Tokyo Nostalgia

On a plane back from Europe last week I watched an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s new show ‘Parts Unknown’ that looked at Tokyo. Two thoughts crossed my mind: a) The man’s liver must have its own zip code and b) *SIGH* Oh how I miss thee Japan.

So, in honor of those amazing ten days we spent in the country of the rising sun, here’s a modest slideshow of snapshots taken with my phone, as by this point in the trip our Olympus had died a sudden humid death in Indonesia. Here are some of our favorite things about Japan:

Kanji. Beautiful, strange, calligraphic, mysterious, promise-filled script.

Kanji. Beautiful, strange, calligraphic, mysterious, promise-filled script. There’s no point in watching “Lost in Translation” if you’ve never been there. I had – and it was entirely lost on me (pun intended). Only after immersing yourself in this parallel universe where signs are solely in Japanese even in the airport and navigating streets that even Google seems confused about – only after getting lost in Shinujuku and Roppongi can you really appreciate how simultaneously alienating and liberating the Tokyo experience can be!

Flower buds. Not just cherry blossoms, but lovely buds in all pastel shades imaginable, juxtaposed on the grim springtime sky.

Flower buds. Not just cherry blossoms, but lovely buds in all pastel shades imaginable, juxtaposed on the grim springtime sky. Kyoto is the undisputed capital of cherry blossoms, but what they don’t tell you is that often springtime is sub-zero. In hindsight that’s probably what makes them even more special though…

The night life. We only just got glimpses of it, but believe you me, the options are UNLIMITED...

The night life. We only just got glimpses of it, but believe you me, between underwear clubs (sniffing’s on the menu – ’nuff said) and hostess cafes, the options are UN-LI-MI-TED…

The Creepy. OK - so maybe the creepy factor was not on my list of faves, but it's certainly noteworthy. Here on display, an older generation of gentlemen, proto-otaku's if you will, indulging mid-morning in a few (hundred) rounds of arcade games where skimpily dressed  manga princesses chase after pixelated dragons. In these dungeons of escapism you can smoke and the music (cartoonish house music that seems perpetually on fast-forward) is blasting at 200 decibels. Eeek!

The Creepy. OK – so maybe the creepy factor was not on my list of faves, but it’s certainly noteworthy. Here on display, an older generation of gentlemen, proto-otaku’s if you will, indulging mid-morning in a few (hundred) rounds of arcade games where skimpily dressed manga princesses chase after pixelated dragons. In these dungeons of escapism you can smoke and the music (cartoonish house music that seems perpetually on fast-forward) is blasting at 200 decibels. Eeek!

The Kitty Cafes. Cafes where you go to pet cats. And feed cats. And watch cats play. And maybe have a coffee?

The Kitty Cafes. Cafes where you go to pet cats. And feed cats. And watch cats play. And maybe have a coffee. This here specimen was trained to sit Japanese public bathouse-style with a hand towel folded on her head, in a Kitty cafe we went to in Kyoto. PUHLLLEAZEEE don’t tell Minoush!!!

Tentacles. Nobody does tentacles better than Japan. Just look up "Tentacle manga" on YouTube if you don't believe me. Pretty tasty  , too...

Tentacles. Nobody does tentacles better than Japan. Just look up “Tentacle manga” on YouTube if you don’t believe me. Pretty tasty , too…

The manga! And not just any manga, but manga that I personally loved and watched in my early teens, dubbed in Romanian, and that opened up a world so alien and playful that it marked me for life. I should come clean and confess that I was Sailor Mercury for Halloween in 9th grade - and she wasn't even my favorite! But my hair was short and my mom narrow-mindedly (...) refused to buy me a wig. Grrr!

The manga! And not just any manga, but manga that I personally loved and watched in my early teens, dubbed in Romanian, and that opened up a world so alien and playful that it marked me for life. I should come clean and confess that I was Sailor Mercury for Halloween in 9th grade – and she wasn’t even my favorite! But my hair was short and my mom narrow-mindedly (…) refused to buy me a wig. Grrr!

The CUTE! Everything is so darned CUTE! Cupcakes? Cute! Shoes? Cute! Posters? Cute! Backpacks? Cute?  Menus? Cute! CUTE CUTE CUTE!!! But our untrained American/European brains could only take so many button-like noses, piggy-tails, miniature animals and big teary eyes before blowing up, so whenever we needed a respite we ducked into a bar and started drinking sake! Which brings me to:

The CUTE! Everything is so darned CUTE! Cupcakes? Cute! Shoes? Cute! Posters? Cute! Backpacks? Cute? Menus? Cute! CUTE CUTE CUTE!!! Our untrained American/European brains could only take so many button-like noses, piggy-tails, miniature animals and big teary eyes before blowing up, so whenever we needed a respite we ducked into a bar and started drinking sake! Which brings me to our other favorite thing :

Sake!!! Yessir sake, especially drunk like water in the company of friends and with delicious food to boot, sake is balm for the homesick soul of any weary traveler. Its also seems to be the poison of choice of Tokyo's salarymen who leave their offices at 9 PM and head straight for the nearest izikaya to drown their corporate sorrows in barrels of it. God bless their lonely wives stuck at home in distant leafy suburbs, wondering when a cab will come to a stop in front of their well-appointed home and their loved one will roll out of it and crawl on all four to the bedroom for a much needed 2 hour nap before the start of his working day. Kampai to you both!!

Sake!!! Yessiree sake, especially drunk like water in the company of friends and with delicious food to boot, sake is balm for the homesick soul of any weary traveler. Its also seems to be the poison of choice of Tokyo’s salarymen who leave their offices at 9 PM and head straight for the nearest izikaya to drown their corporate sorrows in barrels of it. God bless their lonely wives stuck at home in distant leafy suburbs, wondering when a cab will come to a stop in front of their well-appointed home and their loved one will roll out of it and crawl on all four to the bedroom for a much needed 2 hour nap before the start of his working day. Kampai to you both!!

The food. Oh boy, where should I begin? Nothing i can say about it can do it justice. The perfect sushi, the phenomenal steaks, the hotpots, the market food on a stick, everything from toro tuna to squid's head stuffed with quail egg and finishing off with the most imaginative deserts in the known universe - words fail. Excuse me while I wipe the saliva off my keyboard.

The food. Oh boy, where should I begin? Nothing i can say about it can do it justice. The perfect sushi, the phenomenal steaks, the hotpots, the market food on a stick, everything from toro tuna to squid’s head stuffed with quail egg and finishing off with the most imaginative deserts in the known universe – words fail. Excuse me while I wipe the saliva off my keyboard.

You thought I was kidding about the quail egg in the squid's head? Enjoy this photo while i'm still busy wiping drool off my computer.

You thought I was kidding about the quail egg in the squid’s head? Enjoy this photo while i’m still busy wiping drool off my computer.

The streets. Nothing is left to chance: garbage is nowhere in sight, even the seediest neighborhoods feel safer than the safest streets in SF and, of course, in case you might be confused, there's a clearly delineated pedestrian lane on the sidewalk.

The streets. Nothing is left to chance: garbage is nowhere in sight, even the seediest neighborhoods feel safer than the safest streets in SF and, of course, in case you might be confused, there’s a clearly delineated pedestrian lane on the sidewalk.

Did i mention the food? THE FOOD! Kyoto's market was possibly the most spectacular food display I've ever encountered in my adult life. Here on display: pickles. Humble, tiny, packaged pickles - out of this world in taste, color and scrupulousness of display.

Did i mention the food? THE FOOD! Kyoto’s market was possibly the most spectacular smorgasbord I’ve ever encountered in my adult life. Here on display: pickles. Humble, tiny, packaged pickles – out of this world in taste, color and scrupulousness of display.

The kimonos. Beautiful garments that women in Kyoto still wear today for special occasions (but not more special than a Sunday afternoon out with your girlfriends). What I liked most about them was their ability to suggest while fully concealing. I wouldn't say that kimonos are elegant - in fact, they're rather boxy and constraining - but there's something in that very bondage of the garment that intrigues and inspires. There's so much more to it than meets the eye. Compare that with  even the skimpiest bikini and I guarantee you, the mystery factor wins out in the end.

The kimonos. Beautiful garments that women in Kyoto still wear today for special occasions (but not more special than a Sunday afternoon out with your girlfriends). What I liked most about them was their ability to suggest while fully concealing. I wouldn’t say that kimonos are elegant – in fact, they’re rather boxy and constraining – but there’s something in that very bondage of the garment that intrigues and inspires. There’s so much more to it than meets the eye. Compare that with even the skimpiest bikini and I guarantee you, the mystery factor wins out in the end.

More kimonos, just because. Think g-string and cringe!

More kimonos, just because. Think g-string and cringe!

More kimonos, this time in action at the spring festival dance in Kyoto's temple district.

More kimonos, this time in action at the spring festival dance in Kyoto’s temple district.

More cute! The cuteness is everywhere - CUTENESS OVERLOAD... ZBZZZ&*#%#&^%#$@.... (internal buzzing sounds accompanied by small plume of smoke rising from our ears)

More cute! The cuteness is everywhere – CUTENESS OVERLOAD… ZBZZZ&*#%#&^%#$@…. (internal buzzing sounds accompanied by small plume of smoke rising from our ears)

The trains! Yes, oh, yes - those trains, those beautiful, unsullied white trains that carry you across the land at 300 km/hr, noiseless, smooth, impeccably clean and timely to the second.

The trains! Yes, oh, yes – those trains, those beautiful, unsullied white trains that carry you across the land at 300 km/hr, noiseless, smooth, impeccably clean and timely to the second.

A few final words about Japan: We spent some of the coldest days on record in Tokyo this spring, coming straight from 100 F in Indonesia and we wore EVERYTHING we had layered over each other. We suffered through the worst cold in a decade (Ed) and vicious raw-egg-based food poisoning (me). We slept in both a re-furbished former factory with paper walls (not paper-THIN, but paper-made) and in a five star hotel on which we spent more in one night than we spent the entirety of our trip (note to self: reserve rooms ahead if you’re going to be in Kyoto on Cherry Blossom Festival opening weekend). We ate supermarket rice balls and $100 steaks. We separated, stripped naked, scrubbed ourselves raw with hand towels and dunked our bodies alternately in freezing and boiling waters.

Would we do it all again? HECK YEAH! Arigato Gozaymas Japan! And please stay weird.

 

That lingering Southeast Asia feeling…

Yesterday around nine o’clock in the evening, Ed and I got out of a cab that had taken us from the Financial District back to our current stomping grounds of Noe Valley and walked directly into Regent Thai restaurant. It had been an exhausting day for both of us, full of the typical medley of work, meetings and networking you expect from two working professionals in San Francisco and we were both very hungry and a tad drunk. Backpacks and Tevas were nothing but distant memories, all dream-like and foggy – that is, until Ed said three magic words: ‘Krap Kun Kaap’ – thank you. Our server’s face lit up into an ear-to-ear grin and she unleashed a torrent of congratulations on his accent interspersed with more Thai. That’s all it took… We were immediately transported to a land of friendly banter and easy smiles, with curry aromas wafting from the kitchen, in an eclectic decor that mixed cheap souvenirs with original art, much like Thailand’s streets and markets. For a few minutes, we felt like we were back in Chiang Mai, living the easy-breezy life of light-packing travelers.

Eventually we picked up the food we had ordered and walked the remaining two blocks to our new (temporary) home, fighting off the furious winds and ducking tendrils of fog that pass off for summer in this city. It was cold, but for the rest of the evening we didn’t feel quite as cold…

As if this wasn’t enough reminiscing, the very next morning I received notice from Southeast Asia Backpacker magazine that my Laos piece had finally been published. For those curious to read about how we ‘partied with the locals in the Laotian jungle,” here it is: Backpacker Magazine free downloadable issue.

More, soon, about more recent, non-SEA adventures, of which we’ve had plenty… Just ask our poor cat.

"Can we please please please end this cat and mouse game and just stay in one place?!"

“Can we please please please end this cat and mouse game and just stay in one place?!”

Koh Tao: Where Farangs Go to Dive

The train ride to Thailand's Eastern Coast was a delight of green through a countryside that looked considerably better-manicured than all other countries we had previously visited

The train ride to Thailand’s Eastern Coast was a delight of green through a countryside that looked considerably better-manicured than all other countries we had previously visited

The train ride was followed by two ferry trips on exquisitely beautiful turquoise waters

The train ride was followed by two ferry trips on exquisitely beautiful turquoise waters

Among Thailand cognoscenti, Koh Tao goes by ‘the diving island,” and as the world’s second biggest producer of diving certifications, after Australia, Koh Tao is indeed an island where a lot of folks go to teach diving, to dive for fun, to get their diving masters’ or simply to get their open water certifications. I belonged to the latter category, a wannabe diver scared to death of sharks and of the thought that i could be stuck under hundreds of cubic tons of water with nothing but the regulator in my mouth standing between me and death by drowning.

A few words about the diving culture – as far as we could tell, on Koh Tao, the diving community (inclusive of newbies, instructors and everything in between) has three main tenets:

  1. Dive, dive, dive! Dive in the morning, in the afternoon, at night, with night-lights or without, with Nitrox or without, dive with a GoPro or without, dive under-slept and partied-out, hungry or full, as often as you can, as hungover as you can. There is NOTHING else to do on this island but dive, I tell you, so for Chrissake, DIVE!
  2. Smoke as many cigarettes as you humanly can in between dives, including right before jumping in the water and as soon as you surface and remove the regulator from your mouth.
  3. Do not practice any other form of exercise because diving is sooooooo fatiguing that it literally saps your life juices. Which must be immediately replenished at the nearest bar. Repeatedly lifting pints of Chang to your mouth counts as exercise, doesn’t it?

Quirks aside, learning how to dive was terrifying and empowering, and like all hard things, it was COMPLETELY worth doing. So, to say that getting my diving certification was a personal victory would be an understatement; it was a Hallelujah moment! It was elation! And it was a very fitting way to celebrate my birthday…

With my diving buddies, Lindsay and Mike, who stopped on Koh Tao on their way to Australia, where they were moving from the UK.

With my diving buddies, Lindsay and Mike, who stopped on Koh Tao on their way to Australia, where they were moving from the UK.

And once that was out of the way, Ed and I were finally able to share amazing moments underwater, like being surrounded by a school of barracuda that looked like stainless steel blades performing an elaborate concentric dance, or, later, in Indonesia, doing a drift dive and using the current as our own aquatic jetpack (but more about that in the next post).

Diving a deux... here we come!!!

Diving a deux… here we come!!!

While Koh Tao’s moniker as the “diving island” is deserved, it’s also limited, just like nearby Koh Phan Gan, also known as the “full moon party” island. But we, farangs, like to keep things simple when we travel and we appreciate it when people clearly label their islands for us… We ended up spending almost two weeks in Koh Tao, staying in three different parts of the island (nearby the ferry landing, in busy Sairee Beach and in Southern Chalok Ban Kao) in five or six different hotels and guesthouses, explored beaches all around the island, on foot and on motorcycle, hiked it, snorkeled it, swam it and dived it – in short, we made the island our own personal playground. Words don’t do this beautiful place justice, so we’ll just show you the photos.

If hobbits lived by the water, I'm pretty sure they would live in these huts.

If hobbits lived by the water, I’m pretty sure they would live in these huts.

Aside from the "diving Island" Koh Tao is also the island of gorgeous sunsets...

Aside from the “diving Island” Koh Tao is also the island of gorgeous sunsets…

... of wild fireshows (take that, Koh Phan Gan!) ...

… of wild fireshows (take that, Koh Phan Gan!) …

... of stunning views...

… of stunning views…

... of quirky beachside cafes...

… of quirky beachside cafes…

... and incredibly friendly, lovely little dogs... SIGH (I wanted to take him home soooo badly)

… and incredibly friendly, lovely little dogs… SIGH (I wanted to take him home soooo badly)

A Playground Called Thailand: Chang Mai and Koh Lanta

Sun. Sand. Beach. Motorcycles. Sliced fruit. Chang beer. Chang t-shirts. 7 Elevens. Buddhas. Marigolds. Joss sticks. Spirit houses. Money. Protests. Corruption. Fish. Fish sauce. Counterfeit shades. Mango sticky rice. Green curry. Red curry. Lots of sunscreen. T-shirts. Sarongs. Monkeys. Ferries. Fast boast. Slow boats. Papaya. Mango. Pineapple. Cashew apples. Green mango with chili salt. Papaya salad. Thai massage. Muai-Thai. Pad Thai. Pad Seeyu. Chili. Coffee. St. Miguel. More chiles, chiles everywhere. Left-side driving. Heat. Happy dogs. Fat cats. Beautiful smiles. Crooks. Ex-pats. 24 consonants and 44 vowels. 20 coups d’etat. Buddhism. Commerce. Full moon parties. Oh Thailand! How can we begin to explain you to the world?

Is that you Naga? Where are your six other heads? And what's up with the shiny new coat?

Is that you Naga? Where are your six other heads? And what’s up with the shiny new coat?

We started our month in Thailand with Chiang Rai, having crossed over from the Laotian border, and we were in a hurry, as to get as the sea was beckoning us. So we spent one night and two half days in Chiang Rai and we were lucky enough to get there just in time to check out their fantastic evening market where we sampled about two dozen dishes, from juicy skewered meat of all kinds to freshly steamed morning glory, pyramids of sticky rice wrapped in banana leaf, slivers of papaya and pineapple in shrink-wrap and freshly squeezed strawberry and passion fruit juices. The latter, to our surprise, was salted. This pantagruelic feast was in stark contrast with our simple meals in Laos and we got excited about Thai food immediately.

We proceeded to Chang Mai the very next day, thinking of it as a short stopover before the beautiful beaches on the Andaman Sea, our sun and sea bulls’ eye. Little did we know that we would fall madly in love with Chang Mai and stay an entire week… Let me explain: Chang Mai is a lovely northern Thai city with a square moat that separates the inner old city from the new neighborhoods. The inner city is a maze of quiet leafy streets that intersect with loud, happening ones, and all can be explored on foot or on bicycle.

One of the many golden Buddha statues in a temple in Chang Mai

One of the many golden Buddha statues in a temple in Chang Mai

Temples are abundant and they ascribe to a flamboyant brand of Buddhism where gold leaf, showers of marigolds and colored light effects combine to give these houses of worship an almost Bollywodian atmosphere. Obviously, the Buddha has no need for all these special effects but he tolerates them with a placid smile on his ever-round face and we, wide-eyed ‘farangs’ simply love them, so they continue.

Buddhas everywhere large and small

Buddhas everywhere large and small

Every single store and house and hotel has a spirit house, large or small, adorned with beads and flowers, where ancestors and other spirits are honored. Chang Mai is also a paradise of quirky shops, excellent restaurants, phenomenal cafes and THE place to try a Thai massage if you’ve never experienced one before – it’s the kind of massage that leaves you wondering “what was all the other crap i was getting before?”

Imagine tens of thousands of spirit houses

Imagine tens of thousands of spirit houses

... and then a few more thousands...

… and then a few more thousands…

The city also has not one but three! night markets: the regular everyday one, a Saturday night one and the most glorious of all, the Sunday night market, where you can find everything under the stars, from fried squid balls to leather bracelets and hand-made head scratchers. The night markets of Chang Mai are a shopper’s paradise, with something for every taste and budget, wether you’re looking for a Chang beer teeshirt to replace your old one that you lost during pub crawl (…) or an antique carved wood coffee table. You can literally find anything, provided that you have nerves of steel and oodles of patience to navigate the packed alleys.

While in Chang Mai, we checked off some items from our ‘bucket list:’

  • Took a Thai cooking class at a farm in a nearby village
  • Visited some traditional Thai villages
  • Hitched a ride on an elephant’s back
  • River-rafted on a bamboo raft
  • Got a fish pedi

    During the cooking class we took in Chang Mai, Ed somehow managed to get a piece of chile in his right eye;  the best thing to do in these circumstances: get your eye directly under the faucet. Also, take your left shoe off and splash water on your foot. That's according to the local homeopathic method. One of them worked.

    During the cooking class we took in Chang Mai, Ed somehow managed to get a piece of chile in his right eye; the best thing to do in these circumstances: get your eye directly under the faucet. Also, take your left shoe off and splash water on your foot. That’s according to the local homeopathic method. One of them worked.

    This lady was weaving an incredible silk scarf  right before our eyes

    This lady was weaving an incredible silk scarf right before our eyes

    Edouard Gendreau, born mahout of pachyderms

    Edouard Gendreau, born mahout of pachyderms

    During the first minute it tickles LIKE HELL

    During the first minute it tickles LIKE HELL

    It didn’t hurt that we happened upon our buddies Frank and Marie, a couple from our Laos jungle adventure, with whom we caught up over food and drinks. Eventually, however, even Chang Mai’s land-based charms were unable to counter the strong siren call of the South. So, after a week of bohemian wondering and occasional self-improvement, we packed our backpacks again and headed to Koh Lanta, on Thailand’s East Coast.

Koh Lanta – or Stockolmlanta?

Imagine a seemingly endless stretch of white beach, perfect for running, and a calm, warm bay with clear blue waters, perfect for swimming. Add to that a beautiful green karst conveniently jutting out just on the other side of the street from the beach, and enough German and Swedish bakeries and cafes to feed a little army. This is Koh Lanta, ladies and gentlemen.

Welcome to Purrrr-Lanta...

Welcome to Purrrr-Lanta…

We rebaptized it as Stockhomlanta because it was full of Swedish expats who not only wined and dined at the local swedish-owned restaurants, but also schooled their children in the several Swedish schools available on the island. With a wealth of good food, very decent prices and ease of getting around (the roads are mostly flat and easy to navigate on motorbike) it’s easy to see why Koh Lanta is such a beloved destination for Europeans. There’s even a legit Irish bar with cider on tap and a petanque court for the occasionally nostalgic Frenchmen and it’s much more subdued that nearby Koh Phi-Phi, which, since “the Beach” has become a backpacker’s discotheque of choice.

Sunset in South Koh Lanta

Sunset in South Koh Lanta

The Southern side of the island

The Southern side of the island

Koh Lanta also happens to be the hub for boats that explore the nearby islands, and we took advantage of that one sunny day in January.

One of the four islands we toured in the Andaman sea - some of the bluest water I've ever seen...

One of the four islands we toured in the Andaman sea – some of the bluest water I’ve ever seen…

A gopro pic of the secret cove that we reached after swimming through a pitch-black cave; unsurprisingly, this cove served as a hiding spot for pirates on the Andaman sea. In fact, i think they have a picture of this place in the dictionary next to the definition of "Pirate Cove"

A gopro pic of the secret cove that we reached after swimming through a pitch-black cave; unsurprisingly, this cove served as a hiding spot for pirates on the Andaman sea. In fact, i think they have a picture of this place in the dictionary next to the definition of “Pirate Cove”

The seven days we spent in Koh Lanta prepared us for our next tropical destination, Koh Tao, on the Western coast, but nothing could have EVER prepared us for the three days’ nightmare that was my visa run. To keep a sad story short: Thailand only gives a 15 day visa to Romanian nationals, so Ed and I decided to book a ‘visa run’ to the nearest Malaysian border through a local travel agency, but the stars weren’t aligned and our driver decided to shave off some time and drive instead to the nearest foot crossing – that’s where we discovered that only high-traffic checkpoints were able to issue a visa for me. So, we did a 180 and got dropped off in a small town in the middle of nowhere, where we got talked into paying a driver to drive us to the larger checkpoint. Exactly an hour later we found ourselves nowhere nearer to the border but instead in Hat Yai, the largest Southern Thai city, a place not frequented by tourists for reasons that became quickly obvious. We spent the rest of the day trying to find a clean hotel and struggling to find a decent dinner place; while we succeeded in the first endeavor, we failed miserably in the latter and ended up having dinner in a jazz bar cum brothel. As we were not there for their main offerings, service was terrible and the food late and cold.

We spent most of the next day driving to the Malaysian border, criss-crossing between borders multiple times, to satisfy Thai customs officials that Malaysia would, indeed, accept me into their country, and then back to Hat Yai. We eventually caught a late afternoon train to Surat Thani on the Western coast and, nine hours later, took refuge for the night in a small town 10 km away from Surat, in the dingiest room we found on our entire trip, mounting our own mosquito net from the ceiling to protect us from a colony of beasts that was breeding in the squat bathroom. I guess you could say we were lucky there were no bats.

Finally, day three of our ordeal: we boarded a local bus to the bus station terminal in Surat Thani (and had 7 Eleven corn flakes and yoghurt for breakfast), a bus to the ferry terminal, a ferry to Koh Lanta and, after some internal debate, we shelled out the extra $20 for a ferry to Koh Tao the same day. We were two nearly broken people by the time we set foot in paradise. But: we made it. More about Koh Tao later, as it deserves its own post; but for now i leave you with this sweet anigif of Ed frying bananas:

"Out of the way, amateurs, THIS is how it's done"

“Out of the way, amateurs, THIS is how it’s done”

A Note About Laos Trekking

Dear readers: as we are coming towards the end of our trip, things precipitated and we’ve been falling behind on our blog posts. But we promise this was not (all) due to laziness. Our second post about our Laos adventures found its way to Southeast Asia Backpacker magazine instead of the Slow Train blog. We hope to be able to share a link with you soon, to that article and maybe a few others that we get published.

In the meanwhile, here are a few photos from our beautiful jungle hike and stay tuned for a post on our adventures in Thailand soon.

Women selling turnip-like vegetables and bamboo shoots on the side of the road from Luang Prabang to Luang Nam Tha

Women selling turnip-like vegetables and bamboo shoots on the side of the road from Luang Prabang to Luang Nam Tha

Various jelly and soy-based deserts sold in the market at Nam Tha. If you're wondering, they're chewy and not overly sweet and come in a little plastic bag with a straw.

Various jelly and soy-based deserts sold in the market at Nam Tha. If you’re wondering, they’re chewy and not overly sweet and come in a little plastic bag with a straw.

Our first lunch of the trek, in a Khmu village house

Our first lunch of the trek, in a Khmu village house

Early morning on day 2 of trekking: fog crawls over the mountain walls that surround us. In the foreground, the bamboo structure you can glimpse is the communal village shower where everyone washes, covered in sarongs for modesty.

Early morning on day 2 of trekking: fog crawls over the mountain walls that surround us. In the foreground, the bamboo structure you can glimpse is the communal village shower where everyone washes, covered in sarongs for modesty.

And this is how you drink bamboo water, the cleanest, best filtered water you can get, with just a hint of fresh cut grass undertaste. And it's slightly woodsy on the nose, with a rose finish...

And this is how you drink bamboo water, the cleanest, best filtered water you can get, with just a hint of fresh cut grass undertaste. And it’s slightly woodsy on the nose, with a rose finish…

The lovely hills of Laos

The lovely hills of Laos

One of the villagers kept an owl as a pet. Sadly, this was one of the very few live birds we saw in Laos. In fact, their absence was conspicuous.

One of the villagers kept an owl as a pet. Sadly, this was one of the very few live birds we saw in Laos. In fact, their absence was conspicuous.

Drinking beers and taking in the views from a villager's porch.

Drinking beers and taking in the views from a villager’s porch.

A typical village house in Laos - on stilts due to the possibility of floods or mud slides and for protection from animals, covered with a thatched roof.

A typical village house in Laos – on stilts due to the possibility of floods or mud slides and for protection from animals, covered with a thatched roof.

When the sun finally came out on our last day of trekking, the landscape was  lovely and lush.

When the sun finally came out on our last day of trekking, the landscape was lovely and lush.

Adventures in Laos (and a Tale of Two Sandwiches)

We arrived in Luang Prabang late in the evening and were promptly charmed by its little shopfronts and romantic night lights. We stayed in a little guesthouse jammed between the river and a reggae bar that boasted a pool table and an enormous dead beehive hanging over its front door. Since we had flown in from Siem Reap, about 1000 km south, the temperature dropped a few degrees so we started digging through our backpacks for some sleeves (after we remembered what those were). The following morning, we woke up to a typical San Francisco morning *SOUND OF RECORD GETTING SCRATCHED*  Wait – what??

Oh look: it's a mini-Golden Gate out of bamboo! Minus the gales :-)

Oh look: it’s a mini-Golden Gate out of bamboo! Minus the gales 🙂

Yes, weather in Laos’ second largest city was eerily similar to our own abode. Dense fog enveloped everything in the morning, so we went for breakfast on the Nam Kha river and watched the tendrils of mist unfold over the banks, slowly revealing them to be green and lush. A few coffees later, around noon, the fog burnt off completely and Luang Prabang offered itself for exploration.

Gorgeous view of the Nam Kha with Laos' mountainous landscape unfolding in the back. It all begged to be explored on foot...

Gorgeous view of the Nam Kha with Laos’ mountainous landscape unfolding in the back. It all begged to be explored on foot…

Here’s what we found out: The touristy part of Prabang is mapped along three main streets, one along the river Nam Kha, which is a tributary of the Mekong and meets it in the city’s Northeast – that’s where the expensive spas and boutique hotels are all lined up; one along the Mekong, rife with little restaurants and Khmu massage places; and a middle street where most of the city’s shops offer intricately woven silk scarfs, filigreed silver jewelry and countless artsy objects, everything from horsehair painting brushes to beautiful silk tapestries.

Gorgeous silver jewelry and handicrafts everywhere on display. The Hmong tribe in particular really have a way with metal.

Gorgeous silver jewelry and handicrafts everywhere on display. The Hmong tribe in particular really have a way with metal.

The mulberry tree is a big theme in Laotian art, with heart-shaped leaves twisting and turning in golden brushstrokes on paintings everywhere. The leaf of the mulberry of course is the preferred food of silkworms and its berries are delicious when ripe and stain like no other, which makes them perfect for natural dyes; in Laos, tea made from the bark is also widely consumed – talk about a multipurpose plant!

Prabang is a charming city and spent over five decades as a French “protectorate” (colonization-lite, if you will, sending tin, rubber and coffee to French factories and shops) and French influence certainly shows in its architecture.

Architecturally Luang Prabang is a little jewel of a town; it's literally how you would imagine the perfect vacation destination to look in Southeast Asia. But one cannot help but feel that behind this facade of adorable quaintness hides the local's hard struggle for a better life.

Architecturally Luang Prabang is a little jewel of a town; it’s literally how you would imagine the perfect vacation destination to look in Southeast Asia. But one cannot help but feel that behind this facade of adorable quaintness hides the local’s hard struggle for a better life.

Lovely villas housing restaurants and cafes line the banks of the two rivers, many of them in a sparkling state, and almost all charging exorbitant prices – by our Cambodia-spoiled purses. The tourist population also seemed to skew away from backpacking to flash-packing and even moderately luxurious travel. Fellow travelers we encountered in Prabang were somewhat older (with the exception of a pack of teen Californians with bike-rage) and well-off (aka – not displaying any visible signs of sticker shock).

The Khmu is one of Laos' largest minority ethnic groups. Many of the cheaper spas in Luang Prabang were sporting signs boasting Khmu massages. This is a pretty typical look for Prabang storefronts: lush and exotic, but also inviting.

The Khmu is one of Laos’ largest minority ethnic groups. Many of the cheaper spas in Luang Prabang were sporting signs boasting Khmu massages. This is a pretty typical look for Prabang storefronts: lush and exotic, but also inviting.

Laos PDR (People’s Democratic Republic or tongue-in-cheekishly, Laos Please Don’t Rush) is a nominally communist country ruled by a single party according to Marxist principles – you can see the red flag with a sickle and hammer everywhere – although according to local intel Laos is more of a “communitarian” society.

We visited several gorgeous buddhist temples and even found evidence of Buddha's passage through this realm!!

We visited several gorgeous buddhist temples and even found evidence of Buddha’s passage through this realm!!

Buddha's footprint. 'Nuff said!

Buddha’s footprint. ‘Nuff said!

Sadly a third of this landlocked country’s population lives below the poverty line and in Luang Prabang the income disparities are shocking. It’s easy to stick to the well-lit tourist streets, eat at the posh restaurants with fancy cocktail names and shop for souvenirs at the abundant craft night market; but as soon as you stray from that lovely perimeter, you become aware of how the locals live and it’s a sobering sight.

Preparing beautiful offerings out of marigolds and banana leaves for the local temples. Clueless as we are, we bought bananas to eat from these ladies; sorry bananas who were hoping to make it into Buddha's prodigious belly ...

Preparing beautiful offerings out of marigolds and banana leaves for the local temples. Clueless as we are, we bought bananas to eat from these ladies; sorry bananas who were hoping to make it into Buddha’s prodigious belly …

Living on less than US$1.25 per day means that a lot of the locals share a humble hut with extended family and have little, if any, access to healthcare. Even among expats and returning tourists, the fear of illness and lack of doctors and medical facilities is a recurring theme in conversation. As a grim note on a menu explained to patrons “You don’t see old people in Laos because here, when you get sick, you die.” Also, one Namkhong beer ( 22 oz; and approx. $1.50 ) is “roughly a day’s wages for a common laborer, so you’ll almost never see them drink it.” What they do drink is Lao-Lao, rice wine, of which we’ve had the pleasure to partake in the jungle – but more about that later… wink-wink

These bad boys are a sort of rice and coconut ebleskivers and they are TO DIE FOR!

These bad boys are a sort of rice and coconut ebleskivers and they are TO DIE FOR!

So, imagine my horror when, after an action-packed afternoon of mountain-biking and hiking to one of the local falls, I felt the first tell-tale signs of food poisoning. Ironically, that very morning, in preparation for the picnic, Ed and I chose two different sandwich stands: him, a local cart with sandwich ingredients we couldn’t even begin to guess; me, a fancy stand close to the market that slapped together a pretty-looking chicken-avocado sandwich. The difference between the two sandwiches: mine was four times the price and came with a free extra night of cold sweats and atrocious cramps. But, hey, every true traveler has to go through it at some point in time, and lesson learnt: go for the locals’ food stand!

Cambodia Part II: The Temples

To give you some perspective on Cambodia’s temples: roughly two hundred years before the completion of Notre Dame Cathedral and a full five hundred before the rise of Taj Mahal, in the twelfth century, Khmer King Suryavarman II built Angkor Wat – to this day still the largest religious monument in the world.

Stretching over some 400 km2, including forested area, Angkor Archaeological Park contains the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century. They include the famous Temple of Angkor Wat (pictured here), Angkor Thom, built by King Jayavarman the VIth and many many others.

Stretching over some 400 km2, including forested area, Angkor Archaeological Park contains the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century. They include the famous Temple of Angkor Wat (pictured here), Angkor Thom, built by King Jayavarman the VIth and many many others.

Aside from its majestic proportions and intricate bas-reliefs, the best part about Angkor Wat is that it isn’t alone. While it remains the biggest single complex, Angkor Thom surpasses it in overall spread and with its epic Bayon, where the 216 enormous faces carved in stone bear down upon its ghostly inhabitants and khaki-clad tourists alike.

The many faces of the Bayon Buddha, suspected by experts to resemble Jayavarman's own face very closely.

The many faces of the Bayon Buddha, suspected by experts to resemble Jayavarman’s own face very closely.

Further out, Banteai Srei, intricately carved in red stone bests Angkor when it comes to detail work and the clear perfectionism of its masters. Ta Prohm, generally referred to by the locals as the Angelina Jolie temple is mercifully NOT dedicated to the sensuous-lipped actress but happened to be the set for her Tomb Raider movie. Its real beauty comes from a mix of beautiful architecture, atmospheric crumbling walls and awe-inspiring trees that seem to both bolster and slowly cannibalize it.

Here's a funny story about Banteai Srei and a French culture minister: In 1923, French writer Andre Malraux undertook an expedition into then unexplored areas of the Cambodian jungle in search of Khmer artefacts that he could sell to  art museums. On his return, he was arrested by French colonial authorities for removing a bas-relief from Banteay Srei. After his return to France Malraux got involved in politics and became French minister of ... Cultural Affairs for eleven year, between 1958 to 1969. Voila!

Here’s a funny story about Banteai Srei and a French culture minister: In 1923, French writer Andre Malraux undertook an expedition into then unexplored areas of the Cambodian jungle in search of Khmer artefacts that he could sell to art museums. On his return, he was arrested by French colonial authorities for removing a bas-relief from Banteay Srei. After his return to France Malraux got involved in politics and became French minister of … Cultural Affairs for eleven year, between 1958 to 1969. Voila!

Fine details of cornerstones  at Banteai Srey

Fine details of cornerstones at Banteai Srey

The traditional Ta Prohm photo whic is a tourist must-have, as the 15-minute long line for it stands to show

The traditional Ta Prohm photo whic is a tourist must-have, as the 15-minute long line for it stands to show

Preah Khan, Neak Poan, the reclined Buddha at Baphuon — we saw them all in a whirlwind three days with a little help from our tuk-tuk driving friend whom we had hired as our guide and chauffeur, per the local custom.

Help! This tree is eating my husband.

Help! This tree is eating my husband.

The Onion headline woudl read: Romanian Apsara wannabe caught in weird pose at Khmer temple

The Onion headline woudl read: Romanian Apsara wannabe caught in weird pose at Khmer temple

Unfortunately, to be perfectly honest, three days of climbing crumbled steps, taking in photos with bas-relief Apsaras and Nagas and Vishnus and beheaded buddhas eventually all turned into one big blur. All we have now are about two thousand photos to sort through and a handful of amazing moments that will stick with us forever:

  • The self-appointed local guide who walked us though Prasat Banteay Kdei “The Citadel of Chambers” and conjured for us in kind but broken English the sad and the happy stories of that temple, from the hall of dancers that witnessed spectacular shows put on for the entertainment of kings to the pillaging of the Khmer temples during the Pol Pot era, culminating with the beheading of the majority of the buddha statues in most temples; Buddha heads apparently still fetch high prices in the Asian antique black markets to the bitterness of Khmers, who are unable to stop the traffic apparently conducted by their neighbors in Thailand. Our nameless guide also taught Ed how to sit in a particular spot inside the buddha alcoves and tap his chest in order to generate an organic, cavernous sound – troubling to me, but very entertaining to Ed…

    A group of three Apsaras caught in a traditional dance pose. One thing to remember, if you've never seen them in real-life, is that traditional Khmer dance is more of a slow succession of contortionistic poses that ballet per se

    A group of three Apsaras caught in a traditional dance pose. One thing to remember, if you’ve never seen them in real-life, is that traditional Khmer dance is more of a slow succession of contortionistic poses that ballet per se

  • The game of 1-2-3-fiiivee!! (a sort of khmer rock-paper-scissors) with a group of little girls who were taking a play-break from peddling souvenirs at the temples. The children’s sheer joy and the genuine connection we felt with them was a very welcome refresher from the very transactional nature of our interactions with locals around the temples up to that point (i.e.: “You buy banana from me!” “Eat here, cheap food”  or “One dollar, ten cards: one, two, three, four, etc”) We then all shared bananas and first names and enjoyed a joyful moment in the golden afternoon.

Schoolgirls were delighted to pose for us

Schoolgirls were delighted to pose for us

  • The moments spent inside the Bayon on the first day of the new year, worshipping quietly next to locals and other folks who sought both the respite from heat and also to partake in the spiritual atmosphere. We both lit incense and wai-ed to the Buddha, who was majestically clad in golden cloth and covered in marigolds, and received the red thread of the blessing upon our wrists – we still keep them and probably will until the day saltwater eats them through.

When all was said and done, seen and photographed, at the end of three days of temple-ing, collapsed in the coolness of our hotel room, Ed and I conferred about our experience and realized that we were left with two very different impressions: one one hand, Ed, the perennial optimist, was in love with the smiles, the jokes, the easy banter of the locals and deeply appreciated the feeling of humility that the temples had inspired in him. For him, Cambodia was a place of promise, growth, opportunity and hope, but also a place where you were reminded of your own insignificance in comparison with the achievements of the Khmer kingdom – a welcome wake-up call from our Western self-centeredness.

Ed approves of temples.

Ed approves of temples.

In my eyes, however, Cambodia and Angkor, in particular, emerged shrouded in a veil of sadness. Everywhere I turned I perceived ghosts and a sense of loss: the empty scars where once rested beautiful carvings at the bottom of columns in Angkor, decapitated buddhas lying sideways in the dust, slowly relinquishing to the forces of gravity, the sadness in the voice of our impromptu guide when he was speaking about the treasures pried from the walls of the temples and sold abroad… The atrocity of the Pol Pot regime, in addition to killing over a third of this country’s citizens, is the permanent vacuous spaces left from its cultural patrimony being looted and extracted from the country – all this knowledge hung over my experience and weighed it down into a darker plane of consciousness.

Glimpses from inside Angkor Wat.

Glimpses from inside Angkor Wat.

After talking it through, Ed and I suddenly realized that our two experiences only made sense taken together (much like the two of us…) Cambodia, of course, is not just in the eye of the beholder: it is both sad and happy, rich and poor, tormented and serene. The weight of the past pulls on it, keeping it rooted in darkness, but, without trying to be cheesy, like a lotus, this country breaks through the surface to offer us, emerging out of mud, a thing of beauty.

So, there it is. Needless to say, the country fascinated us and puzzled us and challenged us and delighted us and we were not ready to leave it yet. But our next flight was booked and another mysterious place awaited us.

Cambodia Part I: All You Need Is Kampot

Before I tell you that we spent one full day in Phnom Penh and it was one too many, let me defend this city a bit: Cambodia’s capital used to be a very lovely place, very happening and cosmopolitan, the ‘Paris of the East’ up until the beginning of 1975 when the war between the infamous Khmer Rouge and the then U.S.-backed government pushed about 2 million desperate refugees into the city. Later in the year, the city fell to the Khmer Rouge, who completely emptied it of civilians (they were forced into agricultural labor in the Cambodian countryside) and let Phnom Penh crumble, a strange parallel to the fate of many of Cambodia’s great temple ruins. Today’s Phnom Penh is dusty and pedestrian-unfriendly. Parking lots and market stalls catering to the tourists and ex-pats have taken over the wide streets and leafy boulevards of yonder.

View of Psar Thmei market courtesy of the Khmer govt.

View of Psar Thmei market courtesy of the Khmer govt.

Case in point: one of the most architecturally lauded buildings is the newly renovated art deco Psar Thmei – the Central Market… But Phnom Penh was our launchpad into a verdant kingdom of pristine villages, milk-white beaches and majestic temples.

After a three hour bus ride, we hit Cambodia’s south. We arrived at Kampot, a town like no other, not quite a beach town, since it has no direct access to the sea, but with that indelible vibe of a vacation spot minus the hordes of flip-flopped tourists clamoring for cheap beer.

It's hard to describe Kampot's chilled and relaxed vibe. Guidebooks describe its architecture as French colonial while the locals swear it's old Chinese shopfront-style; either way it's lovely especially in the evening

It’s hard to describe Kampot’s chilled and relaxed vibe. Guidebooks describe its architecture as French colonial while the locals swear it’s old Chinese shopfront-style; either way it’s lovely especially in the evening

Kampot will forever have a special place in our hearts for a few different reasons: it was our first respite from the incessant go-go-go of Vietnam, it was highly pedestrian, it was the first place where we managed to get back on our running schedule and offered us some incredibly good coffee and food.

One thing we noticed on the first day was that birds seemed to be unusually loud -and invisible - in this town. Locals filled us in soon: windowless houses broadcast chirping sounds all day long to attract the swallow cousins of birds nest soup fame. Kampot boasts several of these shapeless constructions. And this caption is irrelevant to the photo. You're welcome!

One thing we noticed on the first day was that birds seemed to be unusually loud -and invisible – in this town. Locals filled us in soon: windowless houses broadcast chirping sounds all day long to attract the swallow cousins of birds nest soup fame. Kampot boasts several of these shapeless constructions. And this caption is irrelevant to the photo. You’re welcome!

How to describe its vibe? Here’s one possible way: imagine San Francisco about 150 years ago, in a warmer climate and landlocked. The same love of funky fusion cuisine, gourmet coffee at every corner, a sense of humor that pervades every menu and poster, an inclination towards the ‘green and healthy’ and some awesome entrepreneurial and non-profit shops and restaurants where you can truly feel good about eating well… If that doesn’t do it for you, then simply imagine a small town in Mediterranean Europe, scratch out public transportation and cobblestone streets, add exotic fruits and spicy dishes, sprinkle dust over it liberally – and there you have it, DOLCE VITA, a tiny paradise on a river. Speaking of exotic fruit, Kampot has a love-hate relationship with durian, whom they dub “King of Fruit” and raise it a statue in centerville only to plaster walls and windows with posters like the one below:

It's not just the enormous statue - and notice that all other fruit is dwarfed beyond proportion - this whole place is called Durian Plaza.

It’s not just the enormous statue – and notice that all other fruit is dwarfed beyond proportion – this whole place is called Durian Plaza.

... but when it comes to Durian's social mobility, this is the sad reality: there's a very clear ceiling to where it can or cannot go. Back of the bus for you Durian!

… but when it comes to Durian’s social mobility, this is the sad reality: there’s a very clear ceiling to where it can or cannot go. Back of the bus for you Durian! No fruit equality here.

Kampot also stands out thanks to a crowd of enthusiastic ex-pats who publish The Kampot Survival Guide, a leaflet brimming with humor and mostly useful information, from which I extracted a few pearls for your enjoyment:

“What most people miss is [when visiting the caves] is that the approaches to the caves are dotted with round American-type ponds dropped in from above by B52’s in 1973;”

and

“Potholes were invented in Kampot and are still Kampot’s greatest export – initially devised for traffic control it’s popularity recently soared with Cambodia’s adoption of free range golf; a game where you hit golf ball in any direction with the intent to end its travel in a pot hole”

The Legend of Kampot Terms reads:

  • Pot-pat=xpat living in Kampot
  • Snook = Sihanoukville or where pot-pats go to die
  • Snail = backpacker;
  • Pregnant snail = backpacker with a n additional front backpack
  • Repeat offender = expat that keeps returning to Kampot;

The guide also offers a hit-list of sorts, a soundtrack of the town experience, performed by the Kampot Pepperettes. Among them:

  • I left my heart in Kampot
  • You’ve lost that Kampot feeling
  • All you need is Kampot
  • What’s Kep got to do with it

What DOES Kep got to do with it, you may wonder. Well, Kep is a nearby sea resort that was built during the French colonial period, which, with its quiet little beach, lack of social scene and expensive accommodations has somehow become the butt of pot-pat jokes whenever they tire of taking potshots at ‘the Snook’… One more thing must be said about Kampot: its atmosphere and the camaraderie among its ex-pat denizens (many French and hilarious to boot) has inspired a fierce loyalty that we didn’t encounter anywhere else on Cambodia’s seaside. However, in poor old Kep’ s defense, it does boast an amazing little crab market where Ed and I stopped on our way to the beach and feasted on some local specialties…

This is about as fresh as it gets, ocean-to-table if you will, and possibly the most delicious seafood we've ever had. Also worth mentioning that the locals fishing and frying these goodies were wering PARKAS! What were we wearing? Swimsuits and sweat. Apparently it was an unusually cold winter in Cambodia...

This is about as fresh as it gets, ocean-to-table if you will, and possibly the most delicious seafood we’ve ever had. Also worth mentioning that the locals fishing and frying these goodies were wering PARKAS! What were we wearing? Swimsuits and sweat. Apparently it was an unusually cold winter in Cambodia…

Now THIS is my kind of lollipop. Squid-on-a-stick any day!

Now THIS is my kind of lollipop. Squid-on-a-stick any day!

We also sampled crunchier fare; crickets are fairly high in protein and plentiful.

We also sampled crunchier fare; crickets are fairly high in protein and plentiful.

Just because you were dying to see a close-up of that scrumptious last dish :-))

Just because you were dying to see a close-up of that scrumptious last dish :-))

While in Kampot, we took a few day trips, including one to the abandoned Bokor Hill station, formerly one of the world’s most beautiful abandoned places – Atlas Obscura has a pretty good article about it.

Sadly, the beautifully decayed casino from their photos had been taken over by the Sokha chain of resorts by the time we visited and scrubbed of moss and mystery, bare gray cement bones showing, a blank canvas that will sadly soon become an overly-lit sterile resort for insipid business team-building exercises… Money trumps beauty sadly and the locals need every bit of the former, so I really hope this turns out well for them.

Cambodia’s countryside charmed us and broke our hearts with its beauty and the obvious poverty of its denizens, but lest we forget, this is a country of contrasts: just because they were poor, the villagers did not look unhappy and their children were the most beautiful, friendly and carefree we’ve ever met.

Flodded rice paddies stretch out seemingly into infinity

Flodded rice paddies stretch out seemingly into infinity

Abundantly verdant, every stilt house in Cambodia's south has its own little pond, presumably because of the high water level.

Abundantly verdant, every stilt house in Cambodia’s south has its own little pond, presumably because of the high water level.

Cows in Cambodia - and I beg you, bear with this city girl's ode to the Khmer bovine, it is a sincere one - they are white as milk, slim without being skinny, with bones jutting out at soft angles that make them look like marble statues etched against golden sunsets. They are uniquely serene and  beautiful.

Cows in Cambodia – and I beg you, bear with this city girl’s ode to the Khmer bovine, it is a sincere one – they are white as milk, slim without being skinny, with bones jutting out at soft angles that make them look like marble statues etched against golden sunsets. They are uniquely serene and beautiful.

We experienced golden storybook sunsets suspended outside of time, we wandered among reflecting pools dotting the landscape like windows into other realms, we watched children playing hide-and-seek among haystacks. We felt love, awe and fear; fear that this garden of Eden might someday vanish to make way for high-rise hotels and 7-elevens…

We eventually moved on to “the Snook,” or “Russianville,” occasionally also referred to as Sihanoukville, the ultimate seaside resort for those thirsting, in equal measure, for cheap cocktails and people-watching. On the beach we watched in amazement heavy-set middle aged men the color of boiled leather strutting their stuff in tiny speedos and getting their chests threaded. We also pondered the seemingly infinite range of services offered on the beach: peeling and artfully cutting every fruit known to man into bite-sized pieces, mani-pedis, full body threading and massages, juicing, frying, grilling, scooping, shelling, slathering and rolling food, and, of course, brutal hacking of young coconuts for the purpose of juicy hydration.

‘Catfish and Mandala’: The Luscious Green Heart of Vietnam

P1060830

Our old governator is apparently still the universal symbol of brawn, even in Vietnam

After a short detour through Danang (a highly functional city where the local delicacy consisting of cold boiled bacon wrapped in aromatic herbs and lettuce left us both mystified and hungry) we arrived in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh in the early evening, and promptly got stuck in traffic.

In hindsight, after reading Andrew Pham’s Catfish and Mandala, any attempt to describe Ho Chi Minh’s traffic would be futile or artless, so here’s what he has to say about it:  “There are no lane markings, no shoulders, … just one big long river of asphalt boiling with Brownian motion. The engines roar, the animals bleat, the horns, the curses and the screams all boil into a fantastic cacophony.” Catfish and Mandala, by the way, is a phenomenal travel book that i would highly recommend it to anyone planning a trip to Southeast Asia or any sort of personal “roots” trip. As he’s a denizen of the Bay Area and the Golden Gate bridge was his launchpad, too, we related and really enjoyed his book. Which is not to say that it’s a light summer reading – this ain’t no “Shopaholic Meets Uncle Ho” novelette – read at your own peril!  We realized soon enough that we were not quite ready to join the Asphalt Jungle, which seemed even more hectic than Hanoi, with fevered Christmas preparations everywhere and hordes of locals decked in their wintery best, raindeer horns included, lining up for interminable, highly directed photo sessions with the Christmas ornaments in front of Barney’s – so we skipped town after three days, having accomplished the following:

  1.    Not!get!run!over!
  2.    Eat jackfruit for the very first time (that would be me, as Ed is well-versed in everything that smacks of exotic in the fruit isle)
  3.     Eat one extremely bad tiramisu
  4.     Get lost several times on the same street (…)
  5.     Visit the Reunification Palace
  6.     Eat vegetarian almost the entire time (again me, and with the caveat that something I took for very dark tofu with funky texture in my rice soup could have just as easily been a very large piece of near-raw liver)
  7.     And possibly the least expected adventure of all – discover a Harry Potter-esque Three Brooms Town, an institution that sprawled on three+ floors and boasted a bakery, a theater, a performance stage, a pirate bar and several workshops where, by appointment, you could learn how to sew little pillows and make autumnal-looking decorations that would be at home on Halloween on any street in Connecticut.

    P1060832

    A Harry Potter-land where they serve alcoholic potions at their local Leaky Skull pirate tavern? SIGN ME UP!!

We made the above list and checked it twice (by this time Christmas songs have fully permeated our bubble of season denial) and then we were off to the Mekong Delta. As an aside, let it be said that after – weeks AFTER – we completed our tour, the New York Times came out with the 52 Top Places to visit in 2014 and the Mekong Delta ranked 35th. Since words don’t really do it justice, here are some pics. Enjoy!

It all started with a ride up and down the inner canals of the Delta, a sampling of the locals' daily commute

It all started with a ride up and down the inner canals of the Delta, a sampling of the locals’ daily commute

Our captain, like on most of the other boats, was a middle-aged lady who rammed with the strength of a small bull and the agility of an eel along the narrow canal and busy two-way boat traffic

Our captain, like on most of the other boats, was a middle-aged lady who rammed with the strength of a small bull and the agility of an eel along the narrow canal and busy two-way boat traffic

Next stop: Candyland. Coconut candy flavored with everything under the sun, from banana leaf, which tasted exceedingly fresh, to snake.

Next stop: Candyland. Coconut candy flavored with everything under the sun, from banana leaf, which tasted exceedingly fresh, to snake.

OK, maybe I was joking about the snake flavored candy, but not about the liquor. Ed actually made me drink this and it tasted faintly of formaldehyde.  Apparently the snakes go in the alcohol jar while still alive, so they die a happy death...

OK, maybe I was joking about the snake flavored candy, but not about the liquor. Ed actually made me drink this and it tasted faintly of formaldehyde. Apparently the snakes go in the alcohol jar while still alive, so they die a happy death…

Stop two: rice noodle factory. This here is a display of rice noodle-making prowess: the man is a natural

Stop two: rice noodle factory. This here is a display of rice noodle-making prowess: the man is a natural

Subtly color-coordinated (that's how we roll) we walk the fine bamboo line that is a bridge at the crocodile farm. But don't get excited, there are no crocs below

Subtly color-coordinated (that’s how we roll) we walk the fine bamboo line that is a bridge at the crocodile farm. But don’t get excited, there are no crocs below

Local cuisine in a nutshell (from right to left):  chicken,  rats, snake (the sausage-like thing), frog. Out of sight: bog snails fried in butter. Bon Appetit!

Local cuisine in a nutshell (from right to left): chicken, rats, snake (the sausage-like thing), frog. Out of sight: bog snails fried in butter. Bon Appetit!

A typically sized jackfruit in the fruit orchard we visited. I must confess that I was sitting directly underneath another gigantic one and was very much fearing for my life.

A typically sized jackfruit in the fruit orchard we visited. I must confess that I was sitting directly underneath another gigantic one and was very much fearing for my life.

We spent a few 'recovery' days in Can Tho, one of the larger towns in the Delta, sampling the local cuisine and hanging out.

We spent a few ‘recovery’ days in Can Tho, one of the larger towns in the Delta, sampling the local cuisine and hanging out. This was a pretty typical food stall at the local market that we frequented a few times per day.

We spent our last night in Vietnam in Chau Doc, a border town with much to offer, including hikes in the nearby mountains and some cool temples. We only had enough time to dine on the restaurant boat that floated on the Mekong.

We spent our last night in Vietnam in Chau Doc, a border town with much to offer, including hikes in the nearby mountains and some cool temples. We only had enough time to dine on the restaurant boat that floated on the Mekong.

Au revoir Vietnam! It's been lovely and we will miss you...

Au revoir Vietnam! It’s been lovely and we will miss you…

After three weeks in Vietnam, we crossed the border into Cambodia on a speedboat. We were excited to move on to our next destination, but also nostalgic at the same time. Vietnam was a ride and a half and a baptism by fire for us South East Asia first-timers. Tam Biet! A la prochaine!

“Adventure is but a collection of detours”

Back in Hanoi, after a half day of schlepping around with our backpacks, we boarded the night train to Hue, the old imperial capital. I wish I could say the train ride was fun, but all the sleeping cars had been taken by the time we bought our tickets, so we had to ride in the regular (albeit “soft-seat”) car – I shudder to think what the hard seats must feel like.

We woke up with the feeling of being trapped inside a slow-moving submarine: outside our windows, in the torrential rain, in the emerald-green rice paddies, drenched white egrets were dejectedly looking for cover and peasants sat smoking large wooden pipes on the stoops of isolated huts with dripping palm-leaf roofs  – it all looked otherworldly and aquatic, a landscape from another century and another world…

We could have stared out the window wordlessly for hours but we eventually had to get off the train and (after some adventures that included a bus-chase across town thanks to a friendly cabbie in Dong Hoi) board the smallest, most crowded shuttle to Hue for three more hot, sweaty and uncomfortable hours. That bus ride, like many of our Vietnam bus rides, was memorable: from the seventeen passengers fitted in eleven seats, to the pee breaks along the ditches in the road, and the epic pork belly sandwich that Ed commissioned from one of the many women peddling their foodstuffs at the gas stop. Said sandwich was assembled right there on the ground, in between the pump and the wheel of the bus.

But the reward was great – at the end of this grueling trip, the epic Imperial City of Hue  unfolded under our eyes in all its splendor.

The Citadel, former imperial seat of government, is a great sprawling complex of temples, pavilions, moats, and plenty of yet unreconstructed ruins and overgrown gardens that were delightfully peaceful – a rare commodity in Vietnam and a sad result of the “Tet offensive” in 1968 when it was shelled by the Viet Cong and then bombed by Americans. But restoration seems to be chugging along quite well – they were redoing the front gates during our visit.

On the way back from the Citadel, we had an interesting conversation with a language student at the local university – the lovely Lala – who shared with us a local proverb: Allegedly, to achieve happiness, all you need is “A Western house, a Japanese wife, and Chinese food.” While I can see the logic of the first two, I was certainly baffled by the latter – Vietnamese food is among the best cuisines we’ve ever sampled and would never-ever trade it for Chinese food (at least not Chinese food cooked Stateside, but I hear the real thing is pretty heavy stuff too)

We spent only two short nights and days in Hue and then headed to Hoi An, an idyllic town and our first in Southern Vietnam proper – where we lucked out on a great hotel and recovered for the next four days.

We largely avoided Hoi An by day and enjoyed its charms by nightfall, when the shopping/tailoring frenzy subsided

We largely avoided Hoi An by day and enjoyed its charms by nightfall, when the shopping/tailoring frenzy subsided

Somehow we largely managed to stay clear of Hoi An’s tailoring shops and its storefronts littered with pretty coats and instead focused on its back alleys and the beach. Turns out that the area just outside Hoi An is a sort of rural Venice with a touch of the exotic – narrow canals slither between coconut groves and most houses call the river their backyard.

The beautiful cows and calves that nearly ran us over at the beach; they were adorably small and looked happy as clams, if that metaphor makes sense in this context

The beautiful cows and calves that nearly ran us over at the beach; they were adorably small and looked happy as clams, if that metaphor makes sense in this context

Needless to say, part of the appeal of Hoi An was the beautiful beach and the existence on that beach of a surfboard that Ed discovered, with a twinkle in his eye, belonged to Alex Knost, a semi-pro surfer from Newport Beach, close to Ed’s stomping/surfing grounds, also of “Step Into Liquid” fame.

Sadly the board had a big ole' crack in the middle that gave Ed a painful chest hair threading-like experience

Sadly the board had a big ole’ crack in the middle that gave Ed a painful chest hair threading-like experience

So, in Hoi An we bathed in the South China Sea for the first time, making the 15 minute bike ride to the beach our daily morning commute, and generally used our bikes liberally to explore the scenic if rather commercial town center and the beautiful landscapes.

Glorious sunsets in the wet landscape of little Vietnamese Venice

Glorious sunsets in the wet landscape of little Vietnamese Venice

In fact, one story that will probably be told and retold  to generations of Gendreau offsprings happened on those very bikes: one evening, after thoroughly exploring Hoi An’s rural backyards, we decided to take what looked on our GPS maps like a shortcut and ended up falling in a time-bubble.

It couldn’t have been more than 45 minutes, but it felt like hours of biking down an ever-darker, ever narrower path between flooded rice paddies, the lights of the city fading and then disappearing entirely behind us until we saw nothing but the stars above and their reflections below

The air was damp and smelled like woodsmoke and dung and the fields looked post-apocalyptic, an impression multiplied by the fact that at every 500 meters a crackling megaphone perched atop a pole blared incomprehensible, militaristic-sounding slogans. After a while we lost all hope of reaching the city before being completely vampirized by mosquitoes, so we turned around and biked back, sliding on the mud and wondering at this world that seemed, once again, to exist outside of time…