Sunday, January 28, 2007

Halong Bay, Vietnam.

We set sail on a two-day cruise of majestic Halong Bay. The bay is filled with 3000 or more individual islands, many of which jut dramatically skyward. "Halong translates as 'where the dragon descends into the sea.' Legend has it that the islands of Halong Bay were created by a great dragon that lived in the mountains. As it ran towards the coast, its flailing gouged out valleys and crevasses; as it plunged into the sea, the areas dug up by the tail became filled with water, leaving only the high land visible." (Lonely Planet)

Blessed with great weather, we also hiked down into a spectacular cave and paddled a kayak around some of the islands. Once we got back into Hanoi, we took in a show of the famous water puppets (roi nuoc). Tomorrow, we'll tour around Hanoi for one last day before taking another overnight train to the city of Hue.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Trekking to the Hill Tribe Villages.

We traveled north from Hanoi to the mountain village of Sapa in Vietnam. This is home to numerous indigenous hill tribes, including the Dzao, Red Dao, H'Mong and Dzay tribes. The people of these tribes, with their colorful costumes and simple ways, are keeping many of their traditions alive. We trekked to the villages and met a 98-year-old H'Mong woman who was the picture of health, despite their lack of heat, running water or modern medicine. (When we toured her simple wooden dwelling, I thought I spied a jar of Nivea Age-Defying Skin Cream.)

We'll take another overnight train back to Hanoi and on to Halong Bay for a two-day cruise among the giant limestone rocks that jet up dramatically from the sea.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Holiday in Cambodia.

We pretty much flew through Cambodia, so we'll have to come back. Siem Rep was our sole destination, home to the famous Angkor temples. Built between the 9th and 13th Centuries and described as "the perfect fusion of creative ambition and spiritual devotion," the temples are fascinating and require a few days to fully experience.

Because we're running out of time, we skipped Phnom Penh and grabbed a flight directly to Hanoi, Vietnam. We therefore missed seeing the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek where countless Cambodians were killed by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1978. We know this will be sad and confronting, but we feel it is important and will have to pay homage on our next visit to Cambodia.

Arriving in Hanoi last night, we booked an overnight train ride to Sapa, in Vietnam's northern mountains.

Monday, January 22, 2007

The Cambodian $2 Haircut.

Truly one of the terrifying aspects of extended travel in Southeast Asia is the prospect of getting a haircut. Let's be honest: I know I'm just an average-looking guy, and that's on my best day. A good or bad haircut is not going to tip the scales much one way or the other. On the other hand, doesn't everyone experience a twinge of fear when a complete stranger approaches one's head bearing sissors?

I opted for the $2 Barbershop, not because of the competitive price (though that alone would ordinarily be enough), but because it was recommended the day before by our tuk-tuk driver. My barber did not speak any English, so we had to seal the deal using grunts and sign language. Ultimately, he did a decent job (using the term liberally), and finished with a vigorous shoulder massage, complete with little karate chops.

Fortunately, with the money I saved I can buy a nice quality paper bag to put over my head.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Saying Good Bye to Laos.

There's a reason people flock to Southeast Asia: it's a great place to travel! The people of Thailand and Laos are probably as gentle as they come. We'll definitely return to Laos.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Cruising Southern Laos.

Heather formed the brilliant idea of booking a 3-day cruise on the Mekong River in Southern Laos aboard the Vat Phou “floating hotel.” I initially resisted because I thought it was over our budget. But, although it was a splurge, I’m really glad we did it. The Vat Phou was originally built as a “ferry teak,” but it was converted to a luxury cruise boat in 1993.

The cruise stopped for us to explore the Khmer Vat Phou temple, a precursor to the Angkor Wat temple we’re planning to see in Cambodia. We also visited the Oum Muong, a temple in the jungle, as well as remote fishing villages and the picturesque Four Thousand Islands.

As enjoyable as the sightseeing, we were lucky enough to share the boat with several interesting people from the UK, France, Australia and the Ukraine. It’s amazing the kind of friendship you can form over a few good Southeast Asian meals and some sightseeing. The discussions were lively, covering topics from Moscow kitchy wedding practices to inane Hollywood gossip (it seems everyone thinks Tom Cruise is, in fact, gay—-not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Adventures in Luang Prabang, Laos.

We continue to love this little town. It was designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1995 because of its excellent examples of French colonial architecture and numerous impressive Buddhist temples. We hiked Phu Si for a stunning sunset. On reaching the top, however, we encountered two young Lao women hawking birds crammed into incredibly small bamboo cages (pictured). Apparently Siddhartha was fond of freeing birds during his lifetime, so these locals are able to sell the birds—two to a cage—to tourists who feel they are following the Buddha’s example.

Incensed, we tried to make these women understand—as if it’s not obvious—the cruelty of imprisoning two birds in a 2” x 2” cage. I wrote the word “CRUEL” on a piece of paper and told one of the girls to look it up when she got home. Because she is Buddhist (and therefore believes in reincarnation), I suggested she would likely come back as an imprisoned animal in her next life. They didn’t seem to care. Though we don’t want to encourage them in this scheme, we attempted to purchase all of the birds for 60,000 kip; they refused. Finally, after much debate, we broke down and bought two cages—four birds. While I hummed the melody to Lynard Skynard’s “Freebird,” we pried open the cages and watched the birds fly into the sunset.

Today, I took a Lao cooking class, taught by Leng Lee, of the Tamnak Restaurant. Among the dishes we made was the crowd-pleasing Luang Prabang Salad (pictured). Other favorites included Chicken Larp and Tamnak Lao Jeowbong (chili paste). Tomorrow, we’re going to rent a bicycle and visit the Royal Palace Museum. On Monday, we'll fly to Pakse.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The "S" In Laos Is Silent.

We crossed the Thailand border into Laos at Huay Xai and boarded a “slow boat” down the Mekong River. It was a two day journey to the quaint city of Luang Prabang, stopping overnight at Pak Beng, where we decided to spend two nights at the excellent LuangSay Lodge. After three months of traveling, we finally managed to get completely “off the grid” in a village that had absolutely no internet access.

The slow boat cruised past varied terrain, small Laotian fishing villages and elephant-assisted logging projects. We were certainly among the only Americans on the boat, which gave us a strange feeling when we learned that, while “in the 1950s Laos received more American aid per person than any other country . . . [i]n the 1970s it received more bombs from America than any other country.” Viewing the undeveloped, peaceful scenery as we floated past, it was difficult to come to terms with the fact that, during the 1960s and 70s, the U.S. bombing was equivalent to a bomb dropped every 9 minutes for two years.

Arriving at Luang Prabang at sunset, we enjoyed a candlelight dinner of Laotian cuisine. We will remain here for a few days before moving on, either further south into Laos and Cambodia, or taking a flight to Hanoi, Vietnam.

Happy Birthday Dad!

We wish you a very happy birthday. We wish you were along with us to celebrate. We look forward to the big celebration for the big Eight-O next year!

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Museum of World Insects.

I’m a sucker for bugs. For example, I got excited to see a giant centipede our first night in Koh Samui. So when I saw in our book that Chiang Mai has a Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders, I had to see it. Not only does the museum boast sizeable collections of insects ranging from tarantulas to giant stick bugs, but the curator, Manop (pictured), is a bit of a philosopher (and an amateur painter) as well. His quotes are hung throughout the museum. He writes, for example, that “Nature’s way is the true way of god’s creation, this way balances the ecological system by acts of sympathy, generosity and purity.” Heather was a trooper, since she came along with minimal fuss even though she’s not so much of an insect lover. We ended the day with a very late Thai lunch at the grand Four Seasons Resort.

Comment by Heather: You see what I have to put up with???? Insect museum?!! And, Alex left out the part about it taking an hour of walking in the hot sun and being lost before we could locate this “special” museum. But, the truth is – we had a great time at the museum. The curator who greeted us at the door is this charming, nutty, brainy Thai gentleman who worked at the Smithsonian in Washington DC; has published studies on mosquito species; and weaves his own personal anecdotes and spiritual love of nature throughout the museum.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Hey Everybody, It's Time for "Monk Chat."

There are apparently 300 or more Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We visited two today, including the Wat Chedi Luang. The “chedi” collapsed during an earthquake in 1545; only partial ruins remain (pictured). A feature of this wat (temple) is the availability of monks to chat with visitors about the temple, Buddhism or anything else. We met with a 32 year old monk, Terdpitak. I took pictures while Heather grilled him on the finer points of Buddhist thought. Later we cruised a giant nighttime bazaar which stretched over several streets; it was like Third Street Promenade on steroids. What strikes us both about Chiang Mai is how peaceful it is and how the Thais in this region seem like the most gentle people on earth.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Sand, Sea and an Unwanted Roommate.

We hopped a ferry from Ko Samui to Ko Tao, another island of southern Thailand which is reputed to be among the best diving and snorkeling islands in southern Thailand. The amazing view from the balcony of our room at the Black Tip Diving Resort shows what 600 baht ($17) will buy you here (cold water shower, of course). A bit rusty on our scuba skills, we did a “check dive” course with divemaster Mark from Brighton, England. While searching for sharks (we didn’t see any), we encountered breathtaking corral and beautiful fish, including a large parrotfish. Coming back for a shower, we found this “guest” waiting in our bathroom—hungry for a slab of meat, probably.

Next, we make our way back to Ko Samui, and onto Chiang Mae, in northern Thailand.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy New Year!!

We escaped the bombings in Bangkok and flew to the southern island of Ko Samui. We arrived in time to celebrate New Year's Eve. We walked Chawaeng beach and toasted the new year at midnight. We spent the day snorkeling. Tomorrow we're going to the smaller island of Ko Tao, for even better snorkeling. Are these beach sunset pictures becoming cliche yet?