Thursday, April 9, 2009

At Least it Happened on the Way Home. . . .

The night-bus back to Bangkok was a bit depressing as all the people shared stories about where they were off to, with Ko Phangan being the favorite of our group.

We arrived in Bangkok back on Khao San road and immediately fell asleep.
We only had a few hours left before we had to go to the airport, so did some last-minute shopping and repacked our bags. We now have our original two backpacks, my daypack, a large black duffel bag, a white/pink roller suitcase and matching smaller bag, Leslie’s daypack bag, the “northface” bag from Hoi An we used to carry our suits and a larger backpack to use as the “carryon” for the plane. Believe it or not, we got all our stuff into the duffel, suitcase, two backpacks and carry-ons so we do not have to pay a fine :)
We were a sight with all of the bags being carried at once with the two of us. Finally, the “where you going?” and “buy my suit” lines dissappeared. Instead we got “going home?” and “have good flight”.
Our negotiation with the taxi driver showed how far our negotiating has come. It was obvious we were going to the airport and knew the price should be 400. I asked him how much and he said “650″.
“How about 600?” he replied. “How about 400?” I asked. “550?” he tried. At that point we left Leslie with the bags and I went to look for another taxi. “400 okay” he then said.
We knew that the “red shirts”, which are a political group supporting ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra were supposed to be protesting that day, so we left rather early. Thaksin had called for protest on that specific day. I think he was just trying to screw us up ;)
The “yellow shirts” are their opposition and had shut down the airport a few weeks before we came in and as a result we were nervous about what we’d see.
Turns out there were some scattered red shirts that were very peaceable. Our driver was wearing a red shirt as well. He warned us that it would take awhile due to the massive protest. I think he hoped the protests were larger than they were.
As a result, we got to the airport VERY early. It’s a good thing too. We checked in and got some food. About two hours before the flight we went looking for our gate.
One of our tricks for keeping the weight of our checked baggage down was putting the heavy stuff into our carry-ons. My carry-on now weighs more than my entire pack in Chaing Mai. As a result, we had a cart to push around our backpacks. The cart was like one of those small shopping carts at the grocery store. There was an advertising panel on the side of the cart. It was shaped kind of like the letter “D” except half the width. The corners on top and bottom were abou 40% angles and “held on” by screws.
Leslie said “come here”, so I turned and dragged the cart behind me over towards her. Suddenly, the advertising sign became disengaged on the bottom, swung forward and caught me on the right side of my ankle sinking 3/4 of an inch in and almost to the bone. Ever had someone run into your heels with a shopping cart? It was like that except instead of a bar it was more of a blunt knife. The impact was enough that it knocked the sign the rest of the way off the cart.
I did okay at first and checked for our first aid kit, which we’d conveniently checked. I saw an information booth and limped over, standing in line. We got to the front and the woman got me some cotton swabs and alcohol. I started providing pressure while on my feet and then slowly sunk to the ground. Then, the parade started.
First, a manager for the airport showed up. He took one look and made a phone call. The someone from the airport hospital showed up with a wheelchair. At first I didn’t want it, but quickly realized it was necessary.
The four of us were off to the internal airport hospital. We were joined by two nurses and soon a doctor. I was rather impressed with the efficiency as the nurse quickly started cleaning the wound. A few minutes later the doctor showed up and said I’d need to be sutured. He asked Leslie if she had problems with blood. If so she could leave. I asked him if she could stay and I could leave.
The wound isn’t very wide, but pretty deep. I don’t know how many stitches I ended up with but I think it’s two layers of three or four. First, he gave me a shot right on the ankle-bone to numb the thing, That hurt.
After the stitches he asked where I was from. I told him I was from the US and he said that US insurance usually doesn’t cover people for more than 1 month overseas. He then stepped outside to look something up and when he returned, he informed me that Bankok airport would pick up the tab.
I hobbled out of the room, trying to walk and noticed that the crowd had multiplied to about 15 people. A nurse was presenting a wheelchair, which I again was grateful for.
There was about 5 people from the doc’s office, two nurses and a few administrators. There were representatives of Bangkok airport who were getting prepared to whisk us across the airport. There was representatives of Asiana. One I recognized as manager of the check-in counter and a few I didn’t recognize. They informed me that they’d hold the plane for me. (WOW!)
There were a few guys I didn’t know where they were from, but I think one was from the legal department judging by his clothes. Suing over something like this is not our style though, it was a random accident as far as I’m concerned and when the manager asked me if there was anything else he could do I said that he could make sure it didn’t happen to anyone else.
Finally, there was Sepawot (or something like that). He was maybe 50, wearing some sort of fancy uniform that looked to me like a mark of authority. He also was talking, making everyone laugh and basically acting like a good manager. He got me some water and made sure there was a motor vehicle coming. He was constantly rubbing my shoulders, which I think was supposed to be comforting but was really kinda weird. Leslie still had the original cart and someone had gotten another cart that had the bottom part of the advertising sign disengaged like ours was right before the incident.
After the nurse had given me directions for the meds (anti-biotics, anti-swelling, pain) they whooshed us into the motor-vehicle and took off across the airport. We made it with about three minutes before scheduled takeoff.
Unfortunately, this leg of the flight was full, so I could not elevate my foot and as a result this was an incredibly painful flight. However, Asiana did their best and would help me as much as possible. Too bad extra customer service couldn’t remove the pain.
Have we mentioned how much we love Asiana Airlines? The next thing that absolutely blew us away was the fact that they put us up in a free hotel because our layover was more than 8 hours. Big thanks to Ron, whos’ my Seattle Sounders FC buddy from for tipping us off about that.
We got off the plane and they again had a wheelchair waiting for me as Leslie carried all of our extra-heavy baggage. They whisked us into a mini-van to the hotel with eight others from the flight. Once we realized that one guy was from Renton and another from Lacey we decided we were again surrounded by Cascadians of the Pacific Northwest and it was time to stop telling everyone we were from Seattle, as others now knew where Bellingham and Lacey were.
The hotel was BY FAR the nicest hotel we’d seen this entire trip. It had a flat-screen TV with HDTV, a computer inthe room, a shower with eight shower heads and an electric steam room. To top it off, everything was Korean, which is definitely part of the first world. As a result, there were odd things happening every once in awhile. When I turned on the light switch a video game “you’ve turned on the nintendo” type noise started. Turning the lights off at night produced a “game over” type noise.
I was still in a great deal of pain and Leslie doesn’t sleep well on train, planes or automobiles, so we hit the sack for a few hours before taking advantage of the free buffet lunch.
Pride is definitely a down-fall of mine and I continued to try and get myself around as much as possible. This was at odds with the staff of the hotel who wanted to push me everywhere. Eventually, I did okay at resigning myself to the fact that I should allow them to do their job.
We then came to the realization that we had “misread” our itinerary. We thought we were going to land on the 8th, but it was actually the 9th. I’ll claim that it wasn’t my fault because the guy who we changed the flight with didn’t speak much English.
Me: “What time do we land?”
Airline guy: “You confirmation number is CN392002″
Me: “No, when do we get to Seattle?”
Airline guy: “You confirmation number is CN392002″
Me: “Thank you.”
I called Dad and he said that they’d figured it out as it was already 10pm on the West Coast. We felt really bad, but there wasn’t much we could do. Aunt Lynn made me feel better because she said my Uncle Bill (who’s traveled all over the world, and quite often) has made the same mistake.
The hotel and airline did a tag-team of helping me get to the plane as Leslie hoofed all of our carry-on items along.
Fortunately, this time the plane wasn’t too full so both Leslie and I got three chairs to lay down and I could elevate my leg. I could again see strangers talking and about half the accents were ours. The amount of beards had multiplied, people were being friendly and talkative for no good reason and I saw a few pairs of birkenstocks. When I heard an Asian man speak with our accent I knew we were almost home.
Funny enough, when we got off the plane in SeaTac, Mr. Huong who worked for the airport rushed to help me. He was born in Vietnam but lived in West Seattle and loved talking about our experiences. He had been here for about 15 years, but used to live by the Mekong Delta. “How much is pho now?” was his first question.
It took awhile to get our baggage, but it wasn’t too bad. Customs were really easy, too. It was more difficult than most of the Asian countries, but not as bad as we expected. That could be because I was in a wheelchair though.
We hopped in SeaTac Airport’s underground train and whisked off to reception. Leslie went marching up the stairs as I heard a “WOOOOOOOOOOO!” that was obviously Mom as I waited for the elevator. I shared it with a woman back to the war who had an “I REALLY don’t want to go look on her face.” I wished her luck.
As we came around the corner I saw Mom and Aunt Lynn holding and waving Seattle Sounders and chatting with Leslie. Everyone had a big smile on their face.
After getting the stuff in the car, Mom rushed us to the thing that we missed most about the USA . . . . . Mexican food.
We absolutely loved the trip and will do something similar again in the future, but it’s really good to see family and friends again.
I’m heading to the doc today to get my ankle checked out. Also, big news for those who haven’t heard is Michael asked Jenn to marry him in Hawaii so my l’il sister will soon be a Boehm.
This is likely the last blog entry until we get ourselves out on the road again. Next up is finding a spot to live in Bellingham, returning to work on at RidgeStar for me, job hunting for Leslie and the wedding in August.

Thanks for reading and we love you all!
Sawasdee, khrap,
Bryan and Leslie

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Elephant Nature Park

After Pai we went back to Chiang Mai for three more days of relaxing and visiting the Elephant Nature Park. It was a bit expensive to spend the day here, but the money was well worth it. 100% of our money goes towards the benefit of the elephants.

The Elephant Nature Park is a sanctuary for endangered Asian elephants who were previously abused or neglected as domestic elephants. There are really no laws or regulations for elephants in Thailand. Owners can work elephants for long periods of time during the day for logging, transportation, trekking, and elephant street begging purposes.
We arrived at the park around 9 am and met several volunteers and staff who taught us a little more about the elephants and why the foundation is important to them. I was a little disappointed because the founder, Lek, was not there that day. She was at the Thai/Burma border looking at elephants to take back to the sanctuary. Lek has been in several documentaries about the work she has done for elephants. She was actually born into one of the hill-tribes in Northern Thailand and can influence the thinking of many of the Thai people in the hill tribes that have a long tradition of  initially abusing the animals during the process of “domestication.” We watched a documentary about this and it was incredibly hard to watch. Basically, they put the elephants in a small looking cage and are continuously abused by several people from the tribes until they start obeying the owners commands. Elephants are incredibly intelligent creatures and can feel emotion. At the end of the domestication process, the elephant was crying and had  wounds everywhere. Many people in the world have not seen this process, but it was all filmed in one of the documentaries. I had to look down a couple of times as it was hard seeing these intelligent and kind animals treated in this way.
If you visit and you can learn a little more about the elephants living at the santurary and how they got there. You can also understand what Lek and other volunteers are doing on a daily basis to try and change the way these elephants are treated in Thailand.
Basically, we spent the day feeding the elephants buckets of bananas (they eat 1/10 of their body weight), playing with them in the water and helping bathe them (basically pouring buckets of water and scrubbing them), and observing them during the day (including playing in the mud with the other elephants.) It was an unforgettable experience.
It was nice to see these massive and intelligent mammels living in their natural habitat free from chains and working. Basically, they are at this sanctuary to recover from abuse and live the rest of their life in peace.
I will never forget this experience.
See you all soon,

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The End of the Road: Pai Land

So we spent another few days in Chaing Mai, which were an absolute blast. It should be noted that the reason wasn’t becaus we did anything very special, but because we stayed at an amazing hostel and met some great people. 

“Hostels” in much of the world are communal, with dorm beds and large, inviting guest rooms.  Throughout Asia, the hostels have been more like guesthouses, which tend to have people sequestered in their room as opposed to herded into communal tv-watching, dining, cooking and chilling locations. 
Julie’s Guest House is the coolest place we stayed in so far.  The room wasn’t special besides it’s price (180 baht / $5).  There was three large common rooms where people would discuss the benefits of various treks (hikes), elephant adventures, cooking classes and the like.  There are three common rooms at Julie’s and we spent many hours chit-chatting in the common room with new-found friends from across the globe. 
Throw in a massage and a visit or two to the bazaar and that was a few days before we headed off to Pai (pronouced like “pie).
Pai’s a small community of 3000 people in the northwest corner of Thailand.  For us, this is also the end of the road as we have decided that there’s not enough time for Mae Hong Son and instead we’re heading back to Chaing Mai and Bangkok before the flight home. 
The place is known for trekking (what “hiking” is known as by the Thais and Europeans) so we immediately signed up for a two day trek.  The trek was filled with very high highs and very low lows.
It began with us meeting our crew, Mai from China, Nichola from Switzerland, Christian and Charlene from Quebec, Canada (French-Canadian) and something like “Louth” who was French, but living in New Caladonia.  Our guide was Chuh, who was born in the Lisu tribe and lived in Pai.
Chuh was a blast and made the trip worth it.  He spoke the language of both tribes we visited, Thai, English and some French.  At the end I even whipped out some Spanish on him and he made a joke en Espanol. 
We began in the back of a pickup truck and headed about 30 minutes west of Pai, about twenty minutes from the Myanmar (don’t call it Burma) border.  We started with about a hour and a half hike and headed into a Lisu village.  There are six (give or take) ethnic minority village in northeast Thailand.  The most common throughout the rest of the country are the Akha, who are always coming up to people in Bangkok and trying to sell wooden frogs.  The best known world-wide are probably the Karen, whose women lengthen their necks with golden bands. 
Anyway, our first stop was Lisu, where we were given some noodle soup that was pretty good and got to watch the goings on around the village.  It’s interesting being in a tour group for one of these things because it’s interesting to look around, but we’re definitely not part of the local customs, can’t speak the language and can barely interact with the locals, who probably aren’t interested in talking to us anyway.  As a result, our interaction with the villagers was mostly with our guides who were of a few different groups and Chuh’s family.  His sister married a man from the Lahu village, which is where we stayed there.
The first thing I noticed was that all the huts were pretty sturdy, usually with 2-3 rooms and an open area.  Bathrooms were squat toilets, but there was running water.  Chuh attempted to keep up the appearance of rustic living but I could catch glances of him text-messaging and the solar-panels and satellite dishes stuck out.  Yes, the “hill tribe” had solar power and satelite TV. 
We then checked out a cave that was pretty cool, but would definitely NOT be up to US safety standards.
A few more hours and we found a waterful that we were to camp at.  We went swimming and Chuh and his cousins got to work building a shelter.  I didn’t notice what was happening until I got out of the water, but they were halfway done in fifteen minutes.  Banana leaves covered the roof and floor and the whole thing was up in about a half hour.  Next came tea.  Water heated in a fire in bamboo and poured into bamboo cups.  Dinner was started as chicken was skewered on bamboo as other tubes made a BBQ.  Sticky rice was put in bamboo and steamed along with vegetables.  The entire thing was served in bamboo plates (made by chopping 1 segment in half length-wise).  When it got dark they made candle holders. 
The whole thing turned into the most posh camping experience I’ve ever heard of.  It was a bit rediculous.  I’m usually pretty helpful around a campsite but soon realized that I’d just get in their way. 
That night turned into a nightmare though.  For starters, I had some sort of ear problem, that kept me from sleeping.  I thought my head would explode and I had flashbacks to when I was a kid and my eardrum burst.  After watching fireflies for three hours I finally got a little sleep.
My head was better upon waking, but Leslie had been absolutely eaten alive by some bugs and has had an allergic reaction.  We later counted and discovered 135 (yes, 135) bites.  We did our best to be in good spirits, but with my ear-infection type thing and Leslie’s bites we were a somber pair in the morning. 
Chuh told me to put water in my mouth to warm it up, spit it into my hand and then pour it in my ear as it was something from the waterfall.  I didn’t think it would do anything, but didn’t think it would hurt so tried it and it helped a bit. 
We then hiked on to the Laho village where we had fried rice and saw another hill tribe.  It was interesting, but we really just wanted to get back, with my head ringing and my hands tearing Leslie’s away from itching (she’s done pretty good). 
Two more hours of hiking and we returned to the truck to take us back to town.  We split ways with the group, but have already seen Mai and Nicolas, as the towns quite small. 
We’ve also invested in two large tubes of anti-histimine for Leslie and I’m back on anti-biotics.  We’re going to take stock tomorrow and go to the doc if needed. 
It also seemed prudent to check into a nicer place, which we’ve done.  The place is a “rustic” looking bungalow and reminds me of home, as it’s clean and decorated with dark stained wood.  It has hot water and we were almost fooled into thinking we could be in the States .. . .. . until we saw the 9″ lizard in the shower. We figured we’d leave it alone and it’d leave us alone, so last check it was still there.
Don’t want lizards in your shower?  Tough. This is Thailand.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Chaing Mai and a Cooking Course

So we spent two days in Bangkok relaxing as well as doing some errands before taking off to Chiang Mai. We rode the night bus to Chiang Mai which was alright except for the fact that I didn’t sleep at all and it was freezing the whole time. It was a 12 hour journey and we finally arrived at about 6am. A British couple and Bryan and I walked for a good 20 minutes before finding the perfect guesthouse known as Julie’s. The rooms aren’t especially great but there is a wonderful common area where many backpackers hang out.

Once we settled into our rooms we went and had lunch at an organic restaurant where I had the best Pad Thai ever. So far, Chiang Mai has had the best food in all of Thailand (in my opinion). We are really liking Chiang Mai so far. The people seem to be much nicer in Northern Thailand than in Southern Thailand. They are always smiling and laughing which is nice.
Later that evening we went to dinner with a guy from Italy, a girl from Australia, and a girl from Switzerland. Bryan, Daniel, and Rebecca all ordered what is known as Khao Soi (not quite sure how to spell it) and it was delicious. It tastes sort of like a red curry but with noodles. After talking for a couple hours, Bryan and I went back to the guesthouse as we were quite tired from the bus ride the night before. As soon as my head hit the pillow I was gone.
Today was a good day as it was the day that Bryan and I learned how to cook Thai food. It was a one day cooking course where each of us had the opportunity to choose which Thai dish we wanted to cook. I chose Tom Yam soup, Sweet and Sour Chicken, Pad Thai, and Penaeng Curry. Bryan made Coconut milk soup, Red Curry, Pad Thai, and Cashew Chicken. We were cooking with 8 other people, but we all had our own cooking area. Our instructor was actually the owner and he had quite the personality. He was constantly making jokes that he thought was hilarious. We all laughed because we didn’t know what else to do.  He was really nice and taught us a lot. FYI – we now know how to peel garlic and it only takes about a second. We also had the opportunity to “cook with adventure.” Basically cooking with really big flames. I now have about 15 burn marks on my left arm. They were from the guys flames next to me. It was kind of funny but not.  All and all, the cooking course was a lot of fun. Maybe Bryan and I will cook for you (yes you) if you are lucky. 
Tonight we are heading to a night market with some friends we met at our guesthouse. We are still deciding whether or not we will be trekking here or in Pai. We will probably go to Pai and do a 2 night 3 day trekking tour. We’ll see what happens.
~Leslie Dawn

Monday, March 16, 2009

Hoi An and Hanoi: Three Girls and a Boy

Thanks for being patient between blogs, everyone.  We’re alive (and thanks for checking Chalain.  We’ve been in net inaccessible places for awhile.  

So we came to the conclusion that flying was going to be much easier than the bus this time.  It was $80 as opposed to $40, but didn’t take 16 hours.
The airport was quite a bit smaller than we’re used to, but they did still manage to confiscate the scissors from our first aid kit.  Should have checked it . . . .
The flight was pretty nice as it was only an hour and a half and we got snacks and warm towels on the way.  We met a nice woman who splits time between US and Canada who gave us some advice on where to stay in Hoi An.
The flight actually took us to Denang, which is almost exactly in the middle of the long country.  It’s also where the first US troops landed in the Vietnam War.  We met a guy named An who was Vietnamese, but lived in San Jose and split the taxi. 
I’ve noticed that we’re immediately tuned to say “NO!” to anyone who wants to sell us stuff when we first arrive at a new location.  This time, that wasn’t so smart as we turned down 3 $10 a night hotels only to end up in a $12 a night place.  It’s a nice room though, complete with A/C and TV which was thouroughly appreciated before calling it an early night.
Hoi An is a pretty small town, known for being unaligned in the North/South rivalry, a good selection of local cuisines, ancient trading and is the tailoring capital of Vietnam.  It’s said that if you want clothes made in Asia then you should do it here.
Other benefits of the town include that it’s smaller, (less than 100K people) and definitely cooler than Ho Chi Minh or Bangkok.  I’ve actually put on a jacket for two days running :)  One of the most charming aspects of the coastal port is that much of the populace gets around by bicycle, as do we.
We immediately rented bikes our first day for about 60 cents each.  These bikes are quite different than what you expect at home.  First, they’re all road bikes (the skinny tires) and are all one-speed, so no shifting is possible.  The town is flat so it doesn’t make too much of an issue as it’s not too tough to get around.  Getting all the way across town takes approximately 10 minutes.   This process is expedited by the fact that there are no stop signs or stop lights at most intersections.  Four lanes of traffic just head into the intersection and hope.  We’ve made it through these about 50 times without an accident, but I’m still not sure how we’ve pulled that off. 
We immediately took a wrong turn and rode past the entire town.  Realizing what happened, we turned around and headed back.  A woman tried to talk Leslie into coming into her tailor shop, but ended up recommending a decent little restaurant. 
“Coffee” is served either white or black here.  Black is REALLY strong and closer to what we know as espresso.  Only 1/2 a cup will get you wired!  It’s single serving with a metal device on top of a glass that holds beans and the water is poured through.  It’s served before it’s done straining. 
“White” coffee means with milk.  Not regular milk, but sweetened condensed milk.  It’s pretty good.  I also ordered cao lao (thick noodles, pork and a cilantro/soy broth). 
About halfway through the meal, Leslie said, “is that Lena?”  I ended up standing on the sidewalk and waved my arms.
Amazingly, we’d run into Lena and Marilyn, who were our neighbors in Ubud, Bali.  They were on their last day in Hoi An, but we’re going to try to catch up with them in Ha Long Bay in a few days time. 
They’d apparently spent most of their time here shopping and desperately wanted to take us to their tailor.  Off we went and we were introduced to Ly.
About 1/2 the shops in Hoi An are tailor shops.  Most are run by a single family, as was Ly’s.  The storefronts are about 20 feet wide and have two rows of mannequins showing examples of their work.  Inside Ly’s shop was a table in the middle of the room, surrounded by chairs with partially complete projects and scrap hanging over them.  A full-length mirror sat next to the “changing room”, which was a curtain in a corner of the store. 
The walls were covered floor to ceiling with different types of fabrics.  The tailors here can make anything you can sketch or describe.  An Englishman we met pulled up a $1600 coat on the internet, showed it to a tailor and had an “exact” replica made for $25.  Now, I’m sure there’s some different with the quality of fabric, or buttons or what not, but the workmanship is excellent and they can turn anything around in a day. 
Anyway, we had talked about purchasing suits in Bangkok, as Leslie needs one for upcoming interviews and mine fit better ten years ago.  As a result, we picked out some fabric and Ly went to work making measurements as I requested a little more room as my “Asia waist” is a bit more like me in high school than I usually am. 
Leslie also picked out a traditional vietnamese design which is modeled by the woman in red here 
After that we checked out the rest of old town on the bikes and rode around looking to see if we could find a better hostel.  We never really did but soaked up a lot of the small town atmosphere available at 20kph on a one speed. 
At lunch I saw a veteran from the Vietnam war who had lost his legs and ended up buying a few postcards from him.  He gave me a pig-whistle free of charge.  He seemed like a guy down on his luck and it crossed my mind that he was incredibly similar to a lot of US veterans of the Vietnam War I’d seen at home. 
I should tell y’all that it’s now about a week after Hoi An and I’m back in Bangkok.  I’ll do my best to remember all the salient details, but I am going to go fairly quickly across the next week or so.
The next day we got a ticket to old-town Hoi An in the morning.  It brought us a trip of an old style Vietnamese house, with a family who’s lived and produced artwork in the place for eight generations, a trip to the native cultural center, which showed plenty of “old time” baskets and the like that were still being used in the modern market and a trip into an old assembly hall with the largest pieces of incense I’d ever seen.
That night took us back to Ly’s for a fitting and Leslie got measured for a winter coat.  It was $25 for a coat that would run about $150 in the US. We also found a charming little eatery outside the market where food stalls were all lined up with ladies trying to convince people why one stall was better than the next.
Our last day in Hoi An sw us wake up and get on a tour bus to My Son.  My Son was the ancient capital of the Cham (pronoucned Sham) Empire who were a perennial enemy of the Khmer of Angkor Wat.  The Khmer were the dominant power and the Cham ruins, while cool, were definitely not in the same ballpark as Angkor. 
A boat trip back to Hoi An saw us stop by a small craft village that was set up as a woodworking commune.  Four families dominate the commune and have since it was set up. 
Everything was for sale though with no thoughts of a fair share for the outsiders.  It showed that while Vietnamese political structures are  still controlled by the Communist Party the economic machine is increasingly capitalistic.  To top it off, the prices were listed in US dollars. 
Returning to Hoi An saw us pick up our goods from the tailors and buy a flight to Hanoi.  We almost got the nightbus but were warned away by our hostel and some people who had taken it.
The bus trip to Hanoi was actually quite nice as we met a bunch of people our ages and turned into a group of ruffians for the day.  We made our way across town and Leslie got a pretty good picture as three of us had three Lonely Planets out looking at the maps with confused faces.  For those that don’t know, about 99% of English speaking travellers use the Lonely Planet guidebooks.  We have the “Southeast Asia on a Shoestring” version. 
Hanoi deserves more time then I’m going to give it, but it was a charming city that did not have anywhere near the edge I expected.  There is a lake about a quarter mile long in the middle with a nice walk around it.  Touching for couples is forbidden in Vietnamese society, except around the lake so you can see plenty of young couples actually holding hands and putting arms around each other at the lake. 
The popular restaurants for locals have little plastic tables and chairs.  They appear to have one put out and when that’s filled they put another. . . . and another . . . .and another.   We stopped at one that had ten tables at it.  When we walked by later that night there were about 40!
Ho Chi Minh still straddles Hanoi like a Goliath with the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum being one of the main attractions (we didn’t really want to go though).  You can still see “Uncle Ho” embalmed and under glass, despite the fact that his will requested cremation. 
It was St. Patricks day the day we arrived so we ate at a French/Irish place that offered Guinness for 150,000 dong.  That’s about $8 a can.  I saw NOBODY order it.  I think they just wanted to say that they could serve one. 
The gang headed to the traditional water puppet show that evening, which was quite entertaining.  Definitley worth it if you have $3 and a night in Hanoi. 
The next morning saw the gang split up as we all went our seperate ways.  Leslie and I spent about half the day searching different cruise companies for a decent trip through Ha Long Bay in the northern part of the Tonkin Gulf, yes, that Gulf of Tonkin.  Wikipedia is at if you need a history refresher. 
We heard some horror stories of people not getting enough food on the trips and the Lonely Planted warned that those taking the cheap-o cruises rarely had positive experiences and pointed at a few tour companies. To top it off, there is little to no enforcement of copyright law in Vietnam.  While we in the West usually think of this in terms of pirated software and DVDs there is a huge cost for legitimate Vietnamese businesses as well. 
“Fansipan” was a well respected tour company that was so successful they spawned copycats.  The copiers did not try to emulate the cruise, but give poor cruises.  The copying has to do with the fact that they’ve stamped “Fansipan” outside their store.  As a result, “Fansipan” changed their name to Vega.  There are still 4-5 “Fansipan” Tour operators in Hanoi. 
Eventually, we widdled it down to two cruises (Vega and Ocean Tours) and headed back to rest off some food from a restaurant that was VERY cheap and get ahold of Lena and Marilyn.
Marilyn and Lena arrived the next morning and we took them to the two tour places.  We all came to the conclusion that Ocean was the way we wanted to go.  The remined of the day was taken up with shopping for essentials, such as a better bag to carry all the stuff we had. 
I’ve not gone from the guy at the beginning of the trip who couldn’t believe people who had a daypack over their front as well as a rucksack to the guy who has a duffel bag slung over his shoulder.  The duffel bag is a great “North Face” bag with “Reebok” zippers.  AKA, it’s not made by North Face or Reebok.
The next morning we were off.  A “short” three and a half hour bus ride later we boarded the junk in Ha Long Bay.   At the start we weren’t sure if we’d made a good decision or not as to which tour to take. 
We knew we’d paid for an “upper mid class” tour, but weren’t sure if that’s what we’d get.  We immediately started lunch on a boat of about 20 and our worry increased.  We first got some shrimp, which was nowhere near enough for everyone.  Then came some clams, that while good, left us hungry.  That was followed by a miniscule amount of french fries. Couple this with the fact that we had to pay for drinks and we were sketchy.  We assumed that “drinks not included” meant we had to pay extra for alcohol, not that small waters were $1 (they’re about twenty cents usually). 
We were downright nervous!  Then came the calimari, and rice, and salad, and fish and fruit and we were satisfied. Turns out our nervousness was for naught and we felt bad for letting the crew know we didn’t have faith in them.  They came through with flying colors. 
After our nervousness fled we actually got to look around Ha Long Bay, which is a UNESCO heritage site.  There are four techtonic plates crashing into each other in the Gulf of Tonkin forcing huge amounts of limestone straight up out of the ocean.  There are a rediculous amount of islands, many of which inaccessible without rock-climbing equipment.  Here’s a snapshot. 
The entire cruise was through these sorts of structures.  Unfortunatley, there was no sun the entire time, but if there was then I’d have complained about being hot. 
Our first stop was at the floating village.  A woman on a small row boat came paddling over to us frantically.  At first we couldn’t figure out why but then realized that she was the Ha Long Bay version of 7-11.  She had (still overpriced) water, beer, snacks, etc. and would sell directly to the tourists on the boats as she was much cheaper than the on-board stuff. 
The floating village is  You can also see the boats we were on in the background. 
We then changed our stuff to a different boat (no dining room) and hopped into kayaks to explore the bay.  We later learned that one of the things that the budget tours didn’t get was a kayaking guide.  He took us into and out of caves and would around the limestone cliffs.  
Marilyn and Lena were PHENOMENAL kayakers as they knew what they were doing.  Leslie and I did okay, but our ability to go straight was circumspect.  As a result, we worked WAY too hard for too little progress :(
The highlight came at the end of the trip as we went through a small cave which had a decent current pulling us in.  We made it to a small bay that was inaccessable by other means and had the limestone cliffs completely encircling us.  We all made it an had a laugh until the guide informed us we had to go back . .. . up current. 
Lena and Marilyn had no problem as usual, but Leslie and I got whipped back and forth across the cave a few times.  We made it out through sheer muscle more than any skill. 
A few Singaporean girls behind us had definitely trouble though.  The guide had stopped halfway out and was shouting directions.  “This way!  This way!  Towards me!’  Then, the current took a kayak and hurled it right into the guide.  THWACK!   Eventually, he got out and hauled them out of the cave by the tow-rope.  
The twenty of us were hauled wet and tired to the private island rented by Ocean Tours.  We were then explained the next day’s itinerary where the 20 of us were to be split up.  We were the only four that had chosen sleeping on the boat for the second night option.   Many were only going for one night and lots were going cycling the next day, which necessitated staying on the beach.  
The bungalows on the beach barely deserve the term “bungalow”.  There was hot (sometimes) water, electricity, no sand in the place, clean linens, towels, paintings, mosquito-proof walls (and a mosquito net), balconies, an electric blanket, blinds and seashells hanging from the walls.  They were the poshest bungalows I’d ever seen. 
Dinner that night consisted of another smorgasboard of seafood with the calimari salad stealing the show. There were also “Mantis Prawns” which were like prawns except bigger and with the forelegs of a preying mantis.  They were okay, but were new so that was fun.  A funny moment came when Leslie said, “Waitaminit, am I eating a bug?”
The next morning saw everyone take off early except Marilyn, Lena and the two of us.  We had a liesurely breakfast on the beach, followed by a liesurely lunch and got back on the boat at 2. 
Our first boat was actually about the size of a ping pong table which was a bit of an experience.  It wasn’t sealed so much as just tied together bamboo.  It worked though and got us to the junk.  We then headed out among the bay and had a great time chit-chatting above deck.  A few hours later we came to the spot where the kayaks got off and picked up a pair that also wanted to sleep on the boat. 
We then headed into a large bay packed with about 35-40 different junk boats.  It was explained that typhoons can come out of nowhere and “sleeping bay” was where the mountains and deepness of the bay provided the best protection. There were also three or four “mobile 7-11s” rowing their way around the different junks.  We got some Oreos :)
Dinner was again a massive amount of seafood highlighted by a jumbo-shrimp cocktail for six with vegetable flowers and stuffed crab. 
The boat rocked us to sleep with full bellies. 
The only sad part of the trip was the next morning where breakfast was a bit meager.  Fortunately, there was plenty of coffee and we could fill up on Oreos. 
We were then off to the Amazing Cave. 
The Amazing Cave did not diappoint.  It was inside one of the limestone structures and consisted of four or five main caverns.  The largest was probably the size of three soccer fields end to end and two across.  The whole thing had been outfitted with a path and lights and hosts 2000 people on a normal day.  The path starts at the lower left
A few hours in the cave and we were back in the boat and heading “home” to Hanoi.  Our guide got a call and was told he was needed to get another group immediately.  He was a little sad as he wanted to go back to Hanoi.  Lena said that she’d trade him, but to no avail. 
A three and a half hour trip bus ride back saw us back at Ocean Tours and we headed to our included stay at a place with air-con and TV.  Leslie and I scrambled to find two tickets back to Bangkok before heading to dinner by the lake with Lena and Marilyn.  This was especially nice because we got some ice cream :) 
That brings us to this morning, when we bid adieu to Marilyn and Lena as they headed to Nim Binh and we flew back to Bangkok. 
Banglamphu has become the closest thing we have to “home” in SE Asia, as we now know where to go to get bug spray, water, our laundry done, find that book we need, see a movie and basically do errands before jetting off to the next stop.
This time we also can store some stuff we want to keep but don’t need in one of the guesthouses.  This includes the suits, duffelbags, a mask from Bali, Leslie’s designer jeans from Koh Tao and 100 football shirts I’ve just taken delivery of for Bellingham City FC (my soccer team at home).  Tomorrow we’re getting books, probably catching a movie and taking the night bus to Changmai in Northern Thailand.
On a non-travel related note we want to give a shoutout to Leslie’s Mom Deena Lewis as she’s heading into surgery in a few hours.  Our thoughts are with you, Deena and we hope to hear from you as soon as you’re up to it.  Lots of love.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and April 8th

We arrived in Ho Chi Minh city about a couple days ago and have since been busy seeing what this city has to offer. We arrived at about 7pm by bus and were quickly followed by several Vietnamese trying to rent us a room. We had one lady follow us for at least a half hour. There was one guy who gave us his card at the beginning, but he did not follow us. We later ran into him again and decided to see what his room was like. After looking at a couple others after we saw his room, we decided to rent from him as it was the cheapest we could find and his family seemed nice.

This nice Vietnamese man has a wife, a baby girl, and his mother all living underneath where our room is. In fact, I am currently using free internet in what looks like their family room.  We just love the grandma. She is always smiling, laughing, and every  night she gets down on her knees and chants something from a book while looking at Buddha. It takes her about an hour to get through the prayer. Most of the Vietnamese will tell you they are Buddhist, but many actually practice a the “Triple Religion” or Tao Giao, which is a combination of Confuscianism, Taois, Budhism, Chinese beliefs and ancient Vietnamese animism. 
The following morning we made our way over to the War Remnants Museum where we learned a little more about the Vietnam war. I’m sure most of you know about the toxic chemical known as Agent Orange that was spread all over Vietnam by the U.S. Well, the museum portrayed many pictures of Vietnamese  people who have been affected by Agent Orange, physically and mentally. The chemical is still prevalent today and is the main reason there are so many birth defects. I don’t think I need to talk too much about the history of the Vietnam War as most of you already know, but it was still eye opening to read and see about all the innocent people (over 2 million women and children) who died during this senseless war.
The museum actually closes from noon to 1:30, so we decided to take their version of a tuk-tuk (instead of motorbike it’s a bicycle) to a small cafe about 5 minutes away. The guy said he would take us there for $1, but  we then realized it only seated one person. Bryan went on another for a dollar as well. They ended up taking us to the wrong place and when we got there the drivers said, “no, no not a dollar, 100 dong (about 5 dollars). They decided to change the price on us once we arrived, but we did not give in. We gave them $2 since it only took them about 2 minutes to take us there.
We decided to eat at the cafe where the tuk-tuk bicyclers took us. There were only Vietnamese people eating at this cafe and most of them did not speak English which made ordering rather interesting. I didn’t realize our waitor didn’t speak any English until I asked him if I could get the dish without meat. I am not a vegetarian, but I am rather picky with meat.  After realizing he did not understand, Bryan showed him what we were saying in his Vietnamese phrase book – it said “I am a vegetarian” in Vietnamese. He quickly went to the back where we assumed he was asking if the vegetarian option was okay. I didn’t realize it was going to be such an ordeal, so I told him that  it was okay and pointed to the dish with meat. He did not understand the words “it’s okay” and was not about to let me eat meat if I was a vegetarian. It took about 5 minutes to order my meal with the help of another waitor. It was quite funny. He was really nice and I could tell he really wanted to understand us as we did him. Finding ways to communicate with people who speak a different language has been interesting and actually quite fun.
After spending another hour at the museum after it had reopened, we went back to our room to rest. For dinner we had garlic soup at a cafe (yummy) and then made our way over to an Indian restaurant really close to where we’re staying.
The following morning we went on a one day tour of the Mekong Delta.  Google “Mekong Delta War” if you need a refresher course about the Mekong’s role in the Vietnam War.  It took about 2 1/2 hours to get there by bus. We took a larger boat to the other side of the Delta where we then transfered to a smaller boat that took us through a small tributary. I took many pictures because there is so much history here. We ended up stopping on the side of the channel and made our way over to a coconut factory. It was really small with one machine that makes the powder. The women were also making coconut candy which was fantastic. It was neat to see the one woman wrapping the coconut candy because she was wrapping about 15 or so within one minute. This is where I also bought coconut soap which is supposed to make my skin and hair smooth and shiny – just like the Vietnamese ladies. : ) I don’t think it worked but it smells pretty.
We then went back on the boat to a different location where we ate our included lunch. The tour was well organized and our meal included more food than I thought. It was nice.
We then went through an even smaller tributary but this time by canoe. There was one Vietnamse lady in the back and one in the front – both wearing traditional triangular shaped Vietnamese hats. Each canoe obviously only seated four, so Bryan and I went on one with a nice couple from Australia – who we had spent most of the time talking with. The tributary was quite narrow and it would have been dangerous to stick your hands outside the canoe. The Vietnamese ladies were quite the pros at paddling.
We arrived at a location where we drank tea and ate fresh fruit while listening to traditional Vietnamese music. I would never listen to Vietnamese music on my own because the sounds are rather harsh and dissonant, but I suppose it was still nice hearing. :)
We then made our way to a small honey bee farm where we held a really big python and drank honey tea before heading back to Ho Chi Minh City. We had a lot of fun on the tour and felt the $10 was well worth it.
Today we went on another tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels where the Vietnamese hid, worked, lived, and fought during the Vietnam war and previously while fighting the French. Our tour group consisted of about thirty people, so Bryan and I always made an effort to walk right behind our tour guide in order to see. These tunnels were absolutely amazing. Most of the entrances to the tunnels were camouflaged. The tunnels were built for Vietnamese people, and as a result they were very narrow since Vietnamese are small people. Towards the end of the tour, Bryan and I had the opportunity to go through 100 meters of tunnel. It was more difficult than I thought because it was very dark, hot, and narrow, but we were the only ones who made it all the way. We also had the advantage of being right behind the guide with the flashlight. Basically, if you are at anyway claustrophobic, you probably would have only made it 20 meters. Today was definitely a highlight of our journey.
So far Vietnam and the Vietnamese people have been wonderful. The people are so kind and have wonderful smiles. Ho Chi Minh City is quite busy with 8 million people and 3.5 million motorbikes. It is amazing to see the traffic in the morning and afternoon. I have never seen so many motorbikes in my life. 
BY THE WAY – We have extended our trip until April 8th. Asiana Airlines gave us a two week extension for FREE. We were quite happy as we thought it would cost us a couple hundred.
Tomorrow we are flying north to Hoi An ($40 per person). It is supposed to be a neat little place.
Hope all is well,

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Killing Fields

Fun was not the right word for these few days but a rather interesting day as we visited both the S-21 detention center that has been turned into a museum and Pol Pot’s infamous Killing Fields. 

The sheer brutality and cluelessness of the Khmer Rouge absolutely shocked me. 
To sum up the past, the communist Khmer Rouge came to power after a civil war in Cambodia in 1975.  They told the populace that the Americans were going to bomb and that everyone had to leave the cities.  They marched everyone to the rice fields and forced hard labor for the next four years.
They believed that all loyalty should be to Angka (the party) and destroyed all reminants of the past.  Families were considered wasteful and people were grouped with similar ages, most families being ripped apart. 
A large percentage of the population died due to starvation, lack of medical treatment and outright genocide.  Crimes that would get you sent to “re-education” included being in the former government’s army, thinking too much about pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodia, missing your family, humming a non-revolutionary song, having an education or having a family member do one of these.  Everyone who had done something besides farming was suspect.
“To keep you is no gain, to lose you is no loss” was a common slogan.  Another was that they’d rather kill 10 innocents than let one guilty person go. 
As a result of all this, a good percentage of the population died.  Because they could brainwash children easier, a good percentage of the soldiers of the Khmer Rouge army were children with little memory of pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodia.  This is how they attempted to erase everything
The Khmer Rouge fell in 1979 as the Vietnamese took the country.  Unfortunately, the US still had a vendetta against Vietnam so Reagan and Bush refused to recognize the new government, actually providing military and financial support to Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge through both administrations.   Pol Pot was never brought to justice and died of old age.  He ordered killings as recently as 1997.
We began our day of morbid tourism at 10 by getting in a tuk-tuk with Dana (pronounced like Donna) before heading to S-21.  S-21 was a former high-school where people were sent for reeducation. 
A sad movie told the story of two lovers that had been seperated.  The husband went to work for Angka, but even he was not allowed to take his wife with him as families were abolished.  Eventually, both were accused and sent to S-21.  They never saw each other again, even tough they were imprisoned about fifteen feet from each other.  They never knew. 
Numbers on the side of the walls were numbered 1-9 on one side and 10-18 on the other.  People were lined up on their backs with iron rods shoved through shackles amongst their ankles.  Four rows of 9 people were lined up for 36 people locked on their back for months on end.  They could not talk, eat or move. 
Another room had pictures of survivors, who were the guards.  Their stories were highlighted as they can still tell the stories.  Only 7 people entered S21 as a prisoner and lived. 
People were taken from the mass rooms to either individual cells or torture rooms where confessions were forced out of them.  Eventually, they’d be told that they were to go to another work camp to work and were rounded into a truck.  At that point they’d be taken to the killing fields.
People were taken to the killing fields blindfolded and put on their knees.  Where they were killed and thrown into mass graves.  This was often done with blunt objects as the Khmer Rouge did not want to use up bullets.
Land mines were planted by a combination of the government, Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese forces, but how many and where is still unknown.  As a result, the country is littered with land-mines and people living with amputations.  
The legacy of the Khmer Rouge can be seen today.  I was one of the oldest people in the country as almost everyone was younger than me.  There are still massive amounts of young people who do not have parents.   Almost nobody over the age of 30 has an education.  As a result, the economy is having difficulty recovering. 
Children are organized into a small labor force to attempt to sell books and other trinkets to the tourists.  Tourists think they’re doing something helpful by buying a book from the kids, but they’re not. The kids don’t get to keep the money and you’re encouraging child labor.  I did end up buying a book and a bracelet from some men who had been victims of land mines. 
It’s absolutely heartbreaking what has happened to many of the people of this area.  When asked what the children want to do when they grow up they give answers like “live with other people”. 
ChildSafe International is an organization that is doing what they can to get children off the streets and into schools as well as battle child prostitution, which is still an issue in lots of the world.  Check their work out at
We did not spend all that much time in Phnom Penh as the end of the trip is getting ever closer and we wanted to head on, so as a result, I’m writing this from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) on the bottom floor of a small homestay.  The Mai family has a grandma, a couple about our age and a newborn.  They have 3-4 rooms and free internet :) 
Today we’re going to do the “loop”, which is a walk around some museums, markets and the like.  We’ll talk more about Vietnam later . . . . but not until after Leslie wakes up. 

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Khmer People

I just wanted to write a quick blog about our experience with the Khmer people so far.

We left Siem Reap this morning and are currently in Phnom Penh. It’s kind of hard to explain what we have experienced here so far, but there is definitely a feeling I can’t quite describe. Cambodia’ s recent history of torture, starvation, and forced labor is very much prevalent today. It’s interesting to look around at all the Khmer people because you rarely ever see someone older than 50.
Cambodia is an extremely poor country, and as a result there are thousands of children and people living with amputations selling books, bracelets, and postcards on the streets. Many of the men with no arms or legs have signs in English explaining their family situation and their tragic encounter with landmines. Children are working hard by not begging but by selling. It is so hard not to buy their items and give them money, but it is not the best thing to do because often times the children rarely get to keep the money and it only perpetuates the problem. Do you want families sending their kids to school or sending them to sell books?
It is better to give them food and more effective to give to larger systems and organizations who can better deal with these cycles. Bryan and I gave a small donation to an orphanage and would have loved to give to the free hospital in Siem Reap, but unfortunately we don’t have much to give. We did meet several volunteers working on building houses as well as at the orphanage which was nice to see. I would love to go back and help when there is more time. Oh and by the way, the free hospital in Siem Reap was lined with poor families located right next to a million dollar hotel. The disparity between rich and poor was very much prevalent in Siem Reap.
In short, I guess what I’m trying to say is despite the fact that these people have recently seen war, genocide, and famine – they are still some of the kindest and most honest people we have met yet.
More to come later as we are visiting the Tuol Sleng Museum where the once school was turned into a security prison and was the largest torture center in the country.  We will also be going to the Killing Fields – we are anticipating a rather depressing day tomorrow.
Missing you all,
This entry was posted in Uncategorized on  by Leslie.