In Search of the Endless Summer… or maybe the eternal Spring. Warm, tropical…I’m Southeast Asia bound, exploring Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
It’s wintertime at home so I’m in search of the endless summer, or at least the eternal Spring. Warm, tropical, exotic Southeast Asia, yeah, that’s the ticket! The journey begins in Bangkok, Thailand and who knows from there!!!
1ST POST: THE EXOTIC WORLD OF THAILAND
The shaved head tattoed man raised his camera to take a picture of the undulating Chinese Dragon while the scantily clad Lady Boy go-go dancers shaked their booties to the rhythm. The street scene was electric; the street scene was eclectic. The gathering crowd cheered while standing next to me, a man stroking his giant iguana beamed a mischievous smile.
The beachfront sky, only several meters away, started to glow from the lightly thrusted steady ascension of fire glowing lanterns, the lanterns rising ever higher to the stars that floated over the Andaman Sea. Chinese New Year had begun…
But wait! How did I get here, here in this Fallini inspired carnivalistic nightlife environ known as Patong, a beach town on the southern Thailand Andaman coastline.
Shall I start in the beginning , a mere four days ago.
This current journey, my Southeast Asia Peace and Love Tour, began on President Obama’s inauguration. I decided to pass the baton of entrusted responsibility for the country to this fine gentleman while I was away for the next few months. I think the country will be in good hands.
The flight transition from USA to Bangkok, Thailand went extremely well as did the quick, courteous transfer from the airport to my New Siam hotel, located in Banglamphu, a central Bangkok neighborhood located in easy walking distance to the major sites. I proudly proclaimed “Siam…I am”, which to me sounds like a philosophical collaboration between Descartes and Dr. Seuss.
Within easy walking distance of my hotel was the Grand Palace, former home to the royal family, a majestic, ornate compound filled with graceful, beautiful structures and temples. A side structure was a museum dedicated to the weaponry used by numerous ethnic armies over the centuries. Just looking at the gruelsome collection of swords, axes, spikes, tridents and bayonets makes one utter the words OUCH !
The more peaceful route one may choose in life was epitomized in the neighboring wat (temple) Wat Pho which housed the massive golden Reclinng Buddha. The Reclining Buddha represents Buddha in his final moments, reaching the state of Nirvana.
Other strolls through Bangkok took me through pier side marketplaces, colorful flower markets and bustling merchant-minded Chinatown. All my senses were kicked into overdrive reviewing the array of foods, flowers and goods that were offered.
As to Thai cuisine, its plentiful, tasty and inexpensive; such menu choices like phat thai, spicy Tom Tom soup, spring rolls and delicious, thirst-quenching watermelon, papaya and freshly squeezed orange drinks. Grab them at a restaurant or at a street side food stand.
At night, soak up the touristy scene and be seen parade of people that make their way through Banglamphu’s Th Khao San promenade.
Chinese New Year was fast approaching and upon hearing the town of Phuket had a Chinese community that celebrated the new year, I booked an overnight bus heading southward toward the islands and Phuket.
Achieved relative sleep aboard the bus, which did come equipped with reclining seats, A/C and movies to watch.
Pre-dawn stop at bus transfer stop (we transfer?) and sleepily myself, and mostly young backpacker group crawl out of bus. You know you’re in Thailand when you look across street and see three monks dressed in their orange robes receiving offerings from kind neighbors. The sun then awoke, some nieghborhood kid lit some Chinese firecrackers and we were back underway, crossing a lush mountainous region (could see somebody riding an elephant in the distance) before catching my first glance of the Adaman Sea and eventually Phuket.
Thanks to pre-Chinese New Year preparations, Phuket’s streets were very quiet on a Sunday afternoon. Sweating under the hot afternoon sun while walking the streets with my bag, I managed to get my bearings, found a reasonable bed for the night and began to find some life in town wandering the streets again san backpack.
Thanks to the helpful hint from a smily restaurant proprietor, I set out looking for festivities, following the red firecracker debris through the town’s old central section, passing a restaurant that was showing a Jackie Chan movie…quite appropriate for the occasion
Though decaying, the colonial architecture of the buildings with their columns, varandas and fading pastel colors still evoked the ambience of glory days past when the town profited from Portuguese, Chinese and Malay traders.
Turn down the next street and there was the neighborhood block party! With a makeshift bar, and a makeshift stage, several bands, played vintage 70s rock n roll as well as great jazz and bossa nova tunes. “I’ll have a gin and tonic please”, I said to the hip bartender and sat down to enjoy the music. Very cool, very casual.
The next day, the beginning of Chinese New Year, I hopped on an open air local bus and arrived at that wild n crazy beach mecca…..Patong. And now you know how I got here!
2ND POST: SCRIBBLINGS FROM PATONG, KRABI, AND KO LANTA
The southern Thailand towns and beaches of Patong, Krabi and Ko Lanta each are unique in their vibes yet all share a mellow tempo, genuinely Thai, that’s very nourishing for one’s good spirit.
If I was a composer, here’s the word tempo I would choose for each:
For Krabi…. small town evening ambiance and peacefulness. People taking sunset strolls along the harbor sidewalk, food stand vendors making preparations for dinner servings to locals and travelers alike, a woman carrying a traditional transport stick balancing two baskets of goods while passing two Thai ladies wearing Islamic headcoverings, longboats departing for open sea, everyone smiles, chatter is light and easy. Even the sunset is subtle, unpretentious in its quiet exit.
For Ko Lanta…. jogging, swimming, reading, relaxing, hammock swaying, doggies playing, tidal flow, sunset glow, Singha beer to go, drifting bongo beat, nighttime flame thrower’s heat, dinner on the beach while lanterns resonate pastel light into the night as the beachfront bars begin to hum. Soon, the day is done and the new day’s dawn begins on cue to the lazy hammock’s rhythmic flow.
For Patong… a dash of Las Vegas, a pinch of international jet set beachfront panache and a healthy helping of tropical burlesque merriment, musically accompanied by either loud, brass go-go music or great vintage rock cover band sounds.
The bulk of the raucous behavior merriment (when the Aussies are not celebrating Aussie day at the Aussie bar) is conducted by the Lady Boys themselves. The lavishly, scantily dressed Lady Boys are Thai transvestites, lost souls who seem to be perpetually recreating their Rio Carnivale fantasy dream.
“What?!” says Texas Bob, nearly spilling his beer at this remark. “They’re NOT women!” “But they seem so purty and they have a pair of…and don’t look like they have a …oh nooo…this can’t be so”, as his voice, full of chagrin, moans and he slowly sinks deeper into his pint of beer. Poor Texas Bob….
The range of the international crowd walking the streets is global in its representation; Western European, Eastern European, Asian, Aussies, Israelis, jet setters and families. One may see a dubious Dubai (say that ten times real fast) business man, Russian or Italian mobster pass you by, each accompanied by their various voluptuous female escorts and Russian models.
Perhaps even the ever popular American bailout corporate CEO with his escort about to partake in an expensive beachfront seafood dinner at a fine beachfront resort, funded by the ever generous American taxpayer.
Hey, we all need a vacation, right?
Patong, and especially further up coast, was devastated by the December 2004 tsunami disaster, killing lives and destroying property. Several storefronts along the beach have displays with pictures taken on that fateful morning. Incredulously, within Patong city limits, the are no lasting indications of this natural disaster. Everywhere has been rebuilt, and then some, thanks I suppose to the resilience of the Thai people and the beach resort and real estate developers. The few locals I inquired about the event had not witnessed it, having arrived in town since that day.
A tsunami early warning siren system has since been installed by the Thai government as well as signs that state the best tsunami evacuation route would be to go inland. Well, thank goodness for that helpful direction, I would never have thought to run AWAY from the water…brilliant!
I took a lovely island day excursion over to the picturesque Krabi province, home to dramatic, lush karst peaks that thrust out of the water and along the coastline. Here, you may find James Bond with his Golden Gun searching for Leonardo Dicaprio and his merry band of backpackers.
Snorkeling was very good here, near Phi Phi island and Maya Beach, so long as you avoided the areas where the jellyfish were beginning to move in.
Next stop…Ko Samui.
3RD POST: KO SAMUI… WHERE DID PARADISE GO?
Ko Samui, Thailand
The story goes that way back in the year 1971, two tourists arrived in Samui via a coconut boat, stumbling upon paradise. If they were to revisit Samui today, in particular Chaweng Beach with its wall to wall shop til you drop packaged commercialism sense of paradise, would they have a sense of regret at their pronouncement to the world. Did Christopher Columbus later have a similiar feeling?
Granted, the beach itself, situated along the Gulf of Thailand, is near perfect; white sand beach, perfect temperature water and air, aquamarine waters and just enough wave action to make you feel invigorated. I get such pleasure just jogging down an open stretch of beach, here, Oregon coast, Ipanema, wherever. Just start jogging. I never jog on the streets of the world, only its beaches.
During the day at Chaweng Beach, you read, get tan, watch semi-naked women, take dip in water, maybe play a game of checkers or throw the frisbee with a new friend.
At night, the romantic ambiance, contributed to collectedly by the natural beach, stars and the rising semi-full moon, and by man, through artfully designed beachfront resorts and seafood beach dining experiences, is certainly inviting. I like the periodic fireworks over the water the best.
Yet, he says with baited, biting commentary breath, the environ feels like the natural feel, the natural edge has been squeezed into oblivion. Little foilage remains along Chaweng Beach’s shore, backpackers’ modest abodes have been replaced by high-end resorts and the carefree traveler has been replaced by a solemn, wealthier, consumer-driven international crowd. Initiating eye-contact and casual conversations grows more difficult. The Jimmy Hendrix Experience bar sits empty, forgotten. The corporate packaged southern Thailand beach resort experience has replaced it with its solemn jetset followers.
This part of Thailand has become a-cultural, a definite endless summer habitat in January/February for the jetset crowd that, with the approaching wet season, would be foresaken by this same crowd and seasonally transplant themselves to the Caribbean, Greek Islands, or Australia’s Gold Coast later in the year.
And the commerce section on the Chewang’s main drag went on forever. No end. Honest. One evening I walked over a mile passing a continous flow of trinket shops, clothing stores, bootleg DVDs, fancy restaurant, massage parlor, yoga centers, fancy resort, luggage stall, electronic accessories stall, another bootleg dvd store, restaurant, Starbucks (only saw three Starbucks here, six in Patong), 7-11, massage, massage, resort, resort, backstreet go-go bars, restaurant, etc., etc., etc. Unbelievable! Finally, I did pick up another excellent fruit shake (mango) backtracked to the beach, sat on the sand, and sighed “that’s better!” After seeing all this what would Buddha think? What would he do?
From my current beach position, I stared out across the Gulf of Thailand. Directly on the other side, near the Vietnam coast, some 25 plus years ago, my ship when I was in the US Navy picked up some of poor Vietnam’s boat people refugees, several families so desperate to escape they had been adrift for several day, near starvation, hoping for a US vessel like ours to come along and safe them.
Finishing my shake, I did get the sudden urge to revisit the older men and women beggars positioned on the main street’s busy sidewalks and happily relinquished my spare Baht change.
The Thailand beachlife phase of my trip would end tonight. Tomorrow, I’m bound for the cultural center of northern Thailand, Chiang Mai.
4TH POST: HILL TRIBE ADVENTURE
Chiang Mai, Thailand
The tour to the Hill tribe villages began innocently. We started our journey in Chiang Mai, chauffeured in a nice a/c minibus, watching the city limits gradually fade into a serene countryside. We were driving north to the mountains, an infamous region known as the Golden Triangle, a remote region that encompasses the connecting borders of Thailand, Burma, and Laos.
A dirt road detour leads us to our starting point. We trek deep into the jungle until we come to a river crossing. Our guide points up to a large tree. We look at each other, shrug, and decide “why not?”. In good shape, I scramble up the tall banyan tree, get a good grip on one of the many elongated vines, give a good push off the tree and swing to safety to the other side of the river.
Once on solid ground, it’s a brisk hike through the poppy fields to reach the local village. After warm salutations in different languages, we immediately get down to business sipping snake wine and passing the opium pipe. It’s not long before I feel I’m entering an altered state of mind, feeding the lotus eaters and drifting into a prolonged dream….
I don’t know how long I was under. The salt spray coming off the bow of the ship must have finally awakened me. Quite startled, I awake, physically quite sore. Pushing myself off the wooden deck, I gradually get my balance and incredulously stare at an infinite ocean horizon. I glance around and see the rest of our group, including Texas Bob, are still sleeping on the deck. After several inquiries, to my chagrin I discover that we were all shanghaied aboard a slave ship freighter bound for Dubai. Man, I don’t remember that part mentioned in the tour guide brochure!
Or maybe, the journey went something like this:
The Hill tribes we would encounter in the Golden Triangle region are the Akha, Hmong, Karen (including Longneck) Lahu and Lis. Each Hill tribe has its own language, customs, style of dress and spiritual beliefs.
This region WAS infamous for the cultivation and production of opium. These Southeast Asian tribes, fiercely independent, unwilling to succumb, have for centuries been subjected to continual displacement by an array of conquering dynastic regimes; regimes whose kingdoms and nations, through the great equalizer of time, have themselves risen and fallen into obscurity.
Through Thai government and military intervention, gradual pacification progress was implemented in the Golden Triangle region. Also, programs such as the King Project, have helped redirect the Hmong and Akha tribes from the economic cultivation of opium-producing poppies to healthier cash crops such as edible herbs, fruits and vegetables.
Gone are the smuggling days that brought fright and bullets, ill winds that carried secret whispers and dangerous characters; druglords, drugpins, desperadoes and the ubiquitous CIA spooks and Air America yahoos. An illicit chapter in this remote region’s turbulent history that at present has been filed under folklore.
In today’s Golden triangle marketplace, you won’t find drugs, guns and money. Instead, you’ll find grinning faces and a more pleasurable selection of home grown fruits, vegetables and perhaps a hand-woven scarf.
Several Hill tribes originated from Tibet, southern China, and Laos, while others, such as the Karen tribe, are refugees from neighboring Burma. Within the Karen tribe is a sect known as the Longnecks, a term describing the women in the tribe who wear the coiled brass rings around their necks.
Contrary to popular belief, the brass coils, which are loose fitting, do not cause any structural damage to the neck muscles, however, with prolonged use a slight physical deformation can occur across the shoulder blades due to the additional pressure.
Now, the women within the tribe known as Big Ears do have quite deformed earlobes. I was going to mention to these ladies the large tribe of women we have back home known as the Large Asses, however, I decided otherwise. They just wouldn’t understand.
Which popular theory/story do you think best explains the origin to the “longneck” tradition. (A) the Karen tribesmen had the women wear the neck bracelets to protect them from tiger attacks while the men were away hunting or (B) one tribal queen thought they would be quite fashionable and enhance her physical attraction to which the other women would choose later to emulate her and make themselves more beautiful with their neck bracelets as well.
If you chose (B) you are a good studier of the human condition and women in particular.
Even today, the women do not consider themselves exploited when people come to see them. On the contrary, they are now considered “celebrities” , considered unique and very beautiful, by foreigners and local Thais alike. Ah vanity. The women can also chose to wear or not to wear them.
Speaking of celebrities, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt had visited these Karen refugee camps several days earlier which explained why there were so few visible children. There was one little girl, however, who not only wore the neck bracelets but also wore braces on her teeth. Talk about a human walking TV antenna! I could definitely empathize with her teeth braces predicament from my struggling adolescent days.
One woman played a tribal folk tune on her guitar that reminded me of Mountain music from back home. She also had a very sweet, soft voice. The older ladies, since retired from wearing their bracelets, demonstrated with big smiles their deeply blackened teeth, permanently stained from years of steady beetlenut chewing. They claimed they’re husbands liked the look. Ooooh baby!
Also noteworthy, The Karen tribe village dwellings were constructed of modest wooden, partitioned huts, to which an African gentleman said reminded him of his home as a child. The Karen tribespeople learn quickly, including languages and are already fairly fluent in Thai as well as grasp a fair knowledge of English words. Quite impressive.
The Karens, as well as members of the other tribes were all very gracious and it was a most enjoyable visit.
5TH POST: ANCIENT KINGDOMS AND FRONTIER TOWNS
Mae Sot, Thailand
I have to say, it’s quite a pleasant experience starting my morning biking through the former 700 hundred year old Siam kingdom ruin Sukhothai. Here, as in other ancient kingdoms such as the Incas’ Machu Picchu in Peru, and the Mayan jungle temples in Tikal, Guatemala, there’s a beautiful haunting mystique as well as a profound reverence wthin their confines. Confines is actually a misnomer since their energy suggest a transcending cosmic realm, without any earthly boundaries.
The early morning light always enhances this sensory response.
I wonder if 700 years from now the ruins of the ancient civilizations of Los Angeles, New York or London will evoke the same response?
The vast Sukhothai complex is sprinkled with buddhas, wats and bell-shaped chedis, in various stages of decay, some quite well preserved, thanks in part to recent preservation work. The ruins are separated by large grassy stretches and large graceful trees that still provide some relief from the days’ intensifying heat.
The next day, a more off the beaten tourist path took me to Mae Sot, a frontier border town situated along the Thai / Burmese border. Few travelers make there way here, however, numerous NGO volunteer workers do, primarily because of the growing supply of Burmese refugees coming across the border.
The ethnic mix in Mae Sot is quite intriguing; Indo-Burmese Muslims sporting long goatees and sarongs, Burmese women identified by their facial adobe-colored makeup streaks, and Chinese, Bangladesh and Thai merchants. You’ll find both Buddhist wats and a mosque. The merchants, among other things, trade in a significant amount of gold jewelery and precious stones. I’ve noticed an increase supply of new SUVs driving through town.
One Muslim gentleman had intensely dark circles around his eyes, which only added to his already intense furrowed brow stare. I just grinned back, held the grin, and his stern resolve vanished as he too broke out in a grin. So did the skinny bearded Muslim man who, while walking from the mosque steps, saw me, looked confused and disconcerted and briskly walked ahead. I purposely continued my walk behind him, dogging him for three blocks until in passing, he too smiled. See how easy it is to resolve religious conflicts!
One young NGO worker I met seemed a bit disenchanted after six months working with an NGO that was providing solar energy driven utility installations for the Karen tribe Burmese refugees.
The mission’s original premise was to establish these solar powered units for the refugees, teach them them how to use them so they would eventually become self-sufficient. Instead, when the power units break down, or just somebody forgot how to turn on a switch, the Burmese just wait for the NGO workers to show up several weeks later and fix them, happily dependent on the NGOs for this new service. Time for the Burmese seems better served watching Thai soap operas and drinking cheap whiskey.
His image that all volunteer participants, like himself, had only noble unselfish intentions in their work was equally tarnished after receiving a swift firing (he’s a volunteer !) by his middle-age Thai female boss once she determined he would not accept her advances. Ah, life’s lessons!
The labor and service industry workforce in Mae Sot primarily consists of Burmese refugees, a convenient new source of cheap labor. Mae Sot’s city limits act as a sequestered “don’t ask don’t tell” immigration zone for the Burmese refugees (Gee, similiar to Santa Fe’s quasi immigration arrangement) which is a far more livable arrangement in Thailand than the alternative back in Burma.
Another young NGO had gone to help Thai’s vanishing wildlife, in particular the Bengal tiger. After three months involvement in their tracking, identifying and monitoring sytem he had yet to personally witness a tiger firsthand. Statistically, there had not been a documented tiger attack in Thailand in over thirty years.
Other NGO volunteers taught English and took general care of Burmese Karen orphan kids as well as provided medical care. Programs were often closing due to insufficent funds.
You have to admire these good souls who travel half way around the world to take care of a perfect stranger, two-footed or four.
My hotel was a beautifully deceptive diamond in the rough. Outside appearance was hideous but once you reached the hotel lobby and scaled its hallways you were in the grandest tribute to woodcarving genious. The entire interior was a woodcarving; lobby furniture, banisters, ceilings, bedstands, tables, teak and mahagony masterpieces crafted into a gothic Burmese style. How often do you get a rush just staring at your hotel hallway ceiling!
My room has cable TV and from this equally remote and strange crossroad to the global world at my TV remote fingertips I had Fox news, Aljazeera, BBC, German news, Le Monde news, India, Thai and Chinese soaps and movies, and third rate American cable shows.In ironic jurnalism juxtaposition, the Fox News Channel and Aljazeera New Channel were right next to each other. If I changed the channels quickly enough, I could hear a coded mantra that went, starting with FOX: Fuck The Peasants (then Aljazeera) Help The People……Fuck the peasants, help the people, fuck the peasants help the people. FOX of course is annoyingly fascist while Aljazeera is tediously maudlin. I finally settle on the best world TV has to offer…. The Cartoon Network.
And of course, as a seasoned intrepid (or is it foolish ) traveler, I had to, in Jim Morrison’s words, “break on through to the other side”. So it was no surprise I found myself one hot morning, casually walking across the Friendship Bridge bidding adieu to Thailand (at least for several hours) and entering Burma. All custom officials were prompt and courteous. No barbed wire, only a bridge and a river separated the two countries. Minor distinctions were apparent between the two countries like lack of cars, slightly different style wats, and more stares from the locals dressed in sarongs; understandable greater curiosity since I was basically the only foreigner walking the streets that morning. I was even happily surprised to see two monks wandering the streets, what with the horrendous events that took place last year. Otherwise, for my border excursion, the scenery change in nations was Same Same Only Different.
6TH POST: GOOOOOD MORNING VIETNAM
Cliche or no cliche, after such a wonderful day I had yesterday cycling through the countryside waving to hundreds of Vietnamese saying “HELLO !” I’m unabashedly ready to proclaim, nay, open the bedroom window shutters and joyously shout, to a sea of gloriously stained, brutally gray cinder block roof tops……..GOOOOOOD MORNING VIETNAM !!!!!!!!!!!!!!
In Vietnam, with the currency exchange rate pegged at 17,000 dong to the dollar, it’s easy to feel like a millionaire. You ask the waitress, “How much for my breakfast?” “Only 85 thousand. Here’s a hundred thousand…keep the change!”
Of course, back in America, if you arrived flushed with a million dong (sounds dirty doesn’t it) you could barely pay for a bus ticket from Albuquerque to Flagstaff, Arizona.
However, millionaire or no millionaire, in Hanoi, even staying in its more charming Old Quarter section provides little inspiration to shout Good Morning salutations to the world.
One might be tempted to say Hanoi is a great city to leave however I shall try to emphasize Hanoi’s positives. For instance, highlights included the best springs rolls I’ve ever tasted and the incredible artwork you see in the different galleries/ shops. At night, sections of the Old Quarter look graceful with draping trees, bright chinese lanterns and a charming French ambiance (Gee, if only the French had a word for “atmosphere”) while the Old Quarter lake makes for a pleasant evening stroll. There’s also that uniquely Vietnamese energy in the streets; people sitting around the sidewalks eating from steaming pots and bowls while women wearing their conical hats pass them by carrying everything from pineapples to bricks.
That said, the downside to Hanoi is the weather; February drizzly and gray with insufferable humidity, the motorbikes; total mayhem madness in the streets, the touts or hawkers; difficult to walk two blocks without a half dozen “Hey mister, hello, hello” trying to sell you something, and the exhaust pollution which leaves you gasping for air.
Hopping on the bus for Ninh Binh was a smart move. Renting a bicycle and “getting lost” among the villagers in the countryside an absolutely brilliant move! I was in my element, in my groove, peddling away, taking pictures of picturesque karst peaks and rice fields, and encountering many smiley face Vietnamese, waving and shouting “HELLO, HELLO!” a gazillion times, not motivated to sell you anything, but simply to greet this strange long-hair stranger riding through their village and sneaking up on them in their ricefields.
School kids in particular were fun to interact with and I received big smiles and “hellos” from a group of girls dressed in their Communist Party H.S. brown uniform outfits. Did I mention this was the Peace and Love tour?
Just trying to bridging the cultural gap, remember…there is no “ism” in smile. Wait…actually there is, just the letters rearranged. Anyway, it sounds profound.
A nice touch, occasionally I could hear over the distant Communist Party community center loudspeaker some Vietnamese soft music playing. I assumed this was music to please “the Workers” while they sowed the rice seeds for the next harvest.
This reminded me of the MUSAK or elevator music that is sometimes played in the corporate capitalist workplaces to please the “office workers” while they sow the seeds for the next set of useless corporate reports.
Are our worlds REALLY so different? Who is ready for a group hug!!!!!
And, if life couldn’t get any better, even the village dogs (who are, contrary to popular myth, kept as pets, not as appetizers) were friendly!
7TH POST : HIHO HIHO! DOWN THE HO CHI MINH TRAIL I GO !
Hoi An, Vietnam
HIHO, HIHO, it’s down the Ho Chi Minh Trail I go!
The journey south began on an overnight sleeper bus. Picture a train sleeper car, equipped with bunk beds, only inside a bus; dorm on wheels. China has similar style overnight buses.
Since I was picked up after Hanoi, the more comfortable individual beds were already taken, thus my remaining choice was the very back of the bus where four people are aligned in a far too cozy row. I mentioned to the Vietnamese man next to me that I felt cheap since he didn’t even buy me dinner. He didn’t get the joke but the German fellow nearby laughed.
Our route south was on the main highway, the only highway in fact, that linked the elongated nation from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, connecting some 80 million people in the process. Financial stations lauder Vietnam’s burgeoning economic engine. Chief exports include rice, textiles, coffee and people. Yet, coming from the western world, I find it difficult to envision this growing economic powerhouse while our bus drives a maximum of forty miles an hour down a two lane road; a two lane road where the interstate buses and trucks must honk their horns and slow down for motorbike traffic and little old ladies crossing the street.
Even road construction equipment is mostly accomplished by manual labor with men using crowbars to break up old tarmac.
Today, Vietnam’s northern and southern regions are unified into one singular Vietnam, cultural differences aside, so our post dawn crossing of the Ben Hai River, the physical boundary that defined the DMZ, held little fanfare. The only activity today that could be seen on the river were several fishing boats and some sleepy-looking fishermen.
Of course, this region was the center of some of the bloodiest battles of the conflict (DON’T MENTION THE …..! ). Within this Central Vietnam region are places like the Vinh Moc Tunnels, DMZ, Hamburger Hill, Danang and China Beach; names that I only vaguely recall as a child and are more recognizable to me through movies and television. Living history yet still history.
I stopped for a few days in Hue before continuing on to Hoi An. Hue is famous for establishing the ubiquitous surname Nguyen, a name you find among the majority of the Vietnamese population. Long ago in a place called the Forbidden Purple City (I saw no purple while I was there), the imperial Nguyen Dynasty ruled the land from their fortress in Hue. Funny, I don’t recall any Smith and Jones Dynasties back in the States?
Hoi An is very nice. Whereas Hanoi is a good place to leave, Hoi An is a good place to stay awhile. Designated a World Heritage Site, Hoi An’s attributes are many. A very laid-back riverfront town that provided me with the first clear blue skies I’ve seen so far in Vietnam. The colorful French colonial-style architecture is reminiscent of New Orlean’s French Quarter or the Portuguese influenced narrow streets and plazas in Salvador Do Bahia in Northeastern Brazil.
The town also boasts colorful characters and delicious food. A few of the riverfront characters I’ve given names to such as Grinning one tooth FuManChu, Hoi An Princess and Gold Tooth. There’s also a jolly fellow whose a Danang branch Easy Rider, a group of Vietnamese bikers who takes tourist on motorcycles and travel through the Central Highlands. Born To Be Wild !!!!!
Some favorite food dishes I enjoy eating while I’m watching the riverfront world walk by are Cao Lau, a local noodle favorite, spring rolls dipped in fish or chili sauce, a variety combination of yellow noodles with beef, chicken or shrimp, fresh vegetable picked straight from the garden or local lily pond, and hot Vietnamese coffee.
In particular, there’s a food stall canopy I frequent, where each bench area represents a different entrepreneurial cook; a placard designates who is cooking for you. Let me introduce them to you:
Mr Son, Ms Bay, Mr Com Ga, Mr Tung, Ms Nam, Mr Rin, my favorite Ms Quyen, and of course, Mr DONG.
Hoi An also serves as a travelers’ harmonic convergence vortex for seeing past travelers. In Hoi An, you have a more relaxed opportunity to begin conversations and make friendships with those passing faces you saw on prior buses, street corners, and hotel lobbies.
8TH POST: FELLOW TRAVELERS AND FORMER KINGDOMS
Nha Trang, Vietnam
Sweet dreams are made of this
Who am I to disagree
Travel the world and the Seven Seas
Everybody is looking for something…….
Song verse from Eurhythmics Sweet Dreams
Sipping a Vietnamese coffee at a Hoi An cafe served well as a proper respite for reflection, reviewing fellow traveler experiences thus far into my journey.
The vibration or energy a lone traveler must transmit seems to attract and resonate with other like souls for those I’ve conversed with the most have mostly been other independent travelers or the occasional couple.
Their stories and reasons for travel ring familiar: people displaced and disillusioned with modern societies gone wrong, whether they quit their jobs in Quebec and Vancouver or were laid off in New York City. Individuals reevaluating their lives, discovering new ways to live, including living with less. Discovering old ways to live before our personal world became awash in unfulfilling stuff acquired through burgeoning credit. These”everybodies” are looking for something, something better in their lives like happiness and sweet dreams.
An Englishman born for music, continuing a tradition established by his father and father’s father. An accomplished guitarist, he lost his way as a young adult, consumed by rage in a blue collar English city that was consumed by rage. Today…no more. A wife that would not follow, ten year marriage over, he lives contented, peaceful in Thailand learning Buddhism and playing beautiful music with an equally accomplished Thai musician.
An Italian gentleman who teaches meditation and lives half his year in India and the other half in Italy.
A Canadian you bought raw land many years ago on Prince Edward Island, built his own home, became small town postal delivery man, worked as NGO volunteer, is an accomplished drummer, has traveled the world and lives life large.
A Dutchman who balances seasonal housesitting and personal apartment rental for lodging and cash flow until he’s ready to get creative, inspired through travel to return home and sculpt.
Then there are the American Vietnam Vets returning to Vietnam, revisitng a land and people they knew long ago during a time of war; today a time of peace. A personal journey for reflection, reconciliation and renewed respect.
Here’s our Vietnam history lesson for today. The past century saw numerous countries attempt occupation in Vietnam: France, Japan, France again, America, and a northern border skirmish with China. Even Cambodia’s Kmer Rouge government, after devastating their people and countryside, tried to reclaim control of the fertile Mekong Delta once held by their ancestry Angkor Wat Kmer Kingdom centuries ago. All occupation atempts were twarted and unsuccessful.
The question is, do you know who invaded and occupied Vietnam back in the 4th century? A show of hands? Anybody?
Well of course the answer is the Cham people who formed the Champa Kingdom which ruled from the 4th to the 13th century. I believe the phrase “Breakfast of CHAM pions” came from these guys. The Chams origin was India, they introduced Hinduism to the region, traded with Java Kingdoms, saw their power diminished and gradually assimilated into modern Vietnamese society. Their descendants still reside in Vietnam. Now you know.
Not far from Hoi An, inland towards the green mountains resides the remains of a vast Cham city called My Son.
One sunny morning I visited the site and by jumping ahead of the tour groups was able to explore unimpeded, at least for a little awhile. Several of the Cham towers were reduced to rubble thanks to US bombs. You can still see the bomb craters now carpeted in green. Oh well, no worries, they only represented fifteen hundred year old irreplaceable heritage.
9TH POST: MEKONG DELTA BLUES AND LIFE’S A BEACH
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Mekong Delta Blues
The slim, older Vietnamese gentleman ambled to the microphone stand on the stage. A subtle spotlight was cued from the rear of the bar to illuminate the man and the band trio. The man quietly asked the band members, consisting of a drummer, a guitarist and a harmonica player, to play in the key of G.
He began to sing: (envision your typical blues temple and beat).
“I Woke This Morning …..Ninh Binh Phong Bu
In the Middle of a Ricepaddy Field……Cam Cum Ding Dong
Too much rice wine was still swirling in my head and a cow was eating my shoe…
I’ve got those Mekong Delta, Mekong Delta blues…
I lost my way through those dang canals
Because I drank too much booze…..Pham Ding Binh Nam Fu Dong Bu Bu !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I spent two wonderful, relaxing days traveling primarily on boats through the spidery waterway network of the Mekong. Here, at the Mekong Delta, the Mekong River finishes its long journey that began in the melting snow-capped Tibetan peaks, gathering rainwater through China, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia before emptying its waters in the South China Sea.
The fertile Mekong Delta has been a rice, fruit and fish basket for people here for several thousand years. It’s waterway tributaries emanating like an intricate spider’s web through this lush delta zone.
Traveling with a good group of people, we hop on small, narrow motorized boats that transport us along the river through Delta life; busy floating markets and narrow neighborhood canals, people working, washing clothes, sleeping in hammocks, building new boats, kids waving, big smiles, very enjoyable way to pass the day.
We stayed overnight in Cao Thao, the biggest city in the Mekong. Looking for a restaurant, I was enticed by the waitresses in their slinky short dress so I sat down and started reviewing their menu. I stared in disbelief. The Vietnamese menu I was accustomed to had drastically changed. Here the menu read like a horror movie: fried squid, fried eel, fried frog, pig’s bladder soup, my fingers frantically flipping through the pages for something familiar, something edible. Pork?Chicken? Beef noodle? No words of English spoken here, only puzzled looks. Finally, YES…there its was…beef fried yellow noodle and vegetables….and beer draught. Big portion. I was happy and the slinky dresses smiled.
A Vietnamese man explained some interesting Vietnamese women habits to me. Many drive their motorbikes wearing face masks, hat and light jacket covering their arms, all looking like a petite gang of bank robbers. One assumes they’re cold or concerned about traffic pollution but no… it’s protecting themselves from sunburning their skin. Since Southeast Asian people tend to be darker skin than say Europeans, Vietnamese men like women with smooth white skin so the women go through great effort to keep a lighter complexion. The grass is always greener…
Also the man said he prefers women from Mekong Delta, says they’re prettier because they’re slender from healthier diet. He says in Ho Chi Minh women get fat from eating too much BARBQ food. He knows because he was also fat from too much BARBQ food!
LIFE’S A BEACH
Before the Mekong region, I stayed up the coast at a nice beach town called Nha Trang. Great place for a weekend getaway; of course when you’re traveling everyday is a weekend day. It’s great constantly trying to recall what day of the week it is. It’s just a beautiful blur…
Anyway, ten bucks for a nice room where you walk outside, cross the street that has only a handful of motorbikes and voila! you’re at the beach. Can’t complain.
I especially enjoyed watching the locals enjoy their beach. Smart people, they come out right at sunrise and then later late afternoon, to avoid the hot sun. Morning time is for badminton, tai-chi exercises, aerobics and afternoons is for picnics, soccer, volleyball, kite flying, these people enjoy their life.
I heard criticisms from travelers that Nha Trang had no Vietnamese culture. Sillies…societies enjoying their lives in a myriad of fun ways at the beach is culture!
However, if you need culture in a more traditional form, Nha Trang has abundant culture in the House of Embroidery, a beautiful gallery designed to embody the sublime artistic experience through exquisite silk paintings, water fountains, profound exhibits, pretty Vietnamese women in glimmering silk dresses weaving and harmonious Vietnamese music playing.
Then there is Ho Chi Minh City where I finish my Vietnam experience. Social/politically, most signs and references now refer to the city’s former name Saigon.
On a positive note, the sky here, compared to Hanoi, is blue. Another positive note, it’s a great place to be a motorbike repairman; you have job security for eternity. Saigon has literally millions of motorbikes, primarily because the average person can afford them versus a car. Forget the lyrics “nobody walks in LA”. Saigon hands down wins the “nobody walks” city award. Motorbike mania.
I can envision a perfect Matrix sequel sequence where Keeno Reeves is in the middle of a saigon street, performing his usual slow motion twists and turns, avoiding an onslaught of motorbikes like he’s dodging bullets.
Say goodnight Vietnam…..ciao!
Next stop…Cambodia’s Angkor Wat
10TH POST: ANGKOR WAT
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Remember, when exploring Angkor Wat, it’s best to arrive at the crack of dawn. That’s the bewitching hour when the Kmer ancestal faces embedded in the temple rocks come alive!
While other tourists waited patiently in front of Angkor Wat to snap a picture of the morning sun rising over the temple’s shoulders, I continued riding my bicycle toward the “great city” Angkor Thom. The path led me across the moat and through the first stone gate that guarded the great city. A light mist rolled across the mischievous stone faces that encompass the legendary Bayan temple towers.
Separating us, in the near distance, I could see a dozen, maybe more, elephants lumbering through the tall trees, each driven by a determined Cambodian master. As I closed the distance on the temple, strangely, I could find neither elephant nor its driver in sight. Had the dawn’s dancing beams tricked my eyes?
Suddenly, the temple’s smiling faces burst into laughter, generating such a force the very foundation that held the stone walkway where I stood quaked. The reverberation sent a fleet of small, nimble monkeys clamoring from the temple’s westernmost shadows, gaining momentum as they scurried in my direction.
Now the laughter turned ugly as the stone faces’ eyes narrowed. In unison, a low frequency baratone mantra followed: “Boom Shaka Laka Boom! Boom Shaka Laka Boom!”; a low frequency mantra quite capable to stir earthly objects. Within seconds, enormous tree roots flowed forward, carrying themselves and panic-stricken monkeys dangerously close.
My instincts keen, I swung my right hand to my side and miraculously whipped out a paintbrush and a can of green pain. I wildly swung, painting anything green in my path; first monkeys, then giant roots, progressing myself forward toward the temple. Every stone face gasped as I covered them in green paint, instantly silencing them. At a fevered pitch I continued, adorning Bayon, then the Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King in a fresh coat of emerald green. Finally reaching exhaustion, I stopped, resting on a stone elephant. So exhausted I must have dozed off for I was awoken by the gasps from a crowd of stunned tourists staring at me and the shining green temples. “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE !!!!”, they yelled.
The scream in my head awokened me from my incredulous dream. I glanced about my hotel room and sighed. “Wow”, I thought. I guess I shouldn’t have gone to bed with Angkor Wat and St. Patricks Day on my mind!”
The ancient Kmer kingdom Angkor Wat is Cambodia’s heart and soul, a revered heritage and symbol of Cambodian pride that can be seen on everything from the Cambodian flag to its premier beer.
The Angkor wat complex is vast, spreading across a level plain for many miles, the largest structures being Angkor Wat and the “great city”Angkor Thom. The rectangular moats that encompass these two complexes, the intricately carved bas reliefs and rock sculptures, the architectural complexities and the impressive city planning layout of the entire kingdom represented an incredible achievement by its artisans, engineers and architects of not only their time, but any time in man’s history.
Angkor Wat’s prominence primarily came from its strategic position along the pilgrim trade route that connected India with China, reaching its pinnacle in the 13th century. Quite interesting how so many of the world’s great ancient kingdoms reached great heights during this century. While Europeans were still stacking dung in the countryside and chasing rats away from their dinner plates, wealthy kingdoms such as Kmer’s Angkor Wat, Siam’s Sukhothai, Peru’s Incas, the Mongolian Empire ruled by the Khan family (Kubla, Ganghis, and Shaka), the Ottoman Empire in Turkey, and the Anasazi Indians in the American Southwest were all flourishing.
Yet look at today’s societies in Peru, Mongolia, Cambodia, or even Italy or Greece today compared to their Roman and Greek Empire heritage. What rises, falls, nothing is permanent, and what falls may rise again.
Where Angkor Wat reign supreme, ruling lands that included parts of Thailand and Laos, today’s Cambodia ranks as the poorest nation in Southeast Asia, still struggling to get on its feet after the devastating effects of its 1970s civil war and the Kmer Rouge reign of terror.
Strange how in a poor country such as Cambodia when your driving through the countryside in a bus how much more picturesque the villages and landscape appear; ample rural scenes, villagers still living in wooden huts on stilts, animals in the family courtyard, oxen in the fields and pulling carts of wood, naked kids running around in the yard laughing, moms preparing dinner as the intense rays of the sun start to fade. One man’s picturesque is another man’s poverty. Yet is it poverty and how would one define poverty.
The Cambodian Buddhist monks I met in the wat courtyard in Siem Reap live life modestly, performing work around their wat while also relying on food from others’ generosity. The fellows I met were well spoken, speaking English, smiles broad and explaining how they hope to pass on their education by teaching Cambodian kids English and other life skills. One even bid me goodbye in French.
My best conversation while in Siem Reap came just hours before I had to leave Cambodia, speaking with a Cambodian man, thirty years of age who managed a nice small restaurant. He’d seen me order my morning cup of coffee the last three days and that morning sat down to talk. He grew up in one of those same poor picturesque villages I had witnessed through a passing bus window, a village where his family had farmed for a modest living.
They moved to Siem Reap in 1991. It was still a small village at that time. There were no markets, no goods for sale, one lone foreigner hotel, few motorbikes, fewer cars. Clothes were old traditional sarongs, shoes were made from old tires. Yet his family was large and no one went hungry, well not too hungry. He said soldiers would occasionally fire their rifles at birds in the trees for a source of food.
His family and friends made ends meet through bartering of food and services. His grandfather had escaped Cambodia to Thailand with many of his uncles and aunts during the Kmer Rouge purges, coming back in the early 90s to Cambodia with some money to invest in a restaurant. With the early ’90s recent renovations and tourist promotion of Angkor Wat, investment money came to Siem Reap and the tourist economy grew. He wears good shoes and good clothes now. He’s lived poor and now lives well, at least by Cambodian standards.
And so I thanked him for his story, a very Cambodian story, and we wished each other well.