Southeast Asia, Part I

Region:  Vietnam, Cambodia, Lao, and Thailand
Length:  3 week trip

What a calm and centering foray into a previously unexplored part of the world.  I will dearly miss the ripe fruits and freshly squeezed juices, cheap and spicy streetside meals, multitude of massages under $5 an hour, slow and friendly ease of the residents, electricity-less villages, and brightly colored temples.

Photos

 
Vietnam
 
Cambodia
 
Laos
 
Thailand

  • Photos from Vietnam including Saigon city sights, Reunification and War Remants museum, and terrific day-long Vespa ride through Mekong Delta countryside
  • Photos from Cambodia:  including Phnom Pehn, Ankor temples, and Siem Reap
  • Photos from Lao:  including Luang Prabang and terrific trip along Mekong to remote island villages
  • Photos from Thailand:  including Chiang Mai, awesome 3-day trekking trip to hilltribe villages, joint day long thai massage lesson with Atilla the Hun, and Bangkok
Vietnam
Greeting:  Sin chow

I arrived from the airport off an international flight, showered, and set out on a humid and soggy walking tour of the city. I ran into the main markets and found a great straw hat ($3; didn't even try to bargain) similar to what I was about to spend $55 for in Harvard Sq. I also got some beaded hair combs to reduce the stickiness factor. Fortified, I marched on to the Reunification Palace and then the War Remnants Museum, all visceral and somewhat propagandistic reminders of the US involvement in Vietnam. Chastened and
someone nauseated by the "tiger cages," consequences of Agent Orange (horrifying photos of massively disfigured kids, some born as recently as 5 years ago), and US Army jeeps and helicopters, I walked back across town for a liter-sized beer ($1) which I drank in a miniature sized red plastic chair perched within whizzing distance of motor scooters. The city is alive with motorcycles! Everywhere, every direction, everything perched on the seats and handlebars, including massive boxes and complete families with kids. Though few kids wear helmets... I was told the parents think it deforms the head. They should see what an accident does! Anyway NYC and Boston gave me the confidence to cross the street like a "Frogger" pro. After a dinner I treated myself to a manicure and pedicure ($3) and then bed.

Today presented such a different and wondrous side of the country that I am officially enchanted. I joined a 7 hr vintage Vespa tour of the Mekong Delta via the terrific Vietnam Vespa Adventures. I chickened out on riding my own but got to ride on the back of the guide's, which freed up my hands for plenty of picture taking and my eyes for drinking in the amazing sights of a verdant rural countryside (30 miles from the city) full of markets which rarely see westerners, ferry crossings, old wooden bridges, narrow paths through shrimp farms and rice fields and thatched homes, past gravestones and temples and tons of adorable waving kids and men sitting in the shade playing cards and an incense stick maker (we stopped for a visit) and 3 separate delicious stops for delicious, delectable, local specialties. Yummers!!!  Finished the day with a surreal and hyper-sensory visit to a blind masseur ($4 for an hour) and a manicure/pedicure ($3).

Trip from Cambridge to Saigon: under $100, thanks to frequent flier points, but really... Priceless.


Cambodia
Greeting: Johm riab sua

After 3 days exploring Ankor temples, including 2 by bicycle, my hats are off to the tens of thousands that built them. Truly astounding-- especially that they stretch over miles of land. My favorite was the jungle-strewn ruins of Ta Prohm, built around 900 yrs ago in honor of a leper-king's mother. Nearly 80,000 were required to create and service it, and the temple establishment lived off the revenues of 3140 villages. As my new favorite travelogue (A Dragon Apparent, published in 1951) says: 

"Ta Prohm is an arrested catalysm. In its invasion, the forest has not broken though it, but poured over the top, and the many courtyards have become cavities and holes for the forest's false bottom."

Of the 3 massages I received in Cambodia, my 2 favorite were $2 for 30 min vigorous foot massages given in lawn chairs in the middle of the night market. Fabulously firm pressure and excellent people watching. 

I shouldn't have bothered to exchange any money-- Siem Reap and Phnom Pehn run on US dollars, with $1 to vendors purchasing a cold drink (fresh coconut with straw, bottle of water, or soda) or a freshly sliced small pineapple. $2 buys a ride in a tuk-tuk -- a little covered carriage attached to a motorcycle. They are omnipresent. By the way, though all adults wear helmets, only about a quarter use the chin strap. 

Though I deliberately avoided the killing fields, you really can't help but see the effects of the "war."  I went out of my way to purchase from victims of landmines and, in one case, a former soldier whose hands were chopped off. I also hired a driver with one eye to take me to the airport... But he sent his brother instead. 

I greatly enjoyed some Khmer ritual dances, and jumped at the chance at the stunning Bayan temple for a photo opp with dancers. 

Khmer (the language of people in Cambodia) counts in cycles of 5. So 6 is "5 + 1". 

News flash! Cambodian women bring back Jazzercize!  A large group of mainly middle aged women dancing to amplified pop tunes along the waterfront boardwalk in Phnom Pehn was one of the highlights of my evening wanderings. A group further out of town focused on more complex Michael Jackson-like moves. 

About to take a flight to Luang Prabang, Laos. This is more efficient than the 14 hr bus rides that got me here from Saigon (it would take 3 days by buses), but I'll miss the views from the window. 

Lao (aka Laos)
Greeting: Sabidee 

I have had an extraordinary time in Laos (officially the Lao People's Democratic Republic; it seems "Laos" came about as a mistranslation from the French) where, recently, I finally feel I got off the beaten track. Of course that consisted of departing from French colonial Luang Prabang (after a day of exploring the pagoda temples, massage options, and abundant but well-organized night market) for an 8 hour scenic boat ride along the Mekong to Nong Khiaw, where I spent night in riverside bungalow w hammock, and then an additional 2 hour boat ride to a small village only accessible by boat called Muang Ngoi, which has become an extraordinary highlight on this trip. It has no electricity, only a generator that works from 6 to 10pm, but perhaps because of the luminous full moon the lights didn't work and it didn't seem to matter. I was awakened 2 nights by a surreal and mystical ritual drumming at 4am which turned out to come from the monastery next to the bungalow... In honor of the upcoming full moon. Then at 5:30am he neighboring roosters crowed, at 6am the monks drummed to announce the alms procession, and by daybreak at 6:30 the world was alive with birds singing. A fabulous symphony of sounds.  

The most rigorous thing I did was a hike along paths and bamboo ladders to nearby caves which were said to be used during the war (I think when the US dropped 1.9 million tons of bombs on Laos; compared to the 2.2 million tons dropped by all countries during all of WWII; another sobering US legacy). The caves were high up and extraordinarily deep and long... Perhaps a half to 3/4 mile. Locals were said to cook in them during bombing campaign and though I only saw signs of smoke at the mouth of the cave, the deeper interiors had some rusting tins and tools. 

I made a new friend! This is a wonderful thing not just for the company but also because it proved my suspicion that locals and foreigners are much more willing to approach and talk if there are two of you. We spent a majority of time lounging on pillows on a deck overlooking karst mountains and the Mekong River, holding audience with others. He demonstrated how effective cigarettes can be as a "social tool"-- a middle aged resident named Ping came over to bum a cigarette and in serviceable English explained his life as a rice farmer and fisherman, and how tourism has transformed the once isolated village. Priceless. Though I still don't care for smoking, I noticed that 95% of travelers do. 

Another highlight was a swim in Mekong and then a local water taxi pulled up and "docked" on beach right in front of us. I covered up quickly but then we spent 20 minutes 20 feet away from each other, shyly and curiously staring before the boat pulled away. 

On the trip back yesterday we ran out of petrol and had to wait 30 min for another boat to pass and siphon off some for us, and then in the final stretch I took a 5 hr local bus which filled and emptied with the requisite families, bulky parcels, cooking pots, and roosters. At one point we all except for a blind man had to get off while the poor driver fixed a flat and swapped sides for 4 tires. Then he asked all the men (presumably heavier, though my ego is grateful he didn't weigh me!) to sit together in the front left of the bus since that was the only way we'd make it back on the threadbare back tires. I got a good chuckle out of that.

One final story. A few days ago in Luang Prabang I woke up at 545 for the famous alms procession, where the monks clad in tangerine robes file down the street with bowls, requesting food. Though I intended to unobtrusively observe, I decided to support the local economy by purchasing a woman's sticky rice and something wrapped in banana leaves. She told me to take off my shoes and sit on the sidewalk. Soon enough there was a onslaught of single file monks with open bowls. I did my best clumsily plopping on a half handful to rice to each banana leaf and depositing it in every other hungry monk's bowl until I mercifully ran out. But then the woman, who had only managed to secure me as a customer, opened additional bamboo baskets and caught up in the moment I thought she didn't want to waste the food and reluctantly agreed to continue my version of the I Love Lucy chocolate factory scene. A couple times I begged for relief but got the impression that it was sacrilege to stop. However she kept rhythmically saying this same thing, pointing to the food and monks and me, and after The 10th time I finally decided it must be the ceremonial equivalent of "peace be with you" and that I would mutter I under my breath, so when dumping in the food package I added what sounded like "mohmonay". Finally there was a break in the line and she became more insistent and I realized she was saying that I needed to pay for all of the additional food I served-- in other words, "more money!". I was mortified that my only communication attempts with the holy monks had been to advise them on financial matters.  Anyway, such is the way of occasional cultural miscommunication!  :)


Thailand
Greeting: Sa wad dee kaw 

Another delightful new travel companion and I joined an unexpectedly excellent 3 day trek in northern Thailand. It included surprisingly rigorous and satisfying  electricity-less trekking through hills and jungles and waterfalls and villages, an overnight in a hill tribe family's bamboo house with superlative views of banana trees and a deep, wide valley below, an overnight at an elephant camp, a riverside elephant ride and sugarcane feedings to a baby, a whitewater rafting adventure, and a float on a bamboo raft steered by a single super long bamboo stick, which yours truly got to captain. Special bonus: lots of interaction with cute kids in the villages, who entertained us with bubble blowing, songs, judicious distribution of banana leaves, and string trick magic. Perhaps coincidentally, the 4 of us who opted for a full 3 day trek were from the US, and the 2 brothers made great entertainment around the campfire with their guitar and voices. We were also treated to the guide's Thai folk songs-- when he wasn't in an opium-induced stupor-- and to a local boy's rendition of folk songs in his tribe's dialect. 

Uncomfortable stop at a "long neck" village, where even young girls wore multiple tight fitting gold neck braces that extended the lengths of their necks. I understand that the custom originated because Burmese villagers used it to prevent their women from being sold into slavery, but now it seems a painful way to bring in dollars from gawking tourists.

Upon return to Chiang Mai we checked back into the same guesthouse. Its teak wood construction, airy ceilings, fountain-filled garden and kind Thai owner helped compensate for 6 sound-porous bedrooms having to share only one bathroom. Fortunately I did not have the room neighboring a hyperactive goose, but I did have a battle with a mosquito who refused to leave the conical bridal veil of netting overhanging my bed. 

Other highlights from Chiang Mai were strolling through the outdoor Sunday evening market of handicrafts, yummy food stalls, and foot massagers, where vendors and throngs of strollers alike come to a silent standstill during the Thai national anthem; a 9 hr private Thai massage lesson conducted by a Thai Atilla the Hun; stumbling across a rocking festival for women's rights, which featured an exhibit on female sex workers and the stunning, high heel clad Miss Transgender Chiang Mai; a "4 hands" (2 masseuse) massage at the fanciest spa in town; detachment contemplation  and sketching of Buddha images in shady respites, and some amazingly tasty meals. 

One of the downsides of taking an overnight bus to Bangkok is being so groggy at 5:30am that you leave your hiking boots under the seat. However, a benefit is having no choice but to stroll around the early morning city, senses sharpened by heat and humidity, observing Bangkokians doing their daily rituals as the sun rises: barefoot monks collecting food donations from outdoor markets, shopkeepers sweeping their sidewalk and sometimes dumping the trash in the river, various groups of exercise enthusiasts (instructor-led aerobics, tai chi with a dramatic red fan, yogis, joggers, and walkers) in the local parks, an affectionate young couple looking at porn on an iPad, a gold bling covered middle aged man taking time to polish his nails while setting
up a sidewalk stall. At one park a 57 yr old man named Pravate sat down on the bench next to me to practice his English for half an hour (strangely, his limited vocabulary included Hilter and Aryan), tell me about his English teacher Eric from 40 years ago, and insist on having photos taken of us. I visited the Wat Pho temple just as it opened, basking in the Buddha representations-- especially the 142 foot Reclining Buddha, and then stumbled onto a 10 cent ferry which crossed the river to Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn. Later in the day I had my final street vendor pad thai, liter of beer at a curbside cafe, and what turned out to be one of the best of 15+ massages. All this for under $8, as I forgot my ATM password over a week ago and have just enough cash left to take the train to the airport. 

More Information
  • Visa.  It's very helpful to have extra passport-sized photos and exact change in US dollars to purchase the visas at border crossings.
    • Vietnam: $85 for single-entry visa.  Since I was flying into Vietnam, I had to send in my passport and a money order to the Vietnam Embassy in Washington DC to secure the visa no later than 2 weeks in advance of my departure; click here for Vietnam tourist visa requirements and prices
    • Cambodia: $25 for eVisa.  I elected to use the Cambodia eVisa online system, which still required my printing the online submission and getting processed at the border, but was otherwise smooth. Note that the eVisa is not valid at all border crossings. Though you can purportedly avoid bribe requests with the eVisa, the cost of requesting a visa on arrival is about the same.
    • Laos: $35 for visa, provided at arrival to Laos. More information on entry requirements for US citizens.
    • Thailand: US citizen tourists staying less than 30 days do not require a visa.
  • Immunizations 
  • Transportation
    • I took the exemplary Cathay Pacific between the US and Southeast Asia.  It helps that my frequent flier miles earned me business class seats... cannot recommend highly enough!
    • Between Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and Siem Reap, Cambodia I took a "VIP" bus, with an overnight in Phnom Pehn.  It was about 6-7 hours each leg, comfortable seats with US and then Cambodian pop music videos, costing US$20 total.
    • Between Siem Reap, Cambodia and Luang Prabang, Laos, I took a flight on Lao Airways, costing US$220.  I purchased the flight online in advance.
    • Between Luang Prabang, Laos, and Muang Ngoi, Laos, I took 2 boats.  I purchased the 8-hr boat ticket from a travel agent in Luang Prabang, and then paid dockside for the 2-hr boat ticket.  On the return I took a 5-hr shuttle from Nong Khiaw.
    • Between Luang Prabang, Laos, and Chiang Mai, Thailand, I took a flight on Law Airways, costing US$160.  I purchased the flight from a travel agent in LP using a credit card.
    • Between Chiang Mai and Bangkok, Thailand, I took an overnight "VIP" bus, with air conditioning and leg room.  I purchased the ticket from a travel agent in Chiang Mai and it cost US$13.
  • Lodging Recommendations
    • I stayed in mid-range hotels (US$20-30/night), guesthouses (US$10-20/night), bungalows ($5-10/night), family homes, and elephant camp.  All were fine, though they varied as expected on the provision of electricity, bathroom situations, cleanliness of linen, etc.  I never travel overseas without my compact silk sleep sack.

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