Sunday, January 14, 2007

Pak Ou in pictures

We wrote in real time about our trip up the Mekong river to the Pak Ou caves and the wonderful collection of Buddhas that people have brought there, but we've just uploaded the photos of that day and, thanks to Flickr's great little widget called Pictobrowser, here they are. The remaining Laos photos, those from Vientiane, will be in the next post.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

So you thought it was over?

For those of you who just can't be bothered to go over to Flickr as directed in the previous post, Mohammed is bringing the mountain to you. (Hope that name doesn't start the search engines going crazy. Incredible the things we have to think about these days...)

Anyway, we're trying out a new function provided by Flickr. The band of photos you see at the bottom of the page are most of the ones taken in Luang Prabang. In theory when you click on each it will enlarge and you can move at your own pace through the 150 or so photos on the band. The numbers below the band refer to "pages", i.e. the dozen visible on the band when you first open this post constitute the first page. Clicking on number 2 will bring up the next dozen, etc. The tiny cursor above the number tells you which page you are looking at and the cursor above the photo tells you which photo is currently being enlarged.

There are in fact descriptions for most of the photos, but they're not available below. For that you have to go to the Flickr site where you can choose to see a slideshow which requires only an initial click or to look at individual photos, where the descriptions can be read. For those of you who are our age, here's a reminder of the site's URL :

Thanks to all of you who have said nice things about the blog. We weren't sure if anyone was reading since most of you were too shy to comment (thanks to those of you who did!) and it was a bit like sending messages in a bottle. We really enjoyed doing it and may just keep it up, who knows. I've spent some of the time since we got back searching online for an apartment to rent in Paris for October. Yes, already...

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Home again, home again, jiggety jig

Just a quick post to say we're back home, safe and tired. The first set of photos, from Bangkok, have been posted online. Just click on the following link and you'll go directly there.

We'll be uploading more from other places in the next few weeks; keep checking the Flickr site.

There will also be a few more posts on this blog, with things we didn't have time to write about on the trip itself, like the fact that Gene seems to hold a fatal fascination for the Asian women we met, from pretty young Chanmala at the hotel in Laos ("oh, it's the handsome Mr. Oreck!")

to two-year old My Ny in Saigon ("da da!").

Hong Kong, then home

The next day we tried the Vietnamese equivalent of Jewish penicillin in a bowl of chicken pho, as good as any made by Shelli’s mother in her previous life as a Vietnamese peasant. Room service is wonderful; if you have to be sick, do it in a good hotel.

United Airlines is the only US airline to fly out of Saigon, but they do it at 6:05 AM. The night before, New Year's Day, we had tried to go to Ngon, a restaurant that sounded intriguing: some clever entrepreneur had gathered many of the best street food vendors under one roof and supplied tables, chairs and clean implements, allowing us scaredy-cats to eat both exotically and safely at the same time. Unfortunately when we got there the crowd at the door and in the street looked like it would keep us from actually eating for several hours yet, so we told the cab driver to turn around and take us back to the hotel. Since we didn't speak Vietnamese and he didn't speak English and it was such a stupid thing to be telling him to do it took a few tries to make it clear ("These idiots came all the way here to look at the sidewalk for 2 minutes?"), but we had to be up at 3:30 the next morning; no way we could wait hours for a table. So we wound up having very good pizza at the hotel for our last meal in Vietnam.

Hong Kong is a replay of Saigon: feel not so bad, go out and sightsee, then Shelli spends the rest of the day and all of the following one in bed sneezing. This time the bed comes with a panoramic view of Hong Kong harbor, shrouded in mist and criss-crossed by ferries, freighters, junks, sampans, tugs and barges.

Yesterday we waited an hour to get a table at a recommended dim sum restaurant which was just OK, then wandered around the Hollywood Road area, which is full of antique shops. After looking in a number of them and finding that the things we liked cost more than we liked them, we went into one we remembered from 1987 and found our souvenir of this trip, a charming 10 inch tall wooden ancestor figure supposedly made about 1880.

A long trek down (thank god we had driven up! those hills are steep) through the bustle of Central district took us to the newly relocated Star Ferry terminal, where a ride on the upper deck costs HK$2.20, just under 30 cents USD, and another evening of room service.

Gene really liked what he saw of Hong Kong. Despite his own incipient cold, he managed to visit the Hong Kong Museum of Art where he was impressed by the extensive ceramics collection and the good job done in introducing youngsters to art. In between coughing spells we managed to do a bit of last minute shopping in the mall adjacent to the hotel.

Packed and ready to go, we will head to the airport in the morning.

Sick in Saigon

The night we arrived in Saigon Shelli had started to cough. By the next morning it was clear she was getting sick and if we wanted to do some sightseeing we had to get a move on. Our guide picked us up and offered the usual stops: the War Remnants Museum, a temple in Cholon, the local Chinatown, or anything else we wanted to see. Well, we said, we’d like to go to the Art Museum and the street of antique shops that our Hoi An guide, a Saigon native, had suggested. This triggered a flurry of discussion between the guide and the driver, who agreed that the museum would be closed that day (Sunday) and had never heard of the antiques street. Gene wanted to see the War Remnants Museum, Shelli didn’t much want to, but what the hey, that’s where we went.

It’s hard to accept seeing yourself as the bad guy. Granted, the museum is a propaganda windfall for the winning Vietnamese government, but much of it is true, even allowing for the spin. There are pictures we saw in the ‘60s, there are samples of bombs and mines, there are photos of people after encountering those bombs and mines, there are photos of our side, their side, whatever, people dying in a tragic war. We moved through relatively quickly, but were conscious of other visitors, Vietnamese, German, Japanese spending a lot of time viewing the exhibits. It made us feel defensive, but we couldn’t defend ourselves. It happened.

The first part of the museum was dedicated to a show of photographs by and of the war photographers who died or disappeared in Indochina from just after WWII up to the fall of Saigon. Stunning to see that so many died, some of them the creators of the most iconic images we’ve ever seen, among them the famous Robert Capa. In our hotel in Siem Reap we had seen an exhibit of photographs by a young Japanese photographer who had disappeared in Khmer Rouge territory on his way to Angkor in 1973. He was also represented here.

During our drive to the temple in Cholon our guide Diep, a young woman who had made quite a point of telling us how wonderful Ho Chi Minh was: “We lo-oove Ho Chi Minh. He is our father. He had no wife, no children, so he dedicated himself to my country,” was quite open about the shortcomings of that country. “My father was a Communist and was very happy to win the war, and he told me that now he wishes that the Americans win, because he has no good life now.”

She went on to tell us how difficult living in Vietnam is, how expensive it is, how she had to pay a bribe to the doctor delivering her baby to be sure she would get the best treatment. She called it “tipping”, and says it’s ubiquitous and that it makes sense because people make such low salaries and have to pay for everything themselves, no medical coverage, no unemployment, no pensions. When Shelli mentioned that this might not be the society Ho Chi Minh had envisioned, she agreed. According to Diep, much of the money that fuels the consumer buying in Vietnam comes from overseas Vietnamese who send money home to their families. But, she says, it will change.

Gene went off the next day and found the Art Museum, an unairconditioned building with some interesting exhibits, and also found a couple of galleries, coming back with several charming small paintings on paper. He says that during his stroll he was offered everything from a motorcycle ride to a “pretty woman with big breasts”. He also says that if the two had been combined he might have considered it…let’s see, a motorcycle with big breasts? No, that’s probably not it.

New Year’s Eve was spent in the hotel, coughing and sneezing, and 2007 came in without us awake to greet it.