Wednesday, September 29, 2010

alright now

After sufficiently stuffing myself with noodles and spring rolls in Vietnam, I headed over to Thailand to continue stuffing myself with more noodles and spring rolls. Really, you would think I would get tired of the ‘same same’ meals, but no. Authentic food always tastes best in the country it’s made in and I never plan on taking that for granted. Lord knows when I’m back in the States griping about the lack of spiciness and paying eight times the price, I’ll remember fondly the street pad thai, made fresh and delicious for less than a dollar.

For no one reason in particular, Thailand has always been my number one destination. Since I first split off form convention and dedicated myself to discovering the world, I said I’ve wanted to go to Thailand more than any other place. But even at that time, I knew it had to wait. I knew I would go when the Universe told me to, and I knew I had to actively work on my spice tolerance.

Thanks to the Food Network, I learned early on that Thai food has been considered some of the spiciest in the world. I was unfortunately born with a highly sensitive palate and could rarely take even the hint of chili powder. But when Thailand became my top destination, I knew I had to work on that. I purposely tortured myself with spicy food for years, thinking “it’s all for Thailand”. It soon became one of the top three on my must-do list: to eat Thai food with the locals and as spicy as they eat it. And six years after I began practicing, I was ready for the challenge.

And damn is Thai food spicy and delicious! While cuisine from the north to south is widely different, it all plays with a mixture of tastes: salty, sweet, sour, and spicy. What this means is everything you eat will be super tasty. But I’ve been insisting on spicy with every meal and have subsequently burned the taste buds off my tongue, meaning I now want everything I eat to be extremely spicy. Oops, overkill. But on the bright side .I accomplished my goal of eating like a local. And one papaya salad (the spiciest of all, yet continually makes my mouth drool like Pavlov’s dog just by writing it) was even finished without any water. None during or even after (I didn’t have access to it one time).

Luckily, pretty much every place in Thailand can make a mean pad thai. This means from 3 am street snacks to sitting at an actual restraint, cheap and delicious pad thai is nearly on call. And don’t forget the spring rolls, fresh fruit on a stick, or curries. Amazing food is so cheap and easy to come by, I have yet to eat a bad meal or break the bank. I suppose that isn’t a good combination for my waistline, but I’d rather blame the daily Chang beer.

I suppose before I indulge too much into the food (too late), I should continue with the storyline of my journey. The day we arrived in Bangkok it just so happened to be some Buddhist holiday (or so we’re told) which meant they were running a deal with the government tuk-tuk drivers. First, what’s a tuk-tuk?

Tuk-tuks are a cross between taxis and petty cabs; a driver on a motorbike pulls a covered cart that can hold approximately three people. They’re fun, cheap, and uber Thai. At first when the locals were coming up to us and trying to help without being prompted, we assumed there would be compensation involved. But no, the land of smiles has been running low in the tourism department; a combination of political strife and the world’s foul economy. Subsequently, both the government and the general population have tried their best to give tourists a great experience. And so far I’d agree that Thai people are a very warm, helpful, and friendly group of people.

So this first day in Bangkok we were aiming for a huge market that happened to be closed and all the locals were telling us about some holiday and a tuk-tuk deal. We had to grab specifically a government run tuk-tuk and for only 20 baht (70 US cents) we’d get a tour of the area, including all the temples we wanted to see. The only catch was we had to stop and look at a tailor’s and a tour agency, neither of which we wanted to see. The funny (and annoying) part was when walked out after not much time, we had to return later and agree to stay 20 minutes or else the driver wouldn’t receive his government funded gas money. (He had to get a signature from the agent we spoke with to guarantee he held up his part of the deal.) It was all some crazy scam, but not a scam at all really. Because we still got to see what we wanted to, had a personal chauffeur all afternoon, and all for super cheap.

That evening we were joined by the missing link friend, Dana, and our first night on the crazy Khao San Road ensued. Dana and I met in Malta and have probably spent more time together in different countries (four of them) together than in our own country. She is also a fellow Chico chica and that’s probably why we have so many hobbies in common.

Our night out though was nothing compared to the legendary craziness and drunken debauchery that is Khao San Road. During high season, it’s jam packed with lady boys, barmen shouting their drink deals, unending food stalls, and drunk farang (foreigners) having the time of their lives. It’s all a bit over the top, but something that must be experienced, that’s for sure.

During the day, Khao San is much calmer and great for shopping, but still a bit nuts. There food stalls remain as well as some crazies, but mostly the street is lined with vendors selling cute singlets (tank tops), jewelry, and kitschy stuff. But mostly great clothes and you can’t help but indulge in the cheap prices. But no matter how cheap something is, you always bargain for half, then work your way to the middle. It’s apart of their culture really, and if you don’t participate, you’re missing out. But there is only so much time I can spend at a market. Up and down endless isles of the same, same but different crap. People talking at you, pestering you to come over. It gets to be too overwhelming.

One of the night markets we spent some time in was interesting for another reason: the infamous ping pong show. What’s a ping pong show you ask? Well, you don’t really want to know. But since you asked…. There are these “sex shows” in which girls shoot ping pong balls out of their, umm, you know. Ho-hahs. Weird, right? Well that’s not all. These guys are constantly coming up to you in the street advertising “you want see ping pong show?” and holding out a (laminated?) list of everything his girl can do with their vaginas. I’m not even sure what they do exactly, because the list just read ‘cigarettes, fish, pool ball, razor blades, electric, etc.’. Electric? Electric what? And hamsters? Really? It gives me the creeps. Yet I’m not going to lie, I’m a little curious. I haven’t had the opportunity (or the stomach) to experience one yet, but wouldn’t cross it off my list.

The ping pong shows were at Khao San Road (obviously) as well as the night market, but oddly enough the market was set up on a street of strip clubs. And all their doors were open. It was weird, watching the girls lazily dance or just stand there staring back at you. I would wonder what they were thinking; what their lives must be like. And then I’d get distracted by a cute pair of earrings and continue along the market. It’s a crazy world, that is Bangkok. That’s why it was a good thing to get out of there in two days.

We quickly made our way to Sukothai, a town 7 hours north, chalk full of ancient ruins and oozing with charm. Maybe it was great because of the hostel we stayed in where it was quiet, comfortable, and had everything we needed. We were floored about the free bicycles to ride into town or out to the ruins, even though they were kind of jenky. Really jenky actually. In two days we used seven bikes, six of which broke down in some way or another. But if it wasn’t for that flat tire, we never would have had such a great encounter though.

After some Jimmy-guided off-roading, both Dana and I got flat tires in which we had to walk our bikes to town (not the most enjoyable task in the intense heat of the sun). But eventually after asking around, we found the bike fix-it shop where a wrinkled and hunched over little lady came out not saying a word. She directly put the bike on its side and ushered us to have a seat. She got to work right away, peeling off the tire, sorting out the hole, fixing it and blowing it back up. Even filled the other tire as well. The woman who fixed my bike was not as old, but just as quiet and mysterious as well. In a matter of moments our frustrating situation was fixed, and while I assumed they could charge us whatever they wanted, it was still only 70 cents. Amazing!

The ancient ruins of Sukothai were well worth the effort of getting there though. Stretched out over miles, a bike is best if you want see everything quickly. Plus, it’s part of the adventure. The monolithic Buddha statues have near but all crumbled down, yet their lingering grandiosity still leaves one with their jaw-dropped. Everyone who visits becomes mute as they individually wander around and snap as many angles as they can. Luckily, it wasn’t crowded so most of the shots are without people in them. Although, it did seem to be school field trip day… for everyone. All in all, it was an active, interesting, and fabulous day. But those don’t run dry in Thailand at all really.

On the last night in our new, sleek, and cushy bungalows, our roof started to leak. I was awake reading when I started to notice the foot of the bed sopping wet. It was storming outside and it must have been going for awhile. It wasn’t a big fuss; we just slept in another room for the night. But it’s the point that matters. Sometimes in life, a little rain must fall.

While traveling with Jim, Mandy, and Dana had been fun, it had also been at a much different pace and energy than I prefer. They had less than one month to spend in the whole of Thailand and I knew I’d be longer. So we parted ways after Sukothai, they to go camping, see Chang Mai, and then head south. I headed north to Pai, to figure out where I was going.

Now I already wrote a whole blog about the love that is Pai, but I could really continue into infinity. Now more than ever, being that I’ve spent two and a half weeks here. I find it frightening to think of leaving, so I just have to trust that I will be back. One day for sure, and two weeks won’t be enough.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

all the small things

A backpacker’s life is never dull. Everyone moves at their own pace; some find a new city every couple of days and some linger for months on end. No matter how fast or slow you go, everyday is filled with new and interesting things. From trying foods for the first time to observing strange cultural differences, one can write home everyday about the things they’ve seen and done. Keep this in mind as you think I couldn’t possibly write anything else about Vietnam.

Nha Trang is a growing city built next to a long stretch of perfect beach. The sand is soft, the sun is hot, and the nightlife is good. The beach was a three minute walk from our $10 a night hotel and the sun shined every day we were there. Of course it rained a bit too each day, but I’m getting used to this monsoon business and by renting a bungalow, you simply hide under it during the 20 minute shower. But the rest of the time was hot and gorgeous; perfect for sunbathing and relaxing.

Actually, you couldn’t completely relax because there were heaps of locals pestering to sell an endless pile of crap. They would pace in front of you, sit on your chair, touch you, and chastise you until you bought something or clearly pissed them off. Sometimes it was snacks, jewelry, or art, but there even was a constant stream of book sellers and masseuses begging you to buy their goods or services. If you dared buy something, you were going to have to bargain hard for it and endure their ridiculous comments. The younger the seller, the ruder and funnier they got. “Why you Cheap Charlie?”, one spat as we argued over a quarter for Mentos. Annoying yes, but it makes for great dinner conversation later on.

In an effort not to be entirely lazy, we took a day tour on a boat (hung-over nonetheless). It was a great day of island hopping that seemed to get better and more random as the day went on. I started off by buying some crazy colored sombrero party hats, because we were the only foreigners on the tour and if we’re going to stand out, we might as well have fun with it. The highlight of the day was the “musical performance” where a makeshift drum set and guitar were busted out and the center row of seats turned into a stage.

First, a young girl with sparkle jeans and her shirt tied up starting singing. Then came our male tour guide dressed in a women’s bikini, top stuffed and all. We couldn’t stop laughing as he pulled us on the “stage” dancing and rubbing his “boobs” in everyone’s face. Then came a volunteer from the audience to perform and somehow finagled me onstage to sing (God only knows why) Britney Spears. This man in his spandex flowered swim trunks was born for the stage. It was a total riot.

Nha Trang was the first place we found with legitimate nightlife. Jim and I could finally dance our hearts out all night long to good music. Well, dancing is a loose term. By ‘dancing’, for Jim, I mean, crawling in the sand, pulling down poles in bars, and elbowing people in the head; all in the name of Lady Gaga. No matter how embarrassing Jim could be, he’s more entertaining than anything and always leaves an impression. Especially on the Irish.

One night, while dancing at a club on the beach, a couple came up to us and starting showing us pictures on their camera. They were pictures of us in Hanoi at the beginning of our trip and suddenly we realized we knew these people. And this is exactly why you are never alone when traveling, even if you try to be. Because when I stayed behind Jim and Mandy for an extra day in Nha Trang, I ran into the couple yet again and my quiet self-reflecting night turned into a full-on bar crawl. (I’ll always have a soft spot for the Irish.)

The best night out so far though started out at the beach bar and ended with Jim screaming to be peed on.

I left him at the end of the night on the sand by the ocean where he was going in to snag a man who was skinny sipping with a few others. I didn’t think I would see him again until morning but low and behold only five minutes upon my return, Jim ran into the room. “Pee on me! Pee on me NOW!!” he was shouting as he stripped his clothes and darted for the shower.

Yup, he had been stung by jellyfish. Mind you, this is 3:30 in the morning and Mandy was sleeping for an early dive the next day, but was up in hysterics as this is the best entrance to a room we’d ever seen.

I quickly stepped up and offered my services and luckily we had glasses in our hotel room. But my pee in a cup was not enough for Jim (maybe because I had just gone). But then Mandy’s services were requested, which seemed to do the trick. And so it took 2 whole cups of pee to calm Jim down that night, but a lifetime of shame to live down.

The main form of transportation in Vietnam is by motorcycle. Sure people use buses and taxis, and others even have their own cars. But it is much more normal to have your own little motorcycle or scooter. It’s how the family drops kids off at school, how teenagers go on dates, and in every city the best hangout is where everyone can park their moped and simply hang out. Street corners often have old men sleeping in the most interesting ways on their mopeds. And with so many swift drivers on the road, it makes crossing the street for a pedestrian more than a challenge. Slowly though, the foreigner will learn to step out and keep pace walking through the hoards of crazy drivers trusting that they will see you, calculate your speed, and swerve around you. Hopefully.

Maybe it’s because mopeds are such an integral part of culture, or because they’re so cheap, but one of the most popular activities for travelers in Vietnam is a motorcycle tour. From one day to one month, you can create your own path by yourself on a rented or purchased bike. Or if you’re like me, hire a driver to show you the “real” Vietnam. I opted for the two day tour to Dalat while Jim and Mandy went for three, but naturally we ran into each other as all the Easy Riders (aka drivers) are friends and visit the same sites.

While we stopped a lot along the way, the best part for me was simply taking in all the beautiful scenery with the wind in my face and a sense of danger on my shoulders. I knew flip flops and shorts weren’t proper motorcycle attire but also, that rules from home rarely apply to overseas. Needless to say, I did burn my leg on the exhaust pipe pretty badly. But I still enjoyed the thrill and beauty that is all of Vietnam.

In addition to mountains, jungle, and rice paddy fields, we were shown where Agent Orange was dropped and where battles were fought and we proceeded to ask questions about the war. I assumed there might be some animosity leftover towards Americans for coming over near 40 years ago and destroying their land and killing their people. But there wasn’t as they were a nation that had been used and abused by many for thousands of years; we were simply another oppressor on the list. And even though children are still born with birth defects from Agent Orange and trees still won’t grow naturally, they welcome us with open arms and talk candidly about growing up in Vietnam.

Part of this interesting experience was doing a home stay in a minority village unlike any other culture I’ve encountered. First, all the houses are long and built several feet off of the ground. Generations of family live under one roof and in the same room no less, (unless of course the foreign tourists are paying for half of the house). These people were unique in that it was a matriarchal society, meaning that the woman had all the power and control. Men had to pay several oxen as dowry to marry and even more if they wanted a divorce. Mothers made the decisions while fathers carried the babies around. And to top it off, this rural village seemed to be more populated by giant pigs, chickens, roosters, and cows than people; and they all roamed freely. This was wonderful for me to see but annoying to listen to while falling asleep and waking up.

Being that it was still monsoon season in Vietnam, there was always a chance, neigh a promise, of a short and heavy downpour of rain, and usually when you least expect it. It happened when I was out for a short walk through the small town nearby and I was stupidly without my umbrella. When it began to sprinkle down I decided to wait it out under a tree, thinking this would be decent enough shelter for ten minutes or so of rain. Some time passed and just as I was getting up to walk the rest of the way back to my shelter I saw local children running for their lives. That’s usually a sign you’re screwed if you’ve got no where to go.

And then came the monsoon.

I have yet to be stuck outside in such heavy downpour and had unfortunately chosen a tree as my protector and was nowhere near public shelter. I cowered into a ball and began to get soaked to the bone. I kept wishing and praying for the rain to stop but when I realized that wouldn’t do me any good, I mustered up the courage to run to the nearest house and shout ‘hello’ from outside the gate.

A man appeared at the open window and motioned the gate was open. I kept under the porch awning though he insisted to come in (mostly because I was dripping wet). Eventually I gave in and went inside their home, finally truly safe from that incredible flash storm.

The couple who lived here was young and had a small child as well. And they didn’t speak a word of English. I tried to stay in the corner by the door, not wanting to get anything wet. But they came out with a towel, put me in a chair by the TV, and brought out tea and candy for me as well. I stayed there for maybe a half hour as the heavy storm outside roared on longer and more powerful than I ever expected. I began to thank myself for finally admitting defeat and turning to strangers for help. The experience was interesting in the fact that I began to think of this in terms of home.

What if during a storm a stranger who didn’t speak any English wandered up to your house and it was clear they needed shelter. Would you invite them in? Feed them? Make them tea? Would you feel completely comfortable or slightly on edge that this was simply a ploy to steal from you or even murder you? Something about our culture has taught us that danger is around every corner and never to trust strangers. Maybe it’s Hollywood’s fault or the news is to blame, (or just CSI); it doesn’t matter. In this sleepy village nestled into the mountains of Central Vietnam, no fear of strangers exists; only pity for silly foreigners who don’t know what storms look like nor carry umbrellas.

One of my favorite parts about this village was the elephants. Near the rice patties, in their own open field, were elephants roaming around and walking the streets. At breakfast, an elephant named Beatrice stuck her trunk through the window and I offered her a bread roll. Elephants are such giant gentle creatures I want to spend more time with.

Once back on our motorcycle, we sped along the road swerving around the dozens of cows that marched along the side of the road and worked our way up to the mountain town of Dalat. We only spent one night there, checking out the market and recovering from the many hours of sitting on a motorcycle. The next day we rolled into Ho Chi Minh City (formally known as Saigon) and were just in time to watch the fireworks in celebration of some holiday.

Mandy set off the next day on her own for Phu Quoc Island as she had been to HCMC before, leaving Jim and I to explore and go nuts on our own for a few days. We were logical in alternating days between sleeping in and lazily walking around town and taking entire day tours of the outlying areas.

First we did a tour of the Cu Chi tunnels, the infamous narrow tunnel system that the local peasants held strong and aided the Viet Cong to their success in the south. Because the American army had insisted people from that area either move or be killed, the locals opted to live under ground while fighting to protect their land. An intricate system of tunnels was built with many levels and stretched over 700 km in length. They were dug in the exact size of the person digging the tunnel which means they were tiny and near impossible for any American to fit in. Although they did give us the opportunity to crawl through one, it was obvious we could never have infiltrated this system. They picked a tunnel they had made larger for tourists, yet it was still claustrophobically tiny, uncomfortable, and god awfully humid down there. I have no idea how they did it.

The next day, we went to the War Remnants Museum and let me tell you, nothing kills a Friday quite like a visit to a war museum. The realty of the Vietnam War was shown to us in facts and pictures, an unbiased account of the death and destruction that occurred on both sides. I never realized the support Vietnam had from all around the world; Americans at home weren’t the only ones protesting. It was also nice to learn about the American soldiers who aided the local peasants but were unfortunately jailed for such ‘treason’. I couldn’t help but leave emotional and confused by how so much hate and anger could constantly exist in mankind throughout time.

At least in the nights, Jim and I were able to escape such deep and tormenting thoughts as we drank and danced the nights away. Luckily for Jim, we found a swanky gay bar that was primarily for locals and had a great time working the dance floor all night long to amazing music. We went there both nights we went out.

Our final day in Vietnam was spent on a tour of the Mekong Delta, boating around with rice farmer hats and gazing at the beautiful scenery. They always squeeze in the kitschy tourist crap where they try to sell you products you just tasted; for example, visiting a honey farm or coconut candy making factory (or the same place). It was the perfect quintessential last day topped off with delicious local fare and shopping until we could buy no more.

In case you were wondering about the local specialties, pho (pronounced ‘fah’) is number one. It’s a noodle soup served with either beef or chicken and lots of lime and chili and eaten from early morning to late night. It’s served everywhere on the street for merely a dollar, slightly more if from a restaurant. Spring rolls are also available everywhere and I’ll never get enough of that fried crispy goodness.

One month in Vietnam was more than most had, yet it felt not enough for me. This country is rich in culture, cuisine, and endearing people. You must seek further to understand their lifestyle than simply coasting through major towns and scratching the surface. I have a lot more to learn and see there, and feel I will one day return to see how they’ve grown and adapted to time and politics. That, and I must return to Hoi An to get some more clothes made.

Friday, September 17, 2010

tomorrow comes today

I’m going Michael J. Fox on you. First, we’re going into the future. Then we’ll go back in time. The future is now, in Pai.

Pai is a small town nestled into the mountains made of jungle in Northern Thailand. I’ve been here nearly a week now, more than half of my entire time in Thailand. I didn’t mean to find a new home so soon, but I guess it found me.

After less than a week in Thailand I needed to roam free. I split off from my travel partners to find my own space and pace of journey. I had heard about Pai from an Irish couple I bonded with in Vietnam and knew before I even arrived I had a crush. But the second I laid eyes on this town I believed in love at first sight.

Artisans from all different arenas fill the streets with live music, beautiful jewelry, and tattoo shops. From street stalls to quality restaurants, cheap delicious food from around the world is very easy to come by. Everyone has the laid-back hippie mentality and moves at a slower pace of life I seem to agree with more. Yoga classes, motor biking, reiki, hot springs, cooking classes and trekking are the main activities people come here to experience. But every person I’ve met has stayed longer in Pai than they originally anticipated, from a few days to 14 years. No joke.

It’s hard to write about the vibe of a place, it’s just something you have to feel. And I feel at home here. It’s a place I knew instantly I would have trouble leaving but was grateful for opportunity to sink my feet in a little. And I already have a routine.

At 11 am (roughly) everyone out from the night before comes by The Good Life to check in and see who’s still alive. It’s a health conscious restaurant with amazingly delicious food and teas, swing chairs, and even has free guided mediation several days a week. It’s one of the best ex-pat hangouts I’ve discovered. Basically, this entire town oozes with natural remedies and charm.

It seems to rain more in Pai than anywhere I’ve been yet, but I don’t mind since the air is cooler and less humid and the landscape is so green. Plus my roof is so thin I can hear every rain drop which I find quite soothing at night. To be honest, rain has yet to hinder any of my plans yet. Even on a day we planned to motorbike all day, we still went out in the pouring monsoon and just took the corners more slowly. We were going to a hot spring so it seemed silly to be worried about getting wet. It was less annoying and more of an adventure really.

But when the sun is shining and you have a motorbike, the day can be quite full and exhilarating. There’s so many winding beautiful roads to take and hidden waterfalls to discover. A giant Buddha here, a golden temple there; there’s no shortage of interesting things to see. And to be honest, the best part really is just riding. Having the wind in your face while speeding through local villages; I have never felt more free. It feels refreshing to be in such a stunning environment and to know I have the time, money, and energy to explore it a bit.

I live in a bungalow with a decent bed on the floor and a private bathroom for just over $3 a day. Despite the bathroom reeking of urine (I think there’s a leak) and being slightly inconvenient and there is mosquito/ant/cockroach farm that seems to live here as well, I’ve found the perfect living spot. I get free wifi and a hot shower (my only requirements) but appreciate the bonus music here at Edible Jazz. While every bar in town (and there are quite a bit) offers live music every night, this place radiates with musician charm. The owner’s friends are here everyday jamming at some point which I can hear without even opening my door. And if not, she will put music on the speakers and it’s always been good. And they’re all really sweet and generous people as well so I not only feel safe, but comfortable. This place is so wonderful it draws in more people who aren’t sleeping here than are. Maybe it’s the good jazz or the good vibe, there’s always someone cool to meet if you just sit in the hang-out area.

Not that I even need a backpacking hostel right now, this has been the easiest place to meet people. Because of the hippie vibe, everyone is open and friendly and I know heaps of both travelers and locals without even trying. I like getting to know a place really well: to know inside and out where everything is, to have a favorite corner shop, and to run into people you know on a short walk down the street. And it’s already happening.

At night, the bars come alive with acoustic music and cheap drinks. It’s impossible not to bar hop and inevitably end up at one of the few sunrise bars for last drinks. Conversations start easily and everyone knows someone and groups collide and mingle not only for one night. Add in the fact that this is a small town and you can walk anywhere safely and maybe you can start to see how it’s so easy to get stuck here.

Honestly, everyone I’ve met has overstayed in Pai from their original expectations which was the first sign I’d be here more than a couple of days. I’m hoping to get out for a few days of trekking next week which will make departing that much easier when I really have to go, but the reality is life is good here and I don’t feel a pressing need to go as soon as possible. I can afford to just bum around, eat great food, drink a wee bit, take yoga classes, rent a motor scooter, and explore all this beautiful area has to offer. Plus there’s always someone to hang out with and it’s been surprisingly difficult for me to find a few moments to steal away for myself.

Despite the fact that I came here to be alone, clear my head, and find a direction on where I want to go next, I’ve quickly appreciated the fact that I had a group of friends my first night here and continue to grow my social circle everyday. (Namely, I’ve had one really good friend here I met on the bus and have spent every meal with since. It’s always the British I befriend and I still don’t know why.) It seems in my life no matter how hard I try to be alone, I never will be. But I don’t necessarily believe this to be a bad thing.

So I do suppose in a way I’ve done some soul searching while I’ve been here. The moment I gave myself to the Universe and went with every opportunity, everything has gone smoothly and been a wonderful experience. I have smiled more, felt more alive, and been surrounded by and exuding my own positive energy. Maybe the air is fresher here or the music is hypnotizing, but there’s something about Pai. Something truly wonderful and amazing about Pai.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

carry on

Life is fleeting. I live my life based on the fact that time doesn’t exist forever for one person. While I know this to be true, it’s a lesson I’m sure I will visit over and over again.

Minutes before I was to board a 13 hour bus ride I received an upsetting email about the passing of a good friend’s father. This is the only way I receive bad news on the road, by email, and it never comes at a convenient time. I’ve been friends with this girl since I was 12 and knew her family well. Her dad would pick us up from movies, let us borrow his car, and drank with us when we old enough. I’ve eaten cheesecake with this family on holidays and been scolded by them for getting into trouble with the law. Her father was apart of my life, but more than that, he was a damn good father to his kids, one of the best I’ve ever known. It was too early to be his time.

Within 20 minutes of my bus ride, I was a trying-to-hide-myself-from-crying mess when the bus backed into a tree smashing one of the windows. Luckily, no one was seated next to the window, but of course after a quick clean up and some cardboard they sat someone down later on. It was at this moment I was reminded just how fleeting life is. There could be a quick car accident and you’re gone. Or a cancer could be slowly creeping in your bones making you so sick there is no recovery. No matter how you go, we all have an expiration date. That’s why we must live for the moment and appreciate all you have around you. In particular, who you have with you.

This is dedicated to Jim Bressler. He was an amazing person and will be sorely missed.


I last left off before my tour of Ha Long Bay, one of those places you see pictures of and think, “I MUST go there!”. At least that’s what happened with me. We were sorted for three days and two nights, one aboard the ship we’d be cruising around in. It sounded adventurous and fun and still I never knew quite what to expect.

What stood out most about this tour (other than the breathtaking scenery) was the worst tour guide I have ever had. Ever. He was rude, angry, and downright mean to us all. From how he spoke to us to the rules he set, there were even fines we were to pay for disobeying him. (Seriously.) At one point, when we asked to go to our rooms, he said we couldn’t because “he couldn’t control us then”. Sir, we’re on a tiny boat with 6 rooms, it shouldn’t be that hard to lose us. And I didn’t pay money to be controlled by some self-righteous foreigners hating prick. (Bitterness much? I think not.) He literally yelled at me for being a vegetarian, at Jim for writing our names wrong on a piece of paper, and at some other tourists for asking for a glass with their water. Apparently, glasses are only for wine (regardless of the fact that it’s 1 pm and no one is drinking that overpriced crap, they couldn’t spare one of their 40 glasses). I really could go on and on about this douche bag but there is no need for so much negativity and I’m pretty sure you trust me when I say his rudeness never ceased to end.

Luckily he was only our guide for 24 hours but it seemed much longer than that. On the bright side, our group bonded on the fact that our guide was the biggest dickhead any of us had met in Asia so far. The booze and karaoke also helped.

Another downer to this trip was the fact that it was raining on and off the entire time. It wasn’t the worst thing that could happen (our guide was actually), but it did make our pictures less than National Geographic status. It also stopped us from lounging on the upper deck which consequently packed us into the dining area like exhausted sardines with a lot of luggage.

Our second day and night was on a large island where we were meant to hike around on but instead sat in our hotel rooms as the rain had been pouring all night and morning, making it a difficult and dangerous trek. Luckily in the late afternoon the sun came out and I rushed down to the closest beach, as did everyone else.

The next day not a cloud could be seen, just in time to go home. Nice. But first was a bus trip to the other side of the island where we needed to catch the boat from. Despite the sun shining and the high volume of tourists that visit here, the roads had not entirely emptied of the rain. Specifically, one stretch of road had turning into a full on river, no joke. There were a few minutes of “What the fuck?!?!” and “What are we going to do?” and “But what about all of our luggage?”. Then as the locals rowed up in their tiny hand made row boats it became obvious they knew what to do as this has obviously happened before.

So we piled our backpacks and ourselves two or three at a time into these rickety boats with water inside as well and were literally rowed down the road. It was hilarious. Mind you, there were several tour groups of people and even locals crossing, motorbikes and all, and it took a good hour or two to get the 50 people in our bus across. At the end of the rowboat tour, it became too shallow to row so we had to get out and walk (not too far) but still in water swimming with foot long worms, enormous crickets and spiders, and other creatures I care not to know what they were.

On the other side a bus eventually came to get us and we all piled in laughing because that’s all you can do in situations like that. This is stuff that the word ‘adventure’ was invented for. It means unexpected events that make for a more authentic experience. At least in my dictionary it does.

Our final day was spent soaking in whatever sun we could and chatting with our new Dutch friends. Because if there’s one nationality of people I will always make friends with, it’s the Dutch. They’re fun, easy-going, and speak perfect English. And no, I’m not giving up my dream of living in the Netherlands one day. (I also make great friends with the Irish and Germans.)

Despite hearing all about the tour, I have neglected to describe what Ha Long Bay actually looks like and why it’s so beautiful. You know that saying, ‘a picture says a 1000 words’? Well, it’s like that, so you’re better off googling it, but in the mean time I’ll attempt to paint a picture.

While cruising along the calm blue water you can watch the numerous green mountains jut directly out of the water all around you. It’s shocking, and the mountains are huge and have no beach or coast line; it’s almost as if they have sprouted out of the ground overnight. We were even able to walk around the inside of one because it is a large cave (I don’t know if they are all caves) and what was a naturally beautiful sight had become a Disneyland-like event. Mystical stories are told and true geological explanations are entirely ignored, even when asked about. Brightly colored lights are used to illuminate the magnificent stalagmites and stalactites, making you feel you are inside of a jellybean Matterhorn. The overwhelmingly beautiful part was just how vast this cavern was; I have never seen anything like it and wished that was enough for the Vietnamese tourism board rather than splurging on those Christmas lights. Oh well, to each their own I suppose.

Directly after getting back to Hanoi from this trip we were on an overnight bus to Hue located in central Vietnam. When we arrived it was raining all day which put a damper on our plans to see the not-so-many sights we had planned to see. But we weren’t wasting any days so we bought some hideous ponchos (and some road beers) and went marching out in the miserable sideways rain. Palaces and temples are never in short supply here and despite the whole ‘same, same’ reality, we were still going to visit all we could.

The next day was fortunately sunny so we set out to hire a personal boat tour to cruise down the Perfume River and visit a few more temples and pagodas. Our kitschy long boat was brightly painted, had a dragon head leading us, and was run by a tiny old woman. No different from all the other boats on the river. I would proceed to describe the sights we saw but it’s a lot easier to say, ‘same same, but different’. Yes, they were beautiful. Yes, they were worth visiting. But no, it’s worth blogging about. I’d rather talk about Hoi An.

Hoi An was the next town we went to visit, not too much further south than Hue, but this city has a purpose. Well known for their tailors, it’s impossible to leave this place without getting something made. It’s truly hard to resist the seemingly endless row of shops of women begging to make beautiful things just for you, and for damn cheap. Their work is meticulous and ranges in everything from bathing suits to wool coats. You name it, they sew it. And can do so in as little as 12 hours, it’s damn incredible really.

When I say you can get anything made, I really mean it. Flip through one of their many magazines or surf the internet for whether you want, pick one of their fabrics or describe what you want, and they will make it happen, no pattern required. And they can do this with shoes as well. The bottom line is I can’t wait to win the lottery so I can come back here and get everything I’ve ever wanted, designed and made just for me.

I went considering getting a wool coat (because I’ve always wanted a mustard yellow coat) but nothing more. I left with a coat, 2 dresses, shorts, a bathing suit, scarf, and sandals. The damage could have been a lot worse. Mandy and Jim came knowing they wanted to get a few things, and they got much more than that. The bottom line is we were all happy with our purchases but all needed to visit the post office and send boxes home (I’m sure we’re not the first foreigners to do that).

My favorite part of this whole experience though was chatting with the women. They speak great English (how else can you be such a good salesman?) and are constantly making cheeky comments that keep me laughing. From grabbing my boobs constantly to offering money to see Jim’s penis, we were always being sarcastic and having fun with these ladies. And arguing over the price is essential to the whole experience, regardless of how cheap you’re being. It’s the principle really.

It was essential we got out of town as soon as possible as every day we spent there we ended up buying more stuff. Plus our next stop was Nha Trang, a beautiful beach town with great night life and it was calling our names. But I’ll keep that for next time as I don’t like overwhelming my readers all at once. (Too late?)

Alright, one more story. You ever wonder what Wal-Mart must do with all those leftover Christmas things that sing songs? Well, the answer is they’ve shipped them to Vietnam and installed them into cars. I thought it was maybe just a few cars, but no, all over this country, cars, trucks, and buses have music that plays when they are in reverse. I suppose it’s handy because if you ever hear Silent Night you can assume a truck might be almost running you over. But it is odd how it’s almost always holiday songs. And most of the people here are Buddhist or non-religious. Strange, but I’ve slowly been considering getting one for my car back home. Just a thought.