Saturday, December 30, 2006

Eating...and eating...and eating

We never thought before we left home that we would tire of Vietnamese food, but so far we haven’t been that impressed. Hanoi style food is quite bland, using a lot of herbs for flavor, but not much else. We had the famous Cha Ca, a local specialty that consists of small pieces of fish sautéed in a pan with oil and turmeric and lots of herbs, chief among them dill. The sizzling pan is put on your table on a burner and you serve yourself, putting the fish and herbs over rice noodles, seasoning it in the bowl with fish sauce made slightly spicy by the addition of sliced red peppers. These peppers, while hot-ish, can’t hold a firecracker to Thai chiles. Our best food in the north of Vietnam was on the boat in Halong Bay, where we were served fabulous fresh crab and prawns several times a day.

Saigon food is spicier than that in the north and our lunch of deep-fried soft shell crab and crab spring rolls in a local joint was delicious. The proprietor pulled out the lone menu in English, with pictures, to allow us to choose. The condiments included fresh chiles, bottled chili sauce, nuoc mam mixed with chiles, sugar and vinegar, a selection of lettuce and herbs, cold rice vermicelli, and soy. Yum!

The highly praised Hoi An specialty, cao lau, a noodle dish supposedly made authentically only with Hoi An well water, failed to impress either of us. We had a cooking class one night in one of the restaurants however and learned to make some quite tasty dishes. Now all we need is a reliable source for banana leaves.

Cambodian food was not exceptional, and while we had a good meal in a local restaurant in Phnom Penh our first night we found ourselves eating most of our meals at our hotels, where the food was excellent. We liked Laotian food, which is much like Thai and quite spicy for the most part, but after several days of it in Luang Prabang we took advantage of the several good Western restaurants in Vientiane.

A word about hotel breakfast buffets: ohmigod. Breakfast has been included in all of our room rates and we have been unable to simply order toast and coffee. Every day we tell ourselves that we’re going on a diet as soon as we get back. Gene, who was quite svelte when we left, now has a cute little food baby. He had some suits made in Hoi An and had to tell the tailor to assume a smidgen smaller waist than he was offering to the tape measure. As for Shelli, let’s just drop the subject. We’ll be making sacrifices to Dr. Atkins on our return.

Not same same at all

Thomas Wolfe was right but too limited. You can’t go anywhere again. We spent an afternoon in Hoi An 11 years ago. It was a tiny, quiet town in central Vietnam, with a lot of vestiges of the Chinese and Japanese traders who had made it a thriving port in the Asian trade centuries ago. The hoard of well-preserved 16th century Chinese ceramics found a few years ago in a recovered shipwreck off the Vietnam coast is known as the Hoi An treasure, and many lovely old merchant houses and Chinese family association temples lined the few streets. As we recall, we were the only tourists there that afternoon.
Today’s Hoi An has at least 100 tailor shops and as many tourist shlock shops, and more than enough tourists to make them profitable. On the road from Da Nang, the nearest airport, a new road runs through the old US base and along China Beach, where huge luxury resorts attract Australian tourists. The disconnect is striking: this is Da Nang airport, this is China Beach, this was what we read about and saw on the news. Now it’s a destination for tourists from Australia, Scandinavia, France, Germany and the US.

Many of the local people are still living in the old way, but it's become more difficult as the cost of living rises with the tourist boom.

Our guide in Hanoi was a true believer, explaining to us that the government had to send soldiers to the ethnic villages to persuade them that they shouldn’t listen to “bad people” and should work to build a better society. This better society, by the way, apparently has no social security, unemployment insurance, or health care, according to the same guide, who didn’t seem to see the problem with socialism that provides no social services.

Our Hoi An guide on the other hand made it clear right away that his family is Catholic, that he learned French from the nuns in Saigon until 1975, when the Communists (his term) came in and changed all the rules. Re-education camps and ration books for too few rations was the norm until the early ‘80s when the government decided a market economy was the answer. Interestingly, the current government is surprisingly forthright about this period; in the Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi there is a large exhibit graphically illustrating the privations of the time.

We’re on our way tonight, a day earlier than planned, to Saigon. It will be interesting to hear what our guide in what was the stronghold of American control will have to say.

Water world once again

We spent a night on a junk in Halong Bay, moored in a sheltered cove between small islands that stick out of the water like the spikes on a dragon’s back. Halong Bay’s legend calls it the bay of the descending dragon and it’s easy to see why. These sharp limestone karst islands are no bigger than Albany hill in the East Bay, smaller than Mt. Tamalpais. Some are no more than tall boulders, but they are all taller than they are wide and are scattered in groups around a huge bay that feels big enough to be an ocean. Being alone out there, sitting on the upper deck in the mist, was one of the most serene experiences either of us has ever had.

Tourists go out on motorized junks, some for day trips, but most overnight since it’s a 3 hour drive each way from Hanoi. Many of the boats take multiple tourists but we hired one for ourselves at very little more cost. Our guide accompanied us and our crew of 4 handled the boat and cooked our meals, which included fabulously fresh prawns and crab. It was a bit primitive in terms of accommodation, but there was hot water, toilets, and even Chinese movies on the TV that the crew watched before dinner.

The boats motor out for something over an hour and most stop at the prescribed tourist spots: the beach at this island, the cave at that island. We asked that we stay as much as possible out of the flotilla of other junks and visit the caves, etc. in reverse or mixed order, and for the most part it worked. Gene went sea kayaking for a bit while I sat on the deck and watched while the junks unfurled their red and gold sails for a photo op and small boats from the floating fishing village moored nearby came by to sell vegetables and cigarettes to the crew as the sky darkened. It was perfect.

Somehow I’ve made my peace with the water.

Here in Hanoi

The sound of a loudspeaker followed by music is heard from outside our hotel at 7 in the morning. This doesn't wake us as the honking horns have already done that. Hanoi is a noisy city, overrun by motorbikes that maneuver among the many fewer cars with what looks like suicidal abandon, but everyone seems to manage it quite comfortably with the use of the horn. The horn tells you someone's behind you, tells someone else you're about to swing across their path, tells everyone, "look out, pay attention!" You couldn't possibly drive without it. In the midst of this controlled madness we pedestrians cross the street as if we had no fear: once started you have to keep going, because in the complex calculation of the streets you are one more factor and you have to be where you are expected to be. Any hesitation or change of direction is potentially deadly.

One other vehicle is part of this mobile mix: the cyclo, a bicycle rickshaw with a seat in front and bike at the back. These are fun and Gene loved his first ride with its easy view of life on the street, but Shelli felt that she had managed to ingest enough carbon exhaust to make up for the cigarettes she stopped smoking years ago. Later rides, not during rush hour, were more pleasant. As an aside, we have been taking the motorcycle-driven transportation called tuk tuk in Bangkok, Laos and Cambodia. Shelli was stunned in Hanoi to realize that the equivalent transportation was not driven by motorcycles but rather by bicycle, which made her feel too close to colonial rickshaw-riding for comfort. Her first driver, an old man, was coughing so much she wasn’t sure he’d make it to the end of the trip. (This doesn’t seem to be the kind of job from which you can afford to retire early, and he’ll probably die pedaling.)

Gene counted twenty-five shops on one block of our cyclo tour. There were two or three herbalists, a few electronics stores selling the latest in flat screen technology, three toy stores, a liquor store, a wool and yarn shop, a few pho shops with 12-inch high stools on the sidewalk and the kitchen in an alley no more than three feet wide, several jewelry stores, clothing stores and two Christmas tree decoration stores (yes, even here in the heart of communist Vietnam). Many of the stores are no more than six feet wide, with their merchandise spread out on the sidewalk so that pedestrians are forced into the street. If the stock isn’t on the sidewalk the motorbikes are.

It's exciting and overwhelming, and a stroll through the Old Quarter surprises us with temple courtyards and cafes hidden behind innocuous-seeming storefronts. We don't have the nerve to order from the sidewalk food vendors, but we do buy fruit from the many vendors. The tangerines are delicious.

Monday, December 25, 2006

A picture is worth...well you know the rest

As you may have gathered, we've learned to upload photos to this blog. We've got tons and tons of them, and thought you might want to see a few now. Plans are to upload many of them to Shelli's Flickr page:, but only a few are there as yet.

All the temples in Luang Prabang mean there are lots and lots of monks around. Most Laotian males spend some time as a monk, and many start young, as it's often their only hope of getting an education. These novices were adorable:

Children start early to contribute to the family income. This girl in Luang Prabang is selling vegetables in the street.

A particularly nice example of inlay work on the wall of one of the temples in Luang Prabang.

Temple touring

The temples at Angkor are incredible. Everything you've ever heard is true. This was the highlight of our trip, which is great, because it's the reason we decided to come back to southeast Asia. The previous times we were in this part of the world, 1987 and 1995, Cambodia was a war zone off-limits to tourists.

Angkor Wat, the most famous of the temples, was the first we saw. I don't know how to describe this spectacular evidence of a great civilization that flourished a millenium ago. The scale of it is overwhelming, the carving and architecture unbelievable. It was reclaimed from the jungle in the 19th century and now receives hundreds of visitors daily, many of them Korean and Japanese tour groups. Not fun to be in the midst of these folks, but our guide managed to take us around in such a way as to avoid most of them.

There are three levels to Angkor Wat, and in order to get to the top one has to climb up a 50 foot long 70-degree steep staircase (and down again!) There is one metal pipe handrail to which people cling for dear life. Gene climbed up on all fours...Shelli watched...and watched...and finally, god knows why, decided she could do it. You don't look down. There is no photographic evidence of this feat since she's the one who had the camera and no way was she going to let go of the rail, but she did it, and back down again.

We managed to visit 3 major temples in one day, with a pool break in the middle of the day. This is apparently the standard round and it was exhausting but thrilling. Ta Phrom is the temple that remains half swallowed by the jungle and one sees huge tree roots growing over and through the walls, reminding you once again of the inexorable power of nature left to its own devices. Those of you who salivated over Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider will remember Ta Phrom, where it was filmed.

That same day we also visited Angkor Thom, a large complex of temples that includes Bayon, the site of the photo at the top of this post. These wonderful faces of the king as a god are carved over and over on all four sides of multiple towers. It was hard to pull oneself away; the faces seemed so warm and welcoming somehow.

The next day Gene went off to visit two more recently recovered temples upcountry while Shelli rested her aching quadriceps (that was a really long and high staircase, and not the only one!) Each of us was happy with our choice of activity for the day.

Finally, the last day, we visited Banthai Srei, a perfect little jewel of a temple with the best, most intricate and well-preserved carvings of any of the temples. The scale of this one is quite small, with everything feeling sort of 4/5 size, a little like Legoland, but gorgeous.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Cambodia, good and bad

It’s been a busy few days. Cambodia seems to be much more advanced and economically vibrant than Laos. Phnom Penh is bustling and exciting with a post-colonial air we had not felt in Vientiane and Siem Reap has the feel of a boom town, which in many ways it is. There are literally hundreds of hotels there, many of them four and five star properties, and nearly all of them opened within the last 5 years.

Staying at the Raffles Le Royal in Phnom Penh made us feel like characters out of a Graham Greene novel, having drinks at the Elephant Bar and lounging by the pool between outings to the spectacular National Museum and the vast Royal Palace complex. Gene’s friend Marc Gold, who runs the 100 Friends Project, happened to be in Phnom Penh the day we arrived and we met him and his accompanying photographer for dinner. Some years ago Marc decided that in the course of his travels around Asia he would give small amounts of money to needy deserving people he met along the way. That ad hoc project has become a registered charity giving away thousands of dollars each year in small gifts and grants, mostly helping poor people to become self-sufficient. Check it out at A recent SF Chronicle article is here:

We went to Cambodia to see the 9th- 12th century Khmer temples at Angkor, but before seeing them felt we had to acknowledge a 20th century event as well, the Khmer Rouge holocaust of their own people under the Pol Pot regime of 1975-1978. It lasted three years, eight months and twenty days, as any surviving Cambodian will tell you. On April 17, 1975 the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh and began literally to empty the city, forcing everyone into the countryside and killing everyone with any level of education whatsoever, including doctors, lawyers, artists, writers, dancers, teachers, dentists, and anyone who wore eyeglasses. They wanted to take the country back to what they called Year Zero, eliminating any vestige of “bourgeois” thought, including schools, religion, money, individualism of any kind. Two million Cambodians and Vietnamese living in Cambodia were murdered or died of starvation or overwork. Our guide told us that as a five year old child he was required, along with each of the other children in his village, to catch five mice a day. Any day that they were under quota, that number would be added to the next day’s quota. All they had to do was produce the tails; they were allowed to eat the rest.

We visited the killing fields at Choeng Ek, some 16 kilometers outside Phnom Penh, where dozens of mass graves have been exhumed and a huge glass stupa holds hundreds of skulls and long bones. This is only one of many killing fields all over the country. The current king of Cambodia, a devout Buddhist, has been requesting that these remains be cremated, allowing the spirits to be released, but the government has insisted that they remain as tangible evidence for the trial that has not yet, 28 years later, begun. Most of the leaders of the Pol Pot regime, including Pol Pot himself, have died, while others are living comfortably in the country. One is in prison.

The prison they are not in is now a museum in the city. It’s called Tuol Sleng, after the high school that the Khmer Rouge took over and turned into a torture site and interrogation centre where horrible things were done. There are photos and drawings; you don’t want to hear about them. The torturers kept detailed records; they photographed everyone, men, women and children. They kept records. Of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people who passed through Tuol Sleng, seven survived.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

What's a Wat? Or, Vat's that you say?

Our reaction to Laos was mixed and inconsistent. Shelli, having somehow imagined someplace more like the Vietnam we visited 10 years ago, was rather disappointed, although she loved parts of our visit. Gene liked the Laos experience better because, he thinks, he had few preconceptions.

Luang Prabang, charming as it is at first glance, held fewer charms for a longer stay. The town occupies a peninsula between two rivers, the Mekong and the Nam Khan. A main street runs down the center and secondary streets follow each riverside. The streets that connect these three are more in the nature of walkways, only a few of which can be accessed by cars. Not that there are many cars; one walks or bicycles here, or rides a motor scooter If you’ve got a little farther to go you hire a tuk tuk, a motorbike with a seating area behind big enough for several riders to sit on two benches facing each other. Two or three dollars will get you across town. (The dollar is the preferred currency here; almost everything is quoted in USD).

The UNESCO World Heritage Fund is working on preserving the town, which is something of a bone of contention, as many Lao resent the limitations on building or adding on to existing structures as they wish. As a result, many are moving out of the town itself to the fast growing “suburbs” and renting or selling the traditional Laotian and French colonial buildings to foreigners. One sees many For Rent or For Sale signs (in English), and there is a large presence of French, Swiss, Canadian, Thai, and American shop owners, restaurateurs and small businesspeople. A large proportion of foreign visitors are young backpackers and trekkers of all ages, and many of the old shop fronts on the main street now house tour agencies and internet cafes.

There are 32 temples, called wats, or vats, in town and we visited many of them. A limited knowledge of Buddhism and an equally limited knowledge of Southeast Asian history couldn’t help but limit our understanding of what we were seeing. The mixture of remnants of animist practice, Hinduism and Buddhism was hard to figure out, although we loved the visuals. The temples all have the same elements: a simh the prayer hall, a drum to call monks to prayer, a monastery, and in some cases a library. They also have stupas, the round pointed structures housing relics or the ashes of the departed. The roofs swoop down from a sharp peak to eaves that are finished with naga heads, the naga being the sacred snake that protected the Buddha during meditation. The walls are often decorated with tales, from the Ramayana, a Hindu story seen everywhere in Southeast Asia, to folktales, to stories of Buddha’s life. Like frescos, paintings and stained glass in European churches, these stories, also frescoed or tiled, mosaic or simply painted were recognized by a generally illiterate population.

Buddha images are everywhere, always arranged with the largest at the back and smaller ones in front. He is shown in many positions, one of the most popular in Luang Prabang being seated, with his left hand palm-up in his lap and the right with palm facing in and fingers pointing down, signifying, at least in Luang Prabang iconography, resisting evil. In Vientiane we were told that the same position signified asking for rain. In Luang Prabang the asking for rain position was said to be standing, with both arms straight down at his side. Go figure.

We loved the people, nearly all of whom were sweet, friendly, open and interested. We liked the food, rather like Thai, but different. There was a popular T-shirt sold in the street that said on the front “Same Same” and on the back “But Different”. Applies to a lot of things out here.

What can we say about Vientiane, the capital of Laos? It looks like a town someone started to build and forgot to finish. The streets are broken or entirely unpaved, the buildings are a mix of garish and pitifully decrepit, and the idea of being here in the rainy season and having to negotiate what must be rivers of red mud in the now dusty streets is frightening. But we had a wonderful French dinner in a small restaurant run by a French Canadian who arrived as a backpacker in the ‘80s and stayed, marrying a Lao woman and building a successful business. And the main temple in town, Wat Sisaket, had a glorious cloister around it, an unusual feature for a Buddhist temple, with thousands of tiny niches, each holding two small Buddha figures given as an offering by couples when they marry. We arrived just in time for the chanting signifying the end of the ordination ceremony for a young monk, who received gifts, including a new begging bowl and robe, from family and other monks. And again, the people are so appealing.

We’re in Phnom Penh now, and are surprised to find that we like the city, in spite of all warnings to the contrary. We’ll write more later.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Visiting Buddha's cave

We can't seem to get away from boats on this trip. This morning we took a long narrow riverboat up the Mekong from Luang Prabang to the Pak Ou caves. These caves are ancient, hollowed from the cliffs overlooking the confluence of the Mekong and Ou rivers. The lower cave, reached by a set of steps from the rudimentary dock, is not very deep and lit by natural light from the opening.

Once you reach it you catch your breath. Every flat surface holds hundreds, maybe thousands, of figures of Buddha, from large ones several feet high to the tiniest ones, only a couple of inches in height. These have been brought and left by pilgrims following an even earlier tradition, before Buddhism took hold in Laos, when this cave was an animist shrine. The figures are crowded together without any attempt at organization; it looks like a Buddha convention and is quite wonderful to see.

Higher up the hill (quite a bit higher, we learned as we climbed) is another cave, this one deeper by far, wide and unlit. For a donation at the entrance, you can borrow a flashlight with a rather narrow beam and illumine bits of the cave at a time. Here are more Buddha figures, set on ledges cut from the stone walls. It's hard to see them clearly, but a camera flash shows more hundreds, this time along with gold leaf pressed onto the walls to form small seated Buddhas about 6 inches tall, lined up in rows.

We were lucky to arrive at Pak Ou before or between the boatloads of tourists who come here, and we didn't feel crowded or pushed. It was sad to see though, along the steps to the upper cave, tiny children selling birds held in wicker cages far too small for the bird to move in. You're supposed to release the birds to make merit. Those that survive this handling can't go very far and probably wind up back in the cage very quickly. The children don't smile.

In spite of this rather depressing reminder of the realities of a very poor country, Pak Ou is a remarkable place in a stunning setting. Imagine a Chinese painting with jagged green mountains above a wide river, and mist in the distance. That's where we spent the morning.

Oy vey, no latkes in Laos

If we were hippies we'd be really happy it is, we're ready to go, but it's too much trouble to change all our reservations down the line, so we're suffering by hanging out by the pool. Hard to believe that there's nothing Shelli wants to buy in the shops or the night market, which is set up every evening down the center of the main street, which is closed to traffic after 5:00. There are more than a hundred women spreading out weavings, t-shirts, bags, etc. on cloths covering the asphalt, but they are all the same and they are the kind of travel souvenirs that look good in situ but when you get them home you ask yourself what you could possibly have been thinking...or drinking.

We met a young Frenchman last night who has been living here for 4 years. He says that when he first came, all the women selling in the market were grandmothers. Since then the families have apparently gotten marketing advice and now send their youngest and prettiest daughters instead.

As for latkes, when we first arrived we spotted, would you believe, a Chabad House on one of the side streets. Haven't seen it since, but we're thinking of trying to find it to see how they manage Chanukah in Laos...maybe there really will be latkes.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

This and that

Just a few observations from the last few days:

Half of Bangkok is wearing yellow. This is the 60th anniversary of King Bhumibol's ascension to the throne and his subjects are honoring him by wearing "his" color. Each day of the week has its own color and people often wear the color of the day on which they were born. Monday's color is yellow and since the king was born on a Monday, wearing yellow is a sign of respect for him. Yellow polo shirts with the royal crest on the breast where the crocodile or polo player might more typically be found hang from all the stalls in the street markets; yellow windbreakers are all the rage. It's a remarkable example of the relationship the people have to their king. Signs all over town say "Long Live the King" and posters showing him at various times of his life and in various activities cover billboards and banners. It really appears to be a heartfelt tribute rather than a political statement.

Lao people are, on the whole, some of the most beautiful I've ever seen. The face of the young officer behind the immigration desk at what is laughingly called Luang Prabang International Airport was stunningly perfect. The old women have bone structure to die for, the young men have gorgeous eyes and the children are adorable.

There are Israeli tourists everywhere.

Our guide here in Luang Prabang, Sompong, is a writer who used to work for the Ministry of Culture in the 1980s as part of the staff of a magazine. In this capacity he traveled to many Socialist cities and countries, including Moscow, Azerbaijan, Beijing, Prague, Budapest, Hanoi, and many others. His favorite city, he tells us, is Kiev.

Making merit, with and without the Internet

Something in Laos doesn't love a blog. Although our hotel has wireless internet access, it is sporadic at best, and for some reason beyond the understanding of tech know-nothings like us, it allows us to access some sites but not others. This blog is one of the others, and we keep trying periodically.

It's 9:30 pm and we've just come back from dinner in a restaurant that would not have been out of place in the Luang Prabang of 1950, when it would have been full of French planters rather than American and German tourists. This is a town that remains very much as it was before globalization, although it has more than its fair share of tourists. Our hotel is a charming French colonial mansion that was once the home of Prince Souvannaphouma (there's a name that resonates with those of us who remember the war in Indochina). It does its best to be modern and world-class, but it can't help showing its sweet Laotian side, from the shy smiles of the young people learning their jobs to the cup of green tea spontaneously brought to a guest who's been sweating over a recalcitrant internet connection for two days.

This morning we rose in the pre-dawn dark and walked down the street to take part in the daily early morning ritual of offering food to the hundreds of saffron-robed monks who walk down the main street, allowing Buddhists to make merit by feeding the monks of the 32 temples in this town of 17,000 residents. The monks range in age from novices of 8 or 9 to old men who have returned to the temple to live out their days. They don't smile in this procession; this is a religious rite for all participants. It's been going on for as long as anyone remembers, and although now it includes tourists both watching and offering sticky rice, it is an integral part of the way the world works here.

That's the morning. In the evening many of the same monks are sitting in front of computers in internet cafes. Presumably they can get online.

Water world

I was terrified. We were roaring up a klong (canal in Thai) off the Chao Praya river in a rocket boat, a sort of thin, elongated canoe with a pickup engine in the back, attached to a barrel of diesel oil, a rudder and a propeller. The gunwales were no more than 8 inches above the surface of the water. I know because I was clutching them as hard as I could. Life jackets? Hah!

I’ve always had a phobia about any water deeper than a bathtub, and even though I finally learned, as an adult, how to swim, I don’t. I was terrified. We sat on benches raised about 3 inches off the bottom of the boat. Gene sat in front of me, our guide Wall sat behind. There was enough room between us to sit yoga fashion, getting that good old inner thigh stretch. The name rocket boat was not chosen idly. That sucker moved! Have I mentioned that I was terrified?

We had come out to Thonburi, the old part of Bangkok where people still live on the remaining klongs, washing themselves, their children and their laundry in the brown water, buying many of their goods from small boats poled by single women in oddly shaped hats. Thonburi is across the river from the busy modern city that has filled all the old klongs and built 40 story condominium towers over them, and in its outer reaches feels like a different place entirely. Our initial entry into the klongs was via longtail boat, a high-prowed 50-foot boat with a motor attached to a very long pole that extends another 10 feet behind it. This was daunting enough, but they buzz around all over the river and I’ve been in one before, so although I didn’t like it, it didn’t freak me out.

Eventually however, we got to a somewhat narrower canal where apparently the longtail had to be exchanged for the shallower draft of the rocket boat. I’m sure there was a good reason; it couldn’t have just been to frighten the farang woman out of her wits. Actually, I was unable to speak so there’s no way Wall could have known. And after 10 or 15 minutes of white-knuckled terror, a very surprising thing happened…I calmed down. I began to enjoy it. I even unclenched my hands enough to wave back at the children and adults who waved at us as we sped by. I was fine.

I did hit Gene though when he mentioned later that he was sorry he was sitting in front so he couldn’t see my face.

Please note, dear readers: we are in Luang Prabang, Laos at the moment and we have been having a great deal of difficulty logging on to this site to add posts, although we have a lot to tell you. We'll post as it becomes possible and catch up when we can, presumably when we leave Laos. We've also had problems accessing certain other sites, including e-mail from time to time. Keep trying, if you're sending e-mail, or try another address if you have one for us.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Same friends, different city

Twenty years ago we visited Bangkok for the first time and wandered into an antique shop that was strikingly different from the others we passed in every street. This one had only a few items which seemed carefully selected and were beautifully presented in that small space. In talking with the young woman behind the table, we learned that she had recently opened the shop. Her husband, an architect, specialized in restoring old Thai buildings which were disassembled and reconstructed in the city. We spent quite some time talking to both of them, with each of them pulling out reference books from the back room to show us examples of the Thai art and architecture that they were so proud of.

They insisted that they wanted to take us to the old Thai capital of Ayuttaya and showed up at our hotel with a car the next morning to pick us up. It was wonderful to have a private tour of the ancient ruins and we had a great time.

We saw them again 10 years later when we were again in Bangkok, and yesterday we saw them again, 20 years after we had first met. We assured each other that of course none of us have changed at all in those two decades (well, hardly at all). That's more than can be said of Bangkok though, an enormous unwieldy city of 10 million that is very little like the place we liked so much 20 years ago. We’re glad we saw them, and sad that it was probably for the last time.

Saturday, December 9, 2006

Buckle your seatbelts

It’s along way to Asia from San Francisco, and the movies on flight 837 seem to have been selected by someone we’ve offended in a past life. They are uniformly bad. And why is it that as soon as someone gets on an airplane he acts as if it’s inconceivable that someone else (who?, you may be wondering) might want to have the window shade up at midday? Talladega Nights is not enough reason to spend 10 hours in the dark if it’s not nighttime, folks!

The flight to Bangkok, our first destination, stops in Tokyo, where Shelli thinks she remembers that United’s Red Carpet Club used to offer showers to transiting passengers. In the old days, when they seemed to want to make their customers happy, they gave you a card to let you know about the available amenities. This was both good, for obvious reasons, and bad, because if everyone knew you could take a refreshing shower between your just landed 10 hour flight and your upcoming 7 hour flight then everyone wanted to do just that, and so you rarely got to take advantage of it, since the wait for showers was several hours long.

So United’s attempt to keep this a clean little secret between themselves and those passengers who go searching for it turns out to be a good thing overall, since there are in fact free, lovely shower rooms available for the asking, and we asked. With the little packet of shampoo and soap and body lotion, you are sent to what looks like the bathroom of a good hotel, there to steam for as long as you like. A hair dryer and fresh towels are provided. Who says United doesn’t love you anymore?

No beds by the hour however, and 3 hours later we’re off again, exhausted but clean. Even those of us who can’t sleep on planes drop off almost as soon as the wheels leave the tarmac. Seven hours later we land at the brand new Suvarnabhumi airport where dozens of jetways stand unused while our 747’s passengers are transferred into buses and driven off to an inadequate immigration hall. Just because it’s new doesn’t mean it works. The control freak in Shelli, who for the first time has let someone else make the arrangements, has been concerned about how it will go, but we are met by Wall (pronounced Wow as far as we can tell) and transferred to the hotel where they seem to expect us, upgrade us to a room on the 26th floor with a balcony overlooking the Chao Praya River, and wish us good night.

Monday, December 4, 2006

Getting ready to go

For the last week or so Gene and I have been careful not to snap at each other, knowing as we do that each of us is stressed and scatterbrained, and that as soon as we get on the plane all will be well. Meanwhile, we're totally nutso. There are lists everywhere, but they seem to multiply faster than we can cross items off of each one.

Last night a friend wondered if we had clean needles and syringes to take along in case we needed some emergency injection while in Laos or Cambodia...OHMIGOD. It's a measure of how out there we are that this seems perfectly reasonable, and I'm on the phone to our doctor's office bright and early this morning, apologizing for calling yet again, with another "just in case" request. (No problem: syringes and Vicodin, the other suggested goodie, are waiting for pickup).

Previous visits to Southeast Asia did not have us preparing for WW III, but somehow the combination of age(ours), distance(Asia), and third-worldedness (Laos and Cambodia) make this trip require wound kits, malaria prophylaxis, 100% DEET insect repellant, and god knows how many other things that we would have thumbed our noses at 25 years ago (and did, if I remember correctly). And in those days we would have stayed at guesthouses with mosquito nets instead of the 5 star boutique caravanseries we have booked this time.

We assume we'll settle down soon enough and that all the "stuff" we're carting around will be dumped along the way to make room for...what else...SHOPPING!
So for those of you who are wondering how this trip will go, drop in occasionally. We'll be posting as we go, and with any luck will have at least a few interesting things to write about. If I can figure out how to post photos we will have a few of those as well.

E-mail will reach us, and maybe I can figure out how to access comments on this blog, so keep in touch.