status

Oakland and Homeward Bound

We stayed with our friends, Eileen and Elliott, in Oakland, and they showed us all of the pretty and delicious things in the Bay Area.

Muir Woods

Muir Woods

Barred Owl

Hollow trunk

Clover

Road to Muir Woods

Wall of fog

Elliott's Photoshoppery

In-N-Out

Sonoma Valley

Ravenswood

Lagunitas Brewery

Vietnamese food

Port near Jack London Square

Go to school

Panchita's

Pupusas

Hello burrito

Thumbs up

BART map

Taco time

Then, we house/dog sat for a friend and former Iowan in the Fruitvale neighborhood.

Enzo

Koi

Then we bought an old Volvo station wagon with no cruise control (oops) on Craigslist and headed up Highway 1.  Destinations: Couchsurfing in Northern California, Portland (where Sean and McKinze had opened a Georgian food cart), Seattle (Alicia’s cousin Julian), Pullman (our good friends Oscar and Crissa), Salt Lake City (a quick overnight with some fellow backpackers we met in Thailand) , Estes Park (Tony’s cousins/friends Molly and Amos), and then home to Iowa.

15
Jun 2013
POSTED BY admin
DISCUSSION No Comments
status

Arriving in the USA

Almost there.

Flight display

There’s San Francisco Bay.

San Francisco from above

Filling out the customs forms.  (Unsurprisingly, two agents opened all of our bags and searched everything.  The first time that’s happened all year.)

Customs form

Officially repatriated.

Repatriating

On the BART leaving the airport.  (Alicia is still sick.)

On the BART - still sick

We’re not done yet!  West Coast adventures on the blog soon…

15
Jun 2013
POSTED BY admin
POSTED IN

California

DISCUSSION No Comments
status

Rainy Day in Tokyo

The cheapest flights back to U.S. from Bangkok were with Japan Airlines, which has layovers in its Tokyo hub.  We chose the flight that left Bangkok at 10 p.m., arrived in Tokyo at 6 a.m. and departed at midnight.  Perfect!  We didn’t think we’d make it to Japan this year, but this flight would give us a bonus day in Tokyo and we wouldn’t even have to get a hotel room.

Tokyo subway car

Subway seat

We spent a lot of time in the subway.  Hours.  The system isn’t impossible, but definitely a steep learning curve with multiple lines owned by different companies.

Sensoji Temple in the rain

And it rained all day.  We went from 100F and merciless sun in Bangkok to a (comparatively) freezing 60F and wet.  Alicia had achy bones and a fever since the day before we got on the plane and the temperature change didn’t help.

It was just past the height of sakura (cherry blossom) season and we were about to see some of the famous trees.

Sakura

Sensoji Temple

 

Red

After a few hours of sleep on the plane, a morning of staring at Japanese subway maps and wandering around in the rain with a fever, Alicia was visibly shivering and exhausted.  It was time to find some hot food.  Tony bought her a steamy chocolate filled pancake.

Tony buying a pancake

Mmmmm… pancake.

Alicia isn't looking so good

Looking good! Ok, clearly it was time to get indoors for a while.  We found a little second floor cafe that seemed unchanged since the 70′s and ordered some coffee and tea.

Stairs up to the cafe

Brazil Coffee

Sickie

More rain.


Shopping district

Salty nori snack

Sushi was definitely happening for lunch, and we picked a spot that was full of students.  You order your sushi by touchscreen and it is delivered from the kitchen on a little maglev trolley.  There is even a little hot water spout at each seat-station for making tea.  It was fun and delicious.

Sushi touch screen

Order arriving

(Weeks later, we found out that this is actually a chain restaurant with locations in the U.S.  Oops!  But our goal of eating delicious sushi in Tokyo was still met.)

Yoyogi Park

More parks, more rain, more walking.

Crazy eyes

Meiji shrine

Meiji shrine

Store in Harajuku

By dark, Alicia was still feeling weak, feverish and generally terrible.  Due to problems finding an ATM that would accept our card (which had never happened ever this whole year, even in developing countries), we were totally out of yen.  And it was still raining.  We headed back to the airport early and a couple of huge bowls of salty ramen.  

Airport ramen

Luckily, the plane wasn’t full and Alicia got two whole seats and double pillows and blankets.  She slept almost the entire time.

Earlier we wrote that we were headed home.  And we were, in a headed-back-to-our-own-country sense of the word.  But we weren’t flying in to Cedar Rapids or even Minneapolis or Chicago…

Almost to SFO

15
Jun 2013
POSTED BY admin
POSTED IN

Japan

DISCUSSION No Comments
status

Return to Bangkok

Eventually, we had to say farewell to Kevin, leave Chiang Mai, take the train back to Bangkok and get ready to repatriate.

Train to Bangkok

Women on a motorbike

Train going around a bend

Hand on the train window

Sunset blur

Waking up to palm trees

Waking up on the train

Morning landscape

Lopburi station

Golden monkey statue at Lop Buri

Arriving in Bangkok

Grafitti

It’s a really strange feeling to return to a massive “foreign” city like Bangkok and have it seem familiar.  The same old train station, which by this point we had routed through enough (three times) that we knew which vendor sold the cheapest croissants.  The same skyline and smells, the same busses and taxis and touts.  This time, we stayed near Chinatown and got to explore a different section of the city.

Duck noodle soup street vendor

Wat Traimit

Blessing seekers

Chinatown

Tuk-tuk

Monk gift basket

Buddha near Chinatown

Chili spoon

One afternoon, Alicia heard a familiar-sounding jangle and met Khun Thorn, the banjo player for a Thai bluegrass band called the Blue Mountain Boys.  We already knew that there was a Thai cowboy subculture, I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised that Thai bluegrass was a thing, too.


Thorn the banjo player

BKK airport

The day came to leave.  We spent a total of two months in Thailand and had come to love it.  But after 11 months away, it was time to go home.  Well, almost.  One more major world city to add to the list…

Tokyo bound

02
Jun 2013
POSTED BY admin
POSTED IN

Thailand

DISCUSSION No Comments
status

Thai Cooking Class

Here are a few photos of the day we spent at a Thai cooking class north of Chiang Mai.  It included a tour of the market (amusing, since we’d been going to these types of markets for months now); a tour of a garden packed full of ingredients like lemongrass, galengal and tumeric; and an afternoon of chopping, mixing, wok-ing and eating.  No specific measurements, just instructions to pour the oil and fish sauce into a big spoon “with emotion” and add chilis in quantities that were proportionate with whether we felt “a little sexy, medium sexy or suuuper sexyyy.”  Maybe not an intensive learning session, but definitely a lot of fun.

Different types of rice

Garden hats

Garden tour

Rice paddy

Banana blossom

Prep for holy basil stir fry

Mashing the som tam

Red curry paste ingredients

Panaeng curry ingredients

testing the curry

Red curry and coconut cream soup ingredients

Making the sticky rice with coconut cream, palm sugar and salt.

Batter for the deep fried bananas

Cooking together

Dinner is served

02
Jun 2013
POSTED BY admin
POSTED IN

Thailand

DISCUSSION No Comments
status

Organic Farming in Ban Khun

Cherry tomato vine

While we were staying with Kevin in Chiang Mai (for the second time), we were able to tag along on one of his jobs.  It was burn season in Thailand and the three of us were happy to leave the city where it was so smoky that the big mountain, Doi Suthep, was invisible.  It turned out to be smoky everywhere else too, but at least in the mountains it’s mixed with less exhaust.


Burning the undergrowth

Kevin does filmmaking for non-profits and his friend Sean had a project for him.  Sean is an American who is working to improve the wellbeing and economic stability of his wife’s Karen (“Kuh-RIN”) hill tribe village in the Omkoi district in the southwest part of Chiang Mai Province.  He is experimenting with vegetable growing methods that are kind to the earth and result in organic produce that can be sold at higher prices to local markets and restaurants.  He is shouldering the burdens of trial and error and hopes to pass on the knowledge to local farmers who may be interested in switching from conventional (chemical) farming.

Here is an explanation from Sean’s website:

“Over the past decade or more chemical fertilizer companies have come into many of the local hill tribe communities promoting their product and investing into local farmers to grow many different crops.  This created many jobs for many poor Karen farmers.  Over time farmers have become reliant on this market and the chemicals and have since lost the ability to take care of the land and use natural resources.  They are have no other market and are forced to sell to middle men and make no money almost every year, growing things like tomato’s and chilis.  We aim to make it possible for these farmers to go back to their roots of working with land in a more natural way and help them find a higher price for their produce.”

Seedling trays

Sean's porch

View from Sean's window

Mosquito net

Sean's dirtbike

Breakfast mango

Sean built his house himself, and it features an open-air kitchen and a porch with a great view of the valley below. (His wife and children were visiting friends back in Chiang Mai, so unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to meet them.) It was fun making dinner together and throwing the scraps to the chickens waiting just outside the window. Sean’s mother-in-law helped chop vegetables and brought over a really big knife to cut the meat.

Garlic pounder

Alicia making dinner with MIL

Alicia's borrowed knife

Potato hash

Plate o' pork

Inlaw's house

Rice mill

Dog

Alicia and MIL

If this were a blog about organic farming, we probably would have taken better notes about the seedling trays, the vermicompost (worm tea), the natural fungicide sprays that cost the same as the chemicals, the greenhouses, the rice paddy irrigation, and the way the roots respond to the placement of drip irrigation lines.  Pictures will have to stand in for actual information.

Vermicompost

Drip irrigation

Sean holding beet seeds

Sean showing how roots respond to the placement of drip irrigation

Kevin shot lots of great footage that will help Sean share organic farming methods with Karen and Thai farmers.

MIL's carrot

Kevin filming MIL

Making furrows for the beets

Fun aunt

Mixing up a carrot fungicide

Wildflower tangle

Pressure sprayer motor and fungicide

Jodi spraying the carrots

Walking out to the rice paddies

Cows grazing in the dry rice paddies

Kevin shooting the workers

Worker throwing soil on the raised tomato beds

New Pi

Workers hitching a ride back to the village

Planting trays of tomatoes

Planting trays of tomatoes

Planting trays of tomatoes

The greenhouse

Soaking the seedlings

On the last day before we made the long drive back to Chiang Mai, Sean’s mother-in-law called us into her house and fried us some sweet sticky rice batter.

Fried sweet sticky rice batter

MIL cooking

Tony asked about the little star tattoos that dotted her hand and wondered if they had any particular meaning or purpose. Sean translated her response:

“When I was young, it was the fashion. There is no meaning, we just thought it looked pretty.”

Big smiles all around.

Hand tattoos

02
Jun 2013
POSTED BY admin
POSTED IN

Thailand

DISCUSSION 1 Comment
status

Return to Chiang Mai

We decided we were done with beaches but we weren’t done with Thailand.  We still had a few weeks left before our flight back to the States, and we were really feeling the weight of being away from home for so long.   The next best thing was to go back to our home away from home: Kevin-the-Kiwi-Photographer-with-the-Handlebar-Moustache‘s place all the way back up in Chiang Mai.

Hua Lamphong station

Kevin

So nice to be together again, and much sooner than anyone expected!

And khao soi.  Chiang Mai has khao soi.

Khao soi

Kevin took us to a ceremony for the Impossible Life Photo Contest that he and his fellow Thailand International Photographers Society (TIPS) friends had entered.  Each photographer was asked to create a portrait of a person who struggled with major disabilities or illness.  The both the winning photographers and their subjects would receive a cash prize provided by the owners of Theppadungporn Coconut Company (if you have a can of coconut milk in your pantry, it probably has the TCC logo on it.)

The ceremony was held in the garden of Wat Srisuphan, one of the most beautiful temples in Chiang Mai.  The Governor of Chiang Mai Province, Tanin Subhasaen, the wat’s abbot, Phra Khru Phithak and the owners of TCC were all in attendance, as well as most of the photo subjects who were receiving a cash grant.

Videographer

Wat Sri Suphan

Wat Sri Suphan's abbot, Phra Khru Phithak

A grateful recipient

Kevin’s portrait subject was a young girl with a serious and rare heart defect.

Kevin's photo subject

Chiang Mai Province Governor Tanin Subhasaen

Joe, one of our friends that we met through Kevin and the Chiang Mai Couchsurfing group, was honored with second prize.

Winning photographers

After the long, long ceremony (most of which was in Thai), we were invited to have lunch at the Wat.  Abbot Phra Khru Phithak stopped by to make sure we had enough to eat and checked out Tony and Kevin’s tattoos.  (Kevin’s tattoo is an homage to a Thai rock band, his favorite energy drink and is a reference to his Thai nickname, all at once.  It makes sense, trust us.)

Phra Khru Phithak inspects Kevin's Carabao tattoo

Oh, Chiang Mai.  You are so happy and beautiful and delicious.

Mango shake

Wat Buppharam

Donald Duck

Chiang Mai graffiti

Tony at Wat Buppharam

Cat enjoying Wat Buppharam's carpet

Buddha and chedi at Wat Buppharam

Wat tabby

Performing dogs

80 baht haircut

Tea bag

We spent two more weeks at Kevin’s house this time around.  We posed for more photos and he also took us on one last great Thai adventure…

Kevin's collage portrait of us

01
Jun 2013
POSTED BY admin
POSTED IN

Thailand

DISCUSSION 1 Comment
status

Lonely Beach, Lazy Beach

Back to Thailand.  Since we had already spent a few weeks in northern Thailand when we first came to Southeast Asia, and our flight back to the States was leaving from Bangkok, we planned to spend the remainder of our weeks abroad in the south of Thailand along the coast and on some islands.

Ko Chang PO box

We decided to start at Koh Chang, mostly because we were leaving Cambodia via the border crossing west of Siem Reap and we could go there directly without having to go all the way back to Bangkok to connect to other transportation.  From Siem Reap, it was a two hour minibus ride to the border town of Poipet, three hours waiting in line at the border, another six hours in a minibus crammed to the max with bodies and luggage, and an hour ferry ride.  The ferry ride was actually not what we had in mind; we wanted to spend the night in Trat and then take the ferry over to the island in the morning.  But as we approached the outskirts of Trat, our driver announced that he wasn’t stopping because if he did, the rest of the passengers would miss the last ferry to the island.   So on we went.

It was dark by the time we got to Koh Chang, and about 20 of us crammed in the back of a waiting songthaew.  The overloaded truck careened around the steep and winding jungle road that skirted the coast and somehow none bags fell off the top.  Since it was late and we didn’t have reservations, we decided to try to find a place in White Sand Beach, one of the main tourist areas.  We spent an exhausting hour wandering up and down the strip looking for a guesthouse that had rooms we would afford and… well, vacancies.  We walked past bars pumping loud music to solo white male patrons who were flanked by local girls in tight dresses and heavy makeup.

Eventually, we settled for a place a bit out of our price range that was set further back the trees.  We woke up the next morning, paid for an additional night, rented a motorbike and went in search of a cheap little bungalow far away from the lights and vibe of White Sand Beach.

Almost as soon as we took off, it started to rain.  Just a little cloudburst, but enough that the steep hills and hairpin turns might as well have been coated in ice.  After seeing the intense concentration on the local drivers’ faces and witnessing two motorbike accidents happen right in front of us, Tony decided to pull over and wait for the pavement to dry.  As we sat on the side of the road, a Russian couple slid into a slow-mo crash right next to us.  They decided to clean up their bleeding scrapes and wait it out, too.

Biking caution sign

Slick hill

After less than an hour, the roads were dry again and we were on our way.  For the next several days, we ended up trying out a few different bungalows on different beaches and exploring different areas around Koh Chang.  Tony piloted us all over the island and kept us upright at all times, even when we had both of our bags on board.

Sand road through the palms

Bang Bao pier

Lucky charm belt

National park rules

ATM truck

Klong Kloi bungalow

We eventually settled in at Lonely Beach in a row of cheapie bungalows with cold water showers and a bucket-flush toilet.  They weren’t the most picturesque and the bars next door were noisy all night but we liked the Thai staff and the food at the attached cafe.

Shoes parking

And the hammock.  The hammock was good.

Tony in the hammock

Alicia in hammock

Cafe poetry

Cafe dog

Cafe del Sunshine

Kitty

Lonely Beach

Lonely Beach swing

We borrowed a big woven mat from the cafe and spent long afternoons at the beach.  The water was as warm as the air and we were well aware of how lucky we were to be on a beach in the middle of February.  Our biggest problem was that the masks and snorkels we were renting for $1 were a little leaky and the blues bar next door was just as loud in our bungalow as when we visited in person.

Alicia at SF

Dog on stage

It is done

After much discussion over what island we should go to for the rest of the month, and what was going to be different there than laying in hammocks and drinking coconut shakes and picking up seashells, we decided we were done.  We didn’t need any more beach.  We already had that a few weeks prior in Cambodia, and we had our fill here.  We sent some emails and headed back to the mainland with a plan.  And the oldest, rustiest ferry we had ever seen carried us back.

Alicia on the ferry

Rusty ferry

01
Jun 2013
POSTED BY admin
POSTED IN

Thailand

DISCUSSION 1 Comment
video
status

What We Ate in Cambodia

While it makes us feel a little better to know that Cambodia isn’t really known for its cuisine, we also feel a little guilty.  We didn’t really experience a huge variety of outstanding food in Cambodia. Half of the blame falls on us, because we didn’t get out of tourist areas much. The other half was that we actually had some difficulty finding good local food. Other than in areas directly adjacent to markets or inside the markets themselves, it seemed like most of the places we went had almost no street food (compared to Vietnam and Thailand where you are almost tripping over it).  We know we missed a ton, and we’re not even sure whether everything below is uniquely Cambodian.

But what we did find was delicious.

Chicken heads

 

So here’s a very small taste of Cambodia.  You’ll need some utensils.  They’re all ready for you, waiting in their hot water bath.

 

Clean silverware delivered to your table in a glass of steaming water

Donuts with a toffee-like crunchy glaze.

Candy glazed donuts

Mi Char – Short, worm shaped noodles rolled by hand, fried with sprouts and meat and greens, topped with a fried egg.Khmer noodles with fried egg

Sach Ko Chomkak – Marinated beef skewers grilled over hot coals, dipped in sweet chili sauce, served with a tangy green papaya and carrot salad.  You’re charged by the number of skewers you order but the vegetables are all-you-can-eat and on the house.  One of our favorites.Grilled beef with chili sauce and green papaya salad

Bobor – Rice porridge, a typical breakfast food. This one has chicken, crispy fried garlic and a blood cube.Breakfast: rice porridge

Grilled red snapper with tamarind sauce.Red snapper

Nyoum Trayong Chaek – Banana blossom salad, really similar to the ones we ate in Thailand.
Banana blossom salad

Kuy Teav Phnom Penh – a Phnom Penh specialty featuring meat, blood, liver, intestines and tongue. This particular one is of porcine origin.
Mixed pork noodle soup

Num Pa Chok Kari Sach Ko - Curry beef and noodles.
Curried beef and noodles

Khmer red curry with chicken, potato, pumpkin and vegetables.
Red curry with chicken

Green curry with prawns, potato, onion and green beans. Those things that look like oversized peas are water lotus seeds.
Green curry with prawns

Amok – A thick, turmeric-heavy yellow curry with vegetables, typically with fish but there’s always a meat or prawn option, topped with coconut cream…
Amok with green beans

…sometimes served in a banana leaf if you’re someplace fancy.
Amok in a banana leaf

Our first pizza in five months. So what if it had corn and mayo on it.
Pizza in Phnom Penh

17
Mar 2013
POSTED BY admin
POSTED IN

Cambodia

DISCUSSION No Comments
status

Ancient Khmer Temples Up Close

The Angkorian temples at Siem Reap are overwhelmingly detailed. Even after nearly a thousand years, you don’t need much imagination to see what they once were. Come in for a closer look.

Approach to Angkor Wat

Fallen column at Ta Prahm

Stone balusters at Angkor

Cracked relief at Angkor

Wildflower at Angkor

Lizard at Ta Prohm

Bas relief at Ta Prohm

Buddha-turned-hermit at Ta Prohm

Fallen balustrades

Broken wheel on bas relief

Doorway carvings

Dancers on columns

Cracked face

Green row of worshippers

Eroded ladies

Bas relief detail at Bayan

Bas relief dancers at Bayan

Flowers at Bayan

Elephant bas relief at Bayan

Roots at Bayan

Bas relief detail, leaves, at Bayan

Buddha's face at Bayan temple

Small green plant at Bayan

Sunrise, Bayan

Sea turtle bas relief at Bayan

Sunrise at Bayan temple

Sunrise at Bayan temple

Sunrise at Bayan temple

Mossy figures, Terrace of the Leper King

Terrace of the Leper King

Khmer writing

Tumbledown walls

Green plant in the rubble

Elephant war bas relief

Spider webs

Stretched ears

Kala

Dusty insect

16
Mar 2013
POSTED BY admin
POSTED IN

Cambodia

DISCUSSION No Comments
status

Secret Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Siem Reap road sign

Everybody goes to the west gate watch the sunrise in front of Angkor Wat.

E-v-e-r-y-b-o-d-y (and their tripods).

But watch the sunrise from Angkor Wat? That requires sneaking around in the dark and paying a small… *cough*… “fee.” Ahem.

East facade at dawn

Our hearts raced with nervous energy as we entered the 900 year old temple alone, in pitch blackness. At one point, we stepped into a courtyard and paused because we thought we heard monks chanting. (Nope… we had just awakened all the mosquitoes in Cambodia.) Alicia wavered, sure that the instructions that a fellow traveler gave us would get us arrested, but Tony kept us on mission.

cobwebs

We made it up to the third, final, most sacred tier, the Bakan, just in time to hear the jungle come alive with the calls of strange birds and to see the bas reliefs illuminated by the red morning sun.

Sun peeking over the jungle canopy

Orange sunrise

Sun peeking over the jungle canopy

Wildflowers

Empty courtyard

We looked down at the hundreds of people gathered at the far end of the pond, grateful that we were not among them.

Hundreds of people gathered for sunrise

Tony waves

As soon as the sun was up, the guards quickly shooed us back down, presumably to avoid the scrutiny of the people who began filtering into the courtyard who might wonder why the posted opening times didn’t apply to us.

Apsaras at Angkor

Steep steps up Angkor

Facade lit by the morning sun

Empty corridor

Chedi along the east wall of Angkor

Us at east gate of Angkor Wat

After that great start, we were not too frustrated with the tour groups clogging the pathways through Ta Prohm (a.k.a. the Tomb Raider temple).

Big tour group at Ta Prohm

Poky straw hats

Goofy selfie

Ta Prohm corridor

Looking up

We experienced another peaceful (albeit more conventionally achieved) sunrise at Bayon Temple the following morning.

Bayon silhouette

Sun coming through the trees

Pink sun

Buddha at Bayon

Spider at Bayon

Bayon tree trunk

Apsaras on columns

Linga at Bayon

Bayon east facade

Buddha altar inside Bayon

Bayon face

Bayon face - vertical

Lens flare

Bayon face with jungle

Apsara at Bayon

Us at Bayon

We visited many other ancient Khmer temples around Siem Reap, but those two sunrise experiences were the best.

Kid sleeping

Tree roots

Interior shot

Colorful banner

One head left on the bridge

Disembodied feet at Preah Khan

Back entrance to Preah Khan

Tree through a hole at Preah Khan

Monkey and baby at Angkor

Terrace of the Leper King

Girls selling souvenirs

Angkor pass

Beard pass

15
Mar 2013
POSTED BY admin
POSTED IN

Cambodia

DISCUSSION 1 Comment
status

R&R on Otres Beach

King Sihanouk’s funeral was going to bring an estimated 1.5 million visitors, including major foreign dignitaries and security forces, to the capital.  It sounded like it might be really interesting, or maybe just a huge headache.  Since we had already seen the King’s 100 day memorial ceremony, and we were already planning to spend some time down on Cambodia’s coast, we left Phnom Penh and waited it out on a beach near Sihanuokville (a port city named after… guess who).

Everythang's lounge chairs

pink rock

Tony at the office

Welcome mat

 

We waited it out all right.  For 13 days.  Maybe that was a little excessive…

 

Our bungalow

Bed

Bamboo Shack

Red snapper's snappers

…but when you’re in a little hut a few meters from warm blue water, all the days start blending together in a good way.

Between the fish tacos at our place, the amok (Khmer curry) and coconut shakes at the cafe next door and the laid back and friendly people around us, there was really no reason to leave.

We read a lot of books. Tony finally conquered this one. (Hi Pete!)

Zen

We might have turned a few shades browner.

A few shades darker

A very handsome fellow

Warm water, tasty food, plenty of lounge chairs… did we mention there were puppies?

Black puppy

Here is Alicia’s face when she sees a puppy walking towards her.

Puppy sighting

(This is the puppy.)

Beach pup

The sunsets weren’t too bad either.

Yellow sunset

Fishing boat at sunset

People walking dogs at sunset

So yeah, 13 days on Otres Beach. We finally dragged ourselves away because we knew that the last “big” sightseeing event of our year of traveling was up next.  Otherwise, we might still be there.

14
Mar 2013
POSTED BY admin
POSTED IN

Cambodia

DISCUSSION No Comments
status

A Few Days in Phnom Penh

Goodbye Vietnam, hello Cambodia.  First stop: Phnom Penh.  It’s Cambodia’s capital city of 2.2 million people and is set on the banks of the Mekong River.  Its nickname was “Pearl of Asia.”  Wikipedia is careful to note that that nickname was only applicable prior to the 1960s.

Cambodia arrival card

Basic Khmer

We spent several days wandering around Phnom Penh.  Haven’t we typed that sentence a hundred times already?  ”We spent several days wandering around ___.”  Well, we did.  Here are some photos from our self-guided non-tours.

Residential neighborhood

Central Market hall

Crabs in the Central Market hall

Moto driver naptime

Straw nagas on Wat Pnomh grounds

Wat Pnomh banner

Not a bird

Russian Market chaos

Moto shop

Welding on the sidewalk

Watch repairman

Russian Market food vendor

Fruit juice vendor display

Woman walking down the street

Pink flowers at Ouna Lom Pagoda

Ouna Lom Pagoda

In many places throughout the city, we saw shrines and joss sticks burning to former King Norodom Sihanouk, who died in October.  Between 1941 to 2004, he was king, sovereign prince (twice each), president and prime minister, all to varying degrees of power and influence throughout Cambodia’s bid for independence from France, the Cold War, the Vietnam War and including two years as a pawn head of state during the Khmer Rouge era.  This guy had seen some things.

One of many memorial altars for former King Sihanouk

One night, we were visiting a wat near the Royal Palace and noticed that the road was blocked off and a huge crowd had gathered.  Many people were taking photos of this building, which we later learned was the crematorium specifically constructed for the King Father’s upcoming funeral (set for three months after his death).

Crematorium

We walked further, to the square in front of the palace, and found an enormous crowd seated there.  News articles we read later said claimed that 20,000 monks were in attendance at this ceremony, which commemorated the 100th day after the King Father’s death.

Monk with phone

Monk with candle

Sea of monks

Security guard

Lights turned on

The ceremony was in Khmer, so we were not able to understand what was happening, but it was very moving to be in that place at sunset along with many thousands of Cambodians who were paying their respects to their much-loved king.

Birds overhead

Few visitors to Phnom Penh leave without having visited the former high school now called Tuol Sleng Prison, which turned into a center of interrogation and torture by the Khmer Rouge.  It is now a museum, although most of the rooms and cells remain bare, a stark and solemn monument that contrasts unnervingly with the cheerful yellow and white tile floors.

Tuol Sleng Prison Museum grounds

Tuol Sleng corridor

Torture bed at Tuol Sleng

Cells at Tuol Sleng

Prisoner mug shots

Key rack?

Lucky few survivors of S-21

We originally intended to visit the Killing Fields outside of the capital, but we learned that the grounds are now owned and operated by a private, for-profit company.  After a solemn afternoon spent staring at mugshots and into the eyes of the victims of Tuol Sleng (which included very young children), we felt that visiting the actual execution and mass burial site would contribute more to vulgar opportunism than to our own education and respect for the dead.

We left the shaded grounds of school-turned-prison-turned-museum and walked back out into the bright, hot sun.

Young monks

 

Building near the palace

Children playing around Garuda statue

[If you don't know much about what happened in Cambodia that caused the death of 1.7 to 3 million people (depending on who's counting) less than four decades ago, you can read A Brief History of the Khmer Rouge (Time Magazine), or if you like your information packaged as entertainment, you can watch Sam Waterston star in 1984 movie The Killing Fields.]

12
Mar 2013
POSTED BY admin
POSTED IN

Cambodia

DISCUSSION 1 Comment
status

What We Ate in Vietnam

Oh man. How to organize this one? There’s so much, it’s going to have to be done alphabetically this time. But we’ll save dessert and coffee for last.

Hoi An market stall

Hoi An street vendor

This is by no means a comprehensive survey of Vietnamese food. It’s going to be our biggest travel food post, but we didn’t come close to sampling all the possibilities. As we were looking up the Vietnamese names for things (please feel free to submit corrections), we kept coming across lists of “must try” foods that we either skipped or flat out never saw. We spent a month in cities in Vietnam, from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, and our number one objective was to eat. But there is still so much we missed.

Sidewalk restaurant

How do you find good food in Vietnam? Wander down any sidewalk or through any market hall. Look for tiny plastic stools. Are there only one or two stools free? Is everyone throwing their napkins and bones and lime peels on the ground? Good. Sit down immediately. Wait. The proprietor may ask what you want. They’re probably only serving one or two things. Point to your neighbor’s table or just hold up one finger and smile. You will be brought something delicious.

Sidewalk

Xoi Yen restaurant, Hanoi

Here goes. What We Ate in Vietnam:

Bánh Bao – Large steamed stuffed dumplings.
Bánh Bao

This bánh bao is filled with minced pork, onions and a quail egg.
Banh Bao

Bánh Bèo – Tiny shallow dishes filled with gelatinous steamed rice cakes, topped with pork, fish sauce and peanuts.
bánh bèo

Bánh Bột Chiên – Rice pancake topped with herbs, bean sprouts, soy sauce and hot ginger sauce.
bánh bột chiên

Bánh Mì – Fresh baguette sandwich with pork pâté, bacon, shredded pork, crispy bbq eel, herbs, chili sauce.
Bánh mì

Bánh Tôm – Shrimp and yam fritters.  (Plus some mini pork wontons.)
Bánh Tôm

Bánh Xèo, Nem Lụi – Savory griddle cakes made with turmeric, pork, shrimp, green onion, and bean sprouts. Skewers of grilled minced pork. Wrap it all up in rice paper sheets, along with spicy peanut sauce, herbs, shredded green papaya and unripe banana.
Nem Lụi, Bánh Xèo

Bắp Cải Nhồi Thịt Cua – Cabbage stuffed with crab.
Stuffed cabbage

Bò Nướng Cuốn Cải – Thin slices of grilled marinated beef served with coarse chili lime salt. We rolled it all up in these big leaves that had a tangy taste almost like horseradish.
Bò nướng cuốn cải

Bún Bò Nam Bộ – A thin rice noodle salad with marinated beef, pickled green papaya and carrot, bean sprouts, fried onions.
Bún bò Nam Bộ

Bún Chả – Sweet broth with fish sauce and slices of green papaya. Grilled pork. Rice noodles. A mountain of cilantro, mint, local herbs, lettuce, and green beans. Chopped fresh garlic and chiles. Some assembly required.
Bún chả

Garlic and chiles

Assembly

Bún Thịt Nướng – Grilled pork on noodles, topped with peanuts, cilantro, pickled carrot and nước chấm (a sweet and sour sauce that’s also salty and spicy).
Bún Thịt Nướng

Cao Lầu – Noodles, broth, meat, herbs.  A combination we’ve come to know and love, but this one is a little different.  The cao lầu noodles are made with water from certain wells in Hoi An, so supposedly the true version of this dish is only available in one place in the entire world. We were skeptical, but the noodles do have a unique mineral flavor that we never encountered again.
Cao Lầu

Cha Ca – fish cakes with dill.
Cha Ca

Chả Giò – Deep fried spring rolls stuffed with minced pork. Often served with our beloved bún chả.
Spring rolls - Chả_giò

Chuối Chiên – Deep fried mashed banana. Sometimes with a slice of coconut (dừa) The newspaper wrapping can’t contain the sweet deliciousness (or the grease).
Deep fried banana ladies

Chuối Chiên

Cơm Cháy Kèm Sốt Cà Chua Thịt Lợn – Pork in a sweet tomato sauce with deep fried rice cakes.
sốt cà chua

Cơm Tấm – “Broken rice” topped with whatever pre-prepared additions you care to you point at. In this case, it’s a dumpling slice, fried spring rolls, roast pork and greens.

Giấp Cá – This is the only non-yummy thing in this blog post. The first time I (Alicia) ate this herb, it was mixed in with a whole bunch of others that I was rolling into rice paper along with other delicious things. I took one bite and literally gagged. Something tasted like old fish tank water. I thought maybe something spoiled had found its way to my plate and my appetite was killed for the rest of the day. (If you know me, this is a shocking event.) The second time, it was lurking in a dish of Cao Lầu. I recognized the nasty flavor and tasted each leaf in my bowl until I found the culprit. I pulled out all of the dark green glossy leaves. Later that day, I Googled “gross Vietnamese herb” and found it. Apparently the Chinese call it “fishy smell herb.” Yep. That’s the one.
Devil weed

Gỏi Đu Đủ – Shredded green papaya, dried beef, basil, peanuts, sweet chili sauce, side of rice crackers.
Gỏi Đu Đủ

Gỏi Hoa Chuối – Shredded banana blossom salad. (Banana blossom is mild and nutty, with a crunchy texture similar to shredded carrots or ginger.)
Gỏi Hoa Chuối

Hến Trộn – A finely chopped salad with tiny clams, onion, herbs, ground fish, topped with peanuts, served hot and comes with a giant rice cracker for dipping and scooping.
Hến trộn

Mì Quảng Lươn – Eel noodle soup for breakfast. Top with shredded banana blossom and big crispy rice crackers.
Mì Quảng Lươn

Mì quảng refers to the type of noodles, and the name of this dish should have additional descriptive words following it, but I’m not sure what those are. This mì quảng had herbs, just enough broth to moisten the noodles, a chicken leg, roast pork, corned beef, and dumpling.
mystery Mì Quảng

Another mystery mì quảng. This time with two hard boiled quail eggs.
Mì Quảng with egg

Mystery Skewer – These tiny rice paper envelopes are stuffed with thin noodles and make a great vehicle for sweet, fiery chili sauce.  We found them in the tiny fishing village of Bai Xep. A skewer costs mere pennies.
Mystery Skewer

Sweet chili sauce

Nem Chua – Fermented pork roll steamed in a banana leaf. Sounds terrible, looks worse, but pairs nicely with a cheap brew. We had these on one of our afternoon bike rides through Hoi An.
Sausage in a banana leaf

Phở Bò – Beef noodle soup doesn’t begin to explain the magic. The thinly sliced meat is put into the bowl still raw, and the rich steamy broth is ladled over top, cooking it just past rare in a flash. You can doctor it up with lime, chiles and herbs.
Pho Bo

Phở Thịt Lợn – Another excellent noodle soup. This one has pork and is topped with pickled shallots, hot sauce, peanuts and cilantro. A squeeze of lime and a side of green papaya slices takes you to the moon.
Phở
Phở Gà
Phở Gà – This one’s with chicken. You can even add…

Doughnut sticks.
…Giò Cháo Quãy – Donut sticks. Ok, we’re going out of alphabetical order here, but DEAR FRIENDS, YOU CAN PUT DONUTS IN YOUR SOUP. What a magical world we live in. Crispy on the outside and nearly hollow inside, these things soak up your phở broth and you’ll forget things like oyster crackers ever existed.

Roll-your-owns. – That’s obviously not the Vietnamese name, but we ate it on a sidewalk in Saigon and there wasn’t a sign posted. Grilled pork with peanuts and green onion. Top with pickled carrots and green papaya, slices of starfruit, unripe banana and cucumber. Add lettuce, mint, basil and chives, dip in sweet and sour fish sauce with chilis. Roll it all up in rice paper triangles. This was so good and so cheap that we ordered a second round and tipped 50 percent.
Roll-your-owns

Train Lunch. – What you might get from the hot food cart on a train at lunch time. Steamed rice, greens, deep fried egg, mystery meat (probably beef) stir fried with pineapple and pickled bamboo shoots.
Train lunch

Trứng Cút – Quail eggs. Hard boiled or cooked in the shell over hot coals.
Trứng cút

Village Mystery Soup – Another culinary mystery from the village of Bai Xep.  The broth tasted of sea food and the rice noodles were thick, transparent and gelatinous.  The chunks floating in it didn’t have much flavor and we thought it could have been squid or octopus, but the woman shook her head and laughed when we pointed to the soup and then pointed to Tony’s squid tattoo.  In hindsight, it was likely pig stomach or some other sort of organ. We may never know.
Village mystery soup

Xôi Xéo – Yellow sticky rice with shavings of mung bean paste and your choice of meat and toppings. This one has roast pork, mushrooms, peanuts and crispy fried onions.
xôi xéo

Xôi Xéo variation with Chinese sausage.
xôi xéo

Xôi Xéo variation with beef and pork dumpling.
Xôi Xéo

Xôi Xéo variation with a small omelet and finely shredded dry pork.

WHEW. Hopefully you have a little room for coffee and dessert.

Cà Phê Sữa Nóng – Strong black coffee brewed by the cup. The velvety richness of Vietnamese-style coffee can be explained by the fact that it is often roasted in clarified butter. Add to that a generous pour of sweetened condensed milk (sữa) ready to be stirred up. If the cafe serves coffee in mugs instead of glasses, it might come in a bowl of hot water to maintain optimal temperature.
cà phê sữa nóng

HCMH coffee

Cà Phê Trứng – Impossibly rich coffee made with frothed egg yolk and sugar.  Think egg nog, plus coffee, minus booze.
Egg coffee foam

Cà Phê Trứng

Chè Bắp – Sweet corn pudding dessert topped with coconut sauce, served cold. Sweet corn is a very common dessert component throughout Asia and its naturally sugary profile makes us wonder why it doesn’t have the same designation back home.
Chè Bắp

Chè Mè Đen – Black sesame pudding dessert, served cold.  Mild, nutty and velvety. Wish we had more.
Chè mè đen

Mystery cookies – We never found the name for these, but our guesthouse owner in Hoi An said these sweet little tea biscuits are made with beans, onions and beef. Definitely a departure from the Western concept of dessert, but surprisingly sweet and pleasant.
Mystery cookies

Rau Câu – A gelatinous dessert made from a seaweed product called agar agar. This particular one has two flavor layers: dừa and cà phê (coconut and coffee).
Rau Câu

Bia Hơi – Fresh beer on tap for 33 cents a glass. This particular block of establishments in District 1 in Saigon had two dogs that were trained to bark when the police were approaching the neighborhood. When the canine alarm sounded, the proprietors collected all the plastic chairs out from under the customers who were sitting on them in the street. The evicted stood around bewildered until the police slowly cruised past, then the chairs were re-issued and the party started all over again.
Bia Hơi

And that’s what we ate in Vietnam.

27
Feb 2013
POSTED BY admin
POSTED IN

Vietnam

DISCUSSION 5 Comments
status

Last Stop: Ho Chi Minh City

We spent our last few days in Vietnam in the city formerly (and still informally) known as Saigon. What did we do in the largest city in Vietnam?

We refined the art of crossing the street. There’s a certain sense of satisfaction, zen even, that comes from becoming one with the traffic.

HCMC traffic sign

Intersection in District 1

HCMC traffic circle

We drank lots and lots of cà phê sữa nóng.

cà phê sữa nóng

We people watched.

Some girls proselytising

Sleepy cyclo driver

Dog at a cafe

We learned about a war (one specific perspective of it, anyway).

Flower on a US fighter plane

US fighter plane cockpit

Vietnam war protests

We got Alicia’s beloved and trusty Chacos repaired. (Bought second-hand nine years ago!)

Almost broken

Cobbler

Cobbler using his sewing machine

And we generally just wandered around. Like you do.

HCMC street

Motorbike parking lot

Ho Chi Minh statue in front of People's Committee Building/City Hall

Notre Dame

Tao Dan Park

Safety first

Bantam on a sidewalk

Neon Jesus

Our guesthouse's Golden Retriever, Snowy

Oh yeah. We ate so much food. Our “What We Ate in Vietnam” post is coming up next. And it’s a long, delicious list.

Tony talking to street food vendors

23
Feb 2013
POSTED BY admin
POSTED IN

Vietnam

DISCUSSION No Comments
status

A Haven in Vietnam

We hadn’t decided where we wanted to go next after Quy Nhon, but our guesthouse had a binder of local information and in it was an advertisement for another small guesthouse that was only a few miles away. In a tiny fishing village. On beach that’s empty for most of the day. With a hammock and a dog. The room price included breakfast. After a quick internet reality check to make sure this wasn’t too good to be true, we booked a room and called a taxi.

Bai Xep sign

After turning off the main road, Bai Xep’s street narrowed so that we had to leave the taxi and walk the rest of the way. We went past the school.

Bai Xep school

Past the “central market” which had only four food stands and a few ladies selling small stacks of vegetables.

food stall lady

soup lady

Down an even narrower alley, past piles of lobster traps.

Lobster traps

We ignored the entrance sign and walked a few more steps to get our first look at the beach.

fishing gear and boats on the beach

round boats

Yes, this will do just fine.

We spent the next several days reading books in the hammock, visiting a waterfall, getting knocked down by the it’s-still-typhoon-season waves, checking out the working beach on the other side of the village, watching the lobster fishermen launch their basket boats, submitting to tattoo inspections and picking up seashells.

Haven’s name was apt.

Tony in the hammock

Boat launch

Paddling out

Village boy

Seashell

village girls

Tony with girls

Village boys

Tattoo inspection

Tattoo inspection

Tattoo inspection

Alicia reading

Playing spoons

Waterfall

waterfall

Tony standing above a waterfall

hiking through the jungle

Eating lunch

Haven the dog

Yellow basket boat

Working beach

dog in the hammock

When we only had five days remaining on our Vietnamese visa, we sadly had to tear ourselves away from Haven (and proprietors Rosie and Huw and Haven The Dog) and head for Saigon. If we ever make it back to Vietnam, we know of a place that will be at the top of our list.

Holding hands

(If you ever find yourself in central Vietnam, check out Haven Vietnam Guesthouse. Full disclosure: we’re blogging about and linking to Haven simply because it’s great; we haven’t received any form of compensation or freebies.)

22
Feb 2013
POSTED BY admin
POSTED IN

Vietnam

DISCUSSION 6 Comments
status

Deserted Beaches and Cham Towers in Quy Nhon

After biking around Hoi An for a few days, we realized that it was nearly mid-January and we still hadn’t seen much of the sun since the day after Christmas. It was getting warmer as we traveled down the coast of Vietnam, but the skies were continually dark and the waves were rough. Probably to be expected since it was typhoon season in that part of the country. Nothing to do about it but keep on moving south.

Since we enjoyed being one of only a few Westerners that we saw back in Da Nang (one day we counted only five) and since we liked the atmosphere that those types of cities bring, we looked for a city on the coast that had good beaches but was smaller than Da Nang.  Quy Nhon looked about right, so we bought our bus tickets.

Here’s what Quy Nhon’s beach looked like on the Saturday afternoon that we arrived.

Deserted beach

Sunbathing isn’t exactly a national pastime here.

Rough waves

Just like the rest of the beaches we had seen in the past week, the water was too rough to swim. But that was just fine because we now had blue skies and THE SUN.

One evening while walking along the beach, we had a very nice (if lengthy) conversation with a local man who wanted to practice his English with us. Every question had the same formal preface.

“Excuse me, can you please tell me about education in your country?”

“Excuse me, can you please tell me about the economy in your country?”

“Excuse me, can you please tell me about guns in your country? Many people have been shot?”

Whoa. Those were some pretty broad and deep questions, but we worked our way through them to the best of our abilities.

Besides enjoying what was essentially our own private beach, we entertained ourselves in the evenings by walking through a night market. Western Christmas carols blared on the sound system and there were some mini carnival rides for little kids. Tony looked for a new pair of flip flops, but if you’re over size 42 (U.S. size 8.5), you are out of luck.

Reindeer spaceman ride

Paddleboats for babies

Carousel swing ride

One day, we rented a moped from our guesthouse and drove it out to see some partially restored 11th and 12th century Cham towers. Two towers were in town and the others were about 10 miles away.

Alicia on the moped

Thap Doy towers

Carving detail

Facade

Interior

Interior altar

Cham towers sunflare

Bahn It tower

Two towers on a hill

Bahn It

The groundskeeper called out to us and asked for 20,000 dong. Despite the official-looking ID hanging from his neck, we were skeptical, but he produced a booklet of tickets. We noticed that the price printed on them was only 7,000 dong and he reluctantly accepted that amount instead. Although he was being dishonest, we later felt badly that we had not simply paid what was the equivalent of an extra $1.20. He probably needed it much more than we did. Sometimes the right thing to do isn’t clear.

Groundskeeper

Bahn It facade

Bahn It facade

Lower carvings

side detail

Tower further down the hill

Silhouette

View from the top

From our vantage point on top of the hill, we spotted what looked like an interesting pagoda nearby and decided to check it out. We never figured out its name, but it looked like it was either under renovation or its construction had begun and stopped a few decades ago and is only now starting up again.

Stairway to Buddha

Buddha

Dragon

Pagoda tower

Top of pagoda tower

We started to wonder where we should go next. South, obviously, but how far? Our guesthouse had a binder full of local information and something interesting caught our eye…

21
Feb 2013
POSTED BY admin
POSTED IN

Vietnam

DISCUSSION 3 Comments
status

Biking Around Hoi An

Hoi An is a famous port town in Vietnam. All of Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage site, which has helped preserve its classic Vietnamese and French Colonial architecture against the encroachment of modern buildings and development. It’s cheerful and picturesque and wildly popular with tourists and travelers of all sorts.

Because of its heavy tourist load, it’s also full of people who really, really, really want to tailor a whole wardrobe for you or make a pair of shoes or sell you a boat ride or a hat or a little floating candle to launch on the river at night. Some ladies will even interrupt you while you’re trying to slurp down some noodles and offer their facial hair removal services (whilst cheerfully demonstrating their threading technique on their own face).

We coped with this by renting bicycles, which maximized the amount of the beautiful parts of Hoi An we could see, and minimized the ability of touts to grab our arms and drag us into their stores.

Hoi An residential alley

Boats being repaired

Downtown Hoi An, Central Market Hall parking

Carved bamboo root

Tony with carver

Cafe at the foot of the Japanese bridge

Japanese bridge

Abandoned home on the point

Boats tied up

Riding past fishing boats

Hoi An waterfront 1

Hoi An waterfront 2

The beach

Beard blowing in the wind

Walking to the water's edge

We biked to the beach, where the surf was just as heavy as it was back in Da Nang. Having grown up one thousand miles away from the nearest ocean, having not even laid eyes on one until the ripe old age of 28, and having swum in one for the first time just this past summer, Alicia now loooves her some ocean.

Alicia pointing at something

So excited

Getting a little damp

Huge smile

Running from a wave

Frolicking

Sometimes things get a little out of hand.

I've made a huge mistake

20
Feb 2013
POSTED BY admin
POSTED IN

Vietnam

DISCUSSION 2 Comments
status

Finding Nirvana in the Marble Mountains

Hoping to escape the chill and drizzle of Ninh Binh, we took a slow 14 hour train ride south to Da Nang.  The overnight sleeper was booked, but we could have a whole private compartment to ourselves on the 8 a.m. train. Since we had plenty of time, it was no problem to spend an entire day reading, playing solitaire and watching the world go by.  That is one of the benefits of long-term travel.  What would be totally unacceptable on a one or two week vacation is no problem when you have months and months to work with.

Tony relaxing in the train

Scenery north of Le Son

Karst mountains north of Le Son

River north of Le Son

Old homes along the tracks north of Le Son

Alicia playing solitaire

Da Nang was definitely warmer than Ninh Binh, but had even more clouds, wind and drizzle.  Red flags were posted on China Beach, but we saw one lone surfer hanging out past the breaks.

View of Da Nang from our hotel room

Blustery day at the beach

Red flag warning - no swimming today

White statue in the distance

Da Nang was really spread out and divided by a big river. Our hotel wasn’t particularly close to many food options, and we were curious about the big white statue across the bay. Time to rent another motorbike!

On the motorbike

Da Nang residential alley

Coast road

Boats being repaired

Bridge construction

View of Da Nang

We drove the coast road towards the big white statue until we came to Linh Ung Pagoda and the 17 story Bodhisattva of Mercy Statue that overlooks the South China Sea. The pagoda and grounds looked recently restored and  were full of and impressive bonsai trees and marble statuary.

Linh Ung pagoda stairs

Linh Ung pagoda

Linh Ung pagoda grounds

Dog friend at Linh Ung pagoda

Marble statue

Marble statue - with deer

Statue carvers

Wood carving tools

Buddha and Bodhisattva Statue of Mercy

Dragon carving

Carvings at base of Bodhisattva Statue of Mercy

The next day we drove south of town to the Marble Mountains. They are named well, because they are indeed full of marble and the base of the mountains are ringed by family businesses that create and sell huge marble sculptures.  Each mountain is zig-zagged with footpaths that take you to pagodas, caves and shrines. The air is saturated with the smell of spicy, burning joss sticks.

Lion of concrete and glass bottles at Linh Ung Pagoda

Dinnerware lion

Tang Chon Cave

Tang Chon Cave

Pagoda tower

Van Thong Cave

Steep stairs up Thuy Son Mountain

View from the top of Thuy Son Mountain

Moc Son Mountain center, Kim Son Mountain right, as seen from Thuy Son Mountain

Us at the top

Entrance to Hoa Nghiem and Huyen Khong caves

Inscription in Hoa Nghiem Cave

Descending into Huyen Khong Cave

Descending into Huyen Khong Cave

Huge buddha statue in Huyen Khong Cave

Natural skylights in Huyen Khong Cave

Carved lotus

Mini pagoda

Tho Son Mountain

Kim Son Mountain

One of the largest caves is Âm Phủ. Google Translate helpfully gives four different translations: Abaddon, infernal, hades and hell. Enter past the guardians and over a bridge with stone hands emerging from the stagnant water. Pass in front of the Dharmacakra, or Buddhist Wheel of Life, weigh your life on the scales and be judged in front of an all-seeing eye. Then descend to hell or take the stairway to heaven. (We’re sure there is much more to the symbolism and imagery than just that, so we apologize for the oversimplification.)

Guardian at entrance to Am Phu Cave

Creepy hands at entrance to Am Phu Cave

Carving at Am Phu Cave

Guardian of the

the Dharmacakra

Carving in front of the Dharmacakra

Judgement hall

Let’s get the unpleasantness out of the way, shall we? First, to hell with us!

A demon on the way to hell

Hungry creature

More demons

A lost soul

Ksitigarbha ministers to lost souls

At the bottom of hell

Once you’ve reached the bottom, there’s no where to go but retrace your steps and go up.  It’s steep and there are no handrails.


Stairway to heaven

Sculpture collection on the ascent to heaven

Marble relief carving

Carved dog

Sleeping elephant

Small seated Buddhas

Cat angel relief sculpture

Looking back down

Looking back down

Pagoda tower

Carvings at the top of

Nirvana, at last.


20
Feb 2013
POSTED BY admin
POSTED IN

Vietnam

DISCUSSION 2 Comments
status

A River, a Pagoda and Karst Mountains in Ninh Binh

So we skipped Ha Long Bay.  Skipping Ha Long Bay when you have a month to see Vietnam is probably the equivalent of going to Paris for a week without ever setting eyes on the Eiffel Tower or something, but we gave it a pass anyway.  It was cold and drizzly and a long boat trip just didn’t sound like fun.  Instead, we took the train few hours south of Hanoi to Ninh Binh, which is supposed to be the inland equivalent of the Ha Long landscape.

When we woke up in Ninh Binh, we fortified ourselves with a massive jolt of caffeine and sugar via Vietnamese coffee at the cafe next door, while enjoying a very strange TV program.

Vietnamese coffee

Many (if not most) cafes in Vietnam also serve as the owners’ homes, which is why it looks like we’re hanging out in someone’s living room.

TV program

Remembering our great times in northern Thailand on a motorbike, we decided to rent one from our hotel instead of getting a taxi.  It was actually just a spare bike owned by the woman next door, who sloshed a Pepsi bottle full of gasoline into the tank and pointed us in the direction of the nearest petrol station.

It was cold and the road was full of deep potholes. Parts of it were under construction and there were lots of heavy trucks on the road which added a challenging element to the usual traffic patterns (marked lanes merely a suggestion, two way traffic in both lanes and shoulders, turn signals and mirrors irrelevant, right of way belongs to the biggest vehicle and/or whoever begins honking first and loudest, etc.). We quickly learned the difference between the normal “hey guys, coming through” courtesy honks and the urgent blasts that screamed “you are about to die, fool!”

Railroad safety gate

When we finally found Tam Cốc (which means “three caves”) after some backtracking, our nerves were a little on edge and our fingers were stiff with cold.  We bought a boat ticket down the Ngô Đồng river, and it wound through some amazing karst scenery and caves. Our rower used her feet the whole time and sometimes talked on her cellphone.  Most of the other rowers we passed used their feet, too.

Our boat rower

Woman rowing with her feet

First cave

Us

Boat approaching the first cave

Cave interior

Kingfisher

Cultivated river bank

A dog and a house

Through the second cave

Other tourists being rowed by foot

Vietnamese women fishing

Through the cave

Large white bird

Vertical face

At the turnaround point, we managed to resist the concession stand flotilla ladies who tried to sell us drinks and snacks.

High-pressure concession flotilla

Back on shore and tip delivered, we headed for the nearest cafe to thaw out.

After we recovered, we got back on the bike and motored just up the road a bit to Bích Động pagoda, which is a temple complex of three different pagodas set up the side of a mountain.

Tony at the entrance to Bích Động pagoda

This place is not for impolite visitors

Corner of a roof

Mossy roof tiles

Glowing altar

Dragon painting

Buddhas

Alicia taking a group photo

Small shrine

Bare frangipani trees

After reaching the final pagoda, a path continued up the mountain and we followed it through jagged karst and over boulders and were rewarded with a spectacular view.

Jagged rocks on top of the mountain

Our feet in sharp rocks

Us at the top

Flooded fields below

But we quickly realized that we wouldn’t have much daylight left to get back to town, so we hurried down.

Hurrying down

A huge flock of large white birds were restlessly settling in the marsh as we walked back to our motorbike.

Flock landing

We pulled off the road to take a few last photos before the cold ride home.

Tony on the bike

Ninjas!

The area around Ninh Binh was beautiful, but we craved warmth.  We also missed the sun, which we hadn’t seen since we left Laos two weeks prior.  Although we usually stay for several days in each area we visit, we bought train tickets south that night and left first thing in the morning.

Train ticket

Ninh Binh train station

19
Feb 2013
POSTED BY admin
POSTED IN

Vietnam

DISCUSSION 1 Comment
video
status

Beginning the New Year in Hanoi

One nice thing that came of our disorienting 29 hour hell bus ride to Hanoi, besides having new stories to tell and a certain sense of pride in having lived through it, was that we met Jay (“Boston” from the bus blog).

3 on a bike

Jay lives in Hanoi, and showed us around for a day. The three of us crammed onto his moped and he drove us past Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, around West Lake, and and through various neighborhoods that we probably wouldn’t have otherwise seen.

Bun cha restaurant

He took us to his favorite bún chả (say “boon-cha”) place, which ended up being our favorite dish, and looking back, this particular one was our favorite single meal in all of Vietnam. We’ll put it into our What We Ate in Vietnam compilation post later, but it’s good enough to be mentioned twice, so here is some bún chả.

Bún chả.

Fixing a bowl of bun cha

It’s fun to say, isn’t it? Bún chả. Bún chả. Bún chả! Ok, more on that later.

Went back to Jay’s apartment to check out the view from his roof and to play Scrabble.

View of West Lake

View of Hanoi

Apartment roof

Scrabble

Then back out to the Old Quarter for dinner, this time only two to a moped because Jay’s roommate, Lucca, joined us.

Jay and Lucca

And that was how we kicked off our month in Vietnam. (Thanks Jay!) Hanoi was pretty chilly and drizzly, but we really enjoyed being there. Here are some more things we saw in Hanoi (hover for a caption).

Extra special alcohol, New Day Restaurant, Old Quarter

Silk flower vendor, Old Quarter

Flower vendors' bikes, Old Quarter

Sidewalk market, Old Quarter

Street near Dong Xuan market

Toads for sale, Dong Xuan market

Rooster perching on a covered motorbike, Old Quarter

Bantam chickens, Old Quarter

Leafy green street, Old Quarter

Westlake

Porcelain vendor, Old Quarter

Shoe shop, Old Quarter

Vintage propaganda posters

Hanoi map at a sidewalk restaurant, Old Quarter

Hand carved wooden stamps, Old Quarter

Noodle makers

Ladies selling deep-fried bananas on the sidewalk, Old Quarter

Wall art, Pho Co (Hidden Cafe)

Busy street corner, northwest edge of Old Quarter

Colorful flags strung across Nguyen Huu Huan Street, Old Quarter

Peace sculpture at Hoàn Kiếm lake

Young couple posing for wedding photos at Hoàn Kiếm lake

Tony posing for photos at Hoàn Kiếm lake

Police officer taking photos of friends at Hoàn Kiếm lake

Upper wall at Hoa Lo Prison (the Hanoi Hilton)

Sculptures depicting Vietnamese imprisoned by the French at Hoa Lo Prison (the Hanoi Hilton)

Sculptures depicting Vietnamese imprisoned by the French at Hoa Lo Prison (the Hanoi Hilton)

Painted cell number at Hoa Lo Prison (the Hanoi Hilton)

Personal effects of American POWs at Hoa Lo Prison (the Hanoi Hilton)

John McCain's flight suit on display at Hoa Lo Prison (the Hanoi Hilton)

Sculptures at Bach Ma temple

Bach Ma temple courtyard

Packed sidewalk restaurant

Birds for sale, Old Quarter

Multilevel housing, Hàng Da street

Money offering, Temple of Literature

Two men smoking, Temple of Literature

Joss sticks burning on a dragon altar, Temple of Literature

Drum head detail, Temple of Literature

Roof tiles, Temple of Literature

Dragon head topiary, Temple of Literature

Rooster in a cage, next to Temple of Literature

Man resting in a green hammock, Nguyễn Thái Học street

Skateboarders at Lenin Park

Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum

Guards at Ho Chi Minh's mansion

Train tracks through a neighborhood

Exploring Hanoi was a great way to start 2013! Tết, the start of the Vietnamese new year, is a much bigger deal than the calendar new year, and it doesn’t happen until February this year. As for actual New Year’s Eve… we had drinks at a rooftop cafe overlooking Hoàn Kiếm lake and waited for fireworks that were rumored, but never happened. We shared a table with a couple from Alaska, traded travel stories and went to bed happy.

New Year's Eve in Hanoi

2013 floral arrangement, Temple of Literature

07
Feb 2013
POSTED BY admin
POSTED IN

Vietnam

DISCUSSION 1 Comment
status

The Other Thing That Happened in Amman…

I had to wait a little while to share this because I didn’t have any photos until just recently, and without any photographic proof I can’t just say “Oh, also, I spent one afternoon on a rooftop in Amman, wearing traditional Muslim clothing, modeling for a fashion oriented photo-shoot for an LGBT Middle Eastern magazine. No big deal.”

Photo by Raneem Al-Daoud title=

Photo by Raneem Al-Daoud

So here is what happened. During a day spent walking round a couple historical sites in Amman, I was approached on the street by Khalid and Raneem, asking if I would be interested in doing a photo shoot. I was ready to say “Yes, absolutely, yes.” but got a few more details first. Raneem is a photographer and the photos would accompany an article concerning religion and fashion for Khalid’s magazine – MyKali. We exchanged emails and set up a time to make things happen, which ended up being our last day in Amman.

The idea of a Middle Eastern LGBT magazine was still a new concept in my head when I got out of the cab to meet up with Khalid. Walking up the stairs to their office space, I had no idea what to expect. The door opened to a room full of people I was soon introduced to. Wardrobe people, makeup people, photographers, videographers, assistants, and the other model- Nadine. A board with my name on it listed three wardrobe changes. Legit.

Wardrobe List

Tea and makeup

I spent maybe half an hour getting my make up done by Luca while sipping tea and listening to Florence and the Machine.  Fabulous.

http://thatswhereyouare.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/IE7A1518.jpgPhoto by Raneem Al-Daoud

Photo by Raneem Al-Daoud

This is new.Photo by Raneem Al-Daoud

Blue. Effing. Steel.Photo by Raneem Al-Daoud

Self shot in the changing room

A quick self shot in the dressing room.

Florence and the Machine followed us up to the roof where we spent the rest of the afternoon.

Khalid, Nadine, and Raneem

Nadine, Raneem, and Khalid

Rockin' socks under the dishdasha

Lots of children laughing from the neighboring building at the site of this blonde bearded guy with the bright socks.

Gettin Dressed.Photo by Raneem Al-Daoud

Over the dishdasha, I was outfitted in a black leather biker jacket. Khalid rolled up the sleeves to make sure the tattoos were in full view, but my favorite part was the black and white houndstooth lining, a pattern used for keffiyeh scarves.

Blue SteelPhoto by Raneem Al-Daoud

Raneem shot both Nadine and I as long as there was daylight left. I got to wear some stylin’ clothes and meet some very cool people. Not to mention kickstart my modeling career. Thanks Khalid, Raneem and everyone else I met that day. It was all so unexpected and so much fun. Glad I was able to be a part of it.

-Tony

See more photos and read the full article “Tastes Like Religion” by Aysha El-Shamayleh.

See the BEHIND THE SCENES VIDEO by Ala’a Abu Qasheh and Mustafa Rashed.

Check out Raneem Al Daoud’s incredible photography work

And Jordan’s pioneering magazine, MyKali, “an online social and lifestyle magazine, that fights repressive forms, norms and stereotypes through art therapy, photography and psychology. Tackling issues of women rights, personal politics, sexuality, freedom of speech, media, and LGBTQ.”

07
Feb 2013
POSTED BY admin
POSTED IN

Jordan

DISCUSSION No Comments
status

Purgatory on Wheels in Two Acts

We knew that it was going to take longer than one full day. We knew no one ever said anything good or reassuring about this particular bus ride. We also knew that the one hour flight from Luang Prabang to Hanoi was more than we wanted to pay. And we knew if we took the easy way out, we’d never tell a single story about that flight.

In the Laotian public transportation system, the participants are comprised of two separate yet equally important groups: the bus drivers and their lackeys who can do whatever they want, and the passengers who are completely at their mercy. These are their stories.

Strangely nice bus station furniture

We tried to leave on Christmas night, but when we arrived at the station, they said we were the only ones who bought tickets, and they weren’t going to do a run with an empty bus. Fair enough. We came back the next day.

It begins

Hell Bus Day 1

18:00 – The appointed hour. Tickets are checked. Shoes are removed and placed in a plastic bag. We attempted to claim the seats numbered 3 and 4, as those were the ones written on our tickets, but one of the several bus guys in charge insists on herding us to the back. Seats 3 and 4 are piled with stale-but-not-exactly-dirty smelling blankets, so we claim 7 and 8 and pretend we don’t understand what the guy wants. He gives up. A small victory for us.

Loading up

18:10 – The guy across from us is from Boston. He completed this same journey, in reverse, from Hanoi just three days prior. Boston confirms that yes, it is as bad as everyone says. He picked up some Valium from a pharmacy in preparation.

18:15 – The engine fires up. Blankets are distributed. Just one for each pair of seats, which recline almost fully flat. Glad we’re not sitting next to any strangers.

18:43 – The driver has been going slowly and I’m sure we still haven’t left the outskirts of Luang Prabang. We stop for some sort of checkpoint. Military? Bureaucratic? There is much discussion. One of the bus guys hands over some cash. Were all those bags of rice in the hold next to our bags a really… special type of rice?

19:04 – We’ve stopped again and have been sitting here for ten minutes for no apparent reason. A man with a large pink bandage wrapped around his head boards. He brought his own comforter, a yellow one with pink flowers, and sits down in the front seat. Bus Boss, a thin, balding Vietnamese man wearing a black lounge shirt, begins shouting at him. Pinky shouts back, adjusts his bandage and claims the seat next to him too. Boss throws up his hands and drops it. Lights out and we continue.

19:41 – Driver stops to pee on the side of the road, not bothering to move out of the view of the windows. A few others join him.

21:18 – Twenty-five minute stop at some small village in the middle of nowhere. Pierre, a French guy suffering in the very back row, buys 12 bootleg movies for the equivalent of $2.50. Small talk with Boston, New York and Michigan while a roving dog sniffs around and a little boy pops wheelies on his bike. We put our shoes back into our plastic backs and re-board.

Bootlegs

21:38 – High up in the mountains now. Giant misty valleys far… far below, just barely hinted at in the weak moonlight. We stop and they turn all the lights on. Boss pulls some papers from one of the overhead storage areas. It appeared to be identical to one of the route signs posted above the driver’s head. Some discussion, then lights out and we start moving slowly again.

Selfie

21:51 – We stop for the second time in five minutes. One of the bus guys grabs a tool and a flashlight. Every time we stop, they flip on all the interior lights. Boston decides now is the time to seek pharmaceutical assistance. We do the same, and I withdraw into my personal cocoon. Eye shade, scarf over my mouth and neck, hoodie hood up.

22:03 – Still stopped. One of the bus guys starts playing warbling love ballads on their phone. I add earplugs and the cocoon is complete.

Hell Bus Day 2

02:37 – Artificial sleep has worn off. We’re stopped. Where? Why? We’ve stopped wondering. Boston must have left, because he’s climbing back into his seat now. I hear a shout. Boston removes his shoes, pulls up his blanket and pretends to sleep. Boss boards, shouting angrily, and brushes dirt from the bus aisle. Boston doesn’t flinch. I notice that a local woman is now sitting next to Pinky, observing everything with amusement.

02:54 – Bus has been stopped for five minutes. Pinky is angry again and yelling at Boss. His bandage is shifted, exposing a large white gauze pad over his left eye and big scabby wounds on his cheekbone and forehead. More glaring and yelling. We think that Boss wants him to change seats. Pinky wins this round.

Comrades in suffering

03:04 – We’re still not moving. People must have boarded while we slept because we now notice that they are laying end-to-end in the storage area underneath the seats and in the aisle. An awkward dichotomy. Rich Westerners in the “first class” seats, with Laotians stacked below us like cord wood. New York got off to smoke or pee or something and had to walk on top of the seats to return to her spot. Everyone is coughing and sneezing. Boston declares that this is “definitely worse” than his previous trip.

Steerage

03:17 – Pinky is finally convinced to move and two men take the front seat. Two young backpackers from Yorkshire board and pale at the sight that greets them. They bought two seats and have been waiting for the bus since 1 a.m. They tell us we’re in Phonsavan. Which means we’ve been on the road for nine hours and have gone 160 miles. Which means our average speed is… we probably shouldn’t dwell it. The Yorkshires carve out a seat on the padded floor next to us in the aisle.

06:03 – We must have fallen asleep. We wake up and talk with Boston and Yorkshire. It’s getting light and you can see the soggy jungle and huts and chickens and buffalo. Everything outside looks gray and drippy and muddy.

06:36 – Boss hangs out the door while the bus is still moving and waves to someone. We pass a cattleyard with trucks loaded full of doomed bovines.

06:50 – Line of trucks ahead. We’ve reached the border. The driver pulls head of the line and drives down the wrong side of the road. The bus lurches heavily and there is a loud bang. There’s a commotion in the back of the bus, but it’s hard to tell what’s happening.

07:07 – We’ve arrived at the passport control building and the engine is off. Now we wait. It looks like there is a building marked WC a little ways down the hill which looks promising. Someone is standing on the roof of the bus. We go check it out. The back window is shattered, which is probably the source of the noise we heard earlier. Not to worry; they’re fixing it with packing tape.

Broken window

09:24 – We’ve all made it through border control and the bus is idling on the Vietnamese side. The border opened about an 90 minutes ago. We stood in line to get our Laos exit stamp next to locals smoking under the No Smoking signs. Walked down a muddy road to the Vietnam side. A uniformed man collected our passports. We waited. And waited and waited. The station was large and dusty, with a big mold stain that spread high across one corner. Boss told Boston (who knows a little Vietnamese and had become the de-facto, reluctant representative of the all of the “first class” passengers) that we all needed to pull our bags off the bus and go through customs. Passports were redistributed. We prepared to have our bags searched, “customs” (a guy at a desk) only made the first person in line unpack and waved the rest of us through once he glanced at our passport photos and our faces. We loaded our bags back into the hold of the bus and are ready for the Vietnam leg of the journey.

09:33 – Bus is still idling. Snickers bars and anti-malaria pills for breakfast.

Vietnamese side of the border

09:40 – Here we go.

Boss looks confused

10:27 – Gasoline stop.

Foggy morn

12:05 – Michigan has to pee. The youngest bus guy says, “10 minutes.”

12:25 – Bus guy says, “5 minutes.”

12:31 – Bus guy says, “3 minutes.”

12:36 – Michigan forces her way to the door and insists with no small amount of desperation in her voice. Finally, the driver pulls over and she heads for a corn field.

12:56 – Stop at a filthy noodle joint. (Not a term we use lightly… we have seen some things since we arrived in Bangkok seven weeks ago.) The dining room is typical and totally fine, but walking through the dank kitchen to get to the fly-filled bathrooms tells another story. There are no other restaurants or stores in sight. Our last food stop was nearly 16 hours ago. They let us pay in Laotian kip and we have just enough to split a hot bowl of phở. Hopefully hot enough to kill whatever horrors it picked up during its preparation.

Lunch stop

13:32 – We reboard. Boss is in a great mood. He grabs Tony’s beard and announces to the rest of the bus, “Osama bin Laden!” Tony smiles and attempts to grab Boss’s hairless chin, but is quickly batted away. Apparently there is a double standard when it comes to personal space.

13:57 – For the first time on the journey, the flatscreen tv mounted to the ceiling is flipped on. It’s a Vietnamese music video. Joy.

Music video time

14:01 – Boss changes the channel to a movie. The Gods Must Be Crazy II. …Indeed.

15:35 – The movie is finished. The land is flat and we’re going past endless rice paddies. The harvest is long over and it looks like the farmers and their buffalos are cultivating muck.

15:38 – A few people get off. A baby starts crying. A new movie begins. Something to do with a golden retriever.

15:42 – Make that multiple golden retrievers.

15:54 – Four people leave the bus. The golden retrievers accidentally got themselves shipped to Alaska. Hijinks sure to follow.

Muddy roads

16:16 – Stopped. Not sure why.

16:38 – Saw a road marker for Hanoi. Forgot what it said. 200 something.

20:40 – Stopped on a dark street in a residential area. Loud banging. A group of men are unloading wood. Of course they’re unloading wood. Totally unsurprising. We all pile out. Boston has determined that we are still 60 miles from Hanoi. I turn the corner and wander halfway down the darkened street. The nice thing about no streetlights is you can pee just about anywhere. I return to the bus just as Boss is urging people to put out their cigarettes and hurry up.

“Oh, I’m sorry, are we on a schedule?” I tap my watch and smile. Big laughs all around.

A basket of roosters and two cases of Black Lion (a Johnny Walker knock-off) sit on the ground next to the door. I point at the boxes, then at all of the passengers, and then make a drinking motion. “For us?!” I exclaim happily. I have grown bold in my delirium.

“NO.” Boss looks agitated. The poultry and booze disappear into the darkness as we pull off our shoes and climb aboard.

Last noodle stop

20:55 – We pull into a large garage/noodle shop/convenience store. I walk out to the street and note that this is the only option in sight. There are also no ATMs. We don’t have any Vietnamese dong and we’re all out of kip. Boston suggests mutiny or hijack but none of us know how to drive a bus. He buys us a bowl of phở. An Australian passenger sees some local guys smoking tobacco from a large bamboo bong. He takes a huge hit, turns red and falls over, smacking his head on a chest freezer on his way down. It seems like he is convulsing but after everyone clears away, it turns out that he is only laughing. All the bus guys start doing shots of bau da. They’ve been rotating shifts behind the wheel. Not sure who is up to bat.

21:47 – We finally get on the bus again. Tony must not be moving fast enough because Boss slaps him on the ass. Tony turns and glares at him. Glassy-eyed Boss tries to kiss his cheek. Blame the bau da. We’re allegedly one hour from Hanoi.

22:00 – Bus has hit its top speed for this trip so far. Maybe 45 miles per hour. We hit a massive, bone-jarring dip in the road, and the driver pulls over. We think the bus must have sustained some damage, but he is just letting a few of the other bus guys off. We continue down the road and the driver proceeds to straddle the center line as much as possible. It’s drizzling outside. Michigan says that one of the bus guys crawled underneath the seat across from her to solicit favors from a woman stashed there. Super.

23:02 – We pull into the bus station in Hanoi, a full 29 hours after leaving Luang Prabang. We have all suffered indignities, discomfort and dispair. But haven’t starved, puked or peed ourselves. All our belongings are intact. We’ve made new friends. We are victorious.

05
Feb 2013
POSTED BY admin
POSTED IN

Laos, Vietnam

DISCUSSION 5 Comments
status

Food and Markets in Luang Prabang

MARKETS

Fruit vendors

Congealed bloodCongealed blood.

Something organ-y.Something organ-y.

Whole chickensWhole chickens.

fish

Fish vendorRiver fish.

Crabs on a leashCrabs on a leash.

Mystery fruitsMystery fruits.

Banana blossomsBanana blossoms (8 or so inches in length).

Preserved eggsPreserved eggs.

Basket of mushroomsMushrooms.

Crispy Mekong river weedCrispy Mekong river weed.

Duck in a to-go bagDuck in a to-go bag.

AROUND TOWN

Yellow crackers

Yellow crackers drying in the sunYellow crackers drying in the sun.

Sticky rice vendor

Coconut sticky rice bike

Coconut sticky rice cooked in bamboo tubes.Coconut sticky rice cooked in bamboo tubes.  Peel off a section of the bamboo and use it as a scoop.

RESTAURANTS

Pork noodle soup with fish sausage ballsPork noodle soup with fish sausage balls.

Soup fixinsSoup fixins: mint, basil, lettuce, green beans, lime.

Big bucket o' chili pasteBig bucket o’ chili paste.

Lao coffeeLao coffee with a generous dose of sweetened condensed milk, ready to be stirred.

Sticky rice... on a stick

Grilled sticky rice… on a stick. Fish sauce with chilis for dipping.

Crispy yellow noodle

Crispy yellow noodles.

Fried noodles with pork

Fried noodles with pork.

Chicken larb

Chicken Larb – extra spicy meat salad with herbs and chilis.

Mushroom larb

Mushroom larb.

Luang Prabang sausages

Luang Prabang sausages.

04
Feb 2013
POSTED BY admin
POSTED IN

Laos

DISCUSSION No Comments
status

Feasts and Friendship in Khmu Villages

We’ve been talking about how to write about this ever since last month. Because it was probably the most memorable and humbling experience we have had this year, we decided we’d just write a short summary and let the pictures speak for themselves. We’d love to tell you all about it when we see you again, but at least for now, words simply fall short.

Bus station map

 

We met Jena, another fellow traveler, back in Pai. We knew she was heading over to Laos soon and thought we might meet up with her at some point. One morning while we were eating breakfast in Luang Prabang, Jena just happened to walk by. She stopped to talk for a bit and told us about a monk that she befriended when she was traveling through Laos last year. We were soon invited to join both of them to visit his families in their Khmu villages for the next four days. We said yes.

 

Overloaded tuk-tuk at Luang Prabang bus station

Another monk joined us, and after a three hour bus ride and a three hour hike on a dirt road through the mountains, we found ourselves at the monk’s mother’s village. The following morning was another two hour hike and half an hour boat ride to his father’s village. At both villages, we were overwhelmed by welcome and generosity.

We were fed mounds of sticky rice and many versions of untranslatable vegetable mixtures that the monk simply called “jungle salad.” Between our arrival and the new year celebrations, the local animal population dropped slightly. A few young chickens were boiled, an entire goat was roasted (with no part wasted), and a cow’s brains made it into our soup. Our bad luck was erased and our good luck was ensured with multiple baci ceremonies. With great insistence from our hosts, our bellies were warmed with Lao Lao (home made rice whiskey) from the time we woke up until our evening bath in the Ou river. 

Jena, Tony, Monk K beginning the hike

Mountain scenery

The newly-bulldozed road

arriving in Monk K's mother's village

Village kids playing on a bike

Little boy using a large knife to carve a toy rifle

Little girls in a straw mat fort

Monk K's mother's village, Ban Pha Yong

The mother's house

Monk K translating

Village chief leads the baci ceremony

Monk K and his mother during the string tying

The baci table

Tony, Alicia and Jena during the baci ceremony

Tony, Alicia and Jena ceremonially

The baci ceremony for Monk K and his family

Ceremony spectators

Boiled chicken, two

Sticky rice steamed in banana leaves, coconut sticky rice, sweet potatoes

Jena in the morning

Village school

Learning about trees - village school

Boy looking out the window of his classroom

One of the classrooms

Monk K and Monk P

Village baby

Monk K's sister holding a baby

Same baby after a costume change

Woman weaving a bamboo mat

Monks cooking our breakfast

Breakfast of omelette, steamed bamboo shoots, boiled greens

Huge basket of sticky rice

Starting the hike to Monk K's father's village

Hike to Monk K's father's village

A village along the way

Nam Ou - the Ou River

Monk K and Monk P on the boat

D's (Monk K's dad) boat

D's house

Lunch: fish soup and another

View from D's front porch

Getting the boat ready in the morning

Bottom of D's boat

Chilly morning on the boat

Misty jungle

Visiting a weaving village upstream

Thread for weaving

Weaving loom

Little girl pretending to use the loom

Little boy playing with a ball

Shy little girl hiding behind weaving display

Duck and mystery jungle vegetable for lunch

Assembling sticky rice with banana to be steamed in banana leaves

Butchering the goat

The most important and special parts of the goat reserved for guests and important men: intestine, testicle, foot/hoof, knuckle.

Man from another village, D, Monk P eating at the goat barbeque

Congealed goat blood with cilantro and chilis

Everyone watches you take the first bite.  No pressure.

Pouring Lao Lao (homemade rice whiskey) into the goat's horn

Cringing after drinking the Lao Lao

Tony's turn for the Lao Lao

Goat horn, bananas and sticky rice on the table\

Boiled goat with herbs

Another baci at D's friend's house

String tying portion of the baci ceremony

D at a friend's house, ready for the second goat feast of the day

The second feast for the day: boiled goat with herbs, sticky rice

Another baci, this time at D's house

The baci table at D's

Village woman tying strings on Tony's wrists

D and village chief tying strings on Jena's wrists

Congealed chicken blood with peanuts, chili and cilantro

Boiled cow liver and other mystery organs

New year cow brain soup (the broth was delicious!)

Trying to talk with D using our Lao-English and English-Lao phrasebooks

LP Lao phrasebook

D looking through the

D (Monk K's father) and his wife M

Village man wearing an Obama hat

Breakfast: grilled fish, roast new year cow, mystery soup

Breakfast: New year cow intestine

Our breakfast host

Lao Hai in the making (sweet, thick rice wine)

Hen in a basket with a chick perched on top

Chicken coop baskets

D's dragon tattoo that he got in Thailand when he was young

Alicia playing Kator with village girls

Village kids on D's porch

Girl and boy on D's porch

One day, the monk’s father took us in his boat to see some caves that had served as shelters during the U.S. bombings. One still had bones in it.

Back on the river

Monk K leading the way through the jungle

Tony and D checking out the cave entrance

Large chamber inside the first cave

sparkly rock formation in the first cave

Heading back down the river to the next cave

Strange red insect

Hiking to the next cave

Ammunition box hinge

Entrance to another cave

Entrance to the bombed cave

Large spider's eyes reflecting the light

Broken bowl in the bombed cave

Bones in the bombed cave

Arriving back in the village

When we arrived back at the village after exploring the caves, there was a shiny boat tied to the bank that we hadn’t seen before. As we drifted up next to it, the monk’s father pointed and said, “Made in USA.”

Bow of the UXO canoe

During and after the Vietnam War, between 1964 and 1973, there were 580,000 US bombing missions that dropped two million tons of ordinance on Laos- equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years. Up to a third of the bombs did not explode. Over 20,000 people have been killed or injured by UXO (unexploded ordinance) in Laos since the bombing ceased.

And they still want you in their homes. And they still want to feed you. And they still want to tie dozens of strings around your wrists as a symbol of how much they want only good things to happen to you in the coming year.

Village chief tying baci bracelets

Want more? Watch our short video of our December adventures, which include motorbiking through Mae Hong Son, floating down the Mekong, and traveling through northern Laos with monks.

31
Jan 2013
POSTED BY admin
POSTED IN

Laos

DISCUSSION 2 Comments
status
17
Jan 2013
POSTED BY admin
POSTED IN

Laos

DISCUSSION No Comments
status

Tsa Hauv Toj – Hmong New Year

Lao coffee

One Saturday morning in Luang Prabang with Kevin, we saw some older men having coffee at a corner shop. We sat down and ordered cups for ourselves. One of the men spoke a little English, and Kevin speaks a little Thai. (Since there is a lot of Thai TV in Laos, people recognize some of the words.) Between the two languages, Kevin was able to understand that the man was telling us about a “festival” that started today. He motioned to the road we needed to take, and after we finished our coffees, we headed in that direction.

Road to the festival

The motorbikes that that passed us had drivers and passengers wearing colorful costumes, so we knew we were on the right track. Soon, the bikes started pulling off down a dirt road, and we followed the flow of traffic into a big open field. We found the Hmong New Year party.

arriving at the festival

Giant bouncy house

boy with shark balloon

the

boys gambling

Ice cream vendor

grilled chicken feet

The Hmong are a minority ethnic group spread throughout Southeast Asia. They face significant political and social discrimination in Laos and over the last several decades many have fled to Thailand, the United States and other countries.

Woman and baby

After each harvest season, after performing their own household ceremonies and traditions, Hmong people get together to celebrate the new year, reconnect with families and friends from other villages, and select marriage partners. Almost all of the women and girls wear makeup and dress up in their best costumes. Some of the men and boys dress up as well, but that part of the tradition seems to have faded. That is only a simplified outsiders’ explanation of Tsa Hauv Toj, which is the name of this festival that lasts for days and the one that we were lucky enough to find.

young and old

young and old - h

shoes

Mohawk guy

One of the main activities of this particular Tsa Hauv Toj is a ball-tossing game called pov pod. We weren’t clear on the rules, other than you must catch and toss the ball with your right hand only. This is a way for young people to socialize and for parents to evaluate potential matches. We talked to one person who said that it was not a very serious game and anyone could play, even if you weren’t in the market for a husband or wife.

Pov Pod lines

Girl in green

ball toss - girl in neon

girl in pink

Tony and Kevin tossing the ball

We also met and enjoyed talking with Peter, a Hmong man who is living in Minneapolis. He had an impressive video equipment setup.

Peter

One section of the festival grounds was dedicated to a long row of booths set up with a variety of large vinyl backdrops. Anyone could use them to take photos and there was also a person who was selling digital prints from his portable printer.

tiny girl in photobooth

Mirror

Girl adjusting hat

Kids playing with a costume

teens in photobooth

Photobooth backdrops

girls crowding the booth

girls in the woods

group photo

sparkly shoes

Kevin showing his group photos

little girl posing

We were the only foreigners there that day, and drew a lot of stares. We also got a lot of photo requests, which we were happy to pose for. It was only fair.

Boys staring

Kevin sharing photos

celebrities

Alicia with Hmong girl

15
Jan 2013
POSTED BY admin
POSTED IN

Laos

DISCUSSION 1 Comment
status

Temples, Waterfalls and New Friends in Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is on a peninsula at the convergence of the Khan and Mekong rivers and is full of heavily decorated temples and orange-robed monks and golden Buddhas.  The days were sunny and warm and the evenings were cool and quiet (most of Laos has a midnight curfew which enforced to varying degrees).

LPB riverbend

Golden animal statue in the evening

man napping at a wat

Yellow chedis

Monk laundry

Golden nagas

Sunset from Phousi

Sunset from Phousa

Wat Siphoudthabat

Wat Siphoudthabat

Cow hide stretching for drums

Buddha at Phousi

Buddhas at Wat Xieng Thong

Handmade stencils at Wat Xieng Thong

gold stencil mandala

Lotus at Wat Xieng Thong

Buddha inside Wat Xieng Thong

Wat Xieng Thong door

hungry guy

old chedi

LPB street

Night market

Moped ferry

Big red ants

One afternoon at our guesthouse, three ladies who owned shops in the neighborhood showed up with shot glasses, dice and bowls. The shot glasses weren’t for drinking; they were for rolling the dice to play Ludo, which we later learned is a Vietnamese game similar to Parcheesi. We observed for a few games and tried to figure out the rules. They played fast and groaned and smiled at each others’ luck and misfortune.

Ludo ladies

Ludo board

Ludo from above

Alicia asked to join and did her best to not slow down the game. She was no match for the pros and in the end the ladies took her for about 30,000 kip ($3.75). You don’t need a common language to laugh and enjoy an afternoon together. (Watch a clip from the Ludo game here.)

Ludo payout

We also got to hang out more with Kevin and our boat buddies from our Mekong trip. We were spread all over town in various guesthouses, but got together for dinner a few evenings and negotiated with two tuk-tuk drivers to take us to a local waterfall for one afternoon.

Boat buddies out to dinner

Josh and Ashley

The Kuang Si falls are the prettiest we’ve ever seen. And we have seen. a lot. of waterfalls. this. year. We jumped off the lower falls into the ice cold water.

Kuang Si swimming hole

Lacey jumping off waterfall

waterfall jump

Trail at Kuang Si

small waterfall

Travertines

Wait, we haven’t even shown you the prettiest part yet.

Kuang Si waterfall

Kuang Si waterfall

Kuang Si vertical

Christmas was approaching, and we noticed a few decorations around Luang Prabang, but it just felt odd amidst palm trees and golden temples and jungle waterfalls. Our guesthouse put up a tree next to the household altar a few days before Christmas, and on the 24th and 25th day, a few people wore Santa hats around town. We went to our favorite “noodle lady shop” for Christmas breakfast and had a nice quiet day together.

Jaliya Christmas tree

Christmas noodles

Santa hat

Christmas was actually our second-to-last day in Laos, but we had a few more adventures before then…

Related Videos:
Northern Thailand and Laos (in December)
Ludo in Luang Prabang

14
Jan 2013
POSTED BY admin
POSTED IN

Laos

DISCUSSION 4 Comments
video
status

Slow Boat Down the Mekong

Longtail ferry at the border

Ferry carrying large trucks

On the very last day that our Thai visa was valid, we got our exit stamps and ferried across the Mekong River to the border town of Huay Xay, Laos.  We loaded up on essential boat supplies: water, Pringles, chicken sandwiches wrapped in banana leaves, mandarin oranges, oddly flavored sunflower seeds, butt cushions.  We needed some local currency, too, and became millionaires when we found what might have been the only ATM in town and withdrew 1 miiiillion kip (about $125).

Alicia all ready to go

Boat supplies

Chicken sandwiches

Choco-bacon seeds

Maggot in love

Juicy friend animal land

We found the pier and bought our tickets for Luang Prabang.  There are three public transportation options to get to Luang Prabang from the Thai/Laos border.  The cheapest option is a 12 hour bus ride.  The fastest and most expensive (and potentially lethal) option is putting on a helmet and crouching in a wooden speedboat for six hours.  The other, much more appealing option is a two day boat journey down the Mekong River.

Huay Xai pier

Green boat at Huay Xai pier

Mississippi?

Two days on a boat is perfect for reading.  One of my favorite quotes from Thor Heyerdahl’s Fatu-Hiva, related Thor’s feelings as he and his wife were caught in a rainstorm while hiking through the jungle on a South Pacific island.  “[We were] uncertain of whether we were suffering or whether we were having a grand time.”  That is a perfect way to explain some of our days this year, but the boat trip was definitely much more of the latter.

Fatu-Hiva quote

small burn

Mood smoke

Mood smoke + rocks

Looking back upriver

Loading rice

Riverside settlement

Fading light

Side of boat

People on sandbar

Rock silhouette

After the first day, we unloaded at Pakbeng.  Here we are having dinner with a bunch of our boat buddies.  Our group was from Sydney, Brisbane, Toronto, Alabama, California, Amsterdam, and Thailand (via New Zealand).  You may recognize the fellow with the moustache.  It’s our friend Kevin from Chiang Mai!  He decided to join us for the trip and we were glad to see him again so soon.

Boat buddies

Kev

There is not much to Pakbeng other than restaurants and guest houses ready to receive people halfway through their boat trips, so we were more than ready to go when 9 a.m. rolled around.

My wife is a very good cook

Alicia and Kevin at Pakbeng

Pakbeng pier

While we were waiting for our boat to be loaded, we saw some elephants working on the far bank.

Elephants at Pakbeng

We also saw a Pakbeng resident giving his goat a bath.  How sweet!

Pakbeng goat bath?

Pakbeng goat bath? 2

Not a bath

Day two on the boat was much like the first.  More jungle, more villages, more giant sandbars and goats and water buffalo.  Someone brought out a guitar and two Australian sisters, Jemma and Ruby, serenaded us.

Ruby

massive sandbar

Cliff near LPB

Boat interior

Boat engine

Inside/outside

back of the boat

green and brown

arm

Josh

Late in the afternoon, Luang Prabang’s pier came into view and we were ready to look for dinner and a place to sleep.  We later met other travelers who had been placed on boats with bad seats, loud engines and twice the amount of passengers.  We were fortunate to have a perfect two days on the river and to have made many new friends along the way.

LPB pier

colorful boats at LPB pier

Our pretty boat

LPB pier

(Watch our short video of taking the slow boat down the Mekong and motorbiking in Northern Thailand.)

08
Jan 2013
POSTED BY admin
POSTED IN

Laos

DISCUSSION 2 Comments
status

What We Ate in Bangkok and Northern Thailand

Piles of street food
We’ve been looking forward to eating our way through Southeast Asia since the we first began planning our trip. The food is fresh, cheap, delicious and everywhere.  If you are hungry… well you don’t really have much chance to actually get hungry because you are tripping over sidewalk cafes and street vendors at every turn.

 

Street vendor with wok

We’re not even sure how to organize all this. Most of it’s street food, there’s noodles everywhere and it’s all incredible.  Let’s start with noodles, then.

STIR FRIED NOODLES, RICE and CURRIES

Our first pad thai.  Buried underneath is shrimp, calimari, and baby octopus.Our first Pad Thai, eaten on a plastic stool on the sidewalk. Buried underneath is shrimp, calamari and baby octopus.

Pad thai standMore Pad Thai.

Pad see ew

Chicken fried ricePad see ew and chicken fried rice for breakfast at our favorite sidewalk cafe next to our hostel in Bangkok.

green curry chickenGreen curry chicken with basil.

Mushroom and tofu curry
Mushroom and tofu curry.

Fried basil, mushrooms, chickenFried basil, mushrooms, chicken.

glass noodle salad with chilis and fried chickenProbably the spiciest glass noodles and best fried chicken we’ve ever had…

red curry… and some red curry. This particular Bangkok restaurant was in the entryway to a market building and people would ride mopeds through every few minutes.

SOUP

soup shop

Soup vat

beef and noodle soup

beef and noodle soup with fish ballsVarious noodle soups. Point to the type of meat and the type of noodles you want and they throw it in a small basket and dip it briefly into a large vat of boiling broth. Then they pull it out, ladle on the broth, top it with cilantro, green onion and fresh herbs, and it’s up to you to doctor it up with lime and chilis.

Tom yum soupTom yum kung - hot and sour seafood soup made with lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, lime juice, fish sauce and chilis.


STUFF YOU DRINK WITH STRAWS

smoothiesSmoothies and fruit shakes. So cheap you can have them twice a day, but be sure to ask them to skip the sugar.

Lemongrass chili lime drinkLemongrass chili lime drink to cure all your digestive woes.

KHAO SOI

Bus station khao soiKhao soi gets its own category because Tony attempted to eat it for every meal.  It’s egg noodles and meat (usually pork or chicken) in yellow curry sauce, topped with crispy noodles, pickled greens, green onions, shallots, herbs, lime juice, and as much chili paste as you can handle.

Khao soi

Khao soi with fixins

Khao soi at brown rice

Khao soi at Dang's

BURMESE FOOD

green tea leaves salad with cabbage, tomato and peanutsGreen tea leaves salad with cabbage, tomato, soy nuts.

Hinlay curry with tofu and potatoesHinlay curry with tofu and potatoes.

Another Hinlay curryAnother Hinlay curry.

Burmese food cooked by Hong SarEven yummier Burmese food (tea leaf salad, Hinlay curry, vegetable soup, steamed cabbage) cooked for us by Kevin’s friend Hong Sar. As we ate, Hong Sar described the events he saw and experienced in Burma as a child before his family escaped to Thailand.

CHINESE FOOD

CarrieThere’s probably a lot more Chinese influence in the food in Thailand than we realize (we’re looking at you, steam buns), but we had an official Chinese food night at Kevin’s house when another Couchsurfer, Carrie, cooked us her favorite dishes. We had stir fried morning glory greens, spicy tofu, and a potato and pork soup.

SALADS

Som tam vendor

In Thailand, salads aren’t some leafy green thing.  It’s a salad in the folksy casserole sense of the word.  A big jumble of lots of delicious ingredients, and can be served hot or cold.  The lady above is making some som tam.

som tam in a bag

Som tamSom tam is shredded green (unripe) papaya and carrot with tossed with a paste of dried shrimp, chilis, fish sauce and sugar, and topped with tomatoes, raw green beans and peanuts.

Banana blossom saladMelt-your-face-off banana blossom salad.

Tofu mushroom saladTofu mushroom salad. The mushrooms here are so savory and meaty, even the most devout carnivore wouldn’t mind the lack of meat.

FOOD CARTS and ROADSIDE STANDS

Chicken wingsChicken wings and other grilled meat on a street cart.

Roti stand

Nutella rotiRoti. Somewhere between a crepe and a puffy, crispy pancake, made with ladles of butter, stuffed with banana and drizzled with sweetened condensed milk and Nutella.

mini pies

Salty potato puffMini pastries stuffed with sweet and savory things like, potato, taro, pineapple and yam.

Tiny fried quail eggsFried quail eggs.

roasted bananaRoasted banana.

Steam bunsSteamed buns filled with BBQ pork, chicken curry, red bean paste, chocolate pudding… dozens of sweet and savory options.

Black Egg.  Preserved over several weeks, then deep fried.Black Egg. Preserved over several weeks, then deep fried.

fried dumplings stuffed with chicken and cabbageFried dumplings stuffed with chicken and cabbage

Deep fried tofu tarts (topped with sweet soy sauce and peanut)Deep fried tofu tarts topped with sweet soy sauce and peanuts

Dumpling vendor

Steamed pork dumplingsSteamed pork dumplings…

dumplings in a bag…served in a plastic bag with spicy sweet dipping sauce.

Banana leaf omeletEgg and minced meat grilled in a banana leaf.

Miangkam on a skewerMiangkam. As soon as your teeth break through the slightly bitter chaploo leaf wrap, the sticky mixture of sugar, coconut, peanut, ginger, shallots, dried shrimp, chilis and lime inside explodes in your mouth. Whoever invented these is a genius.

Miangkam makerWe’ll thank this nice lady.

Bacon Thick-cut bacon grilled over coals on a skewer…

tablecloth…served at a roadside stand that uses uncut sheets of product labels as tablecloths.

30
Dec 2012
POSTED BY admin
POSTED IN

Thailand

DISCUSSION No Comments
status

Motorbiking in Mae Hong Son Province

A man and his dog

North of Chiang Mai, there is a town called Pai. Apparently the journey to Pai used to take seven days by elephant before the road was built through the mountains a few decades ago. Now it takes three hours by minibus and either a strong stomach or motion sickness pills.

Pai walking street

Pai is full of backpackers and Thai tourists, rickety bungalows and boutiques and street stalls full of quirky, self-congratulatory souvenirs that proclaim the number of curves in the road one has endured to get there (762). There are unique caricature artists, and even some guy who runs around in full Jack Sparrow costume and sells postcards of himself. Not exactly a quiet place to escape to, but it’s an easy area to enjoy life.

Alicia and Satiya

Satiya's caricature of us

Little kitty at our bungalow

bungalows

tea vendors in Pai

Pai is also in the foothills of the Himalayas in the Mae Hong Son Province, which is considered one of the very best places in the world to motorcycle. A 125cc moped isn’t exactly a motorcycle, but you can rent them in Pai for less than $5 per day, so we decided to go for it. For several days, Tony drove us all over the valley, through villages, to the waterfalls, and down the rough gravel road up to the “secret” hot springs that is still in use as a village bath.

helmets

Pai Canyon

Sketchy bridge

Pam Bok waterfall

Harvested rice field near Pam Bok waterfall

Rapeseed field

Harvested rice field near Pai

Tony sliding down Mor Paeng waterfall

secret hot springs

Alicia at secret hot springs

On our last full day in Thailand, we decided to head about 40 km north to see Tham Lod, a large cave hear the Myanmar (Burma) border. We got a late start and the road wound tightly up and down the mountains. By the time we got to our destination, we realized we needed to turn right around if we wanted to make it back to Pai before dark. Then we passed a sign for Cave Lodge, which we remembered had been highly recommended to us by Kevin. We decided that the best thing to do would be to stay and see Tham Lod, spend the night at Cave Lodge, and then go back first thing in the morning.

Cave Lodge parking lot

Cave Lodge hammock

We hiked out to where the river exits Tham Lod, and got there just in time to watch thousands of swifts making their nightly return to cave at dusk.

Tham Lod

Swifts entering Tham Lod

This was the first time all year that our headlamps were really necessary, because we walked the trail back to Cave Lodge in the dark. We noticed what looked to be glittering dew all over the ground, but upon closer inspection, it was our lights reflecting in the eyeballs of every spider in the jungle. Jungles have lots of spiders.

spider in a cave

We were disappointed that we hadn’t carved out more time to spend up here, but were really thankful for our short taste of a pretty amazing place.

We woke up early the next morning and realized that while our decision to spend the night had given us the safety of traveling in daylight, we had sacrificed the heat of the day for it. Tony was wearing only a light shirt and shorts and it was a gray and damp morning and there was a mountain between us and the rising sun. But soon we were rewarded by amazing views of the mists in the valley below.

First view of the mists from above

hairpin curve in the road

Lone tree

tree - looking east

Lisu girl silhouette

By the time we made it to the top of the mountain we were nearly frozen solid and sprung for hot cups of instant noodles from the tourist concession stand. Some Lisu girls, who hang out at the scenic overlook to pose for photos in exchange for tips, were also eating their breakfast before they began their day.

Tony and the Lisu girls

slurp

The soup warmed us enough to continue and most of the rest of the way to Pai was in sunlight.

Burma is somewhere over there

Tony at the top of the mountain

reflection

We had to return the moped and leave for Laos that evening, but we’ll be looking for excuses to ride again soon.

28
Dec 2012
POSTED BY admin
POSTED IN

Thailand

DISCUSSION 5 Comments
status

Loi Krathong

King and Queen of Thailand honored at parade

November is a great month to be in Thailand. The rainy season is over, the weather is cool(er), the holiday crowds haven’t arrived, and since the rice harvest is over there are festivals to celebrate. After the euphoric lantern release at the Yi Peng festival is the Loi Krathong festival.

Krathongs for sale

Loi means “to float” and krathong means… well, the internet says a lot of different things and we don’t know Thai. But a krathong (“kra-TONG”) is a tiny raft usually made of banana leaves and flowers. You stick a few candles in it, along with some small offerings, set it in the river on the full moon of the 12th month and watch your bad luck float away.

On Loi Krathong, the river is choked with these little creations, parades full of bored-looking young people in glittering costumes crawl through the streets for several nights in a row, the sky is filled what seems to be thousands of glowing jellyfish, and firework enthusiasts (every male under age 30) run amok with zero regard for public safety. It’s glorious.

Pink lanterns on parade

White Elephant on parade

Riverside chaos

We roamed the streets with our Couchsurfing host, Kevin, and some fellow Couchsurfers from Portugal, Holland and China (Kevin has a big house).

More khom loy were launched.

Amber with lantern

Maria's lantern

Thai guy's lantern

We laughed at the small dangers and fled from the larger ones.

Throwing fireworks off the bridge

The street clears for a large firework

Fried bugs were eaten.

Fried crickets and grubs

Amber is concerned about the bugs

Amber is very concerned about the bugs

Amber holds up a bug

Amber's reaction

Ole's grub

Tony's reaction

Strangers’ photos were enhanced by our sneaky and uninvited faces.

Tony prepares photobomb

Sneaky Tony

Discovered!

Best photobomb

Our photos and words don’t quite convey what it really feels like to be there… So we made this video.

video
status

Fire in the Sky

On our first night Couchsurfing with Kevin in Chiang Mai, he took us to his favorite annual event: the Yi Peng festival.

The evening was hot and sticky and the thousands of people crammed into the Maejo University grounds inspired a bit of claustrophobia.

The crowd

And then. The monks began to chant.

Smoke at the front of the crowd

And then. The oil lamps staked all over the grounds were lit.

Oil lamp

And then. Everyone held the wax rings wired to the bottom frames of their khom loy to the fire.

Begin to light the lanterns

Lighting the khom loy in front of the Buddha

Girl lighting a lantern

Alicia

Tony

Lanterns filling with hot air

Beginning of the release

AND THEN. A sea of glowing paper lanterns rose, along with our hearts, and for a minute or so, the world was perfect.

Lanterns through the bamboo

Joyful crowd

Sea of lanterns

Lanterns fill the sky

27
Dec 2012
POSTED BY admin
POSTED IN

Thailand

DISCUSSION 2 Comments
status

Couchsurfing with Kevin in Chiang Mai

Night train bunks Tony's bunk

We took the night train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.  We had nice bunks, the bathroom (a squat hole that emptied directly on the tracks) was clean, and the dining car remains a vividly surreal memory.

Chiang Mai from Doi Suthep

Chiang Mai is one of Thailand’s larger cities, although nowhere near the size or speed of Bangkok, and it’s known for being artsy and laid back.

Wat against blue sky and clouds

Alms bowls

Kids playing in an alley

Vendor bathing a baby

Naga silhouettes

Moped riders

Statue at Wat Chet Yot

Moped rider outside a red gate

Monk climbing a pole

The first few days in Chiang Mai were very pleasant. We ate our fill of good food, visited some of the 300 wats, enjoyed the night markets and the Sunday market, and walked all over the old city and around the moat. But we were having difficulty meeting people.

We switched from a guest house to a hostel, but everyone there seemed to already have their own friend groups established.  We were starting to wonder if we should just move on to some other part of Thailand, but we decided to give it a few more days. We moved into a cheap hotel and soon met some fun Australian girls at the does-this-look-like-what-I-think-it-looks-like?-shaped pool.

Unusual pool

We also turned back to Couchsurfing.  We hadn’t Couchsurfed since our great experience in Iceland.  We sent some requests while we were in Europe, but in most of the big cities, it’s difficult to find a host unless you send dozens of requests, and all of those requests require careful reading of profiles and personalized messages for each.  We tried to find a host in Istanbul, but based on the quality of the personal profiles (and a certain indecent proposal we received), it seemed more like people were using it as a dating site.

But with hope blossoming in our hearts, we were willing to try Couchsurfing again.

Tony has a pretty flower

And we found Kevin.

Kevin and Tony on a tuk-tuk

Kevin is a photographer from New Zealand who has lived in Chiang Mai for ten years. His most obvious trademark is his handlebar mustache, although you quickly notice his other prominent feature which is an unfailingly cheerful and kind disposition.  He’s done photography and documentary videos all over southeast Asia and China and has some pretty good stories to tell.

Kevin near Warorot Market

Although Kevin joined Couchsurfing ten months prior to our arrival, we were his number 80-somethingth guests.  We helped him mop up his kitchen when his ceiling leaked after a rainstorm, had fun in his studio and around town being models for his personal and stock photo portfolios, ate a lot of good food cooked by friends and fellow Couchsurfers and vendors in his neighborhood, and attended multiple days of the local Yee Ping and Loi Krathong festivals.

Kevin in a songtaew with Couchsurfers

We ended up staying at Kevin’s place for nine days and left friends for life. (And he’ll show up again in this blog for sure.)

1 2 3

27
Dec 2012
POSTED BY admin
POSTED IN

Thailand

DISCUSSION 6 Comments
video
status

On Bangkok and Good Advice from Bad People

We thought for sure we’d be ready to flee as soon as the plane touched town.  A city of legendary heat and humidity, swarming with chaos and 9.5 million people… no thanks.

Bangkok at dawn

And first day does overwhelm all the senses.  Nothing looks or feels familiar.  There are cockroaches.  Rats of unusual size.  With every breath you inhale exhaust fumes and and the heavy scent food in various states of deliciousness and decay.  Trash collectors dump and sort the contents of their trucks on the street and you learn to play a bold and decisive game of Frogger against taxis and tuk-tuks and mopeds pretty quickly.

Bottle collector

Multicolored taxis

Alternative transportation

Side saddle, no hands

Building decor

Not gonna lie: our first full day was spent exploring the malls. And the day after.

Beard Papa's

Mall Christmas tree

But after that, we began to see and appreciate some of the beauty.  It can be as obvious as a towering golden chedi, as commonplace as a woman selling offering flowers, or as inconspicuous as a cat napping on a wall. So we stayed for a little bit.

Woman selling flower offerings

Alley behind dried fish market

Dried shrimp for sale

Monk walking past Grand Palace

Phra Siratana Chedi

Prasat Phra Dhepbidorn - the Royal Pantheon

Kitty at Wat Pho

Wat Pho

Plumeria

Florists making offerings

Bangkok sidewalk at night

Mass of power wires

Cat faceoff

Bangkok traffic

BBQ street vendor

While we do enjoy taking it slow and getting to know a place for at least a week or more (versus the usual 2-4 days that most other backpackers average), if we’re being honest, our lack of speed is also due to reluctance to make a decision.

The downside of this habit is that we’ll visit fewer places overall and sometimes pay higher prices by booking last minute transportation.  On the upside, we’re more relaxed and get a better sense of a place than we would have if we were just zipping through.  We find the good restaurants with the best prices, can easily say “yes” to unexpected opportunities, soak in the little details, and feel more like honorary residents rather than faceless consumers just passing through.

Bangkok is renowned for its tuk-tuk scams and assorted schemes to part the naive from their money, but only one of its citizens thought we looked like a good target.  Luckily, he was just a guy sitting at the table next to us in a sidewalk restaurant, and it wasn’t a big deal.  While we were disappointed that his friendly chit-chat quickly turned into an attempt to get us to visit his friend’s shop that is having a “big gem sale for tourists today only,” he did suggest that we head north for the mountains before visiting the islands.

We took the latter advice and hopped the night train to Chiang Mai the next day. As we write this six weeks later, we’re so glad we did. Our northern path brought wonderful people and unbelievable experiences into our lives. So thanks, scammy guy. You’re the best.

Democracy Monument at night

26
Dec 2012
POSTED BY admin
POSTED IN

Thailand

DISCUSSION No Comments
image
status

Dust and Color

Colors of Petra

We were thrilled to be able to spend time with Cody and Vanessa in Amman.  We were excited to be back towards the Middle East and to add another country to our list.  We were looking forward to exploring a new cuisine.  And after seeing Venice and Berlin, we really had to finish off our Last Crusade set list with a visit to Petra.

Djinn Block

Tony in the Siq

Canyon light

Canyon colors

Chariot in the canyon

First glimpse of The Treasury

The Treasury

The Treasury

Donkey friend

Cave homes

Bedouin and donkeys

Tony takes a picture

 

Bedouin minstrel at High Place of Sacrifice

Tony's Ebeneezer

Alicia in her tree

Garden Tomb

Soldier Tomb

More color

All the colors

This guy invited us to tea.

Green valley

We spent eighteen hours over two days hiking the dusty canyons, declining incessant four-legged taxi offers, climbing to the high places in the blazing sun and making our own way through the wilderness to sit and finally understand the phrase deafening silence.  At night, we stayed at a Bedouin camp, stuffed ourselves with our only square meal of the day and drank sugary sage tea by the fire.

Inside our tent at Seven Wonders Bedouin Camp

View from our tent

Dinner

7 am

Our second morning was November 7.  As we walked through the kitsch gauntlet at the main entrance, we heard an Arabic radio station say a name we recognized: Obama.  We did an about-face and asked the vendor what the news was.  He paused a moment to find the right English word. “Obama… fortune.”  We hadn’t expected to hear the results until we returned to Amman.  Just a few days earlier we were able to vote by email, thanks to Jordan being on a list of special countries where absentee voting doesn’t require you to obtain and mail back a paper ballot.

Colonnaded Street

Lion Triclinium

Palace Tomb

Goats on a cliff

Sami's stable

Monastery from afar

Destination Unknown

After spending the morning hiking the 900 steps up to the Monastery and back, we ran into a retired Taiwanese couple from Flint, Michigan that we had met the day before. We decided to hike together for most of the day, taking a back trail that would overlook the Treasury. I’m pretty sure by the end of it WE were the ones keeping up with THEM. We had many good conversations and wished we had exchanged contact info!

Alicia and Yvonne

Alicia and Yvonne at the top

four Americans

Sami, one of the many Bedouins who actually live in Petra, makes his home at the very end of the trail.  He made us tea while we played with his kitten.  He showed us a photo album and told stories of racing horses, hunting with his falcon, and about the off-limits trails that only the local people know. Sometimes he climbs straight down the ledge which gets him to the Treasury in five minutes (instead of the long way around which takes an hour).

Sami

Confusion the cat

It happened to be one of the few times all year that we remembered to bring our small binoculars with us and remembered to actually use them.  Sami asked to borrow them and leaped to the edge of the drop-off.  Of course he didn’t look at the Treasury; he sees it all day.  Instead, he looked far off in the distance to try to spot his friend who tends goats at the top of another mountain.The binoculars were going to get way more use with this guy, and we’re always looking to lighten our packs, so we left them with Sami, along with our thanks for one of our favorite memories this year.

Sami's binoculars

(Watch our quick video from Petra)

23
Dec 2012
POSTED BY admin
POSTED IN

Jordan

DISCUSSION 1 Comment
video
video
video
video
status

What We Ate in Amman

Here it comes, another food post.  We often feel foolish reaching for our cameras before reaching for our forks, but we hope you enjoy the results.  This post is a little different than the rest; it’s organized by restaurant.

—–

Quarter Moon Shawarma

Tony and shawarma

Our first meal in Jordan was between Queen Alia Airport and our friends’ apartment.

Quarter Moon shawarma

Can’t beat shawarma for a great late night fast food option.

 

—–

Hashem Restaurant, a dive-y place downtown that is famous for serving delicious cheap Middle Eastern food.  Sit on their grungy plastic chairs and have a personal revelation.


Matabel

Matabel, some sort of creamy eggplant wonderfulness.

 

Fuul - tangy, spicy beans swimming in olive oil and herbs.

 

Hummus

Hummus.

 

Falafel

Falafel.

Falafel... stuffed with roasted onions and rolled in toasted sesame seeds.

More falafel… this time stuffed with roasted onions and rolled in toasted sesame seeds.

Hot tea with sugar and fresh mint

Hot tea with sugar and fresh mint.

—–

 

Al Quds was where our friends decided to take us for some mansaf, Jordan’s national dish.

 

Mansaf

Mansaf is staple at weddings, celebrations, and for honoring important guests.  If I had to draw a parallel between this and an American dish, it would be Grandma’s perfect Sunday pot roast.  Not at all similar in flavor, but in sentiment.

 

Mansaf sauce

Wikipedia describes mansaf: ”The lamb is cooked in a broth made with a fermented then dried yogurt-like product called jameed, and served on a large platter with a layer of flatbread (markook or shrak) topped with rice and then meat, garnished with almonds and pine nuts, and then sauce poured over all.”

 

More matabel

More matabel.

 

More hummus

More hummus.


—–

Mahashi takeout from Ali’s Mahashi-Al Mashi.

 

Mahashi al Mashi takeout

The little aluminum boxes aren’t the most photogenic, but there was no way we would skip over this.

 

Mahashi plated

Mahashi is eggplant, zucchini, cabbage… all stuffed with minced meat and rice and vegetables, stewed in spicy tomato and yogurt sauces. Sides: piles of rice and flatbread and an avalanche of pickled vegetables.  Ali is generous with his portions.

—–


Mawwal Restaurant
– a nice sit-down place with waiters who will be very concerned for the state of your mental health if you don’t order enough meat.

 

Fire roasted tomatoes and chiles

Fire roasted tomatoes and chiles. Super spicy.

Fattoush

Fattoush salad – greens and vegetables topped with fried flatbread and a vinaigrette dressing.

 

Kebbeh maklieh

 Kebbeh maklieh – deep fried cracked bulgur wheat stuffed with minced lamb and herbs.

 

Tabbouleh

Tabbouleh – loads of parsley with mint, tomato, lemon juice and bulgur.

 

Baba ghanoush

Baba ghanoush- roasted eggplant, vegetables and chilis, tahini and garlic, topped with vinaigrette.

 

Galayet Bandora

Galayet Bandora - stewed lamb, tomatoes and onions.

 

Kofta Bi Tahini 

Kofta Bi Tahini - ground lamb and herb patties in a velvety sesame sauce.

 

—–

Habibeh pastry shop.

kunefe cheese

Habibeh (literally, “beloved”) will provide for you na’ama kunefe.  This kunefe is finely chopped pastry dough, topped with soft white cheese, topped with more pastry, drenched in syrup and garnished with pistachios and orange food coloring.

 

kunefe alley

Best eaten hot, on a styrofoam plate in Habibeh’s alley.

—–

And finally, Bang Bang Bubble Tea House at a mall in West Amman near the Seventh Circle.

Bubble tea and complimentary peanut butter waffles.  Ok, maybe it’s not so traditional, but Amman is a modern city, and that’s what we all had that night.

27
Nov 2012
POSTED BY admin
POSTED IN

Jordan

DISCUSSION 2 Comments
status

Exploring Amman

Homemade Jordanian flag

Our friends Cody and Vanessa moved to Amman in August this year to study Arabic. Back when we were all still in Iowa City, we had talked about maybe going through Jordan to see them on our year of wandering, but it didn’t seem like the timing was going to work out. And then those cheap Royal Jordanian flights started popping up and suddenly our path to Asia took a new direction.

Satellite dishes

Amman is a city of 1.5 million people. About one quarter of its residents are Iraqi, Palestinian, Sudanese, Somalian, and (more recently) Syrian refugees. The terrain is hilly, the climate is desert, and the official religion is Islam. After chilly Berlin, the blue skies, dry air and temperatures in the upper 70′s were so welcome.

Amman side street with blue truck

Rapid population growth means that the city is a constant swirl of dust and traffic with examples of prosperity and poverty elbow-to-elbow. You can buy fresh produce from a roadside stand or a souk or you can buy a value meal from McDonalds or KFC. You might see goats being grazed in an empty lot in the middle of the city accompanied by a shepherd wearing a polo shirt, or you might see a guy with a python around his neck at a street fair.

Python at street festival

urban goats

McDonalds

Everything is tan and square for as far as the eye can see, but that makes the flowers and palms and mosques and rare youthful artistic flourishes seem even more stunning.

East Amman homes

View of the Roman Theater from the Citadel

sand colored city

pink flowers

blue flowers

Amman mosque

Stairway graffiti

Since the city expanded so rapidly, it’s an urban planning nightmare. There are broken sidewalks, curbs two feet high at pedestrian crossings, few traffic signals, and each roundabout approach is prefaced with an official U-turn lane because the most roads are purposefully constructed to allow only right turns. Horns and exhaust fumes are constant. Many travelers spend only a day or two in Amman before heading off to more exotic locations, and you can mostly understand why.

Traffic, downtown Amman

Construction site, West Amman

Late afternoon

The major highlights of Amman can be “done” in less than a day, starting at the top of Jabal al-Qal’a (the Hill of the Citadel) to see the ruined Temple of Hercules and Umayyad Palace, then down to the Roman theater below, on to the souks and shopping streets downtown, then a stop at one of the dozens of Western-style cafes on Rainbow Street.

Squinty

Temple of Hercules

Tony at Temple of Hercules

Umayyad Palace

Column detail, Temple of Hercules

Alicia at Umayyad Palace

Roman Theater

Ammann souk

Pickled everything

Sugarcane juicer

Shopping downtown

Feather dusters

Downtown Amman

Rainbow Street sign

Juice shop on Rainbow St.

After nearly two weeks in Amman, we were feeling comfortable with the city. Dust, fumes, late night celebratory gunshots, crazy cab rides and all. The sounds seeped into us in a familiar rhythm. The constant jingle of what might be an ice cream truck constantly patrolling the neighborhoods. (It’s actually a truck filled with propane tanks for residential stoves.) The repetitive loudspeaker shouts of another truck slowly rolling through the neighborhoods. Let your imagination run wild and it might be mistaken for an angry tirade of someone inciting revolution. (They’re actually letting you know that they’re selling cabbages and onions and stuff.)

Propane truck

And of course, the most “other” sound of all: the five times daily call to prayer. In Turkey it would vary from city to city and from mosque to mosque. In Amman it had its own aura that, with our limited experience, we can only describe as “not Turkish” yet as beautiful as our favorite call from of The New Mosque in Istanbul. Its a sound that we will miss as we continue our journey eastward.

Mosque

We really loved our time in the Middle East. All the wonderful food, the sights, the sounds… most of the smells. We hope we can experience it all again someday.

(Watch our video of a rolling vegetable vendor, the souk, and the call to prayer in downtown Amman)

26
Nov 2012
POSTED BY admin
POSTED IN

Jordan

DISCUSSION 3 Comments
status

Our Home Away from Home in Amman

Midnight, about to leave for the airport

Our time in Amman was so refreshing. (This photo was taken at midnight right before we got in the cab to go to the airport, so disregard how tired we all look.  And our matching outfits.) It was fun to be a completely different culture when we left Cody and Vanessa’s apartment, but being in their home was almost like coming back to America for a little bit. We didn’t cram too much busyness into the two weeks. The main activities were just hanging out with Cody and Vanessa and their girls while they went about their daily lives.

C + V's apartment building

Urban goats

Aubie cat

We ate peanut butter and jelly and Kraft mac and cheese and burgers and burritos and watched The Little Mermaid dubbed in Arabic. We did laundry and played with their kittens and slept in late. Alicia participated in many elaborate imagination sessions of Sparkle Princess Sisters.

Sparkle Princess Sisters

Ella's gumball

Ella goofing off on the roof

More Ella goofing off on the roof

Ella and Simone on the roof

Fearless Ella

Besides hosting us for nearly two weeks (with just as much advance notice!), Cody and Vanessa gave us their own bedroom, kept us well fed AND set us up with five hours of private Arabic lessons at their language school, the Latin American Cultural Center (not a typo – you can learn Español and English there, too).  What?  Too, too much, but that’s how they roll.

Arabic notebook

Arabic teacher Nancy

Latin American Cultural Center

We learned about 70 basic nouns and pronouns, including greetings and numbers. It was awesome to dabble in another language and the experience made us really interested in pursuing some sort of language learning when we get home next year. Inshallah!

Foreigners on Parade

Ella's photography

Shukran, Cody and Vanessa! Baaraka Allahu fik!

26
Nov 2012
POSTED BY admin
POSTED IN

Jordan

DISCUSSION 2 Comments
status

Berlin to Bangkok… via Amman

Back when we were Prague, we were trying to figure out flights. Depending on how you interpret the Schengen Zone border control regulations for tourists, we either had to get out by October 29 or by November 30, but we were getting cold were feeling anxious to leave Europe for warmer (and much less expensive) lands.

Mecca on the seatback map

Our favorite airfare search engines, Skyscanner and ITA Matrix, were all pointing to Bangkok as the destination, with the cheapest flights leaving from either Prague or Berlin. Almost everyone we had met over the several months prior said that Berlin was their favorite city ever so that cemented our plans to head to Germany.

A thunderstorm over Turkey altered our flight path

And of all the flights from Berlin to Bangkok, Royal Jordanian had the best prices.  Their flights had layovers in their hub, Amman.

Hey, we have friends in Amman.

One Skype call later to confirm that it was ok to invite ourselves over, and we had our Berlin to Bangkok tickets booked… with a 13 day layover in Jordan.

Almost to Amman

After spending two months of our summer in Turkey, which is a predominantly Muslim country, we thought Jordan would be pretty similar. In some ways it was. In other ways, it was a whole new world.

Amman McDonald's

20
Nov 2012
POSTED BY admin
POSTED IN

Jordan

DISCUSSION 1 Comment