GIANT bugs that can only be described as massive, flying, daddy long-legs, (with many more legs) are swooping around me, so I can't really concentrate on writing anything where proper care is taken on sentence construction. So forgive me in advance for bad writing!
After 3 days in Kuala Lumpur and 2 days on Pangkor Island, K and I have escaped to the Cameron Highlands. It's about 68 degrees here which is a MOST welcome change to the 93 degrees we've experience everywhere else. It's completely normal to wake up early and be DRENCHED by 7:00 a.m. It is HOT.
K is determined to EAT his way around the world. He stops at every food stall and orders everything that looks unfamiliar. So far Roti Chanai and Chicken Rendang are winning awards. We ate at a South Indian restaurant tonight -- K was so intent on eating that he didn't say a word throughout the meal. When it was over he looked up and said, "O.K., we have to eat
here EVERYday." He's funny.
It's interesting to be here right now. While the country is 60% Muslim, it also has a large Chinese population as well as a strong Indian population. There does seem to be some animosity between the ethnicities, but it is somewhat hard for us to understand completely. For example, the Chinese were the first to prosper in this country and this caused so much resentment that an ethnic Chinese can not be elected King. We met a homeless man of Indian
descent who told us that he was Christian and felt persecuted in this country for being both Indian and Christian.
On the other hand, this country seems miraculously diverse and peaceful. My own stereotypes have been challenged. I guess I thought all Muslim women were limited in their scope of activities. Muslim ladies in Malaysia wear head scarves and can be seen with helmets (or without) cruising at high speeds on motorcycles, sipping coffee at Starbucks, running
offices and businesses, etc. They didn't really seem to swim at the beach... It just illustrates to me how little I know about Islam and it's practices here and anywhere. Something to learn!
Malaysia seems committed to remaining a peaceful, cooperative place. There are Buddhist and Hindu temples everywhere and a handful of Christian churches.
While we have been a few places where people were displaying posters or shirts with Ossama bin Laden, there is not any widespread, outward anti-US sentiment that is apparent to us. When we were in Kuala Lumpur, we were walking to the Lake Gardens, a park there --
and we happened to walk by the National Mosque during Friday prayers. There were police stationed outside the Mosque. (We later learned that this was because there had been small demonstrations about the US there last week and that the government is intolerant of this.) One police man seemed startled to see us there and slowly rode back and forth past us all throughout our walk. We had no idea why, but later thought maybe he was keeping an eye out for us just in case. One man on Pangkor Island asked where we were from and when we said the US, he said, "so you're here to do damage control?" We laughed, but wondered what exactly he meant.
There are virtually NO other Americans traveling here. We are the sole Yankees out here on the travel circuit. The people here are generally friendly, but they are also stunned when we say we're from the US. We are mainly trying to just lay low, behave ourselves and do our best to meet and interact with people on a one-on-one basis.
While we're here I think we'll learn how tea is grown and processed as there are many tea plantations up here. There are also strawberry farms, jungle treks and more. The low temperature alone may keep us up here for more than a few days.
Our hotels are about $6/night and our meals are about $2 each person for a feast. We're having a hard time spending more than $20 a day total. Our packs are way too full. We're overpacked and laughing at ourselves for some of the stuff we're lugging around. I think we're going to try to send a box of it home.
It's only the first week, so this is really all I can offer. Mike Hillyard asked for sights and smells,
so here are a few of them...
smells: incense, clove ciggarettes, curry, green onion, diesel fuel exhaust sights: giant banana trees, flowers everywhere, a giant bird that flys low and looks like a toucan, but only yellow, white and black, houses that are made of woven grass, alley restaurants
Love to you...
It's been awhile since we sent any update of our trip, so I will backtrack a bit for you in this edition (a mighty long one). I'll pick up our tale after our stay on the beach at Pulau Pangkor in Malaysia. Pulau Pangkor proved a nice, but very hot place, so we decided to take refuge in the highlands. We had heard that the temperature was significantly cooler than down by the shore and, having come to Malaysia from the beautiful and crisp fall weather in Katonah, NY, we were desperate for a break from the heat.
It was this very same desire that inspired the creation of places like the Cameron Highlands. All over Asia, European and American colonialists built "health resorts" in the hills, seeking refuge from the heat and disease of the lands they colonized. In Malaysia, the British built the Cameron Highlands, Fraser's Hill and the Genting Highlands. The French built Dalat in Vietnam, the Americans created Baguio in the hills of the Phillipines, while the Dutch built several hill towns in Indonesia. While we'd hate to admit to following in the footsteps of the colonists, a break from the heat sounded pretty nice.
On our way to the Cameron Highlands we rode 2 of the dirtiest buses you can imagine. Stop here and imagine the dirtiest bus you can. Now multiply it by 1,000 and you might be close! On the way up we decided we would stay at a place called Father's Guesthouse based on the Lonely Planet's recommendation. When we got off the bus there were several touts buzzing around us, flapping their signs and fliers for various hotels. Standing a slight distance away, casually, with one hip cocked to the side and holding a sign for Father's Guesthouse, was Ono. Ono's style fuses Chinese, Zulu, John Wayne, and U2's Bono. He has long, black hair falling mid-way down his back and he wore lavender-shaded hipster sunglasses, a big African Dashiki shirt, black leather pants and cowboy boots. Father's Guesthouse turned out to be backpacker's paradise. They had a huge selection of books and videos, a small restaurant, a cozy and homey place to use the internet and the staff were incredibly friendly. The weather was so cool that we got to wear our fleece jackets and we were in heaven.
While in the Cameron Highlands, we visited the BOH Tea plantation. Small tea treas line the mountains for acres and acres and the plantation itself is really quite beautiful. On our tour (which cost about 4 dollars) we learned about the processing of tea which was interesting. They were using machines made in India and Northern Ireland in the 1920's and 1930's and they were still going strong. The tea pickers pick 100-200 kilos of tea leaves per day for which they are paid about $3.50. Most tea pickers were from Bangladesh and Indonesia. We felt similar to the way we felt at the Banana plantation in Costa Rica where Nicaraguans were working long hours for so little pay. We paid more for our silly tour than a tea picker makes after a whole day's work.
Every evening in the Cameron Highlands we could hear this loud singing - like a concert. Finally, one evening we walked off in pursuit of the noise and found a festival at the local Chinese Temple. It was the final evening of a 9 day Vegetarian Festival. It is meant to be a cleansing time, vegetarian food is served and there is entertainment. Also, the devout are able to walk through hot coals and spear their cheeks because they are cleansed. We were each given a yellow piece of paper with red, chinese charachters on it which were then stamped by monks and a nylon bracelet was tied around my wrist. (K didn't get one.) Apparently, this ritual ensures our safety - which we'll take anywhere we can get it. Earlier that evening we went to a Hindu Festival (Festival of the 9 Goddesses), but the person that invited us to attend didn't join us, so we had no way of knowing what was happening. It's been really interesting to start to learn about Buddhism, but I'm realizing that a parallel study of Hinduism would probably be helpful.
We reluctantly left the Cameron Highlands after we'd exhausted EVERY possible activity - hiked in the jungle, visited the butterfly farm, strawberry farm, yadda, yadda, yadda. We didn't want to leave because the weather and our guesthouse were so nice, but we felt a need to push on, so we took a bus to Penang Island off the coast of North Western Malaysia. We stayed in the main town - Georgetown -- at a backpackers hotel. Georgetown was a pretty interesting little town. It was founded by the British as a fort and the fort is still standing. There was a wonderful museum about the various cultures thriving in Malaysia which was great and really helpful. We also took a walking tour of some of the historic sites. The older architecture in the city was really pretty interesting. The old "shop houses" are two story buildings with a shop on the first floor and living space upstairs. The living space is often covered with clapboard siding and features two large windows the size of doors with slated shutters. The streets of Georgetown all had deep gutters on either side with about a foot of water in them at all times. On our first night - while roaming the streets in my flip flops (the official shoe of SE Asia), I found that the gutters are home to a large and active population of rats. The first one sent me nearly jumping out of my skin. It wouldn't have been so bad if I had been wearing shoes, but flip flops and rats don't seem like a good mix to me.
Two of the best things we saw in Penang were the Kek Lok Si Temple and the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion. Kek Lok Si is the largest Chinese Temple in Malaysia and it was incredibly ornate and beautiful. We took a lot of pictures on our digital camera so that we could send some attachments, but unfortunately I managed to delete them all from the "memory stick." We're still learning how to use the digital camera and Kdidn't much appreciate my "learn by doing" style. The Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion was built by a man New Yorkers of the time dubbed "The Chinese Rockefeller." He was an incredibly rich merchant and planter in Asia and had five homes from China to Indonesia -- and many wives and concubines. Favorite wife #7 lived in Penang, so his most elaborate home was built there and it's recently been restored. The renovation required bringing old artisans from China to Penang (as the craftsmanship is only remembered by older folks.) They sent the stained glass to the US for analysis so they could match the exact composition of the glass -- and on and on. It was an incredibly beautiful building and recent Japanese Feng Shui masters found it to be designed to Feng Shui perfection. Much of the film "Indochine" was shot at this house. It's now a guesthouse with elegant rooms for about $60/night. It was our last night and we'd already paid for our room or we would've moved for a splurge.
Overall, the food in Malaysia was outstanding. In Penang, we went to an Indian restaurant called Yasmeen 3 times - it was that good. The best and funniest food experience was K's experimentation with dessert. One day, we went to the mall in Penang to buy a Thailand guide book. (We have found that although we loath malls in the US, we are fascinated by them in SE Asia.) On the ground floor of the mall we found a food court - not unlike a mall food court at home. Not only was the food inexpensive, but there were pictures of everything, so it seemed like an easy place to explore things we hadn't tried before. As many of you know, K is a big fan of dessert, so he marched right up to the dessert booth and ordered Ice Kecang, one of the many dessert choices. Ice Kecang turned out to be a bowl of shaved ice topped with 3 syrups (sasparilla flavor, licorice flavor, and some kind of berry flavor), what can only be described as creamed corn, cooked kidney or pinto beans, round, grean, gelatinous balls, nuts and a scoop of ice cream that looked like rainbow sherbet, but tasted like cream cheese. We were both giggling - particularly at the beans and corn element - although the unidentifiable green balls were right up there. K ate about half of it and then abandoned it. A few days later we were at the mall to see a movie and when it finished it was pouring outside so we decided to go to the food court again. K decided to brave the dessert counter once again. This time he opted for another unknown item - Cendol. When he got back to the table with it, I took one look and started laughing so hard I was crying and I couldn't stop. K couldn't look at me because he was also crying with laughter. We were making a huge, embarrassing scene, but we couldn't help it. Cendol turned out to start with the same shaved ice base, on top of which was a cream/brown sugar sauce, glassy looking green noodles and beans. Just looking at it made me hysterical. I think we laughed for a good 10 minutes before we could calm down enough to try it. Strangely, and unlike Ice Kecang, Cendol was actually tasty - beans and all. K ate it all.
After 4 or 5 days in Penang, we took the 5:00 a.m. bus to Krabi Thailand. We were planning to visit the island of Langkawi, but a chance meeting with a taxi driver in Penang made me anxious to get on to Thailand. We went to out for breakfast one morning and met a taxi driver named Osman. He was chatting with us, was very friendly, helped us order as the restaurant owner didn't speak English, etc. While we were sitting there, a man came in and said, "Morning Osama" to him. He laughed and told us that folks called him Osama as a play on his name. Then he asked where we were from and we told him. He told us that Osama bin Laden wasn't responsible for the 9/11 attacks and that if he had been he would take responsibility. Then he went on to give us his theory on who was responsible. It was the most vile, hateful thing I've heard someone say in a long time. I easily changed the subject, finished breakfast and politely left, but I had to return to my hotel and lay down feeling sorry for the world for a few hours before I could get up and do anything. I won't repeat what he said, but I can tell you that the gulf between my world view and this man's was so wide that I truly believe it would be impossible to cross. That makes me feel hopeless and hopelessness makes me afraid. Every time I encounter that kind of hatred in the world, whether September 11th or this guy or other incidents, I am always suprised. I can't understand what makes some people so filled with anger and hatred for people that are different from them. As difficult as it is to get right, I appreciate our American struggle with diversity and social justice.
Some have described the shape of Thailand as that of an elephant's head, facing away from Laos and toward Myanmar (Burma), with its trunk reaching down to the peninsula of Southeast Asia, to Malaysia. Following this analogy, we started our journey in Thailand at the lower tip of the elephant's trunk, but quickly traveled to the upper ear region.
Popular beaches line both sides of peninsular Thailand and strings of beautiful islands follow the coastline on either side. The eastern side boasts the now famous Ko Samui and Ko Pha-Ngan islands. Both draw a deluge of international and Thai tourists, but Ko Pha-Ngan is particularly attractive to the young backpackers who flock to its shores for the infamous Full Moon parties. During these all-night affairs, young westerners party with reckless abandon on the beach. (Last night a British woman we met told us about her son's visit to one of these affairs: A party reveler threw a firework into the middle of the crowd and badly injured a young traveler. Given that there aren't any hospitals on the island, the situation proved pretty grim and disturbing. It freaked out our friend's son so badly that called his mother in England in the middle of the night to tell her about it.) Given this reputation, we decided to steer clear of the east coast islands. Instead, we crossed the Malaysia-Thai border and headed straight for the western coastal town of Krabi.
Still on the mainland, but west of Krabi on a stretch of coast only accessible by boat, a string of beaches hide amongst jutting, tall, fern and tree topped outcrops of limestone. We arrived in Krabi without any firm idea of what we wanted to do, so we followed a few fellow backpackers out to these beaches. Specifically, we landed on East Hat Rai Leh (Reilly Beach as the tourists say). It backs up against West Hat Rai Leh and Hat Tom Phra Nang beaches. We blended into the ranks of westerners (both those staying in the cheap guest houses and those in some downright pricey hotels) relaxing at this cluster of beaches. While it rained a good portion of the time we were there, we thoroughly enjoyed the dry spells. The afternoon heat made swimming an extra pleasure. Each day we walked over to the very beautiful Phra Nang beach and floated in the water, looking up at the tall cliffs that towered over the beach.
We were there for Halloween (although we had completely forgotten it was Halloween.) The resorts on the island made a big deal of the holiday and parties sprang up at every bar along the beach. It also happened to be the night of Loi Krathong - a Thai holiday where floating vessels are made from banana leaves and flowers, filled with incense, candles and other offerings and are floated out to sea under the full moon. Loi Krathong provides an opportunity to cast away all that is bad in your life and to make an offering to the water with the expectation that the gods will reward your offering with good luck. We went out with our fellow backpackers to the combination Halloween / Loi Krathong parties. The small, candlelit floats bobbing out to sea was a really beautiful sight. It grew late and began to rain. We headed back "home," while our new friends partied on. When we saw them dragging themselves from their rooms late the next afternoon, we felt grateful for our tee-tootling ways.
Having had our fill of the beach and the related beach scene, we decided to leap straight up to the mountains of northwest Thailand. Specifically, we decided to travel to the city of Chang Mai, the cultural and economic capital of northern Thailand. By road, this trip would have required two 12-hour bus rides. With our fairly uncomfortable 10-hour van ride from Penang Island in Malaysia to Krabi fresh in our minds, we decided to splurge and fly to Chang Mai.
Splurging in Thailand is a relative concept. We bought a taxi ride to the Krabi airport, our airline tickets from Krabi to Bangkok and our tickets from Bangkok to Krabi for less than $200. This is by far the most we have spent on anything since we left. We find this issue of the relative cost of living in southeast Asia an interesting and slightly complicated subject. Foreign backpackers talk constantly amongst themselves about how cheap it is to travel here. This is true. Last night, we ate dinner at a non-descript, but tasty noodle soup shop. Two bowls of noodles with fishballs and a bottle of water cost us 45 baht, just about $1. Currently, we are staying in the nicest guest house we have yet to visit. It features air conditioning and a hot shower and we get fresh towels everyday. It runs us a little more than $11 per night. We have paid a little as $4 per night at other guest houses. In general, we have been getting by on less than $30 per day for the both of us, including our bus travel from place to place.
But obviously, the cheapness of this place for foreigners to visit represents serious and disturbing geo-political realities. In 1997, the Thai baht crashed, bringing down with it the currencies and economies of most of the Southeast Asian countries. The economy of the region has rebounded some since then, but remains vulnerable. A few days ago, the Prime Minister of Indonesia, Megawati Sukarnoputri, gave her most recent "state of the state" presentation and painted a grim picture of the Indonesian economy. The country sags under a crushing international debt load. To complicate the matter, an estimated 1.3 million international tourists have decided to cancel their trips to the country in the wake of recent protests and demonstrations. Here in Thailand, you can find editorials in the leading papers concerning the international debt situation in Argentina. They perceive in the Argentine situation a cautionary tale for Thailand.
Given these circumstances, westerners tendency to gloat about how cheap this place is can seem a bit crass (our own "cheapness enthusiasm" included). The other day, we shared a taxi ride with a German couple who had arrived in Thailand from Germany a couple days before. The German man sat in the front. Since they had spent a few days in Bangkok, we asked about their experience there. The man gave us a few tips. While he recommended avoiding taking taxis because of the traffic, he commented that it didn't really matter. It was so cheap to take taxis in Thailand that the meter could run on and on and it wouldn't matter. We both hoped that our driver that day didn't understand much English.
We have settled in Chang Mai for a little while. I am trying my hand at learning to speak Thai, though I have few pretensions to learning more than how to say hello, talk about where I'm from and order food in a reasonable fashion. J picks my brain about what I learned in class each day. So far, so good, though learning that the same word spoken with one of five different tones translates into a unique word proves a bit tricky. Our American ears don't distinguish tone that well. Despite this shortcoming, mine and J's attempts to speak the language have been met with smiles (and a few laughs). People are quick to help us learn new words and seem to appreciate our sincere, though feeble, attempts at their language.
We plan on staying in Chiang Mai for a little while. Since our arrival, we've visited many Wats (temples) and chatted with local monks. Last night we sat on the steps of a wat until long after dark with two young guys - one a monk, the other a lay person. They seemed keen to talk with us to practice their English. There were some funny miscommunicatons though. There are hundreds of stray dogs everywhere and I asked the monk how the dogs get fed. The monk said, "The dog is a monk." I sat contemplating that, wondering how that could be, but willing to accept what he said. When he figured out his mistake, and what I thought he was telling me he laughed and laughed. Then he got very serious and ensured me that animals can't become monks. It turns out that people don't put unwanted pets to sleep here, they simply bring them to the temple where the monks will feed them.
There is so much to do in Chiang Mai - classes to take, museums, local handicraft villages. There are at least 100 temples in the city and surrounding area and lots of available day trips to sites of interest. A lot of people go on jungle treks from Chiang Mai where they ride elephants, raft the shallows on a bamboo raft and visit the hill tribe villages. There are about 12 hill tribes in Northern Thailand - some originating in Tibet, some from Myanmar, some from China. Although the guidebook says that the hill tribes welcome western tourists as their visits are a source of much needed income, we can't help but feel squeamish about the idea of people as a tourist attraction. We think we would feel too akward to go gawking at "Ye Olde Hill Tribe Village Tour." We've decided to stay put in Chiang Mai for two weeks to see what it's like to settle into some semblance of daily life in this place. Rushing from tourist attraction to tourist attraction and then jumping on a 7 hour bus journey every few days is a little tiring.
On our evening strolls we discovered the sport of "Takraw" which is like team hackey sack only played with a small wicker ball. Teams of three on opposite sides of a badminton net follow rules similar to volleyball, but they can only use their feet and heads to get the wicker ball over the net. The "spikers" do this elaborate scissor kick high in the air and spike the ball into the other court with their feet. Then they somehow flip over and land on their feet. It's amazing. There's a tournament going on right now and we stood int he crowd last night to watch while bats zoomed overhead.
Motorcycles - thousands of them. Doorways to public buildings covered in flip flops. (don't wear your shoes inside!) Monks in saffron robes with shaved heads and flip flops riding tuk tuks. A proper moat surrounding the old city center of Chiang Mai. Historic Teak houses on stilts. Live eels wriggling in a bucket for sale at a local market. Squid, pressed paper thin and grilled served on a skewer. Aksa hill tribe women in traditional dress selling crafts on the street. Pick up trucks - second to motorcycles as prefered mode of transportation. Great, great grandfather driving a motorcylce with great, great grandmother riding side-saddle on the back through heavy traffic.
British woman calling "Montezuma's Revenge" "Montessori's Revenge." Motorcycle engines reving. The honk of the tuk tuk or Songteow drivers. "Sowatdii Ka" (hello).
Hello friends and family:
Things are going well for us since we last wrote. On our last night in Chiang Mai, we had the great good fortune to have dinner with a friend of a friend... a man named Lyn doing illegal education work with refugees from Burma. It was fascinating to talk to him about the situation in Burma and his work. It was also disheartening in a way. The folks he's working with aren't actually recognized as refugees by Thailand and so they have few options and little hope. Lyn's been doing this work in Thailand for 15 years.
We left Chang Mai by bus and headed to a small town north of Chang Mai called Thaton. It sits quite close to the Burmese border. There's not much there, but we went there so that we could take the 5-hour longtail boat ride from Thaton to Chiang Rai. Since our bus arrived mid-afternoon, we had to wait until the next day to catch the boat. Thaton turned out to be a tiny farming community on the Mae Kok river. The village sat in a lush and verdant valley and was surrounded by mountains on all sides. During the "beautiful light" when the sky turns orange and pink just before sunset, we took walk out into the garlic, rice and lychee fields. There were many farmers finishing up their week's work in the fields. Just north of town, a large temple rests on a hillside. From the distance, you see two enormous Buddhas, one giant white Buddha looking placidly out over the valley, his head and shoulders protruding out of the trees. It was beautiful, but of course we didn't have our camera with us. We never do.
The next day, we traveled the river down to Chang Rai in a long boat with six other farang (Thai word for foreigners - the river trip costs considerably more than a bus to Chang Rai, so the clientele are nearly exclusively farang). The river wended its way through fields and steep, green mountain slopes. It passed several hill-tribe villages, usually a dozen or so bamboo and thatch roofed houses along a single dirt street.
We arrived in Chang Rai, having befriended an opinionated frenchman named Eric. After we secured a guest house, we wandered the streets of Chang Rai with Eric eating everything we could find (well, not exactly - in the night market we found several carts that sold deep-fried caterpillars, roaches and dragonflies. While we are generally daring in the realm of food, we have clear limits and those bugs were definitely beyond our limits). Eric has traveled the world extensively, including annual trips to Thailand. He helped us negotiate the standard dessert cart on the street, much to our delight. We ate many wonderful, luscious things, most of them some permutation of sticky rice, gelatin and coconut. Moreover, we've been eating them every day since.
The next day, we caught a bus to a small town called Mae Salong, northwest of Chang Rai. Really, we caught a bus to the middle of nowhere, where we then caught a sangthaew (a small pickup with a roof and two long benches in the back - a popular means of transport in Thailand) up the hills to Mae Salong. A contingent of Chinese people from Yunnan created the town of Mae Salong. The towns founders supported the Kuomintang, and fled China during the Chinese Revolution, first settling in Burma and then Thailand. Mae Salong retains its Chinese roots. Chinese remains the primary language of the village and the food and architecture bend more to a Chinese aesthetic than to a Thai one.
Mae Salong is a small town, consisting primarily of buildings along the main road. Smaller, roads branch of the main road and lead to nearby villages, peopled by various hill tribes: Lisu, Akha and Karen. A temple sits high above town, perched on the nearby mountain top. After we settled into our decrepit guesthouse, we wandered around town. We ate some good mee (noodle) soup in a small wooden shop, while the television showed a Utah Jazz - Milwaukee Bucks's (probably got the Milwaukee name wrong - all we know is that neither of us had ever heard of the team) game, narrated in Chinese. Afterwards, we hiked up the hill to reach the temple. The first part of the hike followed the road and stretched our legs. The second part ascended a concrete staircase and nearly killed us. We should have practiced counting the number of steps in Thai, because it would have provided us a good opportunity to do some counting in the thousands. In the end, the effort proved worthwhile. From the balcony of the temple, you could look down over the town and out into the hillsides and mountains for miles around. Many of the hills and mountains were combed with terraced agriculture. Smoky plumes rose into the sky at various points. This region comprises a portion of the Golden Triangle, the renowned opium growing region of eastern Burma, Northern Thailand and western Laos. The Thai government has gone to great lengths to suppress opium cultivation. They say that it has been largely eliminated in Thailand. Looking out over the mountains made me think that it would be hard to know for sure.
We orignally decided on a trip to Mae Salong because a bookstore owner in Chang Mai liked it. He said that if we went, we had to make it to the early morning market, where women from the town and the villages nearby gathered to sell and buy food. On our boat trip down the Mae Kok River, this choice of destination got some reinforcement. A guy from Portland, Oregon, who sat next to us in the boat, told us about the upcoming meteor shower. After arriving in Mae Salong, we met another guy who told us that he had traveled to Mae Salong just to see the meteors. Suffice to say, our interest was piqued. As evening fell, we wandered the streets, biding our time until the meteor shower began. A guy beckoned us into one of the chinese style tea shops. It was completely empty, except for a few other people who worked there. This fellow seemed eager to practice his English, which wasn't much better than our Thai. He plied us with pot after pot of oolong tea and we talked in a jumble of English and Thai. If not for this pleasant, caffinated aside, we would unlikely have been able to stay up late enough to see the meteors.
Hopped up on oolong tea, we walked back to our guesthouse, gathered some warmer clothes and our sleeping mats and made the hike back up the hill to the temple. When we arrived up at the temple, we encountered a group of Thai guys who had the same idea. In very broken English, they asked us from where we were came. Then they beckoned us to share their mats, gave us candy and we were off to a fast friendship. We talked back and forth in English and Thai. They were a group of construction workers from Bangkok, who were in Mae Salong to repair the temple's chedi (the big pointy structure that stands next to or behind the main chamber building and rises as a testament to the longevity of Buddhism). They taught us to say Thai words and we taught them some English. Fortunately, their English was better than our Thai, enabling us to communicate beyond telling us each other's names and saying where we are from and what food we like.
Soon after we arrived, the meteors started falling. From that dark mountaintop, the sky glowed with millions of stars, stars I rarely see from urban areas. We all pointed a cheered. Every once in a while, one would come particularly close, burning bright white and blue, leaving a long streak across the sky. We would cheer and applaud the heavens. Our friends taught us to shout the rough equivalent of "F***ING EXCELLENT" in Thai "Sud Yoat Loi!"
After a few hours, J and I got cold and tired. (It is quite cold in that town.) We bade our new friends goodbye and walked back down the hill. I guess they had decided to quit not long after we left, because they drove by in their pickup on their way down. They offered us a ride back to our guesthouse. We jumped in the back. When we got to the guesthouse, the driver asked if we wanted to come to his house. Since it was now 1:30 am, and we wanted to see the morning market (which peaked from 5:00 - 6:00am) we should have said no. But given the generous offer, we said yes and went off to his house. It ends up that it was really the home of all of them. The home consisted of a front office and many bedrooms. The man who invited us was the boss of the crew. We sat in the front office, talked and drank hot tea. They had an extra bedroom and said that if we wanted to stay more nights in Doi Mae Salong that we could stay with them, but our plans were only for one night. Too bad. Finally, fatigue overwhelmed us and the boss took us back to our guesthouse. We finally crawled into bed around 3:00. It didn't look good for visiting the morning market.
In the morning, we found we didn't have much of a choice. Our guesthouse was in an old teak type house, part of which bridged over the dirt road path that led to the market. Our room was the one right over the road and our window overlooked the market itself, about a 100 yards away. The noise of motorbikes and music roused us despite our best attempts to roll over and go back to sleep. We bit the bullet and jumped into our clothes and walked over.
People from all over the mountain were bustling around selling their produce and meat to one another - both the chinese villagers and the people from all the different surrounding hill tribe villages. The sun was just creeping up the side of the mountain and the clouds were fighting the sunlight. The market was packed with people and products we didn't recognize. The whole back row of stalls were mini restaurants where people were eating. The Lonely Planet cautioned us not to miss the hot soy milk and fried buns (sort of like sugarless doughnuts). So, we wended our way through the stalls and plopped ourselves down on a couple of stools in front of what appeared to be the hot soy milk stand. After overcoming some confusion about whether or not we wanted coffee, we managed to get two hot glasses of sweet soy milk and a plate of fried buns. Taking a clue from the people sitting around us, we tore up the buns into bits, dropped them into the soy milk and ate both with our spoon. The suggestion was a good one. It was quite nice.
One of the ways food is packaged here is in banana leaves. This makes it hard for us because it's never the same food inside and you can't see into it. Also, there are just too many names of food items for us to ever remember a fraction of them. This means that sometimes we just have to gamble, order two banana leaf packets, and take our chances. We did this in the morning market and ended up with hot sticky rice with bits of ham mixed in it. We stood and watched the sunrise and the bustle of the market while we ate them. Then, bellies full, we headed back to bed and managed to block out the market noise for the sleep we so badly needed.
When we woke up, we needed to make our move out of Doi Mae Salong. Public transportation turned out to be 17 of us in a pick up truck going down the mountain. Most of the passengers were women from the Akha tribe, two of them bore the tell tale black teeth stained from chewing betel nut. We thought 17 was a lot for a pick up, but at the bottom of the mountain, another pick up that already had about 17 passengers picked up 8 of our pickup's passengers putting their pay load into the 20's. We were impressed.
We took a bus back through Chaing Rai and on to Phrae. Phrae is a medium sized town and not particularly touristed. In fact, most people stare and gawk at K and I. The kids like to yell "Hello Farang!" They giggle like crazy when we say "Hello" back to them. We came to Phrae because it has more of the traditional, old style Thai teak houses than any other city in Thailand. We've found that we're pretty interested in architecture - particularly K as you might imagine - and so we were drawn to this. It's been good to be here simply to see an ordinary Thai town, not over run with tourists. Also, there are many, many of the teak houses and it's been interesting to see that.
Phrae is also known for the "Grand Canyon of Thailand" which was our first "Lava Tube" of the trip. (After our trip to Mt. St. Helen's when J made K drive hours out of the way to see the lava tube we call anything that is less than it's cracked up to be a "lava tube.") So, if anyone ever insists that you stop and see the rock formations of Phrae - you just feel free to give that a miss.
We are writing you from Phitsanolok Thailand where we have stopped in order to make a day trip to the ruins of Sukkothai. We did that today and were amazed at the 13th century ruins. The main wat (temple) was so majestic in it's ruined state that it was easy to imagine the granduer the place must have once had. We've decided that tomorrow will just be a hang out day, reading, writing, generally doing nothing. Probably we'll have that in common with most of you on this Thanksgiving weekend. (We can report that our Thanksgiving dinner was simply Green Curry Chicken.) We love and miss you and hope your Thanksgiving was wonderful. On Sunday we're off to Bangkok.
J and K
We've died and gone to Cheech and Chong Heaven.
Our Bangkok guesthouse is the super-secret guesthouse ... directions meant only to be revealed to the very cool, but some traveler mistakes US for cool and gives them to us using the secret eyebrow raising technique and swearing us to secrecy (unless we know the "right sort of person). We are intrigued enough to check it out.
The Guesthouse is an old teak house, tucked deep inside the inner alley ways of Bangkok, near the bustle and madness, but secluded enough to provide a quiet refuge from it all. Immediately, upon our arrival we see that there's a large common area where all the hip groovsters play guitar and drums, suck Mr. Fatty and recline on Thailand's answer to the Therma-rest. When K and I walked in with our zinc oxide noses, slide rules and pocket protectors I could hear each of their Nerd-O-Meters beeping, popping and hissing off the charts.
Some of you cool party girls would fit right in, but K and I are SO not cool enough. We try to be communal and groovy and all that. For example, when the hipster to your left says "here" with ALL his/her breath sucked in (you KNOW what I"m saying), we have to say, "No man, I'm good." But it's been so long that it comes out "Golly Gee wilickers Beaver, is that the WACKY WEED?" Hahaha. We are old.
Needless to say, the whole place is decorated in old, faded Indian tapestries. If you're ever in Bangkok... Just ask us if you want to learn the secret nod.
Hello Family and Friends:
What follows is the latest installment of our travel update. Hope you find it interesting. It's fun to share our experiences with all of you. We know this message is long. If you don't make it through and have to delete it, we will take no offence. (Feel free to skip to the very end where the "sites" section offers a quick glimpse into the trip.) If in fact, you find it terribly interesting and didn't get any of our three earlier emails, let us know and we can send any or all of them to you.
When we last wrote we were in Phitsanulok, Thailand on our way to Bangkok. We found Bangkok to be a a big, crazy, chaotic city choked with traffic. We paid the perfunctory visit to the Grand Palace and toured the Vimanmek Mansion, the largest Golden Teak House in the world. Vimanmek belonged to Rama V (aka King Chulalongkorn) who reigned during the later part of the 19th century and into the 20th century. "Chula" (as a local called him) has garnered an odd, cult-like following and his people flock to pay homage to his statue each night in central Bangkok. People set up elaborate tables of food and burn incense and candles. Some worshippers hire traditional dancers to honor this King. .. (well, his statue anyway.) The "cult of Rama V" exists because many Thai's credit this King for Thailand's never having been colonized. Interestingly, it was during his reign that Thailand ceded quite a bit of territory to the British and French, lost control of the teak logging industry and introduced western habits to traditional Thai culture. Sometimes details are best overlooked in favor of romanticism.
One thing we really enjoyed in Bangkok was touring Jim Thompson's house. Thompson was an American that had been in the OSS (predecessor of the CIA) in Asia in the 1940's. After WWII, he found New York too tame so he moved to Bangkok. He is credited in Thailand for reviving the silk industry as he was able to create an international demand for handwoven Thai silk. This traditional craft had nearly disappeared. With some of the profits, he purchased traditional teak houses throughout Thailand and had them brought to Bangkok and reconstructed into a beautiful home which he furnished with ancient Thai and Khmer art. He disappeared mysteriously in 1967 while hiking in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia (which we visited and described in an earlier update.) His sister was murdered in New York that same month, so there's been a lot of speculation about foul play, but neither case has ever been solved. He did leave a beautiful house, by which we can remember him.
We did forego one famous area of Bangkok. We never ventured near the infamous Patpong / gogo girl district, so we didn't see the types of things that folks whisper about Bangkok.
From Bangkok we flew to Siem Riep, Cambodia, landing on a flat plain filled with rice paddies for as far as the eye could see. The local crop was in the middle of it's season and it practically glowed lime green underneath the bright sun. Most of the streets in Siem Riep were dirt, so it proved an extremely dusty place. We were grateful to find a guesthouse that had air-conditioning and was generally nicer than we're used to (and more expensive.) We came to Cambodia to see the temples of Angkor -- Angkor Wat specifically, but there are many, many ancient Khmer temples in the area.
The temples themselves defy adequate description. They are incredibly grand. Some, like Angkor Wat, have benefitted from restoration while others are being reclaimed by the jungle forest, but all of them are awe inspiring. Angkor Wat is at least as grand, if not more grand than any castle or temple we've ever seen anywhere. It's simply amazing -- and it's just a ruin. The entire temple is made from carved stone. Every inch of it is covered in elaborate carvings - some three dimensional. For example, at Bayon Temple, 54 towers rise above the rest of the structure. Each side of every one of the four sided towers features an enourmous carving of the same face, supposedly a composite of the Buddha and the King that had the temple built, and these 216 faces calmly smile down at you, no matter where you stand, within the temple or outside of it. The walls (inside and out) of most temples are covered with elaborate carvings that tell the story of the Ramayana and of everyday Cambodian life. Carved apsaras (dancers) adorn every doorway. As if the ruins themselves weren't grand enough, your imagination is further stirred when you learn that the walls were, in some cases, panelled in bas-relief or painted bronze, and the ceilings were once elaborately carved, painted wood. We can't even imagine what the tapestries of the time would have added. One of the temples alone required 88,000 artisans for maintenance during the zenith of the Khmer empire. We're told that Cambodians eventually rejected the Kingdom of the Khmers because the erection of the temples required despotic rule and possibly slave-like labor. Historians think that perhaps the ancient Khmer people grew weary of the huge building programs and began to move away. One funny detail is that, while the temples languished for many years, a Frenchman is credited with "discovering" them; as if the Cambodians forgot they were there.
Siem Riep is heavily touristed as thousands throng to the temples of Angkor. Some Cambodians complained to us that Singapore-based companies operate the big hotels and siphon off much of the tourist revenue. Even the exorbinant entrance fees to the temples go to pay off Cambodia's international debts and are not channeled back into the restoration and maintenance of the sites. In an attempt to earn what they can from the influx of foreigners, the Cambodians have set up innumerable stalls selling souvenirs and are fierce sales people. Every time you emerge from your hotel or from a temple you have AMPLE opportunity to buy postcards, scarves, hats and many other things you couldn't possibly live without. Suffice to say, we learned to say no in Khmer, but that proved little help.
While we visited Siem Reap to visit Angkor, we tried to glean a bit about Cambodia in general, in particular, how the place had recovered during the 22 years since the rule of the Khmer Rouge. During it's four year reign, Pol Pot's regime killed or caused the starvation of between 1/8 to 1/4 of the county's population. The estimates vary. We were suprised when, without inquiry, our taxi driver from the airport told us that his father and both of his sisters had been killed by the Khmer Rouge. Later, another taxi driver told us that he was 9 years old when his father, who had been a teacher, had been killed. As a boy, he was sent to work in the rice fields and remembers seeing people killed. His English wasn't good enough for him to tell us more, or to understand anything we might have said in response, so this information just hung in the air between us.
We read that one in every 236 Cambodians is an amputee. This number seems even more alarming when compared to the U.S. where one in every 22,000 Americans is an amputee. Cambodia's statistics are, of course, the result of the anti-personal land mines scattered all across the land. What really struck us was that our book explained that it costs U.S. $300 to remove one land mine. Cambodia is an incredibly poor country and, at the rate they are currently able to afford to clear mines, it will take 300 years to rid the country of this danger. Everywhere you looked there were people of all ages with prosthetic legs or on crutches with no prosthetic at all.
In the end, we're disappointed that we didn't go to Phnom Penh. It's probably not the best thing to have experienced a whole country via one city, but we had only scheduled a five day trip to Siem Riep for the temples and had a connecting flight to Hanoi, Vietnam, so we had to leave.
We enjoyed Hanoi very much and stayed five days. While the traffic frightened us endlessly, the city proved charming and exciting. We stayed in the old quarter, crisscrossed by narrow streets, lined with ochre colored, french colonial shop houses where merchants packed the streets and sidewalks. Each street in the old quarter is named for the type of merchandise that was originally sold on that street, for example, silk street or tin street. Hanoi has at least three beautiful lakes within the city limits. We stayed very near Hoan Kiem Lake, which afforded us a very pleasant place to take an evening stroll because it has a pagoda on a small island in the middle that would be lit up at night and an old Chinese style temple that you could reach via a red bridge. Twice, K and I stood out on the bridge at night and looked at the lights of the city. One thing we really liked about the evening stroll was that folks in Hanoi walk around in the evening in their pajamas. You would see grandfathers with their granddaughters or women in clusters, all decked out in their P.J.'s, going for a last stroll before bed. We couldn't help imagining what that would be like if it were the tradition in our old neighborhood back home. We were picturing Grant Park residents strolling around the park at 8:00 p.m. in their night time finery!
While in Hanoi, we took Vietnamese classes for three days and generally tried to cram in as much "survival language" as we could. After we finished, we took a three-day boat trip in the famous Halong Bay, north of Haiphong. It is a spectacularly beautiful place of blue water and jutting limestone mountains. There are more than 3,000 limestone islands (although some are so small that "island" is a misleading word) in the bay. One of the nights was spent on the boat, which would've been incredibly peaceful if we had thrown the drunken man from New Zealand overboard hours earlier. At 2:00 a.m. he was still awake, climbing up the ship's mast, screaming and jumping into the water.
On our last day in Hanoi we took a trip up the Perfume River to see the Perfume Pagoda, one of the most sacred Buddhist shrines in Vietnam. To get there, you have to take a two hour bus ride, a one hour boat ride in a shallow skiff, and then hike up a mountain for another hour. The pagoda itself is a beautiful cave at the top of the mountain, and the scenery on the way to the cave and back was also incredible. The river we traveled to get to the Perfume Pagoda wound its way amongst jutting mountians that are actually the southen end of the same chain of mountains we say in Halong Bay just a couple of days earlier. Of course the day we went it poured rain from sunrise to sunset. Luckily we had proper rain gear, but we couldn't help but feel for the woman that rowed our tiny boat to and from the foot of the mountain -- although she was probably a lot warmer than we were since she was rowing.
We left Hanoi on a night train to Hue, where we toured the tombs of the Nguyen emperors and the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), including the string of old American artillary bases that perched on mountain peaks south of the Macnamara Line, such as Khe Sanh. We found the DMZ tour both interesting and sobering. Though the actual sites are somewhat unremarkable, it felt really useful to see that region and the specific places we've heard about for so long. It felt like a pilgramage of sorts. Calling them unremarkable is not to say there are no traces of the war. They are just not specific tourist destinations, but more landscapes. The Rockpile and Razor Back are tall jutting promintories of craggy rock. Seeing them made us wonder how on earth artillary guns could have been stationed there. The old marine base at Khe Sanh is an unevenly vegetated plateau, part of which is under coffee cultivation. There is a small "museum," a rusted out tank and a long swath of ground bare of vegetation where the landing strip used to be.
More generally, very little vegetation grows in large parts of the DMZ and, in particular areas, bomb craters still pock the landscape. The tour did include a visit to the Vinh Moc tunnels (near the coast just above the DMZ). These are a network of more than 2 kilometers of underground tunnels in which 300 North Vietnamese people lived for 6-7 years during the height of the American bombing campaigns near the DMZ The tunnels burrow way underground, sometimes as deep as 30 meters beneath the surface. They link 13 different openings and boast birthing rooms and fresh water wells. Thirteen babies were born in the Vinh Moc tunnels. We found this visit totally fascinating. The tunnels testify to the willingness of the Vietnamese people to do anything to persevere. Interestingly, our guide grew up in a village on the South side of the DMZ. He was 7 years old in 1967 when he and his mother were moved to a "strategic hamlet" where he spent the next 7 years. After the war, his village had to be entirely rebuilt.
From Hue, we moved down to Hoi An, a small, old town just south of Danang. We found this town quite charming. It straddles the Tu Ban River, not far inland from the shore. It consists of a small cluster of narrow streets, close to the waterfront and a central market that bustles every day, rain or shine. While the river sustains the town it also threatens it on a regular basis. The first three nights we were there, the river reclaimed the street that runs along its customary bank. Each of the streets running perpendicular to it just fade into the river water.
The American War (as it is known in these parts) left Hoi An unscathed, preserving it as a fine example of older, traditional Vietnamese architecture. Some cities, like Hue, were nearly leveled during the war, erasing a good bit of the historic feel of the places. Hoi An boasts a diversity of architectural influences including Japanese, Chinese and French. On certain streets, the ochre or periwinkle colored buildings were lit up by ornate silk lanterns every night, giving the town a mysterious and festive feeling.
We had the great, good fortune to find an interesting and cozy guesthouse in Hoi An thanks to the recommendation of another traveler we met in Hanoi. It's called Minh A Guesthouse and it only opened three months ago. It's small with only three "official" rooms and run by a family as more of a homestay experience than a traditional hotel. When we arrived, all three were taken, but the family put us upstairs were they usually sleep, giving us one of the downstairs rooms the next day. Somehow we managed to develop a quick and deep mutual affection with the Minh A family. A, the partriarch, is 54 and served with the South Vietnamese Army during the war. (Consequently, he spent a year in a "Re-education Camp" afterwards.) A liked to say, "America, number one!" His wife Choi was hard working and regularly stuffed us with sweets and slices of peeled fruits we had never tasted before. Their daughter Zi and Choi's sister An spent hours helping us with our Vietnamese and we helped them with their English. Basically, this family adopted us.
We arrived on December 14th and when they found out that the next day was K's birthday, they declared that they would preparing a birthday meal. On K's birthday, they treated us and all the other travelers staying in the guesthouse to cau lau, a local specialty dish of wheat noodles, greens, pork and croutons. It was quite fine. They even busted out a birthday cake, complete with 34 candles and the words, "Happy Birthday, K ". They demonstrated an almost unheard of level of hospitality towards us, from inviting us to join the family for almost every meal to helping us with every little thing we needed while in Hoi An.
One night when we came to dinner with the family A was missing. We asked where he was and were told he was out drinking beer. Mid-way through dinner, A and his drinking buddy (his friend of 45 years as we would come to find out) stumbled into the house happy as larks. They were that happy kind of drunk where they were professing their love for each other, hugging and patting each other affectionately until they almost fell over. A's friend, a local celebrity, decided to sing a ballad to us as a "souvenir," so A grabbed his guitar and the two of them crooned out a Vietnamese ballad. During each chorus the friend would hug A so hard that he would lose control of his guitar. The woman of the house were laughing so hard they couldn't breath. After the ballad, the friend had to leave, but A went on singing to us. He loved to practice English although he couldn't speak it very well. Whenever he tried, An and Zi (who both spoke fairly well) would snicker. I particularly liked the way that A would say the word "very" with particular gusto whenever he felt strongly about anything. A made up a repetetive, but funny song where he sang, "One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, one, two, three, one two, three" over and over again. Perhaps his best number was this (sung to the tune of Frere Jacque - which we don't know how to spell):
Are you sleeping?
Are you sleeping?
No I'm not.
No I'm not.
Morning beer I'm drinking,
Morning beer I'm drinking,
Ding Dong Dang
Ding Dong Dang
After seven or eight rounds of this hilarious song, we decided to go out for ice cream, but A insisted that we return in 15 minutes to sing songs with him. When we returned, he had set up his home Karaoke system. Everyone sat before the television and we took turns at the microphone, following through disc after disc of Vietnamese songs. K turned out to be particularly good at Karaoke in Vietnamese!
On our last night in Hoi An, the Minh A Family threw us a going away dinner and Choi gave us each a bag of her home baked "Banh No," which are Vietnamese sweet cakes made with rice, peanuts, sugar and ginger. We were sorry to leave them, but proud that we had learned to say, "We will miss your family," in proper Vietnamese.
From Hoi An, we took at short taxi ride to Danang to wait for a 16 hour train to take us South to a beach called Mui Ne. Throughout most of Vietnam it's been rainy, which is fine with us because that means it's not hot, but we were ready for a little sunshine at the beach for a few days. Today is Christmas, and we are in Dalat, a hill station built by the French. It's in the highlands, so it is chilly and provides us with a little yuletide spirit. Truth be told, depsite the great time we were having, if we could be anywhere today, we would both choose to be home with our families. The holidays are, of course, the hardest time for us to be away from everyone that we love and care about, so please know that we will be thinking of you and missing you. We hope your holidays and New Year are filled with joy and peace.
With much love,
J and K
Sites in Cambodia: gasoline sold from old 2 litre soda bottles by the side of the road, a man carrying a 600 pound hog (already dead) on the back of his mini-bike - the pigs legs all pointing skyward and a strange smile on his face; another mini-bike driver with a basket filled with 8 piglets strapped to the back of the bike. Yet another mini-bike with a driver, one of us, and all of our luggage - make that two mini-bikes!
Sites of Vietnam: endless miles of rice fields where women in conical hats squat down to tend the crops, school girls in white Ao Dai (traditional Vietnamese dress) riding their bicycles home from school, men gathered on short stools in roadside coffee shops to buy coffee by the shot glass and purchase cigarettes one at a time, baskets the size of large washtubs coated in tar and used as sea faring boats (think rub-a-dub-dub, three men (or women) in a tub - literally, these boats look like little rice bowls out to sea, two giant water buffalo pulling a cart loaded so high with hay it looks like a two story building, also - water buffalo wallowing in the rice paddies.
Laos proved to be very enjoyable, boasting beautiful countryside, gorgeous mountains, clear rivers and lovely, friendly people. Arriving in Vientiane, the general lack of “urban-ness” struck us. It is the capital of Laos, and yet, in size, it resembles a small city/town in Alabama or upstate New York. On our first night in town we were a bit puzzled about where to eat. The Lonely Planet guide we had was a 1999 version so our information was fairly dated. We followed our usual instincts and looked for a restaurant filled with locals. When we came to a crowded restaurant we went in and, since no one spoke English, we had to simply trust that they would bring us something good to eat. First they brought us an electric soup pot filled with water, sliced onions and spices (sort of a broth) and plugged it in at our table. Next they brought us a huge plate of lettuce and herbs, followed by a plate filled with sliced up star fruit, banana, chili, and sprouts. Next came a plate of rice paper and noodles. Finally, a platter filled with raw strips of meat topped with a raw egg. Unfortunately, they didn’t bring an instruction manual. What to do?? After much looking around and trying to discern what other patrons were doing, we were forced to call over the restaurant’s matron. She demonstrated. Boil the meat in the soup broth and then create a kind of hand roll of sorts. You wrap the meat and other ingredients inside a lettuce leaf and / or rice paper and then you dip the roll in sauce and eat it. It was quite good. We never figured out what to do with the raw egg, but later were told that you throw it into the soup broth and eat the soup at the end of the meal.
While in Vientiane we visited That Luang, a giant golden Buddhist Stupa (spire) that is featured in most tourist brochures about Laos. The more interesting thing we did was ride out to a forest wat (temple) where we heard that you could have a steam bath and massage (special thanks to our advance team, Sean & Allison, the American couple we met in Vietnam that were in Laos ahead of us.) We had rented bikes, so we thought we’d just pedal out to the wat. We proceeded to get very lost, but after about an hour and a half ride on the outskirts of town we found the it. On the grounds there was a traditional style teak house on stilts where you could have a steam bath / sauna for about 50 cents. After changing into a sarong (J) and shorts (K) we entered the sauna. It was so filled with herb soaked steam that you couldn’t see anything, not even your hand, in front of you. It was also filled with locals and tourists so that your first foray into the room was a stumble across many sweaty bodies. Unfortunately, the steam came from a pan of water on the floor that both of us stepped on or into. That hurt! However, after scalding one foot each, we settled into the misty heat. Inside the sauna locals rubbed their skin with coarse salt crystals and said "hawn lai lai" (very, very hot) to each other. We stayed in until we thought we might turn to vapor and then went out to the porch where you could cool off, drink tea and look out onto the surrounding gardens. After a couple of trips in and out of the sauna we decided to go for the $1.50 forty minute massage. Thai and Laos massage is much different from the style we’re used to at home. It can be very rough. At one point J was thinking in disbelief, "I’m paying cash money to be punched in the head." Still, it was interesting to have strong Laotian men climb all over you, twist your body into funny shapes and crack all your joints. J spent most of her massage laughing.
After a few days in Vientiane, we took the local bus to a town called Vang Vieng. When we arrived at the bus station in Vientiane, the bus was more than full. People filled all the seats and crowded the aisles. People stood on the lower steps, half out the door. Of course our first assumption was that we would have to wait for the next bus, but OH NO! They loaded our backpacks through a window and shoved us into the teeming masses. The trip to Vang Vieng is 3.5 hours and we stood most of the way swaying in the aisles. We only got to sit when two old ladies squished together so that J could sort of balance on the end of a seat. K got a seat after a child threw up all over his mother and they got off at the next stop. Even though the seat was sufficiently wiped off, no one was keen on sitting there, so K had a proper seat for the last leg of the journey. (Note to selves: Arrive earlier for all bus travel in Laos!!) We learned that there is simply no such thing as “full” when it comes to public transportation in Laos or most of the other places we have traveled. The people running the bus will always stop for new people and fit them somewhere, even when you cannot imagine any more people fitting.
Vang Vieng turned out to be a lovely small town situated along one side of the beautifully clear Song River. Across the river, amazing limestone mountains rose out of flat, agricultural land. Throughout the day boys plied wooden canoes up and down the river using long, bamboo poles and men in their underwear and face masks fished using small, hand made spear guns. In the early evening, all of the town’s men bathed in one part of the river in nothing but their underwear. Further downstream, the women bathed wearing their sarongs. We went on a kayak trip down the river and got out periodically to hike through caves. We often had to walk through cold, black water that was up to our necks to fully explore them! It was another point at which we wondered why we were paying for such an experience.
Our next stop was Luang Prabang, which, based on our limited experience, we would count as one of the nicest cities in SE Asia. Most of the old city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This quarter is filled with French colonial shop houses and there are many art galleries, craft shops, and quaint cafes. Lodging is a bit competitive there, so we stayed in a residential neighborhood a bit of a walk from the Old Quarter. It was a nice place to stay except that while we were there, the local police force was having a celebration that included karaoke over a HUGE sound system until all hours of the morning. Who can you complain to in such a situation? To whom would we have complained? When J told the hotel proprietor that she couldn’t sleep with all the noise, he said, “neither can I.” We realize the danger is generalizing, but I think it is safe to say that Southeast (and we’re finding out) South Asians have an incredibly high tolerance for noise.
Luang Prabang contains dozens of gorgeous wats. One had a golden bias relief mural covering the entire front of the building; another was completely decorated in raspberry and gold. We rented bicycles and rode all around the town. At dusk one evening, J stopped outside one of the wats, drawn by the sound of chanting. She peered inside. Sitting monks, in saffron robes, covered the floor. They were doing their evening chanting. It was lovely to stand there in the setting sun, amongst the beautiful, historic buildings and listen to this mesmerizing sound.
Throughout our trip, we have read or been told about interesting early morning sights that we shouldn't miss such as people doing Tai Chi at six a.m. in the stadium in Chang Mai, Thailand or people exercising and playing badminton bright and early around the Lake of the Restored Sword in Hanoi. Somehow we never manage to actually get out of bed for these experiences. In Laos, as in Thailand, monks rise early each day and walk through the streets of their town collecting their meal, which comes in the form of alms from townspeople. A fellow traveler from Australia, whom we befriended on our kayaking trip, heard that the monks made their rounds sometime between 5:00 and 5:30 a.m. He was staying in our guesthouse and, after we discussed it the night before, he agreed to wake us up and break us of our slothful ways. We made it out of bed around 5:00 and crept out of the quiet guesthouse. We were clueless then, but later we joked that this must be an example of the "telephone game" at work; a piece of information that had gotten twisted as it passed through the travelers network. Suffice to say, we jumped the gun a bit. We spent a couple of dark and cold hours sitting in the quiet streets of Luang Prabang that morning waiting for the monks. We did enjoy getting to see the town wake up and come to life (though I’m not sure someone could’ve convinced us to get out of bed at 5:00 for that). We wandered along the Mekong River, where we could see the outlines of the several cargo ships, tethered at the bank, in the thick morning mist.
The monks finally came for alms at around 7:15. By then, we were busy drinking coffee and feeling like a nap might be in order. It was an interesting sight though, a long procession of monks come single file down the sidewalk along which townspeople have set out mats to kneel upon. As the monks pass, townspeople put their offerings into the monk’s bowls. At the same time, westerners jostled for position to snap photos, some getting within a few feet of the monks themselves. We wondered if it annoyed the monks or made them feel like zoo animals. We imagined coming out for our morning cereal in America and having fleets of monks hovering over us and snapping photos. It was one of those cultural mix moments in which you didn’t know what to think.
After reluctantly leaving Luang Prabang, we made our way to the far South of Laos. This involved three daylong bus journeys. After standing all the way to Vang Vieng, we knew that we had to arrive at the bus stop at least an hour early for everything. The problem with that was that Laotians get up and go EARLY. Most of the buses we wanted to take left town at 6:30 a.m., which meant that we had to arrive at the cold and dark stations at 5:30 a.m. Now we got to see several different towns “wake up,” but not by choice. While the route from Vientiane to Luang Prabang in the North of Laos travels along a good, paved road, the roads south are often still made of dirt. We got jostled for many hours in crowded, dilapidated buses, traveling over bumpy dirt roads, swallowing lungful upon lungful of dust.
While the Northern part of the country is mountainous, the Southern part gives way to rice fields. Throughout the country, with the exception of the few larger cities like Vientiane and Luang Prabang, the houses are almost all built on stilts. Most of them are covered with thatch although some of them feature rough, wide, wooden clapboard. Often the houses only have three walls with a big overhang forming a porch. Laotian houses blend indoor and outdoor space.
As our bus bumped steadily south, it stopped every 10 kilometers or so at each little village to pick up or drop off passengers. Every time it stopped, women would surround the bus, selling food and drinks. At nearly every stop, women hawked “ping kai” or chicken barbequed on a bamboo skewer and bags of sticky rice. Because Laotian women are not very tall and the bus windows are high off the ground, you mainly saw these sticks of food waving in your window: a strange BBQ chicken puppet theatre show at every stop.
In Southern Laos, we went to an area called 4,000 Islands (Si Phan Don), which is an area of the Mekong River scattered with many, many little islands. We settled on an island called Don Det, where the only electricity comes from generators and is usually off altogether by 9:30 at night. We spent five days in a little grass hut with a hammock watching the sunrise and set (well, o.k., mostly set) on the Mekong River. J made it out one day to see the fresh water dolphins that populate the Mekong on the Cambodian border with Laos, but otherwise, it was a lazy spot (due in part to the fact that the aforementioned bus rides threw out K’s back, leaving him relatively immobilized for a few days). After leaving Don Det, we visited ancient Khmer ruins at Champasek. The ruins here are much smaller than those we wrote to you about in Angkor Wat, but the setting itself was lovely. At Don Det, we had the pleasure of befriending two Dutch travelers, Nienke and Dennis. We traveled with them to Champasak and enjoyed their company very much.
Laos is such a small country with such a small population. More than anything, it seems like a collection of villages with the few cities proving exception to the rule. Strangely, it holds the dubious distinction of being the most bombed country, per capita in the history of warfare. During the period of the Vietnam War, the United States dropped an entire planeload of bombs on this country every 8 minutes for nine straight years. The numbers stagger the brain. While we vaguely understand the history of the United States’ “secret war” in Laos (fighting the North Vietnamese and bombing the North to South Vietnam supply line, it is really hard to imagine what, exactly, we bombed. While Laotians use empty bomb casings as garden fences and planters, they also face a significant threat to themselves and their children because of unexploded ordinance scattering the landscape. Every year people are maimed or killed. While riding a local bus one day we sat behind a young boy wearing a turquoise colored t-shirt with cartoons all over the back. Upon closer inspection, we realized that the cartoons illustrated all the things NOT to do with military ordinance. Basically, it was a t-shirt that a non-profit had created to teach children what NOT to play with in the fields. We found this history, and its contemporary ramifications sobering and shameful.
After three weeks in Laos, we returned to Thailand to make our way back to Bangkok as the date of our flight to Kathmandu, Nepal was fast approaching and our Lao visa was fast running out. Despite our original intent to explore Eastern Thailand, our itinerary took a lazy turn and we went to an island in the Gulf of Thailand called Ko Chang (Elephant Island.) As in Don Det, we rented a little hut on the beach, bought two hammocks and proceeded to laze about for a few days. We did manage to go on a snorkeling trip on which we both got ridiculously sunburned. We also rented our first motorbike of the trip and explored the fishing village on the far end of the island.
Like many places we’ve stayed over the past few months, the hut on Ko Chang demanded accommodation. Specifically, we have found that often it is necessary to share your lodgings with various critters. One night, J was in the restroom brushing her teeth and she heard K repeating, “Oh my God!” She didn’t know what it was, but his tone of voice implied that whatever it was, it was large. “Maybe you’d better not come out here,” he called to her. She came out anyway and was surprised to see a giant lizard scampering along the front wall. Nose to tip of tail, it probably measured two feet. While it looked like one of the common geckos, it had the bulk of a grown Iguana. We are the first to welcome the little gecko lizards to sleep in our room. They eat the mosquitoes, generally don’t move a lot and are pretty afraid of humans. But the idea of sharing the room with this crocodile sized Komodo dragon, or whatever was, did not thrill us. There wouldn’t be any sleeping with this critter in the room. After much arm waving and verbal encouragement, we managed to chase him out the door. To add to the menagerie, the next morning, something that can only really be described as “newly born” was resting on our bathroom floor. It was so very newborn that it’s eyes weren’t open and we couldn’t even tell what kind of animal it would someday grow up to be. J thought it was maybe a mouse or a rat. K thought it looked like a dog, and it did, but it was so small... Brave K had to take this baby mouse/rat/dog by the tail and take him outside. In the end, the local red ants made a very interesting Discovery Channel episode out of poor baby mouse/rat/dog. Ah, critters!
After sharing our room on Ko Chang with such a bizarre cast of critter characters, we were delighted that our last two nights in Thailand were to be spent in complete luxury. A group of friends in Atlanta pulled together a two-night stay at the Regent Bangkok as a wedding present for us and we had been looking forward to it since the first few weeks of our trip. It was funny to show up at this lovely Four Seasons hotel, the perfect image of two dust-encrusted backpackers. The staff at reception asked about our travels and we told them of the places we had been. One of the staff members raised an eyebrow at us and said, “and now the Regent Bangkok?” Our stay was delightful. Not only was the hotel incredibly elegant, we didn’t have to share our luxurious room with a single critter. We spent the whole two days wearing our terry cloth robes and slippers, watching bad movies on tv and making guesses about the cotton thread count in the sheets.
On February 1st we flew to Kathmandu, Nepal and from the first moments until now we have not ceased to be amazed and awed. Before we even landed in the country, our plane, cruising just above the cloud line, passed the great Himalayas. We caught our first glimpse from the plane window. What we saw was a majestic mountain range rising up from the clouds. It took a few minutes before we realized that these sheer peaks poking through the clouds extended thousands of feet below the cloud line as well. The sheer size of them is breath taking. It’s fun to know that you are looking at the top of the world.
We have the great, good fortune to be staying with a man named Peter Moran who is one of K’s brother’s best friends. Peter is an Anthropologist, a religious scholar and someone who has spent a great deal of time studying Tibet and learning Tibetan. He runs a program for Trinity College in CT where students spend the semester in Nepal and Tibet. On our first morning in Nepal, Peter said that he was going to a Buddhist lecture and invited us to come. He took us to an area of town called Boudhanath named for the temple located there. The area is home to many Tibetan refugees living in Nepal and features an impressive Buddhist Stupa surrounded by a number of gompas (monasteries) mostly of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. First, we went into an elaborately decorated monastery building where a Rimpoche lectured to a mixed group of ex-pats, travelers and locals about buddhism. Afterwards, Peter left us to explore the temple and the area. He let us know that in the afternoons, the whole community comes out to circumambulate the Stupa and that we might enjoy hanging around for that. There was an internet cafe nearby, so we settled down to write for a few hours.
The Stupa (think spire, but bigger) itself is a huge white dome with prayer wheels set into the sides. On top of the dome is a square section with the Buddha eyes in the shape of lotus flower petals painted in each of the four directions. What looks like it could be the Buddha’s nose is actually the symbol for the number one and represents the idea that all is one. Above the Buddha eyes, 13 levels of the spire rise representing 13 Buddhist virtues. The whole structure is topped with an elaborate golden canopy and Tibetan prayer flags flutter from the top to all points on the ground. Surrounding the Stupa are loads of shops selling Buddhist art, prayer wheels, Tibetan clothes and beads and other wares. When we emerged from the internet cafe, hundreds of Tibetans were walking around the Stupa, spinning the prayer wheels in the temple walls or spinning their own hand-held silver and ivory prayer wheels. Many of them carried varied and colorful prayer beads. Tibetan Nuns and Monks with shaved heads were draped in maroon robes. People wore traditional Tibetan boots, long and short silk, brocade coats lined with long, curly lamb hair. Some of the men had red thread woven into their long, black hair braided herringbone style. Women wore beautiful wrap-around dresses, woven aprons along with a unique kind of cummerbund. Many people were draped in shawls. Many wore elaborate silver jewelry with turquoise and other stone insets. Some people were chanting, some were meditating; some were simply enjoying the time out with the community. With the prayer flags waving, hundreds of people moving and chanting, the traditional dress unfamiliar to us, the sellers of wares, and everything else, we felt really far out of our element and completely mesmerized.
Over the next few days we explored Katmandu and the nearby historic towns of Patan and Bhaktapur. All three cities have numerous temples and structures built as early as the 11th century. The Katmandu Valley boasts a tradition of fine woodcarving, as well as bronze and brass work. Consequently, their temples and palaces are built from a warm, red brick that is then ornately decorated with carvings and statuary. The carved wood windows, doorways, pillars and structural beams are each wondrous works of art. Neither of us had ever seen so much as a picture of Nepali architecture and we were both fascinated by its beauty. The streets are generally winding, narrow lanes paved with bricks. Low ceiling shops sell woolen shawls, hammered copper pots, brightly colored strands of glass seed beads, fruits and vegetables. In other shops, men work handlooms or do fine filigree-style metal work. Women are busy bent over sewing machines or wash tubs. Men wear Newari hats and women wear saris and shawls in all shades and patterns of red. Women and men have the red tikka mark on their foreheads and women have a red sandalwood paste at the part in their hair to indicate that they are married. Cows, chickens, goats, ducks, and dogs roam the streets along with you. Children race through the lanes rolling old bicycle tires -- a very popular game! Vendors push wooden snack carts around town selling popcorn and other savory snacks. The streets of these towns are beautiful, chaotic and mysterious. It has been hard to do anything but stare wide-eyed all day long.
We did manage to make it out for a short trek within the Katmandu Valley. We took a bus to a town called Nagarakot, on the northeastern edge of Kathmandu valley. It is a resort town known for its Himalayan views and also made a good starting point for a walk in the country. When we arrived there the view of the mountains was mostly obstructed by clouds, but we were able to watch some of their snowy peaks turn pink in the sunset. There is a big army base in Nagarakot that has a tower at 2800m. It’s popular to hike up to the tower before sunrise in order to watch the sun come up over the Himalayan range. We got up at 5:45 (another break in our slothful morning tradition!) and started the 1:15 minute hike uphill to the tower. We were wearing our packs because we planned to continue walking to the next town about 4 hours walk from the tower. When we set off, it was still dark. Soon there was enough light to see the path easily without a flashlight. As it got lighter and lighter, the outline of the Himalayas materialized on the horizon. We stared in wonder and awe as ridge after ridge of enormous mountains surged up in front of us. A crescent moon hung stubbornly to the last moments of night and a layer of thick mist coated the rolling foothills that led up the Himalayas themselves. Soon, the sun was making that crazy, celestial looking light above one of the mountains sending rays of pink light across the peaks. We stood holding our breath thinking, “we are watching the sun come up on the top of the world.”
Once the sun was fully up, we started our walk through the Nepali countryside towards the town of Dhulikhel. As we rounded the first bend in the path we came upon seven Nepali women in beautiful red saris. They were each carrying giant baskets of fuel wood on their backs that were attached by a strap across their foreheads. “Namaste,” they called out to us and pointed the way to the next town. The path took us through small villages and terraced, hillside farms. All along the way, Nepali people stopped to offer directions, ask where we were from or how we liked Nepal. The sun was shining and making the fields of yellow mustard flowers and the green shoots of winter wheat sparkle in their steeply terraced beds. Every time we would turn a corner we beheld something new -- a whole hillside carved into curvy, terraced farm plots, baby goats chasing each other or suckling their mother, houses made from timber and earth or more elaborate homes built of stone and earth with ornately carved roof struts. Children shouted “Hello” and “Namaste.” We fell in with many groups of children walking to school in uniforms they were quickly outgrowing. They showed us all the shortcuts and whispered with each other about what questions to ask us next. When their paths diverged from ours, a new group of children would always adopt us soon after. Men and women carrying large, metal milk containers on their backs passed us going up the hill. Women were busy all along the way collecting fuel wood and fodder for the animals or tilling fields. Though she didn’t speak any English, we are positive that one woman offered us an opportunity to try out the work she was doing. She had a big smile on her face as she tried to convince us to give the tilling a try. Eleven kilometers of walking and one short bus ride later, we arrived in Dhulikhel. Dhulikhel is a small village in the eastern part of the Katmandu Valley. Like most of the towns in the area, it has some great old buildings and it was nice to wander around the town and soak up the late afternoon sun.
The next day, demonstrating extreme hubris, we set off on another 11km walk, first to a Buddhist temple called Namobuddha where it is said that the Buddha, feeling compassion for a starving tigress and her cubs, allowed himself to be consumed by them. We continued from Namobuddha to the historic town of Panouti. While the path from Nagarakot to Dhulikhel was mainly downhill, this trek was not. It took us three hours of huffing and puffing to reach Namobuddha and then another three hours of staggering to reach the town of Panouti. We were so tired and sore by the time we got there that we gave the temples and old buildings a cursory glance, headed for the bus and found our next guesthouse and hot shower as quickly as we could.
As you probably remember from the news, Nepal suffered a blow last June 1st when eleven members of the royal family were murdered. On top of that, the country has quite a bit of internal unrest and violence due to frustration with corruption in government. Nepal currently exists under a national “State of Emergency” because a Maoist insurgency threatens the government. Many police have been killed recently. Just the other night, 16 police officers where killed on the Eastern edge of the Kathmandu Valley, about 22km further east from the town of Dhulikhel. Perhaps because tourism is such a large part of Nepal’s GNP, the tourists are thought to be safe from harm with respect to the current emergency. Collectively, June 1st, the state of emergency and September 11th have staggered Nepal’s tourist industry. The tourist area in Kathmandu called Thamel, whose streets are usually packed with tourists, are filled with mostly Nepalis. We are among a small group of westerners in Nepal at the moment. It seems like a sorrowful burden for a country that is already so poor.
We have just returned from a three day visit to Chitwan National Park in southern Nepal. The park provides habitat to Tigers, Rhinos and an abundance of other wildlife. We rode elephants through the jungle and stopped to watch a Rhino mother, father and baby have a family feud at our feet. It was completely surreal to be that close to Rhinos in the wild. Our next stop will be Lake Pokhara at the foot of the Annapurna range of the Himalayas and do a little trekking there.
Before we sign off, we want to share with you a funny story from this morning, which we just described in an email to our friend Brian. We hope it gives you a little more of the flavor of this place. A few days back, we decided to ship a box home. We had to get rid of some stuff we bought and some stuff we brought with us that has proven extraneous. We went to the foreign post office here in Kathmandu. It consisted of a counter, a large table and a wooden bench in a small store-front style office. A dozen or more men squatted in small groups in the dirt courtyard in front, chatting and sipping tea. We couldn't figure out what, exactly they were doing there.
When we approached the counter, they sent us first to the customs man at the long table. After filling out a customs form and getting our bag of stuff put into a decrepit, old cardboard Pepsi-Cola box, we then sealed the box with tape. We wrapped it well, thinking this had to suffice to protect it during its long journey by sea. We remained a bit confused because the customs man had not addressed the box or prompted us to do so. He then sent us to the men over by the bench. Here, the shipping process took a turn for the bizarre.
Using muslin cloth and a needle and thread, these two men made custom tight-fitting bags for each box. They then put the box into the bag, pulled everything tight and sewed it all up. Suffice to say, this process both fascinated and impressed us. In this style, they sewed up our box. Having finished the stitching, one of the men prompted us to address the box with a magic marker. We imagined we were ready to take the box to the counter and pay, but one of the bag makers retrieved the box from us. Now the process took a turn toward the medieval. He then sat down on the floor and proceeded to apply a dozen or more wax seals along the sewn seams of the muslin cover. He melted a stick of red wax over a small oil lamp, dabbed spots of the wax along the seams and pressed them with a small tarnished brass stamp. Our friend, Peter, with whom we are staying, had joked with us once about shipping here and said people in America would receive boxes from him and think that they had arrived from another century. Now we understood what he meant.
J and K
About ten days ago, J and I took a late night flight out of Bombay (Mumbai), on our way to Nairobi, Kenya, wrapping up a two-month stint of travel in India. This leg of our trip saw us trek through the northern states of Madhya and Utter Pradesh and Rajasthan, before we headed south, visiting Maharashtra, Kerala and Goa. We spent more time in India than we had spent in any other single country that we've visited, but such a simple comparison does India a certain injustice. India is vast, diverse and complex. The differences between Rajasthan and Kerala, for instance, seem as great as the differences between Laos and Thailand. India is a big and complicated place.
On our first day in India, we awoke to read the news reports about an attack on a train in Gujurat, during which nearly eighty people burned to death. This was not an isolated episode of violence. Far from it. For the past 12 years Indian Hindus and Indian Muslims have been fighting, on and off, about a piece of ground in the pilgrimage town of Ayodhya. The recent attack in Gujurat was only a new installment of this ongoing battle. Since the time of Mughal empire (16th, 17th and 18th centuries), a mosque called the Babri Masjid has occupied a piece of land in Ayodhya that some Hindus believe is the birthplace of Lord Rama. (Rama is a warrior from Hindu mythology believed to be one of the 10 incarnations of the Lord Vishnu.) A certain faction of the Indian Hindu community advocated that the mosque be torn down and a Rama temple built in its place. Obviously, this opinion engendered opposition from many Muslims in India. In 1990, riots broke out in Ayodhya and an angry mob tore Babri Masjid down. This precipitated terrible rioting throughout the country, during which many people lost their lives. Obviously, the issue remains unsettled today.
While the attack (and subsequent rioting) in Gujurat did not make us fear for our safety (we were far from Gujurat), it did present us with a quick study in one of the complexities of India. We talked to a number of people, asking them how they thought the issue could be settled peacefully. Many people told us that it couldn't be resolved peacefully and that a Rama temple must be built there. Others believed the conflict would be resolved if the government would choose to build a hospital that would serve everyone. Throughout our travels in India, fighting on this issue continued. The Supreme Court of India got its say on the issue, but didn't say much. Hopefully, India will find an appropriate solution to this conflict, one that will radiate out from Ayodhya, helping to heal the deep religious wound in the body of India.
With the variation in culture, history and landscape, India's 25 states could almost be separate countries unto themselves (some of them want just that). India is home to Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains, Sikhs, Parsis and others. The landscape ranges from the deserts of Rajasthan, to the high Himalaya of Himichal Pradesh, and the tropical forests and beaches of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. There is intense poverty and concentrated wealth. India seems to encompass the heights of the first world and the depths of the third, particularly in its cities. India supports huge, contemporary industries such as software, automobiles and luxury tourism, while millions of its inhabitants continue to do all their work and chores by hand. You can watch a young girl fill her cast-iron clothes iron with actual burning coals to iron the days wash and around the corner purchase the latest computer technology.
The United States faces some of the same problems as does India, such as managing the conflicts inherent in cultural and religious diversity. As the US grows more diverse, Americans might find useful lessons or cautionary tales in the politics of India. The vast divide between India's rich and poor may be a harbinger for our country as our own economic divide grows ever wider. Anyway, India is a complicated place. It has challenged us. We wonder what the United States could learn from the experience of India; it is, after all, the most populous democratic nation in the world.
TALES FROM INDIA
Our trip in India started out with a funny episode. After our flight from Kathmandu, Nepal to Varanassi, India, we shared an Ambassador (a very cute car manufactured in India that looks sort of like a 1950's Packard) with two Finnish guys who were working on a television series for a travel show back home, a Finnish equivalent of "The Lonely Planet" show on cable in the US. On the way into Varanasi our taxi broke down. While the driver and nearby mechanic were huddled under the hood, the Fins leapt into action, pulling their camera equipment from the trunk. The cameraman filmed the show's spokesman as he leaned under the popped hood, uttering an appropriate introduction… "Welcome to India!"
Varanasi: a sensory overload
Varanasi is a very holy city situated alongside the most holy Ganges River.
Hindus consider it auspicious to die in Varanasi because being cremated on the banks of the Ganges automatically delivers the deceased from the cycle of life and death. Consequently, funerals are an essential and important part of the city's activity. As we pulled into town, we saw a group of men serving as pallbearers. The mourners wrap the bodies of the deceased in fabric - red for young women, yellow for old women, white for old men, etc. They then drape the body with an ornate cloth of red and gold and place the body on a bamboo stretcher of sorts which is carried to the burning ghats (steps along the river). We visited the burning ghats on our first day in India. There were sections for each caste. The section for the Brahmin caste (the highest) was set apart. The type of wood used for the pyres of Brahmins was a different type than for the other castes. Charnal men (who build and tend the funeral pyres) carried armload after armload of wood into the pyre areas and created rectangular shaped pyres that were three sided and hollow. The deceased person's body was placed on top and the interior of the pyre stuffed with grasses and other material to start the fire. Family members looked on and some had roles to play during the cremation. Tourists were allowed to watch from a nearby balcony so we saw the smoke rise to the sky and the scattered ashes drift down the holy Ganges river.
Funerals make up only a small portion of the activity along the river's edge. Men and women stand waist high in the Ganges, bathing, singing or chanting their prayers. Garlands of flowers, offerings to the gods, float downstream along the river's edge. Cows, goats, dogs, children and people wander the ghats. Dhobi wallahs (laundry men and women) stand ankle deep in the river washing clothes by beating them punitively on the stone steps.
We wandered through the old section of Varanasi, where tight alleyways weave amongst old stone and brick buildings. Prayers from a nearby mosque's loudspeaker drift through the air, men wear long white shirts over white pants and small white caps without brims on their heads. There are a number of women dressed in full black burkha's. We hear a strange clackety clacking noise coming from inside a building tucked away in these narrow and winding lanes. We peer inside the window to discover four ancient looking handlooms and four operators sitting on the floor shuttling thread through the looms one strand at a time to produce beautiful patterns of silk brocade. Emerging from the alleyways, we find the streets crowded and jumbled. Cows wander the streets or lay about, snarling the overabundant traffic of taxis, trucks, rickshaws and carts. Some visitors from the west don Indian clothes (many of them in Varanasi to attend yoga courses and search for their spiritual center). Sadhus, dressed in orange dhotis, have wild hair and sandlewood paste streaked across their foreheads. They carry tridents and walk through the streets on their way to worship at the Shiva temples. Tiny sweet shops offer an amazingly huge variety of sweets, none of which we recognize, many of which we sample. They serve them up in bowls made of pressed leaves that everyone simple discards along the roadside, to be swept up later or eaten by the cows.
Northern India: images
After we left Varanasi, we traveled west for a month, weaving our way through Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. Everywhere, everyday, children greeted us, yelling "Hello One Pen." Often they follow us, uttering the refrain over and over again, expecting us to give them a pen or at least some rupees. Women with matted hair and dirty clothes, held babies and begged us for "baksheesh." Rickshaw drivers tailed us as we walked, imploring us to take a rickshaw ride. In most of the towns and cities we visited, the streets teemed with pedestrians, bicycles, rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, tempos, fancy SUVs, ambassadors, a range of buses from dilapidated, dirty local buses to the luxury tourist buses. Huge trucks (with deafeningly loud air horns) plowed through the traffic, hauling their loads of gravel or stone, painted as if for the Mexican Festival of the Dead. Mixed in with the motorized traffic were cows, bulls, oxen and ox-carts, camels pulling carts, dogs, cats, pigs, goats, chickens and all their babies. Fruit vendors stood by their four-wheeled wooden carts, piled high with tangerines or other fruits and vegetables. A camel, wearing a pompon garland and jingle bells, pulled a cart of men and a huge stack of jute sacks. Another cart went by, this one stacked with bricks, pulled by two huge oxen. A man galloped through traffic on a white horse covered in red and gold fabric, tassels and pompons. A line of rickshaws carried brass band members in full band uniform on their way to perform in a wedding parade. As the traffic fought its way down the roads, the animals stood idly by eating the garbage piles along the roadside or laying in them. A mirror was nailed to a tree and in front of it a man sat in a chair getting a haircut and shave from a barber.
We traversed the countryside in buses or trains. Out the windows, we saw women in saris shoveling and hauling gravel to repair a road, or a railway bed. The train lines traversed vast green fields of winter wheat, swaying in the breeze. Even as we headed deeper into the deserts of Rajasthan, seemingly arid fields supported healthy crops. Occasionally, we saw women in saris tending goats or the heads of men, wrapped in cotton scarves, poking up through the stalks. When we traveled by bus, we often had to stop at railroad crossings. Finally the train would pass. It was so full of people that the crowd bulged out of the doors, leaving some leaning out, holding on for dear life. Many men and boys opted to ride on the train's roof rather than squeeze themselves into the overstuffed container. While we were stopped, a boy selling fried papadum stopped to say, "Hello one chocolate" to us. He repeated this over and over while we smiled and nodded.
The Taj Mahal
View from the Red Fort.
Jaipur, The Blue City
Elora & Ajanta
Southern India: images
Ks mother Katie joined us as our second visitor and the three of us set off to explore Southern India, specifically the state of Kerala. Kerala is a tropical paradise on the Southwestern coast of India. We visited a small fishing village/beach resort on a cliff overlooking the Arabian Ocean, and spent a day and a night on a houseboat meandering through the Keralan backwaters. In Periyar National Park, we saw elephants in the wild and stayed in a beautiful lodge in the middle of Periyar lake (the former hunting lodge of the Maharaja.) We visited the tea plantations of Munnar, and the port city of Cochin. In the evenings in Cochin, we strolled along the beach and watched fishermen operate the cantilevered Chinese fishing nets in the sunset. After Katie left us, we whiled away our last five days in India soaking up the atmosphere in the laid back state of Goa. There are 1.6 million residents of the state of Goa, but they receive 1.9 million visitors each year due to their beautiful beaches and hospitality. Goa was a Portuguese colony until 1961 (well past Indian Independence!) Old Goa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, boasts churches from the sixteenth century including one that houses the desiccated remains of St. Francis Xavier which are on display for all to see.
Jain, our driver.
The Keralan Backwaters
J and Katie (K's Mom) on our Ketuvalum Tour
Scene from the Keralan Canals
Scene from the Keralan Canals
Scene from the Keralan Canals
Scene from the Keralan Canals
Scene from the Keralan Canals
Fishing Nets in Cochin, India
Street Scene Ernakulum, India
Beach at Cochin, Kerala, India
From the erotic temples of Khajuraho, to the ornate buildings of the bygone Mughal empire, Northern India is filled with elaborate palaces, temples and forts that are all worth seeing. Still, we found traveling there to be difficult, sometimes uncomfortable and often emotionally challenging. There are many people living in utter poverty here. You encounter it everywhere, from the markets of Bombay, to the railway stations and bus stops of Rajasthan. While some Indians move about in moderate to high comfort, others seem to exist in a state of near desperation. In some ways, it is not so different from the US, where well-dressed business people skirt by homeless people begging in city streets. It just seems more extreme here, more pressing. With more than three times the population of the US, this difference in intensity makes sense.
We arrived in India believing we were compassionate people, but faced with the insurmountable scale of need and our lack of ability to respond in any meaningful way. We often felt overwhelmed by the poverty and suffering. It wasn’t just the begging. Rickshaw drivers and touts hounded us. Rickshaw ride? Camel safari? You come look in my shop? Hotel? Taxi? Where you go? Postcards? Shoeshine? Change money? Unfortunately, we became instinctively defensive, sometimes dismissive to people just trying to help. We tried to stay "open," and friendly, but we couldn’t always do it. One night in Agra, we walked from our hotel to a restaurant we had read about and wanted to try. It wasn't far and we felt like walking. At the chowk (intersection) where the rickshaws and auto rickshaws wait, we got the usual hale of offerings, but declined. One auto rickshaw driver followed us at a crawl persistently trying to get us to take a ride with him. He crept along dark roads following us, calling to us. When we walked against traffic he yelled at us from across both lanes. He was screaming, "I have no job," and "just give me one chance." "Five rupees to go anywhere." (That's about 12 cents.) It became some strange conflict of wills and principle for us. We just wanted to walk. Finally, about 500 meters from the restaurant, we walked up to his rickshaw and yelled at him to stop following us. He finally turned his vehicle around and drove away without a word. We felt sad. Do we have to yell to be left alone? Though, for 12 cents, we could have taken the ride. It seemed like a no win situation that repeated itself over and over. It's true: we are very rich in comparison to many of the people we met in India. That said, we couldn't buy every souvenir, stay in every hotel, take every rickshaw, or give money to every beggar. We often felt callous and/or useless.
Finally, the staring... Men on buses and trains stared at us without pause. Everywhere we went, people stared. Sometimes we engaged in a stare down. We might win (temporarily) or lose. Either way, we won no respite. Nothing we did seemed to communicate the fact that we didn't like it, or, if we had been successful in transmitting that message, the person staring didn't care at all. We joked with each other that we were movie stars. In our more reflective moments, we mused that we must look so different, out of the ordinary in our western dress, that people found us fascinating. We sought some consolation in our minds, but we never got used to being stared at like that. If that's what it's like to be famous, we pray we never achieve such status.
India: the enchantments
In Rajesthan each year, the "Mr. Desert" contest selects a winner and features him on tourist brochures about the state. Rajestani men are big, swarthy guys with brightly colored turbans, chunky, gold earrings, pointy-toed leather slippers, handle bar mustaches and a twinkle in their eye that lets you know that they could just as easily whup you as charm you depending on what the situation demanded. If the Marlboro Man were Indian, he'd be from Rajesthan.
Joined in the lovely city of Udaipur by our first visitor (our friend Therese) we had the unique experience of participating in the annual Holi Festival. Holi is a color festival and a time of forgiveness. The streets are filled with people in their old clothes. They greet each other with hugs and a handful of colored powder (or a water gun filled with colored water.) The ritual fosters forgiveness, allowing everyone to let arguments and feuds of the past year to wither and celebrate friendship. It is a great excuse to have fun. The three of us braved the festival for a short time and ended up looking like clowns from the circus.
Hooray for Bollywood
Many of you know that we are avid film lovers and that we see more films than the National Health Association recommends. We can report that our first "Bollywood" feature was a genuine extravaganza. Imagine watching a US-based daytime soap opera, but one that follows only one story line for three solid hours. Now imagine it's a musical and it has more costume changes than a Cher concert. Finally, build in several obligatory trips to Switzerland, which naturally augment the costume change opportunities. The film didn't show the heroine's luggage, but she would've needed several steamer ships to have carried that many different winter coats and matching accessories donned on her trips to the Alps! Finally, while we don't speak any Hindi, we never had a problem following the plot. Now that's good storytelling.
And finally…THE FOOD
Let’s just say, for starters, that EVERYTHING is better with ghee (clarified butter.) Before we got to India, other travelers complained to us that the food in India wasn’t any good. They claimed that their local Indian restaurant (in England, France or wherever) had much better food than India. We have no idea where they were eating because we were in food heaven. From the Northern Punjabi delights like kebabs, tikkas and curries in flavorful sauces, to the Gujerati Thalis, to the coconut laden recipes of the far south, we ate like the epicurean Maharaja and Maharani. We were particularly swept away by the Indian sweets. Our addiction to them got so strong that we would arrive in a new town and immediately poll the local populace on which sweet shop they felt was the best in town. After gathering enough data we would head straight there and sample as many new treats as we could handle. We developed a strong liking for a dessert called “Milk Cake” which, as best we can determine, is made from some kind of curdled milk. While that doesn’t SOUND appealing, we can assure you that it was incredible stuff. We also became believers in Masala Chai (Indian spiced tea.) We are usually coffee drinkers (coffee snobs more accurately.) Nescafe is not, in our opinion, truly coffee. This opinion has forced us to become tea drinkers in many countries. Luckily, the Masala Chai in India made it a worthwhile switch. We will leave you with a few Chai recipes if you want to give it a try.
INDIAN (and not so Indian) CHAI RECIPES
A Traditional India Recipe:
What you need--
Brooke Bond Red label, Mamri, or Tajmahal Black tea [DO NOT USE GREEN OR LEAF TEA, IT WILL RUIN THE TASTE].
Cloves, cinnamon stick (good quality), fresh ginger (powder or prepackaged cannot be substituted), whole black pepper, cardamom pods.
Optional items: White khas-khas (Indian name of a spice, which is round dried seeds); and soanph (green dried, not roasted)
Half-and-half milk. No other milk can be substituted (if you really want the taste of real chai)
PREPARATION METHOD FOR 1-CUP CHAI:
In a clean deep dish container, put 3/4 cup water, 1/2 cup milk (half-and-half), 1 full teaspoon black tea and spices as follows.
· 1 pod cardamom
· 2 pea size fresh ginger (mulched)
· 1-2 big size whole black pepper
· 1/8 to 1/6 cinnamon stick
On a hard piece of paper, crush all of them together. Immediately put this mix in dish with water and milk. Keep them on heater plate or gas range for about 15 minutes, keep stirring continuously. Add sugar to your taste. Drain on strainer and serve in a cup. The idea is to burn water from the tea while mixing the spices into the leftover tea. You may have to experiment with the quantity of water and milk to the final quantity of tea. In my experience, 2:1 ratio works better, i.e. I use 2 cups of (milk + water) for making one cup of chai. 1 cup of water is burned in the process. This provides smooth taste of chai.
The Americanized Version of Chai:
(4) 1 1/2 in. slices fresh ginger (use vegetable peeler)(1) 2 in. cinnamon stick(4) whole cloves(1) heaping demitasse spoon powdered cardamom(1) 6 in. vanilla bean (cut up into 1 in. pieces)(1) dash nutmeg(1) heaping Tbsp. sugar(1/4) cup honey(3) Bigelow Darjeeling Blend tea bags(2) cups H2O(2) cups milk
Bring 2 cups of water to a boil and toss in teabags then all other ingredients in order above. Reduce heat and simmer about 5 minutes stirring occasionally. Add milk and bring to boil, then take off heat. Strain through strainer or coffee filters and serve hot or in a tall glass filled with ice. Refrigerate unused portion. To reheat, you may either heat any conventional way, or froth with cappuccino maker!
Boil 5 minutes, then steep 10 minutes:
1 Tbsp fennel or anise seed6 green cardamom pods12 cloves1 cinnamon stick1/4" ginger root, sliced thin1/4 tsp black pepper corns2 bay leaves7 Cups water
Add, bring to a boil, and simmer 5 minutes:
2 Tbsp Darjeeling tea
6 Tbsp honey or brown sugar1 Cup milk