Friends and Fireworks

Nothing too new to report, as we have been living out our Thailand days as beach bums. However, the highlight for us this month has been the visit we received from our friends back home. Since we found out that three of our friends had booked flights to Thailand we had been counting down the days. Aside from family, and a few friends we were able to meet up with along the way, this has been the first time that anyone has taken up the challenge, saved up their vacation time, and left home to come and see us.

Not everything went according to plan. After all, this is Thailand. There are bugs and bats, beggars and ladyboys, and scams and sales pitches abound. The cleanliness of food stalls and other such facilities are not always on par with Western standards. You don’t always get what you pay for (and unfortunately, sometimes you do). The climate is stifling. The mosquitos relentless. In addition, Jeff and I have been in “travel mode” for so long now that we have become accustomed and desensitized to so many of these travel woes and elements of culture shock. Things that would have caused some grief, from bugs in my food and dirty bathrooms to not knowing what tomorrow has in store, are now just a part of life. There are stark contrasts between being tourists on vacation and travelers on a budget. And yet, we were able to find a sort of balance, share our experiences, and best of all spend lots of time together. So for all these reasons and more, we are equally touched, impressed, and grateful that our friends took the leap across the ocean.

Dinner on Koh Phi Phi

Dinner on Koh Phi Phi

We explored the Andaman Coast, spending some time eating and kayaking around Ao Nang, with a side trip to the beautiful Rai Leh Bay in Krabi. We took a ferry to Ko Phi Phi for a few days where we got in some beach time, went rock climbing up limestone karsts, did some snorkeling and swimming around the island, and partook in one night of beach partying with free buckets of alcohol. Good food, good friends, free drinks = best time.

After Peterson and Jenny headed back to Bangkok for their flight home, Eugene, Jeff and I hopped on yet another ferry to check out Koh Lanta. Laid-back hardly begins to describe it. Compared to Koh Phi Phi, Lanta is like a very shy, distant cousin. To liven things up for the Lunar New Year, the guys decided that fireworks were in order. While I was busy contemplating the fascination that males have with fireworks and worrying about burning faces, appendages, and buildings, Jeff returned with a large bag and a huge smile announcing that he had blown the day’s budget on the contents of the bag (which I am sure would not be legal in most states). Suffice it to say, after stuffing ourselves at a $3 all-you-can-eat hot pot buffet, we welcomed the Year of the Tiger with a literal bang.

Posted: February 18th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Thailand | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

On the “Kohs” From Here On Out

The Gulf of Thailand. Home to over 1,000 tropical islands, both inhabited and uninhabited, and where we intend to remain for the next month or so, as we island hop our way around paradise. If that means getting seasick (which it does), then so be it. For us, our beach bumming began in Koh Tao, which means “turtle island”. No turtle sightings for us, but a good place to hang for a week and slow down the pace. We stayed at a budget resort in Chalok Beach. While the words “budget” and “resort” may not necessarily appear together on a Taboo card, we have found that they work out quite nicely for us. While the accommodations range from basic bungalows to air conditioned villas with every amenity, we are more than happy to fork out the $10-15 per night for a fan room with cold water, while still reaping the benefits of resort life. Peace and quiet. Sea and garden views. Even an infinity swimming pool overlooking the beach!

Making good use of the pool

Making good use of the pool

First Koh Tao activity-snorkeling in Shark Bay, an easy walk from our room. So we grabbed our snorkel gear and headed off. The road leading to the bay had been closed, so we were told that the only way to access it was to swim from another bay farther up the coast. As luck would have it, I had brought along my new dry bag, purchased the previous night after a bit of bargaining. Into the bag went everything we had, clothes, towel, camera, money. We clipped our flip flops on to the outside. Jeff slung the bag over his shoulder and we dove in for the swim. The snorkeling in Shark Bay was disappointing, but the bag did its job. It was my turn to carry the bag on the return trip. For most of the swim, I was having a grand time pretending to re-enact the scene from “The Beach”, as a shorter, Asian version of Francoise, swimming her butt off to reach the legendary island. We found out much later, that had we stayed on the rocks and NOT swum to Shark Bay, we could have snorkeled with about 50 sharks. Bummer. Go figure.

Food in Koh Tao is expensive (in our experience more so than most anywhere else in Thailand). Our friends from home were on vacation, with Koh Tao as one of their stops, and aside from one amazing dinner which they generously treated us to, our pockets definitely took a hit. We resorted to dry packaged ramen again for a couple of meals (which is slightly more classy when enjoyed from the balcony of one’s room). Even the local non-western catering restaurants seemed to be in on it. Oh, would we like rice with our rice dish? Then that will be an extra 20 baht. Puh-lease. Time to head off.

Busy day

Busy day

We are now on Koh Phagnan, the second largest island in the Southern Gulf archipelago, where the full moon parties are the stuff of travel legend. We plan on staying here for at least a week, which will put us right here for the full moon. The problem is, we’re not ravers, nor heavy partiers. I don’t like techno music. I really don’t like large crowds of drunk people (unless I am one of them). Okay, so that’s more than one problem. But, how could we be on Koh Phagnan during the full moon party in high season and NOT attend the festivities? This should be good. Stay tuned.

Posted: January 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Thailand | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Travel-versary

01/07/10
Today marks our 365th day of travel. And what better way to mark our one-year “travel-versary” than by a full day on the road?  The morning began in much the same way as it did a year ago, with us packing our backpacks and walking out the door. This time we boarded a bus bound for Sukhothai. I secured a window seat, and settled in for the 7+ hour ride which would give me plenty of time to reflect.

I looked out the window as the bus pulled out of the station. It was hard to believe that last year at this time, I was staring out a tiny window…but crying my eyes out and simultaneously acting as an immediate buzz-kill for Jeff, who prior to my sniffling was totally amped. In case you’re interested, he does a re-enactment of this scene (badly). Maybe he’ll show you if you ask. As embarrassing as it is to recall now, this episode serves as a marker of how far I’ve come.

There are small differences and larger ones. As for the little changes, if there was some debate, it is now official. I can go an entire year without make-up (gasp) or heels (big gasp) and wearing only the clothes I can carry. There are a few more freckles on my face and the rest of me about twelve shades darker, however temporary. I can kill a cockroach and eat a grasshopper. The cravings for Western comforts, while greatly appreciated, have slowly become less necessary. Plus, I can pee anywhere, including off a tree or in the nastiest of nasty public toilets. Woohoo! But that’s all small stuff.

The best part of travel--making new friends

The best part of travel--making new friends

As for bigger differences….well, I think that remains to be seen. It’s easy to be affected and feel like a different person when you’re out of your comfort zone and being challenged everyday. But the other side of this experience is whether or not we have grown enough to make changes in our daily lives once we’re back home, where it will be all too easy to slip back into old habits. We’ll see how it goes. I hope this trip will continue to affect us always, and that we will go about our daily lives differently as a reflection of it. It is hard to say how or what form these changes will take, since we are still out here on the road. I can be a little extreme, a little bit “all or nothing” and as Jeff usually reminds me, it will be about balancing the changes we want to make, with the reality of our lives once we get back. As the months have somehow dwindled to weeks, the usual challenges of negotiating a fair price or securing lodging will give way to negotiating salaries or securing a parking space, but the long term challenge will be finding a balance between our “travel selves” and our actual selves. Or maybe they are now one and the same. It’s been a recurring dilemma, particularly for me. Good thing we still have several weeks to figure it out.

Posted: January 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Thailand | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment »

Time for Thailand

Our travels have finally brought us to our final destination country. Thailand. We plan to stay as long as we can (read: until our visas run out), “why?” you ask? Well, because it’s Thailand. Although truthfully, we could have easily stayed longer in the vast majority of countries on our itinerary.

We crossed from Cambodia to Thailand at the Poipet/Aranya-Prathet land crossing. Just across an invisible line, lay our newest host country and while crossing was procedurally seamless, the difference couldn’t have been more obvious. Upon walking across the border to find a Bangkok-bound bus, the first things we noticed were a couple of shiny casinos at border’s edge, and outdoor bars and ATMs galore. We’re not in Cambodia anymore, Toto. Welcome to Thailand!

First meal in Thailand

First meal in Thailand

We arrived into Central Bangkok that evening and were welcomed by the sight of bright signs and neon, traffic lights and jams, street food vendors, and well-heeled ladies (and lady boys!) passing by the taxi window. Instead of playing our usual game of “find-a-guesthouse”, we were extremely fortunate to stay at the condo of a friend of mine. It was awesome and we almost didn’t want to leave. The views alone could have kept us entertained for a few days. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, when you’re on the road, there is nothing like than getting to stay in someone’s home and appreciating the creature comforts. We’ve been lucky enough to be hosted a handful of times throughout our journey, and for us, the opportunity always seems to come at the right time. Thank you again. All of you.

After prying ourselves away from Bangkok, we made it to Nakhon-Ratchasima (aka Khorat) to see some pre-Angkorian ruins (guess we didn’t get enough at Angkor??), and where we also celebrated the New Year in local style. An outdoor festival with tons of great food (heavenly) and live music (less heavenly) and other surprises (such as an actual snow-filled dome and holiday displays). We enjoyed the atmosphere and took it all in.

Bag of coke at Chatachuk Market (doubles as an icepack when done)

Bag of coke at Chatachuk Market (doubles as an icepack when done)

A couple of nights ago in Surin, while waiting for our meals at an outdoor street table, Jeff grabbed my arm, staring over my shoulder. My first thought was that there must be a cockroach on the back of my chair, but luckily for both of us, it turned out that Jeff was merely staring at a baby elephant walking around with a couple of handlers. For a few cents, we got a bag containing several sticks of sugar cane (or something resembling sugar cane) to feed to him. The little guy was a bit impatient (referring to the elephant), trying to get the sticks out of the bag on his own, but it was a great bout of evening entertainment. Plus, how often do you get to feed a baby elephant during dinner? I have a feeling Thailand will be full of surprises.

Posted: January 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Thailand | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Cambodia Eats

Again, as with so many elements of this trip, I didn’t know what to expect when it came to the cuisine of Cambodia. I thought about it. No signature dish or flavor came to mind. Time to test the waters!

So far, it’s been a mixed bag. As you know, we tend to frequent the street stalls and local street vendors, where menus are unheard of and the food is (almost) always more than worth the cents spent. In other words, street food has been good to us. So we expected more of the same in Cambodia. Maybe we’re not hitting up the right stalls. Nothing’s been horrible, but there’s nothing to write home about either. Lots of instant noodles with various toppings, rice porridge, and bland soups, and the ever present fried rice or noodles. However, we have slowly discovered that some of the restaurant prices are only slightly higher than the streets’. Once this discovery was made, we’ve taken to hunting down cheap restaurants with good food and have had some great success. Where Khmer street food may have fallen a bit flat on our palates, Khmer restaurant food has been outstanding.

Garlic pepper chicken (with famous fresh Kampot peppers)

Garlic pepper chicken (with famous fresh Kampot peppers)

The best curry to date (albeit a Thai style curry), has been had in Sihanoukville. Best fruit salad? Phnom Penh. A garlic pepper chicken that was so good, we went back and ordered it for lunch the next day. A couple nights Jeff even treated himself to barbecued barracuda (with salad and baked potato) for $3….which he thoroughly enjoyed, even if he didn’t enjoy my sneaky fork tactics. And if anybody is wondering about the “happy pizzas”…ours was a better than average pizza, but we have decided that a more appropriate title would be “relax-y pizza”, since shortly after polishing it off, I fell asleep in the middle of a conversation discussing how relaxed we were feeling. This, thankfully back at our guest house, not in the restaurant!

Neither of us has encountered the highly anticipated tarantula, scorpion, or other such fried nasty on a stick, and other than for a photo op, I’m not really looking forward to that moment. In the meantime, I’ll be happily digging into what may be my next new favorite Khmer dish.

Happy Jeff with a "happy pizza"

Happy Jeff with a "happy pizza"

Note: Shortly after writing this blog, we have had great luck with street food again in Siem Reap.

Posted: December 19th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Cambodia | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Untitled

12/7/09
We’ve been traveling for quite some time now. Being on the road has slowly become not just an adventure, but also a way of life, however temporary. Most days are filled with something new, something amazing, or something unexpected, and usually we feel rewarded and fulfilled. But just as important, there are days like today.

We have been in Cambodia for two days now. It is everything and nothing like people have said, which is why we are grateful for the chance to see it for ourselves (more on this in an upcoming blog). After visiting the Tuol Seng Museum (aka S-21 or Security Prison 21) where an estimated 17,000 Cambodians were held, tortured, and killed during the Khmer Rouge regime, we headed a few miles out of Phnom Penh to the Choeung Ek Genocide Center, simply and bluntly referred to as “the killing fields”. There are no words that can fully describe the terror or the pain and suffering that occurred here. I could try, but I would fail to capture the horrific magnitude of what took place in recent history. Just like I can try, but fail to understand how human beings can do such things to other human beings, and how we continue to fail to learn from history.

Classroom turned prison cells

Classroom turned prison cells

The brief knowledge I had of the Khmer Rouge was pretty ummm…shall we say, basic. By that, I mean all I really knew was that they were a political party that terrorized Cambodia during the 1970s and tortured and killed thousands of their own people in order to build a self sustaining communist country of workers. But knowing the “basics” is not enough. That knowledge gleaned from a few lines of info in some news article or textbook does not do justice to the victims and their families. Some people wonder why places like these are preserved and made into tourist sights. It’s a valid question. Particularly for victims or surviving family members whose only wish is to forget or who want their loved ones’ remains respected and properly cremated, in order to honor them according to Buddhist tradition. But as a tourist, I can say that the value of preserving and maintaining such places is necessary. Change can only come from education. And the lessons gained from visiting the very site where unspeakable acts took place have far reaching effects.

We stood inside the cells and walked through the halls of the former high school-turned-prison in S-21. Even now, there’s a ghostly sadness all around. We stared at the gallows, really gymnastic high-bars turned into torture devices, complete with the original jugs that were once filled with fecal matter into which victims heads were submerged. We read about the ideology and practices of the Khmer Rouge. You were killed if you were a doctor, teacher, student, monk, military or government officer, artist, writer, singer, actor, “intellectual” (or if you wore glasses) or city dweller. Only peasants were spared in order to create a population of self sustaining farmers. Money was abolished. Cities evacuated. Buildings destroyed. The regime created such a sense of distrust among the people, that no one could trust a living soul. They separated men from women, parents from children. If you were suspected or reported as doing anything against the rules, you were taken to one of the “security centers” and tortured into giving a false confession, then executed. Friend betrayed friend, neighbor killed neighbor, and in many cases sibling turned against sibling.

Today at the “killing field” we came face to face with the mass gravesites. In some areas, there are still piles of bones set aside. We saw the stupa filled with level upon level of the nearly 20,000 skulls that have been exhumed thus far. We saw the “killing tree” where children and babies were killed by holding their ankles and smashing their heads against the tree. There were even faded articles of clothing in a small heap at the base of the tree along with some bones. It crushed my heart.

Clothing and bones in the shadow of the "killing tree".

In the shadow of the "Killing Tree"

To say this blog entry is depressing would be an understatement. But to not blog about it at all would fail to capture our experience and would be unfair to the people who lost their lives and those who continue to suffer. It dawned on me during our tuk-tuk ride that every single person we come across in our Cambodian travels who appears to be at least our age or older, is a survivor of the reign of the Khmer Rouge. This astounds me. That this is all so recent that it’s barely classifiable as history. And with the trial currently taking place, it must be opening some old wounds for much of the population today.

The Holocaust. “Ethnic Cleansing”. Somalia. Haiti. Rwanda. Darfur. There are no comparisons to be made when it comes to crimes against humanity. Only shame…anger…disgust….and also hope. We can’t change the past. Green grass now covers the pits of the mass graves, but that doesn’t change what happened there. If we learn from the mistakes of the past, then there is hope. Given the state of the world today, we are still a long way away. But for each museum or site of this nature that we’ve visited, I have not been the only tourist with tears in my eyes. And despite the outside daily clamour, it is respectfully, sometimes shockingly silent. People emerge changed. There is hope.

Posted: December 13th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Cambodia | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

A Tad High in Tadlo

Despite what some may infer from this blog title, we have not yet partaken in the special pizzas offered on many a menu in Laos. Usually dubbed “happy pizzas” or “space pizzas”, they are cooked special to order with your herb of choice. Not something that would fly in the states, but apparently legal here. Maybe we’ll give it a shot in Cambodia, another place well known for its pizzas, and chalk it up to another “when in Rome…” moment. But, I digress.

Tadlo is a teeny town in Southern Laos, known by tourists for its waterfalls and as a place where one can trek through the forests atop an elephant. To get to Tadlo, we took an overnight bus from the capital, Vientiane, to the town of Pakse. Having now been on our fair share of overnight buses, our expectations were pretty much set. At best, we figured we were in for individual clean-enough reclining beds and maybe even a stinky but working on-bus toilet. At worst, we geared ourselves up for not-so-clean, semi-reclining chair-beds, middle of the night pit stops, and loud Lao music blaring out of the speakers all night long. Maybe the stars aligned, because the bus gods were kind to us, and our 11-hour trip turned out to be the best overnight bus journey to date. As we entered the upper deck, semi-private double beds awaited us. If you happen to be a solo traveler, this is a potential hazard, but for us, it was perfect. The sleepers were clean, the toilet was only slightly disgusting, but best and most surprising of all (in addition to a peaceful music-less night), we were given dinner, bottled water, then dessert, and packaged towelettes (for freshy!). We were reluctant to get off the bus in the morning.

From Pakse, we ventured out to Tadlo. After hearing animal abuse horror stories, particularly from Thailand, I was wary of hopping on any old elephant. We had heard of elephants at the very least being bribed with food, and at the worst, having hooks through their ears, or being kicked and beaten. My hope for Tadlo was that the elephants were treated respectfully and humanely. We asked a few questions before signing up for the morning walk and it turned out to be a good experience. Jeff and I both rode in a hand-made basket, stuffed with a couple of rice sacks and cushions, atop the elephant. Our non-talkative guide sat on a blanket straddling the elephant’s neck. No sticks, poles, hooks, or even treats. Aside from the occasional verbal command, we only witnessed him using his feet to push on the elephant’s ears in order to guide her. Moon (our elephant) seemed happy enough and got to eat lots and lots of vegetation all along the way as we loped through the jungle, through a village, and even forded a couple of rather strong streams. I got a chance to see our surroundings from a different point of view and it was just pretty darn cool. Blue sky above. Water, ground, people and animals below. And canopy all around. It was nothing like our camel ride in Africa where I was teetering back and forth with each step and holding on for dear life. This was leisurely and peaceful and I enjoyed my high ride. I’m hoping Moon did too. Several times, she raised her trunk very slowly back over her head, as if to say hello or make sure we were still there. I’m no expert in elephant behavior, so I hope that’s what she was communicating, as opposed to “get the heck off my back” or some similar sentiment. After we climbed down, I wanted to give her a pat and hoped to share a moment or something, but she had already started in on a huge bunch of bananas.

Hanging out with Moon

Hanging out with Moon

Posted: December 8th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Laos | Tags: , , , , , , , | No Comments »

Laos Impressions

Thus far Lao has been an unexpected surprise for us, and we are enjoying discovering its treasures day by day. I will admit (begrudgingly) that prior to last month, if I was asked to name one city in Laos, I don’t know that I could have. Embarrassing, yes. But room to grow. And now the names of towns and cities are rolling off my tongue as we pretend to know exactly where we’re headed next. Udomxai, Luang Namtha, Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane. So far each stop has proved more than worthwhile and had something new to offer.

Everywhere we go, we are greeted with a smile and a warm, “Sabaai-dee!” which we return in kind. The most refreshing part about this ritual is that it is rarely followed by any solicitation, with which we have become so accustomed to almost everywhere else. Those who do ask us to look or buy usually do so quietly and politely and often react with humor when we decline their offers, which makes for a pleasant experience all around.

Monks and bikes in Luang Prabang

Monks and bikes in Luang Prabang

Food has been outstanding, and of course, this is huge for me. With the exception of one dish made with an overpowering, nose tingling, gag reflex inducing local herb, everything has been delicious. In fact, we want to stay in each town a bit longer just for the food (among other things), just in case the next town doesn’t have the same dish, prepared the same way. Most dishes are spicy, but in a mouth-watering tasty way, as opposed to the it’s-so-spicy-i-can’t-feel-or-taste-anything way. And we choose to accompany most of our meals with awesome Lao fruit shakes which sometimes are a meal in themselves at a mere 60 cents. Still trying to figure out the secret that makes them so darn good. See ya, Jamba Juice.

When it comes to nature and the environment, Laos is the least altered environment in Southeast Asia. This is in large part due to the danger that exists as much of the land is dotted with unexploded ordnance (UXOs), which are a danger for all. As an unintended consequence, this means Lao has a greater concentration of wildlife than Thailand and surrounding countries that have been ravaged by mass tourism. Even in the cities, it’s hard to get over the number, size, and colors of the butterflies that dart about. While poaching, deforestation, and other hazards occur, conservation efforts are in effect and in force to protect the country’s natural resources, which makes eco-tourism even more important here.

At the Kuang Si waterfalls near Luang Prabang

At the Kuang Si waterfalls near Luang Prabang

I’ve also gotten favorable impressions of the larger towns, which so far really is just Luang Prabang, but wow…what a place. It is described by one writer as the most photogenic city in all of South East Asia. Sure, it’s geared toward tourists-the main areas are packed with tour operators, guesthouses, souvenir shops, bars and restaurants. But it’s also lovely and lively, with several markets and wats cared for by the many monks.  French colonial architecture, local vendors, and the Royal Palace turned museum, all sandwiched between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. A turn down a side alley takes you through peaceful, dusty pathways, where local people dry rice cakes, do daily chores, and school kids walk home in small noisy packs with dusty uniforms. We get a good feeling being here.

Getting through Laos in less than a month requires some long bus rides, but the scenery makes it worth it. We’ve been taking the local buses that drive through the mountains and villages, and I find myself gazing out the window more often than dozing off in my seat. I can’t help smiling every time someone gets off the bus at one of the interim village stops and is greeted by a welcoming committee of friends and family (and sometimes dogs and pigs), eagerly awaiting their bumpy arrival. The houses, many made of tightly woven rattan and some on stilts are simple but beautiful. We pass by women and girls in sarongs, showering and washing their hair outside their houses. Children (some clothed, others not) running around rolling bike tires with sticks–the first time I witnessed this, I thought to myself, “Wow. Kids actually do that.” In a country where the average annual income is $400, there is beauty everywhere. I don’t mean to glorify poverty in any way, as there is no question that theirs is a hard life and a hand-to-mouth existence for many (not to mention the very real risk of encountering unexploded landmines, which kill approximately 200 children every year as a result of the US-led “Secret War”). But what I also see are incredibly strong families who are very close and the value in that. Watching them gather at all times of day for a game of badminton, volleyball, or soccer never fails to warm my heart. It reminds me of a simpler time, even if I have never lived it, and that in my own life maybe, sometimes, less is more.

Posted: November 19th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Laos | Tags: , , , , , , , | No Comments »

Frozen Feeding Frenzy

Banana….Strawberry….Pistachio….Salted Caramel….Coffee Chocolate…Mint….Vanilla Macadamia….Stracciatella….Chocolate Chili…Lime….Strawberry sorbet…Tutti Frutti…Pineapple…Vanilla….Mocha…Rum Raisin…Banana (again)….Vanilla Macadamia (again)…Strawberry (again)….Chocolate Chili (again)…for a total of 20 scoops of ice cream.

Still happily going to town

Still happily going to town

Not to brag (because I probably should be ashamed), but this is what I consumed in less than an hour and a half at Fanny’s First Friday of the Month All-You-Can-Eat Ice Cream Buffet in Hanoi. You should have seen my reaction yesterday when we walked by the sign. As for my ice cream appetite, Jeff said he has never felt more proud and horrified. To his own credit, he put down 16 scoops, which is fair, but he had nothing on me.

Heaven on a sign

Heaven on a sign

If not for the crowds of fellow ice cream freaks getting a little too pushy, I would have had a few more scoops. But after Jeff got shoved out of the way by a pudgy little girl on her way to the chocolate syrup fountain and my numerous attempts to muscle my way to the front of the crowd, it seemed like a good time to make our sticky exit. At $4 a piece, it was a bit of a splurge, but not a bad way to spend our last night in Vietnam.

At the counter again.  "Please sir...may I have some more?"

At the counter again.

Posted: November 6th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Back on Two Wheels

I had deluded myself that it might be possible to go through our whole trip without having to set butt on the dreaded and ubiquitous motorbike. We went through all of Indonesia and China walking past hundreds of calls of, “Wan motobai?” with me declining or ignoring each and every one. In Vietnam, I had hoped we’d manage to avoid the touts and their bikes with increasing ease. Not so.

If you know me well, then you know the details surrounding my fear of anything on two wheels. For those of you that don’t, all you need to know is that I was in a bicycle accident in college. I took the brunt of the fall with my face. The result was an eye patch, a false tooth, a couple of scars, and consequently bike-a-phobia. Sure, I can laugh about it now. Once, several years later, I was even able to hop back on a bicycle (albeit the back seat of a tandem on an empty bike path in Tahoe).

However being faced with the prospect of hopping on the back of a motorbike was no laughing matter. I had a feeling it was going to happen at some point, and the time had come. If we wanted to get to the Marble Mountains and China Beach, motorbike it would have to be. I have been observing people on motorbikes for months now. The way the passengers nonchalantly hold on to packages of all sizes, kids and babies stowed between, up to four on a bike, as the vehicles and streets and hazards fly by, where the rules of the road are that there are none. Jeff and I each had our own motorbike, complete with driver and helmet. If I didn’t already have reservations to begin with, what definitely did the trick was the fact that printed in familiar font on my driver’s helmet and bike were letters spelling out “HONGDA”. Despite the fact that my driver was really a complete stranger, I had to resist the urge to wrap my arms around his waist and hold on tight. After all, in my analysis of motorbike passengers, the only ones I’d ever seen clutching their driver were likely also dating or married to them. So, the 15-minute ride was spent with white knuckles gripping the skinny bar behind me, legs squeezing both sides of the seat and bike, and body so tense, I thought for sure I’d be sore afterwards.

Fueling doubt

Fueling doubt

Anyway, since then I have been on a motorbike three more times. It doesn’t matter that for two of those times, I had no idea a motorbike trip was involved until it was too late (once to get to the bus station and once to get to the docks-both sans helmet, and the latter trip with all my luggage!). Good thing I had one ride under my belt because who knows how many more motorbike rides lay ahead. In fact, just today we rented our own motorbike for a day trip to a national park. And despite the inexperience of my driver, at least I was able to hold on to him for dear life without shame. Jeff said that it was fun to drive and towards the end of the ride I realized that playing passenger wasn’t as terrifying anymore. It was even fun…almost.

Posted: November 4th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »