Thursday, April 30, 2009


I took a bus from Hue to Vientiane, Laos. I paid $31 for a ticket on a "Tourist" bus. They informed me that I would have to change buses one time in Dong Ha and that it would be air-conditioned. In America, we are very used to truth in advertising and scouring the fine print to ensure we get exactly what we're promised. Traveling in Asia for a while has lowered my expectations on getting what is promised.

I got on the bus at 8:00am. It arrived in Dong Ha after a few hours and I had to get on another bus that would take me to Lao Bao to cross the border into Laos. Crossing the Laos border was uneventful. Visas were available on site and I went right on through.

Usually when traveling by public transportation, there are always some other westerners on board. This usually provides me with someone to talk to and a partner to get through a strange experience. Sometimes it's just nice to have another person to exchange blank stares with when the driver makes an announcement or makes an unexpected stop. There was only myself and a Finn on the bus. He was only going as far as Savanakett. Prior to Savanakett, the bus stopped and the driver pointed at me and said "Vientiane". So I said goodbye to the Finn and got off the bus. This bus stop was in the middle of nowhere. There was only a tiny office and a woman selling grilled chicken skewers. I tried to get some information, but no one spoke English. So I sat down on a bench. Two teenage girls started talking to me and asking me questions (not in English). After asking questions, I would respond. My usual response was, "I don't understand you." They would then look at each other and giggle. After about an hour a rickety looking local bus with some people already in it pulled up. Someone pointed at me and then pointed at the bus and said, "Vientiane". So I got on it. I was the only westerner on the bus. Even though I was on a packed and noisy bus, I'd never felt more alone. I grabbed an open seat and prepared for the rest of the journey to Vientiane. In a few minutes I was spotted by an enthusiastic Lao girl who was moving up to sit beside me. Her name was Kahmu and she was a college student traveling to her home for New Years. She had been learning English for about the past eight months in her school and wanted to practice. She was studying to be a teacher. Her English was really basic, and after about 30 minutes we kind of ran out of things to talk about. She had never been outside of Laos. But it was nice to know there was someone on the bus who at least spoke some English in case something happened. She got off the bus when it got to her village about three 3 hours later.

There are no public restrooms in Laos, so every few hours, the bus stops and people get off to relieve themselves at the side of the road.

I was told, or maybe I dreamed that the bus would get into Vientiane at 6:00am. However at around 1:00am, the bus stopped. I thought it was just one of many, many stops it made that night. The driver looked at me and said, "Vientiane". Since I thought I would be getting in at 6:00am, I hadn't planned on getting a hotel room. I really like to reserve a room ahead of time when I arrive somewhere late at night. So I got a taxi into town. By taxi, I mean a pickup truck with two benches mounted in the bed. The driver dropped me off in a tourist area of town. I walked by several guest houses and they all had signs on the door stating that they were full. I finally found a hotel. The night clerk was asleep in a mosquito tent in the lobby. It was a nice place and they only had one double room. So I paid $30 US for a room, which is really expensive for Laos.

I woke up fairly early on the morning of April 12 and went out for breakfast. I met an older American guy from Ithica, New York. We talked a bit about the inns and outs of traveling around Laos. I hope when I'm that age I'm still traveling. Vientiane was kind of dead. It was dead because it was Laos New Year and everybody goes to Luang Prabang for New Year. Not seeing much in my guidebook about sights to see in Vientiane, I decided to head on up to Luang Prabang. I asked around at a couple of tourist agencies about getting a tourist bus ticket. They all said that either the buses were all full or there were no tourist buses going to Luang Prabang because of New Year. My only option would be to go to the bus station and take the local bus.

Local buses in Laos have timetables, but they are pretty much worthless. They sell tickets until a bus gets full. When it gets full, it leaves.

The bus doesn't get full until the center aisle is full. They do, however, bring in stools for the aisle people to sit on.

I got into Luang Puabang about 11:00 at night. I took a tuk-tuk to my hotel. Luang Prubang is the place to celebrate New Year and the correspondingly jack up the hotel prices. My hotel would that would have normally cost about $5 per night was about $14. I nearly fell over when the manager quoted me the price. Laos is supposed to be one of the cheapest places on earth.

Luang Prabang is a world heritage sight, it's small, and has a really laid back vibe.

As in all southeast Asian countries, one spends a lot of time visiting Buddhist temples.

Laos is probably the least developed place I've been on this trip next to Bolivia. Visitors have only been allowed in since 1990. It really seems like taking a step back in time. The hassle from touts is very low here compared to Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia. Maybe it's because it's New Years. By the way, it's still a bit strange to be greeted with "Happy New Year!" in April. Especially after getting doused with water.

I had specifically avoided traveling in Thailand for new years because, in general, I like to experience places for the first time on normal days. I wasn't really thinking logically, but the concept of New Years in April is a Buddhist holiday, so all of these countries would be celebrating New Years during this time. New Years celebrations stretch out over 4-5 days. During this time it is impossible to walk down the street without getting drenched with water. The water is believed to wash away the bad luck for the year. If this is the case, I should be a very lucky man this year. Many people were walking around with water guns and spraying people. But worse are the buckets of water. Getting doused with large buckets of water was the most fun.

It only takes a few to get completely soaked.

There was a parade one day.

Street food in Luang Prabang. Very tasty.

One night I had dinner at a street stall like the one above with an American couple (originally from Australia). As is normal when I meet Americans during my travels, the conversation shifted to why more Americans don't. I've met some Americans on my travels, but not nearly as many as Europeans and Australians. Take Ireland for example. It's actually a really small country of only about 4 million people. The U.S. has a population of about 300 million. So reason would say that for every one Irish person, I should meet 75 Americans. But the actual figures I've experienced are closer to the opposite. I've come up with several theories over many dinners and drinks over the last few months of why Americans don't travel. These include money, lack of time, and lack of interest.

Lack of Money. Many Europeans and Australians travel right after college (or, as they call it, "Uni"). In many parts of Europe, Ireland, again for example, undergraduate college is free. In America, we have to pay big bucks for college, and it keeps going up every year. Many students leave school with large amounts of debt, making a job right of college a necessity. Also, it's just part of our culture. We go straight from high school to college and straight to work. When I was graduating from college, I didn't know that traveling for a period of time was an option, even if I did have the money.

Lack of time. It surprises a lot of people that there are no legally required minimum vacation days in the US. Many people starting a job get maybe two weeks and there are restrictions on how soon and when those can be used. Europeans and Australians generally get four to six weeks of vacation the first year on the job. It's the law. Europeans expect at least one three week vacation each year. Many Americans will never see a three week vacation.

Lack of interest. I didn't have much interest in seeing the world when I was younger. It was not really until my late 20's that the desire hit me. I didn't even get a passport until I was 28. Americans tend to prefer to spend their money on things rather than experiences. Europeans and Japanese tend to live in small apartments and don't have room for a lot of stuff. Most of them also don't have cars due to having good public transportation and lack of parking. Also licenses, gas, insurance, etc. are all quite a bit more expensive there. As we Americans get new jobs, raises, etc., and earn more money, we tend to by more stuff (bigger houses, nicer cars, dining room chairs from the Pottery Barn, etc.). Europeans are more likely to spend their money on travel. One of the theories (among many) for why the Japanese recession of the 1990's lasted so long was market saturation. People weren't buying new stuff because everybody already had everything. Marketers of household appliances in Japan now must first identify something in a Japanese home that should be gotten rid of before they can sell their product. So Europeans, Australians, and Japanese have money, but a slightly more limited range of things to spend it on.
I'm not faulting anyone. It's a free country and people should spend their money however they see fit. At one time I was actually toying with the idea of buying a new condo. Two primary reasons were that I wanted a bigger kitchen and a third bedroom. The third bedroom I'd earmarked as storage room. I was running out of space for all my stuff. After my grandfather died, we had an estate sale. The auctioneer chattered all day long out in the hot sun. Eventually everything was sold. That's when it kind of hit me that all the things we work so hard to earn money to buy will eventually be sold at an auction for pennies on the dollar. I decided I would rather reach the end of my life knowing I saw the world and had a lot of good experiences rather than having a basement and attic full of stuff. Ironically, that very same morning, I had bought a new car.

On April 16 I boarded a slow boat for a two day trip up the Mekong River. This was an extremely relaxing two days. The river is dotted with a few tiny villages, but was otherwise uninhabited.

Our boat.

Our Captain.

I dialed up some Creedence on my Ipod and rolled on down the river (or up the river).

There was some really great scenery on the way.

Traveling by river gave me a taste of how I think it might have been to travel in America 100 years ago. I grew up near the Mississippi river. But I never knew anyone whoever traveled on it who wasn't working on a barge. In America, if you look at old downtown areas of towns on major rivers, they seem like they would have been much more interesting places 100 years ago than non-port towns. I like to think that in part this was due to the diverse range of people traveling through trading and socializing with the locals, along with a few seedy elements as well.

One family got off along the way after going into town for supplies.

Another stop. That old lady climbed straight up that rock.

The first day we stopped in Pak Beng after ten hours of sailing. Pak Beng was the largest city between Luang Prabang and the Thai border. City might not be exactly the right word. It was more like one road lined with a few restaurants and guest houses, along with some local markets, many selling what appeared to electrical products from the 1980's. The town's power shuts off every night at 10:00pm.

The second day was another 10-11 hours from Pak Beng to Houaysa, on the Thai border. There was even less going on in Houaysa. But we arrived there after the border crossing closed at 6:00pm so we stayed in Houaysa.

On April 18 we got up early to cross the border into Chaing Khong Thailand. "We" in this case was myself, a Brit, a Czech, a Malaysian, and a Japanese who I met on the slow boat. This was the most geographically diverse crew I've traveled with. We exited at Lao emigration and paid $1.30 each to take a boat across the river into Thailand. We then took a mini bus to Chang Mai. Crossing the Mekong River from Laos into Thailand is like going ahead in time about 80 years. Thailand has modern buildings, shops, factories, and well paved, four lane highways.

I had one night in Chang Mai before taking an overnight bus back to Bangkok to catch my flight to India on April 20. I had dinner with Janna, the Czech on the slow boat. I haven't meet many people from the old Soviet Block countries. Most of the people I meet are from Britain, Ireland, Holland, Germany, and Scandinavia. After dinner, on the first floor of the restaurant, this killer band was playing American rock songs. We ended up staying for three bands. The singers sang without any accents. It was an interesting crowd - a mix of rich Thais and tourists.

The hardest rocking band in Thailand.

The biggest head bangers in Thailand.

On April 19, I went to see the Doi Sutep temple. It is a temple on a hill outside of Chang Mai. I didn't see it the first time I was in Chang Mai die to time constraints. I was glad I got to see it this time. It would be my last Buddhist temple for a while.

The Thais love their royal family. Their image is everywhere.

About a week before I was to be in Bangkok for my flight to India, there was a violent protest in Bangkok that shut down an inter-Asian conference and caused many leaders to have to be evacuated. The protest was led by the supporters of the old prime minister who was overthrown in a military coup in 2006. I checked around but everyone seemed to think it was safe to come back to Bangkok to fly home. Bangkok seemed as normal as it did when I was there previously. By the way, Thailand seems like too modern of a country to be having leaders overthrown by military coups.

I got into Bangkok on April 20 and left that evening on a Jet Airways flight bound for Delhi, India.

Saturday, April 25, 2009


On April 3, I took a bus from Phnom Penh, Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The city's name was changed from Saigon shortly after the fall of Saigon in 1975; however, the central district is officially known as Saigon and many locals still refer to the whole city as Saigon. So I will refer to it as Saigon, but there are many images of Ho Chi Minh all over Vietnam and his picture is on all the Dong (Vietnam currency).

Many people I've talked to either loved Vietnam or they hated it. One British couple was planning to stay there for a month and left after two days. Two Australians I met were going back for the second time in three years. I liked it. The hassle level was high, but I didn't thin it was too unbearable.

I got in to Saigon about 6:00 at night. Saigon is really big and really crazy. I've never seen so many motorcycles in one place.

Crossing the street in Saigon is like jumping into the pool. It requires momentum and a little courage. It's also a little like playing the old Frogger video game. Avoiding motorcycles is easier than avoiding cars. The hardest part is trying to determine which side the motorcycle will take, and whether the driver will take into account that you are moving.

My first full day I toured a few sites in the city. First stop was the Ho Chi Minh City museum. It was fairly small and didn't have many things. They were doing a photo shoot of bridal fashions.

The next stop was the Independence (or Reunification) Palace.

The Independence Palace housed the president residence and offices of what was then South Vietnam. It was captured in 1975 when North Vietnamese tanks rolled in. The decor had a seventies vibe and looked like not a thing had been changed since then.

It had a really cool gambling room that I want to recreate in my house one day.

On April 5, I signed up for a one day tour of the Cow Gai temple and the Cuchi tunnels. The Cow Gai is a minority religion in Vietnam that utilizes parts of Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. We watched a service, or at least the first part of it. I don't know how long it went on after we left, but after about 20 minutes of kneeling, bowing, and chanting, I had had enough.

We were able to catch a service there.

The second part of the tour was the Cuchi tunnels. These are a series of tunnels used by the Viet Cong to hide from..........well, from us. It is amazing how small and intricate these tunnels were. They had one section of tunnel the had been just about doubled in height and width. Even with the widening, it was incredibly small and I got pretty claustrophobic. They also had replicas of traps made from bamboo spikes. It was a weird feeling touring this place, knowing it was used against our soldiers 40 years ago. But it's a big tourist draw and everyone that goes to Vietnam goes on this tour. It was pretty free of propoganda though.

I signed up for a two day tour of the Mekong delta and departed Saigon on April 6 by bus. Several of the people on this tour were also on the previous day's tour. The first stop was at a Vinh Long village in the An Binh Islands. They showed us how they made coconut candy, rice paper, and puffed rice. Then they obviously asked us if we wanted to by any. We left the village by boat and went to a rice mill.

After a lengthy explanation (too long) by our tour guide, we left Vinh Long and went, still by boat, to the Mekong Delta city of Cantho. It was about a 3-4 hour boat ride through some tiny villages. We saw many, many people in the villages, and practically all of them seemed very happy to see us. They were waiving enthusiastically. We also saw a bunch of people bathing in the river - a very common practice. These people are quite poor, but they seem really, really happy.

Cantho is the largest city in the Mekong Delta. It had a few restaurants and bars, but nothing really special other than being a jumping off point for the floating markets.

I had dinner and a few drinks with a 40 something British couple. The wife ordered Snake, a Vietnamese specialty. I wanted to try snake, but was too hungry to order it for my dinner since I heard it wasn't good. I tried a bit of hers. It was tough and stringy. Not very good. But at least I got to try it.

They were on a three week holiday. European vacation laws amaze me. Most European countries have a legally minimum holidays of 4-6 weeks and almost all expect at least three consecutive weeks of vacation every year. When I ask Europeans how long they're traveling, if it's less than two months, they will say, almost apologetically "Only for three weeks". Most Americans will never see a three week vacation in the absence of a job transition.

The next day we visited the Cai Rang floating market. The floating market is mostly for locals selling produce to other locals.

But there was one boat selling pineapples to tourists

These were the world's smallest life preservers. No one could zip them up.

The Cantho market was near the floating market. They had all parts of all animals for sale. Again, they were selling to locals and mainly loeft the tourists alone.

We got back into Saigon about 7:00 that night. I had to catch an overnight train to Da Nang departing at 11:00. I shared a sleeper cart with this really nice older Australian couple. They were on a three week holiday.

View of the rice fields from the train.

On the morning of April 8 I got into Da Nang. There is really nothing special about Da Nang except for a cool sounding name. I was there to travel to Hoi An, about 20 kilometers away. While waiting for the local bus, I got many offers for a motercycle ride to Hoi An. I was told everything in the book. I was told the bus wouldn't come for three hours. I was told the bus was really crowded and uncomfortable (which was true). I did not want to ride a motorcycle all the way to Hoi An, but the dude just didn't understand. He got down to 50,000 Dong (about $3 US). Finally the bus came, well before he said it would. They really loaded the bus up. Several really old women got on the bus and sat on the floor. Other than that, I got into Hoi An without incident.

Hoi An is a really beautiful town that has been well preserved. It reminded me a bit of New Orleans. It is strictly for toursits, and many people traveling there kind of poo poo it, but I thought it was really nice. Also, if a place is beautiful, it stands to reason that there will be a lot of tourists there.

On April 10 I took a bus from Hoi An to Hue. Hue's main attraction is the very well preserved Citadel. The Citadel was built between 1805 and 1832 by the Nguyen dynasty. Hue served as the capital until 1945.

I wanted to eat lunch at a restaurant near the Citadel that I'd read about in my guidebook. The name of the restaurant was Lac Thien. It is run by a deaf family and it is in all the guidebooks and highly recommended. I found Lac Thien, but the restaurant next door was Lac Than, and the restaurant three doors down was Lac Thuan. A good review in a guidebook cannot be underestimated in the amount of business it will draw. And some will try to cash in on a tourist not paying close attention. At the Lac Than restaurant, a man was standing outside looking at me and making eating motions (rather than yelling "Hello, excuse me sir!!"). It was humorous. The meal was delicious.

There were quite a few Catholic churches in Vietnam, which is unusual for Southeast Asia. Vietnam is about 7% Catholic, which makes it one of the most Christian nations in Southeast Asia, next to the Philippines.

The Vietnamese language uses the Roman alphabet, albeit with a lot of accent marks. So it looks kind of familiar compared to Thai and Cambodian. At least city names and street names can be reasonably identified.

My favorite food in Vietnam. A nice sandwich on a baguette. They cost 10,000 Dong (about 60 cents US) from a street stall.

On April 11 I got up early to take a bus to Vientiane, Laos.