February 2007


Not another photo contest. Just some pics from along the way.

Bangkok skyline Gator in Khao Yai Macaque and baby in Khao Yai Flip-flop skipping

Laos temple Monks in Internet cafe Pakha matriarch Pig in Hanoi

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Just returned to Hanoi from Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island and it’s a different city entirely now that Tet is over. All the stores are open: the lights are on, the city brighter. Bustling. We’ll be back but in a few hours we hop a train to Sapa, up in the hills, for a few days of trekking.

Halong was very nice. We did some kayaking and karaoke and got to know some other travelers, including Edvar and Danielle from Holland, who are probably reading this right now. Edvar is (was — they’re on a world trip too) a website designer and I promised to steal liberally from his blog. And I meant it. So we may be doing a little on-the-fly re-design ’round these parts. Thanks in advance, Edvar.

More later. We still have lots to write about Thailand and Laos, and now Vietnam, especially the Halong and Sapa sagas — including an amusing anecdote about the ladies who rowed behind our junk hawking Pringles and vodka … and a rundown of the circumstances that led to stirring renditions of “Dancing Queen” and “Le Freak” by a rice wine-besodden barful of tourists.

Yes, we’re getting a little behind here. Also photos: we have lots of photos to upload. As soon as we have time to breathe again we’ll get down to some serious bloggin’. I’m getting excited just thinking about it.

Happy Lunar New Year from Hanoi. Tet celebrations are going on in the city and urchin miscreants are setting off crackers on every street corner. They like to throw them at the feet of passing tourists.

Seems the last photo contest was a trifle on the difficult side. A natural response to your quick success the first time around. Only Fletcher had a correct answer; the others were (from the top): a girl in the village of Pakha, some five hours’ hike outside of Meung Kwa in northern Laos; Lisa at Meung Kwa’s Saby Saby restaurant (on the veranda); Lisa outside the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne (fooled ya); and, Pat, Lisa at a coffee shop on Aljunied Road in Singapore. Tough yes, but you displayed such web acumen the last time around …

We just left Laos and we loved it. People-watching was the best. Everyone is very cordial, very kind, always smiling even when you bombard them with dumb questions.

***

Kids in Laos have invented a new game: flip-flop throwing. They skip them along a flat dirt surface or in the road, going for distance. There is money involved, apparently lots. These kids can really throw, too. Next to Bocce it seems to be the national pastime.

We spent most of our time in Laos taking it easy — the other national pastime. We took a lot of photos — of cats and puppies and moths and ants and small children, their distracted parents, monks on cell phones, monks smoking cigarettes, monks checking email. Market textiles, steam tables full of vegetables, colorful doors, colorful tuk-tuks, colorful temples: Lisa has been a snap-happy fool. Shrines. Hills fuzzy with bamboo. The warm light of a massage parlor. Store fronts spilling onto the street offering bottled water, soy sauce, umbrellas. Whole fish, eyes glazed, crusted with salt, simmering on a barbecue. An old woman sweeping a train platform with a one-handed grass broom.

*** 

When people ask me what Vientiane smells like, I will say: bandanna. Or surgical mask. A style question, really.

Once out of the capital we could breathe easier, literally. We took a trek into the hills of northern Laos to visit a tribe of Akha people who had only once been visited by Westerners (the subject of a later post). The air is cool and fresh, with a tinge of barnyard from all the loose pigs and chickens. The hills are covered in unmanaged forest, quite green even in the dry season, trees tied up in lianas and trails overgrown and crossed by cobwebs.

*** 

On the way back our driver, who didn’t speak a word of English, stopped unexpectedly to buy some porcupine meat. I’ll never forget the thud, thud, thud of the butcher knife as a woman used its dull edge to lop off the porcupine’s spines. They spun in the air and rattled like sewing needles at our feet.

They also had civet cats. Large dead ones. As we barrelled down narrow mountain roads back to Luang Prabang women would dangle them out their front doors to entice us to stop. Must be good eating, the civet cat. The thought of SARS only occurred to us later.

*** 

In L.P. we met a guy named Tooi who wore a Red Wings jacket. He bought it in D.C. I took that as a sign the Wings will win the Cup this year. And that I might actually get to see some playoff action.

Tooi was a nice guy. He fixed our van before we left town for our village trip, and posed for pictures with me.

*** 

Until we reached Laos every country we’ve visited on this trip has been a “left-side-of-the-road” country. That doesn’t mean Laos is like America. Laos is more like a “both-sides-of-the-road” country.

The roads in Laos necessitate this. The road south of Udom Xai is so full of holes, rents, distensions and axle-busting subsidences it looks like America never stopped bombing. But it’s the blind turns that wake you up, when your insane driver takes them at 90 kph with only a perfunctory beep of the horn.

*** 

Drivers here hit the accelerator when you or I would hit the brake. Seems to be a Rule Of The Road.

*** 

So many young people in Laos makes the place feel young. But it’s still a relaxed place. That is, until the heavy metal concert that rattled our windows on our last night in L.P., celebrating New Year. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard a Lao cover of “Symphony of Destruction.”

Back in Hanoi, music and celebrating continue through the weekend. It’s the Year of the Golden Pig, allegedly an excellent year to have a baby. We’re not convinced. But we’ll be in the thick of things tonight just the same. The Year of the Golden Pig only comes around once every 60 years. Happy 4,705 everyone.

http://www.gather.com/viewArticle.jsp?articleId=281474976911764

Welcome back. This week we’re going to change things up a bit. Last week’s winners, Fletcher and Pat, had a pretty easy time of it, so we’re going to challenge them with a special photo for each of them. No one should vote for those two photos unless their name is Fletcher or Pat. We’ll do the same with every week’s winner(s). Winners, however, are invited to also vote for the three photographs everyone else votes on, unless they know in their hearts they shouldn’t because they have an unfair advantage.

Otherwise, rules are the same: Be the first to accurately name the city, country and actual place depicted, win a prize from that place (or as nearby as possible, as the case may be). Add the GPS coordinates and your prize becomes something better, as judged by us. Not a sandalwood elephant — a jade elephant! Etc. etc.

Here are this week’s challenges!

1.

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2.

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3.

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Pat:

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Fletcher:

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We keep seeing doppelgangers of people we know. Kevin Wallace, I spotted you in the East Perth bus station, buying a coffee. Vern Archer Jr., you were seen – twice – on the streets of Melbourne. (Triplets I guess. Separated at birth.) Luke Nason may be interested to know that we saw his wife window-shopping in a Singapore mall.

***

Tired of Tiger Beer ($4 for 633 mL), we headed for the Singapore train station. Per the advice of Bernard, our travel agent, as well as various friends, our plan was to hop a train through Malaysia to Bangkok.

The trip would take about four days including an overnight stay in Kuala Lumpur. Neither of us had ever traveled extensively by train, though I once rode Amtrak from Laramie to Detroit, back when you could still do that (1995 or ‘96 I think).

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Singapore Railway Station, early morning

Singapore’s train station is one of those Art Deco monuments with a high arched ceiling and peeling yellow walls, decorated by colorful murals in tall alcoves that stare across an echoing space … Or so I recall. In the space sit a couple rows of faded plastic seats, red and blue and green, filled here and there with bored waiting women and children, students, off duty janitors and the occasional Caucasian tourist. Josh Yeagley’s twin wandered through at one point, apparently on an urgent errand.

We read, and did crosswords, and that was productive compared to most of the waiting passengers. A somber group at that hour, near dawn. The thousand-mile stare of the reluctant traveler.

The train was late. We gathered up some last memories of Singapore: The smell of noodles from the food stalls along the back wall filling the station; steamed rice, and eggs, and meat; a low murmur of tired voices: everyone is bleary at that hour. Forty-two across: four-letter word for “Poker-pot stake.” Hmm. The grey light creeping through the high frosted windows.

A few small birds flitting around the fluorescent lights. The weary but grateful queue.

After the perfunctory rigamarole of Customs we rode for an hour to the Malaysian border and did the whole thing again. Nobody searches our bags anywhere so we think maybe absolute innocence has a smell to it, an aura. But nobody else gets searched either and somebody must be smuggling bull sperm or heroin on this train. Odds are, that is.

No doppelgangers to pin these suspicions on. Moot point. Six hours of rattling and bumping merrily along and we pulled into Kuala Lumpur to the sight of the famous Petronas Twin Towers, Pride of Malaysia, which we eventually just missed visiting.

Owned by an oil company, they say. Insert dry witticism, and/or pointed commentary, here. We had limited time so instead we walked around Little China and spent an afternoon at the Islamic Arts Museum, maybe the best museum we’ve seen on the trip … but I think we always say that. While there we walked past a carbon copy of Dustin Bleizeffer. (And German, too.)

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Outside the Masjid Negara, the national mosque

Sitting around the star-shaped fountain near the national mosque were a couple Julie Wolks.

We stayed at the Heritage Station Hotel, a formidable structure built in 1897 and resembling inside, I couldn’t help thinking, Rick’s Place in Casablanca. Sturdy darkwood square tables, paneled floors, Arabesque carpets, dark corners and small unnoticed doors. Niches and alcoves – mystery, intrigue. We holed up in one of the cavernous terraced rooms with windows covered by a fretwork of jali – a lacy screen portal – and filled with dark wooden furniture, a desk, two chairs, a low table. The elevator is pre-Otis: sliding door and all.

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One view of the Heritage

Ceiling fans and an Arabic curvature to the woodwork. Iron finials clutching dusty chandeliers. The kind of place you’d stay in in 1920, and the walls would have gleamed.

But you wouldn’t have had the free wireless access in the bar downstairs. Progress.

Getting around Kuala Lumpur gave us our first experience with insane cab drivers. By now we’re used to it but that first guy in KL was masterfully psychotic. Sixteen years as a cabbie in that town and he can almost get his car to fly. I remember gasping in horror as we turned into oncoming traffic to avoid gridlock, and I recall Lisa failing to stifle a dismayed shriek as we scattered a sidewalk in the same attempt – but the rest is a blur. Somehow we escaped unscathed. I was so impressed I forgot the rule about not tipping and gave the guy a handful of ringgit in admiration.

Lisa meanwhile promised never to criticize my driving again.

KL has a skyline we’ll never forget, with the late day sun turning the domes – the chattri – and their slender columns a bright orange, and at night floodlights reflecting off the spires and minarets, a pale blue, the color of the moon.

The town has a feel like no other we’ve visited before or since. The arcades and bazaars buzzing with trade and talk late into the night. The architecture, amounting to a trove of invaluable public art: calligraphy, interlacing scripts, mosaics, geometric patterns, floral motifs, bas-relief, courtyard pools and fountains: and in the middle of it all downtown, lined around the central market square, the Kenny Rogers Roasters, Starbucks, KFC and McDonalds. Sag-shouldered backpackers lining up for a Prosperity Meal.

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Little China market, KL

Porticoes, pavilions, balustrades, gilded alcoves. Hawkers offering tailored clothes for low, low prices. Motorcycles on the sidewalk, nearly killing us, and each other.

The megaphone voice of Islamic prayer. An arrow on our hotel room ceiling pointing out the window: westward, and a little north: Kiblat: Mecca.

Singapore was a soft landing. Our first day we did make a couple culinary miscues. Coffee shop menus can be confusing.

By the second day we were pros, at eating anyway. No more mystery fish. No more many tentacled abalone type creature floating in a viscous puddle of fleshopods.

Eggs and rice, eggs and rice, morning, noon and night. By day three we’d moved comfortably into the vast ocean of Asian cuisine. Coffee shops are on every corner and have a great variety of foods, and many are open all night.

We stayed on Aljunied Road, not a big tourist district, which was great. It’s where all the crime is but for Singapore that’s not much.

Our third day in town they executed two drug dealers from Africa despite UN pleas, and pleas from the Nigerian president, and general condemnation all round. They were arrested on Aljunied Road.

Us they didn’t even search at the airport. No questions, no bag search. Smugglers might want to try to arrive at 4:30 in the morning. It’s the one advantage.

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Boat Quay. Very nice relaxing place pre-dinner

For anyone who was last here before 1987, the famous stench of the Singapore River is gone. I guess it was famous, I must have heard about it somewhere before. It’s still oily but it doesn’t stink. Then again this is the dry season, maybe in the wet season it’s worse.

Along the river on the Boat Quay side we found some of the best and cheapest eating options in the city. On the other side, Clarke Quay, are all the very expensive places, the trendy bars and a couple swank nightclubs. This area is second only to Orchard Road for the ratio of tourists to locals.

For really great food go to Little India, you won’t have to look far. We found a place called Madras New Woodlands Restaurant on Serangoon Road, about $5 for two people and we had the works and it was excellent. That’s less moolah than a single Prosperity Meal at McDonald’s. Even the inferior Longevity Meal is a stiff $6.20.

After we foolishly paid triple that back on Clarke Quay we wandered into probably the top museum in the city, the Asian Civilizations Museum. Impressive Smithsonian quality collection of textiles, talismans, raiment, murals, instruments, art, ornaments, cookware and other archaeology. Among the noteworthies was a skull with ornate Malaysian hieroglyphics tattooed onto its pate:

“Headhunting was a component of warfare among enemy groups, where the goal was to enslave those captured and remove the heads of certain individuals for ritual purposes. A human head was believed to contain a powerful spiritual essence that could be harnessed to improve the community’s well being. Today the Malaysian and Indonesian governments have outlawed headhunting.”

Well, shoot. I particularly liked this item:

Filial Piety:

While parents are alive,

One must not travel afar.

If one must, one’s whereabouts

Should always be made known.

From Chinese Analects, Book II: Li Ren 19. Look it up. Wise words. Sorry Family Unit for not calling more. We’re fine. We’re in the hills of Laos near the Vietnam border and we’ve been adopted by the Akha people. We’ll try to communicate more often but it’s a two hour walk to the nearest road.

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Indian temple decoration. Similar figures adorn Hindu temples all over the city

Ha! Good joke, yes? End of Singapore post! Next: We board a train and size up Malaysia!

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