just went to see Angkor Wat and the ancient city of Angkor Thom which surrounds it, but as I looked at the map and read the suggested itineraries in the guidebook, I realized there were dozens of ruins to see and it would really take the full three days we had planned to get our fill.
Angkor Wat sits inside the Angkor Archaeological Park which is several kilometers across and including its farthest reaches, encompasses 72 major temples and many more minor sites. There are also two very large and impressive reservoirs that were originally used to provide water to the ancient city in the Angkor area.
There is no way to see all the major temples in three days if you want to remember everything and still have any strength left in your legs, but we were determined to do our best and go until we were “templed out” as we put it.
On the first day we hired a tuk-tuk driver and went several kilometers to the east of Siem Reap to visit the Roluos Group of temples, which were hidden down a series of dirt roads and very impressive. Bakong, the first we visited, ended up being one of our favorites over the entire visit. We climbed to the top and gazed out over the countryside, marveling at how we were in the middle of nowhere yet in one of the most significant archaeological sites in the world.
After visiting the Roluos Group, we grabbed lunch on the side of the East Baray (reservoir) and then headed out to see our first temples in the “Grand Circuit” or the long-way around the largest cluster of major temples. We visited Pre Rup, Preah Khan and others, and by the end of the day, we were hot, sweaty, dirty, and ready to slip into the cool pool at our hotel, Mysteres D’Angkor, before heading out for a nice Italian dinner in Siem Reap at Il Forno (best pizza I’ve had since the last time I was in Italy, and I’m not exaggerating).
During the entire first day, Loren seemed a bit frustrated with being tethered to our tuk-tuk driver and couldn’t wait for the second day when we were going to set off on our own on rented bicycles. Really, it was basically the only thing he talked about the whole first day. “Babe, aren’t you so excited to get bikes tomorrow? We’ll get sandwiches and be on our own and just run around. It will be so great!” I however, couldn’t stop worrying about the busy road leading into the park and dreaded the traffic.
But as is usually the case when Loren wants to rent bikes, he was right, and the second day truly outshined the first. Speeding along on our bikes, we were free from the hassles of tuk-tuk drivers, parking, and traffic. We rode about 4km before visiting our first temple, this time on the small circuit. Then we decided to break away from the paved road and find our way to Bat Chum, a small temple tucked in the rice paddies down a dirt road. As we meandered down the unpaved road, we flew past bright green rice fields, cows grazing in the distance, and children riding bicycles. The temple itself was in disrepair and covered in scaffolding but we were the only ones there. Then when we left the temple we found a “nature path” which was really a dirt track that wound between huts in the small village inside that part of the park. Waving to the residents, we clumsily made our way past their chickens, naked babies, and honking pigs, and emerged back on the banks of the East Baray.
Throughout the rest of the day, we stopped at temple after temple, clamoring up and down their steep awkward steps, snapping hundreds of photos, and even filming a short film in Ta Prom, the scene of a particular part of Tomb Raider. We finished the day sipping Angkor beers overlooking Angkor Wat beyond its moat, watching the sun dip behind the trees.
On the third day we joined the crowds watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat and then visited the main site. Angkor Wat itself is incredibly impressive in how complete and picturesque it is, but in a way, it was almost too perfect. It lacked some of the discovery and charm of the less preserved temples we had seen the two days before. Bayon, which we visited next, was by far my favorite temple with its many stoic faces on all sides of its towers. It was the temple you most often see in images of Angkor Wat, and it lived up to expectations.
However, even though Angkor Wat and Bayon are the most famous of the Angkor sites, visiting them couldn’t overshadow the fun we had had on the bikes the day before. As I hate to admit, Loren truly was right. The day we spent free on the bikes, running in and out of temples, laughing and taking silly videos, and singing songs on our bikes, was the best by far. When we really explored and discovered our own way, even in one of the most visited sites in the world, we found true glee.
An Ode To American Bathrooms
As I reach for the doorknob and gingerly push forward the creaky door with holes between its wooden slats, my nose is hit with the now familiar scent of sewer, cheap Chinese air freshener, and damp. A few mosquitoes escape into the air outside, brushing my face as they pass. I step carefully over the threshold and try awkwardly not to slip on the slick floor, all the while fishing in my pocket for my trusty pack of tissues due to the reliable lack of toilet paper. I sigh as I gaze at the hole in the ground with its mocking ceramic foot pads and the bucket of water to its side complete with a hand pail for flushing. This is my fate, I think, as I prepare to do my business, to face yet another toilet adventure in Southeast Asia.
Visiting any public bathroom in Southeast Asia is always an unpredictable experience. I never know if it will be squat-style or Western, whether there will be toilet paper or not, and whether the door will lock behind me. Bathrooms are tucked down dodgy back staircases or around the backs of buildings, some shared between businesses, others attached to homes. Most don’t even have roofs but are open to the air and the bugs. And dogs! I once slowly pushed in a bathroom stall door and thought I had walked in on someone, but no, it was just a stray dog. Flushing may be as easy as flicking the lever or as hard as pouring several buckets of water into the toilet. Sometimes there is a sign saying to throw the toilet paper in the trash bin, other times they say it’s fine to put it in the toilet. Confusion, hesitation, and disgust are common themes. And every day is different.
But it is not only the condition of Southeast Asia’s bathrooms that makes me long for more familiar toilets. Inevitably on any travel day, I am stuck for several hours on a bus or boat or train, and none of these modes of transportation boasts a particularly stellar bathroom situation. Bus stations usually have revolting squat toilets down some dark alley where they charge about 75 cents and only sometimes give you toilet paper. When traveling on a bus, I am lucky if we even stop at a toilet at all. Most of the time I end up squatting by the side of the road after scaling down a steep dirt embankment or scampering off behind the other women from the bus to find a patch of tall grass. Some buses actually have bathrooms but they are almost worse than going in the dirt because they seem as though they were last cleaned in 1992. Trains are particularly problematic due to the chugging and jostling about. In those instances I curse being a female and envy my male co-passengers.
And the worst situation of all is when there is no bathroom to be had and I have been unsuccessful at fully dehydrating myself before a long journey. At home I never fully appreciated how there was a bathroom in my house and another in my office, always available, and reasonably clean, just waiting there for me to use them when needed. I was reminded of those halcyon days during one journey this week when we were taking a four hour bus trip into the middle of nowhere to visit the Elephant Conservation Center in Sayaboury, Laos. Like any smart woman, I visited the toilet before boarding the bus, but of course once all of the boarding nonsense was completed and the bags were securely tied to the roof, we left over an hour late. About an hour into the ride, with the bus so full of passengers there were stools clogging the aisle providing no escape, I knew I was headed for disaster. My bladder started to ache and as the paved road turned to dirt and rock and we bobbed up and down endlessly on the bumps, I thought I might burst.
There was no way out, no hope of relief unless I suddenly jumped up in my seat and started shouting “Toilet!” and waving my arms around, which I would not have the courage to do. So I devised a scheme in my head where I would use the packet of tissues in my pocket and a plastic bag and take care of it. I ran over it numerous times in my head, wondering if I could pull it off. Did I have enough tissues, was the bag hole-free? I also thought about hanging myself out the open window but of course I would never do that. Grimacing, I watched as the minutes dragged past, ten minutes, thirty, forty-five, an hour of the worst discomfort imaginable. I let Loren in on my plan and he looked at me with complete disbelief. He knew it was bad by the look on my face, but there was no way out. Relief was all I could contemplate. Maybe if I thought about it more I would come up with a solution. But then suddenly, the bus slowed to below 3 mph, and I shot up in my seat desperately hoping that we might be stopping for a bathroom break. And then to my utter amazement, the bus pulled off the road, and people started getting off, and my heart leapt in my chest. Rejoice! Victory at last! I waited as the Lao people stumbled over the stools to exit the bus and then I was free. Oh the happiness.
Oh, bathrooms of America, how I long for your fresh scent, your endlessly long spools of toilet paper in your nifty plastic dispensers, your vigorous flushes and your bottomless supply of paper towels. How I yearn for access to hand soap and to exit the bathroom without wet ankles or gagging from the smell. How I miss the days of reasonable toilets on buses and bars where you could saunter in and use the loo without so much as an awkward glance. Oh how I miss you, American bathrooms. I promise to never take you for granted, to always flush and never tinkle on the seat, to use paper towels sparingly and always leave you as clean I found you. Your pristine white tiles glint in my memory, and the scent of your disinfectant beckons me home.
When we decided to travel to Laos on this trip, it was more because we wanted to see as much of Southeast Asia as we could and that we had heard good things about it and not because we knew exactly what we wanted to do and see there. In every guidebook, on every message board, everyone said Laos was laid back and a good place to kick back and unwind, and many said the scenery was beautiful. So we decided to accept the adventure and head there, expecting it to be one of the more difficult countries to visit travel-wise.
Getting to Laos certainly wasn’t without its challenges. We took a night train from Bangkok which reeked of diesel exhaust and we ended up, as always seems to happen, located next to the end of the car, complete with smelly toilets and the ever-present sound of metal clanging against metal as the door adjoining our car and the next slammed into its jam all night long. Also, when we reached the edge of Thailand the next morning, our train stopped and we had to take another connecting train into Laos itself because the Laos government hasn’t built the remaining 5km or so to cross the border. This train actually jumps its tracks to cross the Friendship Bridge on the road. We were shocked when we looked out the open-air windows of the train to see that traffic had been stopped by a guard so we could cross over on the pavement, only to then rejoin our tracks on the other side in Laos.
Vientiane, the capital of Laos and our first stop in the country, doesn’t do much to rouse a traveler’s interest. There isn’t much to do there apart from drinking coffee in cafes while taking advantage of their free wifi. Thankfully, it was very easy to arrange a bus to Vang Vieng, our next stop in the country.
We had heard varied accounts of Vang Vieng since it is well-known in backpacker circles to be a party haven focused mainly on tubing down the river while intoxicated, jumping in the water from dangling rope swings, and drinking the night away at obnoxiously loud riverside bars. Everywhere we went in Southeast Asia we saw cliché scruffy backpacker dudes wearing “Tubing in the Vang Vieng” tank tops revealing too much of their grimy bodies for Southeast Asia’s modesty. We have come to know this breed of backpacker well. They are inevitably the loudest people in every bar, always chain smoking, drinking, and looking for the party, wherever it may be. Needless to say we are not fans of these types and usually strive to avoid their set whenever possible. We were nervous that due to its reputation, Vang Vieng would be crawling with these travel urchins. However, the reports we heard of Vang Vieng for us did little to capture the true spirit of the Vang Vieng we experienced.
Sure, our bus was definitely populated with many of the smelly, annoying backpackers we dislike, but there were just as many travelers looking for an adventure spot with beautiful scenery and cheap bike rentals, like us. Upon arriving in the lazy little town (much lazier than we expected) we took a shared pick-up to our hotel, the Vang Vieng Riverside Hotel, and were met with a view opening onto the river where lush green tree-covered karsts hovered over the lazy water that flowed past just in front of the hotel pool. Finally, we had found a cheap accommodation that made us feel like luxury travelers. The room was comfortable apart from pesky ants in the bathroom and a half-broken showerhead. But overall, we picked a good one.
On our first day in Vang Vieng, after breakfast overlooking the river (and a few ants on our table) we rented mountain bikes and headed off in search of caves. The map we were given at the bike rental shop was completely inadequate so we basically wandered across the one lane suspension bridge and off into the cow pastures across the river. After a few bumpy minutes down a muddy road we found our first cave. A few Lao men sat outside the cave, ready to take our payment (about $1 per person) and follow us into the cave to guide us. A bit reluctant due to their staring, we decided to go for it anyway and let the guide take us into the cave.
We scaled across a stream on a couple of bamboo stalks that had been placed across and then headed up into the cave. Mustering my adventurous spirit, I followed the Lao guide as he artfully scaled up the rocks into the cavern only wearing flip flops. I struggled my way behind, Loren behind me, and we wiggled and squirmed our way through small rock openings, up and down precarious bamboo ladders, and slid over mud patches, our headlamps the only light in the darkness. At one point a bat flapped past extremely close to my head. Overall the cave was very interesting and the caverns inside were monstrous, but I was relieved when we emerged back into the fresh air covered in sweat from the heat inside the cave.
Throughout the rest of the day, we visited another cave on our own, and also happened upon the Blue Lagoon, which is basically a drunken backpacker bathing pool. As we watched the loud Australian bros play Frisbee and the Lao people standing around watching the half-naked Westerners swim in the water, we laughed at the silliness and felt a bit old. We took a quick dip and escaped as quickly as possible.
On our second day, we decided to try tubing. At home we are known among our friends as avid tubers. We own rubber inner-tubes, the real ones from truck tires, not the cheap plastic ones you get at Target. We have a dedicated tubing spot in Maryland and have spent the last two fourths of July sliding down its freezing cold water. So we were not unfamiliar with the tubing culture. We grabbed a few cans of beer and headed over to the local outfit that rents you a tube for one float down the water and provides a ride upstream to the drop-off point. The attendant gave us our tubes and life jackets and wrote numbers on our hands in permanent marker to indicate that we had paid our $7 each. After getting dropped off we slipped into the water, which was surprisingly pleasant, and started floating. The sun lilted down on us and we lay back in the water, gazing up at the mountains gliding past. We sipped our beers and savored the feeling of being on vacation. We had heard so many stories about the raucous tubing culture in Vang Vieng so we were dreading the inevitable display of bro behavior, but the Laos government recently closed down the riverside bars, so all we met on the way, to our relief, were empty riverfront restaurants and quiet scenery. The tube lasted almost two hours and puckered and happy, we emerged from the river in the center of town.
On our third day in Vang Vieng we rented a motorbike, bought a decent road map, and headed further into the countryside. We first went to visit a beautiful waterfall that was hidden down a long winding dirt rocky dirt road .After a quick visit we set off again, grabbed lunch at an organic farm where we had amazing veggie curry and also hung out with a very sweet dog who ate some of my potato, and then sought out another dirt road. The second road wound amongst karst peaks and small villages where everyone shouted “Sabaidee!” (hello in Laotian) and waved as we passed. We stopped for a rest beside a creek that flowed from beneath a rock formation with the sun setting behind it.
Then we drove along and happened upon a herd of water buffalo basking in a mud pool beside the road. We stood and watched and listened as they chewed their cud and sighed in the mud. The only sounds were their sighs and the slapping of their ears and tails in the sticky wet mud. Back on the motorbike and flying along past rice fields, farmers, dogs, cows, and mountains, we were sure that Vang Vieng’s reputation did not do it justice.
So unexpectedly, Vang Vieng, with its friendly people, beautiful landscape, and laid-back vibe, made us feel like we were truly on vacation for a few days. We savored every minute of our visit there, and highly recommend that anyone traveling to Laos take some time to really experience the area and its natural calm. When we left on our eight hour bus journey to Luang Prabang, we looked out the window and waved to the little town beside the river, wishing we had just arrived. Now we know why we met so many Europeans running restaurants there. They too fell in love with Vang Vieng and never wanted to leave.
One of the top three things I really wanted to do on our Southeast Asia trip was visit a conservation center for elephants. I had heard so many things about visiting these centers, and since I am a self-professed animal lover, I knew I needed to make it happen. When we were in Cambodia I started trying to book a spot at a well-known center outside of Chiang Mai, but they were all booked for the following two months. Depressed, I stopped researching for a few days. Then when I googled elephant conservation in Southeast Asia, I came upon the website for the Elephant Conservation Center in Sayaboury, Laos. Impressed by their reviews on Tripadvisor, we decided to sign up for a three-day visit just before Christmas, when we planned to be in Luang Prabang.
Sayaboury is a four-hour bus ride from Luang Prabang, on a local bus, not a fancier tourist bus that we usually take (fancy here is a relative term). We had no idea whether we could just show up to the bus station to buy our tickets but we were assured we would be fine if we got there an hour early. So on the day that we were to arrive at the Center, we rolled up to the bus station in a tuk tuk at 7 am, backpacks and a bag of food in tow, ready for our journey. The bus itself was very old and reminded me of the dilapidated school buses I used to ride to sports games as a kid, only much dirtier and with broken seats and a luggage rack on top. Luckily we had seats and didn’t end up like the folks who had to sit on plastic stools in the aisle for the four hour journey. The windows were open and the road was very bumpy, dusty, and under construction most of the way. We even had to cross the Mekong on a car ferry along the way. We were pretty dirty by the time we pulled up in Sayaboury, seemingly in the absolute middle of nowhere.
A little while after we arrived, a tuk-tuk picked us up and drove us to a boat landing, where we boarded a slow boat to travel across the lake to the Center. As we puttered along the lake, we rounded a corner and before us on a hillside appeared a patch of land sloping gently down to the water, peppered with bamboo huts, streaked with dirt tracks, and shaded by palm trees. We arrived and were immediately met by our guide La, who would accompany us on our three-day visit of the Center. We moved into our little bamboo hut that had a veranda overlooking the scenic lake (ours were the only buildings in sight), and felt we had arrived in paradise. A few minutes later, they brought us down to meet the elephants. The mahouts, or elephant handlers, led two enormous elephants loping along down the dirt path, and we were introduced. I was so excited I could barely breathe as they approached us, quiet and serene and sweet, obeying commands and walking calmly toward us.
A few minutes later we got a chance to ride them for the first time. The mahouts showed us how to get up. They first demonstrated two ways to get onto an elephant. I chose the slightly easier way in which the elephant actually lays her front legs out in front of her, and you stand on her right leg with your right foot and launch yourself up and over with your left leg. As you are doing so, the elephant stands up. My heart leapt at the sensation of being raised up on an elephant’s back as she got to her feet. I am usually afraid of doing anything new for the first time, but getting up on the elephant felt natural to me. As we rose up I towered over the ground below, and the mahout took us for a walk around the Center. I rested my hands on the elephant’s rough head which was covered with bristly hairs, hugged my legs behind her ears which flapped against me, and gazed out at the lake beyond us. I was in heaven.
The Elephant Conservation Center in Sayaboury focuses on rehabilitating elephants that are used in the logging industry in the surrounding provinces. We didn’t know when we arrived that elephants were even still used for logging purposes. The mahouts are elephant handlers who spend their lives traveling around with their elephants and taking them into the forest to work in logging operations. The Center allows them to bring their elephants to receive medical care when they are sick and allows the mahouts to live at the Center. They also have a nursery where mahouts can bring pregnant female elephants to give birth and raise their babies and provides the mahouts with living quarters and a salary during this time to encourage mahouts to breed their female elephants. Because it takes two years to bring a baby elephant to term, if his female elephant became pregnant, the mahout would lose money due to lack of work during this time. As a result, the rate of deaths of elephants right now far outweighs new births. The Center provides them with an alternate income in order to encourage breeding of elephants in the area.
On our first night at the Center, we accompanied the two elephants we had met as they were walked back into the forest where they eat and sleep during the night. The Center keeps the elephants on very long chains in the forest so they can feed and walk relatively freely at night in a natural environment. Hiking behind the elephants was incredibly impressive. Despite their enormous size, they are perfectly sure-footed and walked through dense jungle unperturbed, never hesitant or struggling in the thick forest. We on the other hand lumbered along, slipping and sliding, pushing vegetation out the way, trying not to fall down. Those elephants showed us up.
While at the Center, we also got to watch the elephants bathe in the lake. There were a total of five adult elephants at the Center, with two additional mothers and babies at the nursery. The adult elephants would walk into the water and suck up gallons of water in their trunks, spraying it into their mouths. Some of the younger ones would roll around in the water as though they were giant buoyant dogs having a swim. We were able to sit on a dock right next to them as they bathed in the water. We also had the opportunity to ride an elephant on a trek through the jungle for a few minutes, which for me was the highlight of the visit. Riding up there as we walked through the forest, I felt immensely calm and peaceful, savoring every second that I was so close to such an enormous animal. I was struck by the sweetness of the elephants and their openness to human interaction. I patted her head and ears as we walked.
We also got a chance to see the two baby elephants that were born at the Center, but only from across a small pond because the babies need space and to be with their mothers undisturbed. One of the babies was quite a character and was rolling around in the water, running up on the bank and trumpeting with his trunk, and then ducking under his mother’s belly. The other baby, whose mother didn’t like the water, didn’t even go in at all, and instead walked around blowing dust into the air with his trunk. It was very interesting to see that their mother’s different behavior translated into their own.
In addition to spending time with the elephants, while at the Center we slept in a little bamboo hut and had a visitor from a plump rat who ate my vitamins through my cosmetics bag in the middle of the night. We ate our meals outside in another hut with the other visitors as well as the funny curmudgeon cat who lived there. We had “chill-out” time in the sala beside the lake and in our hammock on our veranda. And we took a sunset boat ride out into the lake and went swimming with our guide and some of the Lao staff, who used the lake as a shower complete with shampoo, soap, and tooth-brushing.
Overall our time at the Center was some of the most relaxing and inspiring that I have spent on this trip. We loved our visit to the Center and wished we could have stayed longer enjoying the tranquility and our proximity to some of the world’s largest and sweetest animals.
Lanterns Take Flight Over Chang Mai
To celebrate the New Year, we headed to Chiang Mai, Thailand; we had seen images of thousands of paper lanterns floating up into the sky in Chiang Mai around the time of the New Year, so we thought it would be as good a place as any to celebrate 2013. Prior to arriving in Chiang Mai, we took a two-day slow boat journey from Luang Prabang in Laos, where we had spent a rather tropical Christmas, to the border of Thailand in Chiang Kong.
The slow boat was quite an interesting experience. Basically we boarded a small passenger boat at 7:30 am on the first day and put-putted all day up the Mekong, winding in and out of eddies and rapids as the river is fairly low at this time of year. As we sailed we watched as the boat docked at various villages and passengers were met by family members waiting on the banks. At the end of the first day, we docked in Pakbeng, Laos overnight and found a small guest house for one night. Then up again early and back on the boat for a second day of sailing upriver. That night again we slept in a random guest house in the port town just across the river from Thailand. Conveniently for the businesses on the Laos side, the slow boat makes sure to arrive just a few minutes too late for passengers to catch a short ferry across to pass through Thai immigration.
Upon arriving in Chiang Mai, I came down with a stomach issue that found me in the hospital the next day. I can say with confidence that the medical care in Thailand is top notch as I was in and out of there in 1 hour and only paid $30. By the time New Year’s Eve rolled around, I was feeling much better and able to partake in the impressive array of street food that erupted that evening. Just outside the walls of the old city in Chiang Mai and beyond the moat, a huge street fair was set up where thousands of people wandered among the food stalls and market stalls, sampling wantons, pad thai, dumplings, homemade ice cream, steamed corn, and anything that can be grilled on a skewer. Loren and I grazed for a couple of hours before setting off towards the moat to release our lantern.
All night from dark onward people stood by the water’s edge lighting and setting off their paper lanterns. The process is quite simple. You purchase a lantern from a street vendor for about $1 for a small one, more for the larger ones, and then find someone with a lighter to help you out. You stretch it out so it’s open at the bottom and light the fire ring that is attached to the base of the lantern. Then as the ring burns, you hold the lantern up in the air (2 people minimum for this part) and let the paper lantern fill with hot air from the flame. Once it is tugging upward, you let it go, and if you’ve done it right, it floats effortlessly up into the air and sails off into the distance. Ours worked perfectly, but we did see a few unlucky lanterns that either caught fire in trees or sunk into the moat, followed by gasps by the crowd.
After sitting on the edge of the moat for a while watching the lanterns, we decided to make our way toward a couple of wats, or monasteries, that were hosting prayer countdowns for Buddhists that would carry them past midnight into the new year. Having a chem free NYE due to my recovering tummy, Loren and I were stone-cold sober and wondering why it was taking so long for midnight to arrive, and decided to try a whole new kind of new year’s celebration and join the mass prayers. Of course we aren’t Buddhist and don’t speak Thai, so we just sat on the edge of the people praying, looking at the beautiful candlelight scenes that were set up, and listening to the chanting monks who sat cross-legged beside ancient stupas. At the second wat we visited, Wat Chedi Luang, there must have been over two hundred people sitting in folding chairs facing the monks who called out the prayers from the center, just in front of a giant, ancient brick chedi. I can honestly say that was a completely unique new year’s celebration for us.
Just before midnight we broke from the prayer group and walked around to the back of the huge chedi and had a private kiss out of view as midnight struck. Thai people don’t show affection in public so we had to be discreet. Then just as the fireworks starting going off in the distance on the river bank, we saw a few monks scurrying around the base of the chedi. Suddenly gigantic explosions erupted about 50 feet from us and enormous fireworks started going off over the chedi. The sound was deafening. I have never been so close to fireworks, and watching them being set off by a couple of young monks wearing orange robes was quite a sight. We covered our ears and laughed, and watched flocks of bats flee from inside the chedi as the blasts resonated overhead.
After all the excitement ended, we walked back to our guest house hand-in-hand and called it an early night, deciding to watch Harry Potter in bed rather than running around town into the wee hours. It was a truly unique New Year’s Eve, and I’m so glad we decided to break from the crowds and do something really different this year in a place so far from home.
One Night In Bangkok
Any Southeast Asian adventurer sees her share of Bangkok due to the city’s position as the main international airline hub in the region as well as its interconnectedness with just about any major destination in Southeast Asia that one could desire to visit. Most travelers pass through Bangkok on their virgin arrival into Asia, but we flew into Vietnam via Singapore so we didn’t arrive in Bangkok until nearly two months into our trip. Whether you love its chaos and variability or hate its foul smells and loud traffic, Bangkok does not fail to leave a lasting impression. In my book, Bangkok will always remain the place where I sought comfort for my road weary mind and body.
We arrived into Bangkok one evening two months into our adventure after an entire day’s journey from Cambodia that saw us on an early morning bus to the Thai border followed by a lot of standing around at the border, then a tuk tuk ride to the train station and a seven hour train ride in 3rd class seats on an open air train. After nearly six hours on the train sweating in the heat and soaking up dust and dirt with my sticky skin as we passed miles of nothing but rice paddies and banana trees, we finally chugged our way slowly and painfully into the sprawling city over an hour of commuter rail stops. Once there we argued with a tuk tuk driver to get a decent price for a ride, and as we nearly collapsed, finally arrived at our hotel.
After almost two months spread over Vietnam and Cambodia, walking into our hotel room in Bangkok was like entering a modern linoleum lemon-scented oasis. I caught myself in the mirror as I entered the room and was struck by my smiling and terribly dirty face. I really needed a shower, and boy, did I ever have one of the best showers of my life that night. The Swana Hotel in Bangkok became our escape over the next five days, and I took many long luxurious showers there reveling in their hot water and glorious water pressure, despite the wasted water.
We spent a whopping five days in Bangkok on our first visit, unlike most who pass through in a rush, mostly because there is a lot to see there, complete with the Emerald Buddha, where we watched about a hundred monks chanting, and the ferry boats where commuters jump on and off fast moving boats on their way to and from work. We soaked in the sights and even spent a fairly silly night out people-watching in the red light district. Walking on the overhead walkways in Siam Square one night, the darkness flooded with light from the gigantic ads and shopping malls, I couldn’t help but feel like I had walked onto the set of Bladerunner, that is without the flying cars. The sheer size and extravagance of Bangkok’s shopping district screamed consumerism and excess. In contrast to everywhere else I had been in Southeast Asia, Bangkok seemed on fire and wide awake.
As the Lonely Planet so wisely points out, most travelers in Southeast Asia begin their Bangkok experiences amazed by the size and chaos of the city, their second visits happy to return to the modern amenities it offers, and their last with a sense of nostalgia because they have grown used to the comforts it affords a weary backpacker. While I wasn’t overwhelmed by Bangkok when we first arrived having already been in Asia for several weeks, I was most assuredly happy to spend the night there on our second pass through its busy streets, and then on our last visit, a bit sad to leave.
On our second visit to Bangkok, we were only staying for a single night as we traveled from Chiang Mai to Yangon in Burma. We took a night train from Chiang Mai, where of course we were located right next to the most malodorous toilet I have ever smelled on any mode of modern transportation. After a bout of food poisoning in Chiang Mai that resulted in a trip to the hospital, I was relieved to be leaving but dreaded the night train. We managed to sleep a bit, but when we got to Bangkok and re-entered the Swana Hotel, our trusty standby at that point, my soul felt rejuvenated as I took yet another twenty minute shower and sank into the clean white cotton sheets, falling fast asleep. By the time we left the next day, we felt like new people.
Our last visit to Bangkok was unplanned but much appreciated. We were supposed to fly from Mandalay in Burma to Bangkok and never leave the airport, planning to board a plane to Krabi in the south of Thailand the same day. However, we decided to leave Burma four days early due to travel inconveniences and expense, and once again found ourselves reveling in Bangkok’s modern comforts. On this last visit we decided to stay near Siam Square, one of the major shopping areas in the city, and found a small hotel called The Fifth Residence, which turned out to be the ultimate escape. After a visit to the grocery store, we didn’t leave the room for a full day, spending the time doing laundry and eating cereal in bed. At night we walked to the malls and wandered through their air conditioned corridors, sampling food in the food courts, including multiple Japanese noodle soup stops, and saw The Hobbit in IMAX 3D. We were like kids let lose in a giant amusement park, so relieved to feel comfortable again.
Overall, Bangkok doesn’t fail to amaze with its giant buildings juxtaposed beside old world charm in its quiet sois (side streets) and on the banks of the river. If you ever visit, try to take a deep breath and not get too overwhelmed by the noise and lights, and instead appreciate the comfort and intriguing character that it offers. After three visits there, I still felt like there was much more to explore, because most of the time I was too busy taking advantage of its status as the most developed city in Southeast Asia. Thanks, Bangkok, for bringing me back to life when I needed a long hot shower and a nice comfy place to rest my head. And for showing me that even a huge unfamiliar city can feel like home to a weary traveler.
Going Native In Mandalay
When we visited Burma, we knew we were embarking on a different kind of adventure than those we had already experienced on our trip. Burma, is just coming around to tourism after having been closed to foreign tourists for several years. As a result, Loren and I instantly felt like a curiosity to the Burmese people, but surprisingly, in the most friendly and non-intrusive way. Most people, particularly children, gazed at us with warm inquisitiveness as though we were friendly aliens from another planet altogether and they wanted nothing more than to figure us out. And this interest in us was never more evident than on our trip to the U Bein bridge in Amarapura, the longest teak bridge in the world, about 11km south of Mandalay.
Among its many mysteries and quirks, such as the scarcity of and distance between restaurants, the lack of hotels, and the complete dearth of traffic control or stop signs, Mandalay also seemed upon first glance to lack any affordable public transportation. When we arrived in Mandalay at the major bus station which happened to be a convenient 30 minutes south of the city proper, we were forced to take a $20 cab ride to our hotel in the central city because there was no cheaper option. Dumbfounded, we couldn’t understand why cabs were so expensive and how we could have avoided that fate. The only other option we became aware of was jumping on the back of the motorbike of a driver for hire, which we did do the night we went to see the Moustache Brothers. But we didn’t feel like that was the safest option overall.
But over the next couple of days, we began to notice white or blue pick-up trucks that seemed to make regular stops on the street that ran north to south beside our hotel. Each mini-pickup was outfitted with seats along each side in the back and a roof, with wooden stools in the middle to accommodate even more riders. After consulting our trusty travel guide, we realized these were actually a local form of public transportation, like a city bus. Each pick-up had a set route (unpublished of course) and had a route name painted on it (in Burmese) which everyone in Mandalay seemed to understand perfectly.
One day after watching these trucks pass for a few minutes, we decided that in order to visit Mandalay Hill which was 20 minutes away and at least 8 km walking or a $20 cab ride, we would need to hop on and see what happened. So taking a deep breath we walked out into the street, flagged one down, said “Mandalay Hill,” the driver said “Ok” and off we went, for about 50 cents total. We rode on a roundabout route through the city, stopping to pick up numerous passengers, two guys who rode on the back jumping off at each stop to recruit passengers down the side streets. But after about 30 minutes, we arrived at Mandalay Hill quite proud of our accomplishment.
So, of course on the next day when we wanted to get to the teak bridge, much further away than Mandalay Hill, and desperately wanting to avoid the $50 tourist price tag for a cab or $30 or motorbikes for two, we went to the market near our hotel and asked some locals how to get to the bridge (this was accomplished by pointing south and saying “Amarapura?”). They said “next block” and something unintelligible in Burmese. And so we went for it again, emboldened by our previous success. We had also heard somewhere that these pick-ups only left every 30 minutes, so near the half hour, we found one and got on, the first in the seats. Little did we know then that being the first people on is never a good idea.
As we sat in our seats still stationary, the “conductor” walked around recruiting passengers, all the while chewing and spitting betel nut juice all over the ground. A couple of women got on with two adorable little girls, baskets full of food and recent purchases. A couple of men jumped on the top. After about 30 minutes we started off, only to stop at the next block and repeat the process. After stopping at nearly every corner for about an hour and also stopping to pick up a pile of metal rods that needed to be transported south and loaded onto the roof, we started winding our way through the produce and meat market in the western part of town. I thought for sure we were going to be heading off soon, and of course I really needed to go to the bathroom at this point. But alas, we sat for several more minutes while 20 bags of raw sugar were loaded under our seats, each person having to move out of the way so his wooden bench could be raised and two bags of sugar placed underneath. We were handed a sample of sugar cane to try which was delicious. We marveled at the ability of these people to use any transport means necessary to move people and goods simultaneously.
After that stop we ended up at the marble carving district in Mandalay, where I think we sat for another 30 minutes as more passengers were recruited amid the dust clouds from marble carvers. At one point as the food vendors circled the pick-up for the tenth time peddling boiled quail eggs, crunchy rice snacks and the like, we nearly bailed and resigned ourselves to failure. But just then, we finally set off. Over the course of the ride our fellow passengers seemed to marvel at our presence as they hopped on and off going about their daily business. I could have imagined it, but I think they looked at us with not just curiosity but also a little respect for our willingness to join them on their local transportation.
Finally, after 2.5 hours, we made it to the village near the Teak Bridge and then walked another couple of kilometers to the site, stopping at a little tea shop where I used the family’s bathroom, another hilarious experience which found me led through back alleys around chickens and pigs to the neighbor’s toilet which I think was a bit nicer. Of course the bridge was incredible, but unexpectedly, our transportation there was the highlight of the day.