The Grand SE Asia DeTour
2013 Travels to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos
Thomas Whittemore and Michele Broderick
Michele acted as travel agent using Trip Advisor and Agoda as we spent months planning. I would check the itinerary each night after work and she would give me the Options. Though one option, a hotel on the coast of Vietnam for $500 per night did seem a bit out of our range and sooo politically incorrect.
Having traveled around the world for two years after college on a slim budget and usually 3rd class tickets, bedding at hostels, living off humus and chai among other delicacies, Michele and I had determined we would NOT seek to replicate my WT (World Traveler) style. On our trip to India we had mixed stays at the YMCA and Government hostels, with occasional palaces that catered to tourists.
Now we were ready for small comforts while sticking with an overland WT route…a circular route from Bangkok, Thailand to Cambodia, up through Vietnam to Laos and the back to Bangkok from the north.
Having a chance to book a hotel where Graham Greene wrote his novel…Why Not! An opportunity to stay in an old Chinese Trader’s house…Book It! We were saving on travel expenses by keeping it simple…(sort of.)
But I was insisting that we take one off-the-beaten path trip in Laos. Michele left it to me to handle the arrangements that would have to be made on the spot. She trusted me yet I wasn’t sure I still had the WT ingenuity.
Almost all arrangements were confirmed ahead of time- with timely responses from hotels and train vendors. One or two car trips we could have to work out in country..but others were detailed in emails back to Michele. Michele had compiled our itinerary in two notebooks. A travel agent could not have done a more thorough job.
Emirates seemed cool as an airline. Fly over the pole and reach Dubai. Price was right. planes brand new. Maybe we could check out the new 1st class cabins or ski in Dubai’s mall! Dream On!
Believing in the gospel according to Rick Steves, we packed light, paring it down to the essentials. We could always buy clothes in country…but how much bug repellent, baby wipes, toothpaste etc.? And equipment? Headlamps? Check.
An Ipad, and camera were essential. Phone..maybe in Bangkok we can get our used one opened up. Mosquito net, mosquito repellent clothing, sheet liners.
We were getting set with Gear:
PACKS: We had spent a lot of time trying on rolling luggage/back packs at REI and we each settled on a different company mostly due to the fact that I am 6 foot 3 inches and Michele is 5 foot 5 inches. On the plus side, travel would be easier with a rolling bag and there would not be any stigma attached that impedes backpackers from gaining access to certain tourist resorts. On the downside, we might be seen as one of the herd of look-alike tourists who need guides to see the world and who never want to be too far from a defibrillator.
HATS: Why REI and others sell such dorky canvas hats with broad floppy rims. OK they are crushable, and made of sturdy fabric. And I did invest in one of this style impregnated with mosquito repellent by ExOfficio. But nothing seemed to be in league with our rollable Panama hats we took to India. They may have carried with them a touch of colonial attitude but they were practical under the mid-day sun.
TOILET PAPER: It was unknown territory so we brought butt wipes for emergencies. We have seen so many toilet varieties in our travels that we need to be prepared even if water was supplied. The most unsettling experience for me was approaching a toilet seat in Goa , pants down and casting a glance down a pipe before landing…only to see a pig’s snout probing the other end. I avoided pork for the longest time after that.
WATER PURIFIER: I left the Katadin warter purifier at home since I was pretty confident that good water and beer would be available…if not flowing then in bottles. The last purifier I took on a trip to the Philippines, I used only once in the highlands of northern Luzan Island when I climbed up through mountain rice fields to attend a political rally. The only water came from a questionable 55-gallon drum. A carabao head hanging from the tree nest to the water supply added another unsanitary ingredient.
SHOES: As the boxes piled up around me at REI, I realized as I tried on many brands of shoes, that I must appear either demanding, fickle, anal, or clueless. But I had miles to go before I slept in many SE Asian hotels, and I needed comfort! Other customers came and went, and I was still checking out my feet. I needed a versatility…a shoe that suitable for the streets of Bangkok, the mountains of Sapa and the hallways of the Saigon Morin Hotel. A tall order for sure. Patagonia had the right fit, and reputation for durability…even if no longer made in the US.
CLOTHES: Since mosquitoes find Michele luscious, and since she reacted with glorious welts, she sought out the best protection and our neighbor happened to work for the company that produced the product. ExOfficio offered the articles that would keep us sane under any assaults. Given the cost, we tracked their store Sales and accumulated the outfits over time…and looked stylish to boot.
MONEY BELTS: I wanted multiple hiding places so I invested in three varieties: stretch cloth for the ankle, silk blend for the waist and a leather dress belt for the outside. Though reaching for your money belt can put you in awkward positions…people wondering why you’re picking your belly button or scratching your groin but with practice one acquires a neat slight of hand. The silk blend money belt would keep my American currency crisp. $100 dollar bills need to look freshly minted if you expect to exchange them for full value in local currency.
HAIRCUT: I needed a shorter-than-normal cut as a form of camouflage to look more “establishment” at border crossings, customs and up-scale hotels. Since we would not have acquired the requisite tan as camouflage, this would have to do. I had found on two trips to the Philippines that arriving in country as white as a corpse made you a target for various criminal types.
GLASSES: Michele and I both rely on prescriptions to see the world, so we took are older pairs for back-up. And then of course, the polarized Ray Bans are mandatory. My father used a pair in WWII and Korea, so I grew up admiring the look. I have had a pair most of my adult life…only stolen once in Manila. The downside is that some foreigners might, on first glance, consider you a spy or military in civvies. I was interrogated at a police station for several hours in Tanzania many years ago by officers who accused me of being a spy. My glasses might have had something to do with the building suspicion, but more that likely the little piece of paper with the semaphore code they found in my backpack got them all in a bigger tizzy. It was too complicated to explain I had been working on a freighter and had been trying to learn the flag semaphore system…so I just told them every Boy Scout in America had to learn this…and they bought it.
Take Off to the North Pole and Beyond
We were airborne.
First impressions were good-a diverse, multilingual crew and passengers.
The cabin was a bit claustrophobic when the wagon train of carts moved down the isles and there was no way to seek out a bathroom. I used the forced confinement as an opportunity to catch up on violent movies. Michele can not handle graphic violence, so I felt a bit self conscious soaking up the bloody scenes in such close proximity. Seeking to purify myself after the gore, I turned on Ice Age II, but it was so sweet it was too much for my system…the adrenaline rush was reacting poorly to the saccharine.
One gentleman collapsed in the aisle next to me…great way to start off any trip. I did not need real death creeping into my moments trying to suspend reality. Thank goodness he rebounded since we were over the pole at the time. Not sure where we would have pulled off an emergency landing…Greenland…Finland?
Stuck in the Dubai Terminal, we hiked the length of the space passing untold numbers of shops selling high-end goods. We located a niche, Paul, a “french” patisserie that served espresso and fresh croissants and so we sipped and gazed upon the fashionista travelers being catered to.
Landing in a Blur
Physically drained and vulnerable from jet lag, it was miracle to see a driver waiting to pick us up from the airport in Bangkok. The ride was worth every penny since, from experience, we know those first moments in a new country are they most dangerous for the naïve globe trotter. Far removed from tourist and the backpacker enclaves, the Loy La Long Hotel on temple grounds was a magical spot. Through the obscure front door and winding narrow hallway, hearing water splashing, we came upon the Chao Phraya River stretching out from the “lobby”. The structure was built over the river. Our room upstairs had views of the waterway and the surge of passenger boats whose turbulent wakes set the surface churning.
I had to clear my jet-lagged brain to negotiate our next leg to Cambodia. We really wanted a car instead of a bus after hearing intimidating tales about this first border crossing on our DeTour. We paid too much…but we trusted the travel agent. We even entrusted our stomachs to him and had our first meal at a local street vendor he had recommended. Grandmother was washing the dishes next to our tiny table and chairs. (This gave us courage…the plates at least passed through hot, soapy water.) We chose our selections by pointing. The daughter brought out her two young children in pajamas to say goodnight. We gave the place 2 thumbs-up…better than any Bourdain stamp of approval.
We collapsed on the welcoming Loy La Long sheets. (I felt this should be choreographed to the Dylan tune of Lay Lady Lay. )
But it was a short night for me given my screwed up circadian rhythms, I wrapped myself in a hammock on our tiny porch and listened as dawn light washed across the river. Mournful bird calls stirred the waning darkness, as water hyacinth drifted by.
Loy La Long Hotel
1620/2 Song Wat Road
Indian Country by the Kan
Rather than confront the throngs that descend on the Royal Temple, we stepped on a ferry to the Temple Arun across the Chao Phraya river. Ascending the steep steps, the panorama helped to orient us as the new arrivals.
Guided by a Trip Advisor tip, we explored the quiet neighborhood around the Temple Arun and located a coffee shop with all things Native American. The owner was immersed in a translated version of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the walls were covered with images of Indians, some drawn by the shop owner, and the music was Joan Baez on tape. With my crude sketching we tried to covey the idea of Ledger Art and its revival by today’s Indian artists, since his work reminded us of this style. Not a clue whether we made any sense to him. We sipped tea at the curb of Indian country’s consulate.
In the Hands of Touts
After cruising to the Cambodian border in our hired car, we delivered ourselves into the hands of touts, hoping money led the way. We felt a bit like smuggled goods as we were passed from tout to tout and cash was exchanged between them. Amazingly, the connections were clicking like Clockwork Orange..efficient but troubling. Arrival in Siem Reap in the dark, down an alley added to the unnerving passage but out of the blackness emerged Borann L’Auberge da Temple hotel personnel, who grabbed our bags, handed us fruit juice and lead us off to our spacious bungalow.
Starving, we walked along the dim streets (pulling out our small LED lights for direction), and sat right down in the first “romantic” spot we could find. We were underdressed but we owned the moment. White table cloths reflected the lanterns’ glow from the trees of the courtyard.
Sweet memories lingered on the walk to the hotel…until I got food poisoning, flushing away impurities so that I could approach Angkor Wat with a clear mind and purged body. Nothing was going to keep me from my seeing a Wonder of the World, so I girded up my loins and caught our ride early the next morning.
Borann Hotel (L’Auberge des Temples)
My what Big Lips you Have
Our strategy to approach Angkor Wat – stay ahead of the bus loads of tourists…or at least work around them otherwise you are doomed to view the Wonder of the World along awkward sight lines at skewed angles.
The huge carved heads at the Bayon of Angkor Thom can take your breath away and completely distracted from any alimentary canal concerns.
The bridge across the moat with demons and gods grabbing the body of Naga like tug-of-war contestants and Naga’s many cobra heads rising up above you…all this can hush any inner cynic (even though the whole scene did resemble the state my intestines with demons twisting every which way).
Walking among the massive sculpted heads, one must contemplate the enigmatic smiles that faced the universe years before Mona Lisa and Angeline Jolie. I was seduced by the carved rock of luscious lips.
Jolie put her lips and other parts of her body into action at Ta Prohm, the temple where trees have sought out rock crevices, squeezing between cut boulders and twisting temple walls. Since both Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider used Ta Prohm as a set, the surge of photo snapping tourists is overwhelming but we did find a niche to ourselves..for a moment. In one small stone room, sound can resonate. Bringing my best Gorilla syncopated chest thumps to the space, learned in the Rawandan Mountains of the Moon, I beat a rhythm to echo through the ages. OK so I may have looked like an idiot but if Angeline can tromp around in lascivious outfits at this sacred site, I could pound my narrow chest with gusto.
Thelma makes an appearance in Preah Ko
Exploring the ruins of Preah Ko, I looked over the shoulder of our guide and was entranced by a little girl doing her addition on a slate while her mom (a temple worker) looked on. Once she had finished, I asked permission to use her slate to draw a cartoon character, Thelma the fish who I drew to life years ago during a Ravenna Creek Daylighting campaign in Seattle. During an academic design charette, I, as resident cartoonist, drew Thelma to life wandering through sloughs, across mall parking lots, down grocery store aisles to reach the Ravenna headwaters. Now here she was bringing a smile to a Cambodian girl, if only for brief moments until the slate was needed for multiplication again.
Handling the chalk though was a grim reminder of a story from a Cambodian acquaintance at home, who had survived the Killing Fields by making chalk. When offered the job he had no idea how to make chalk…but he was desperate enough to invent a method that used rice water. By ordering the necessary ingredient, rice, he was able to fend off starvation and keep the Khmer Rouge satisfied.
These images were disturbed a quiet, sunny corner of the temple.
At Bakong, beneath the guarding stone elephants, a library building was held together with cables secured with Crosby Clips. Probably imitation (the patent ran out years ago) but none the less, Crosby Clip in design. I am sure great grandfather Oliver Crosby would be amused that his industrial product was still in use holding up sacred sites.
Multitudes were crossing the moat at Angkor Wat, and it was easy to be swept up in the frenzy of the mob. We stepped out of the current, and took in the immensity before being pulled back in and then up the steep stairway to heaven and the upper tier. Late afternoon light warmed the swelling female figures in almost every stone niche. Tourists posed for photo-ops, and many subjects also swelled from obesity.
Descending to the sculpted murals that wrap around the temple you can become absorbed in the Mahabharata and Ramayana, Suryavamann leading expeditions or Krishna riding Garuda. Like a large scroll, the story is unveiled in a linear style at the rate determined by the observer’s desire. Some stone shines like copper in the setting sun, touched by devote fingers…or culturally inconsiderate tourists. The moment of judgement by Yama, where the dead are either sent to 37 heavens or 32 hells seemed to parallel Dante’s Inferno in its grim harkening of the afterlife. The horrific images must have provoked nightmarish fevers of self-reflection among the believers. Not to dwell on the macabre, we joined the masses headed out for the sunset photo op.
We found quiet moments on the less traveled north wall and as the light faded we headed to the east side for a more personal appreciation of Angkor Wat’s silhouette set against the reddish hues of crepuscular light. Our guide performed a spontaneous rap song with my cowboy hat on. Walking back in the dark along a ledge suspended between heaven and earth, I heard only cicadas creating a fearsome, throbbing pulse and monks droning chants broadcast from the forest edge.
Candles lit our hotel lobby and bungalow with electricity out, making for one enchanting evening.
Darkness and the Divine
Stepping quietly with other early morning temple gazers, we moved across the giant stone pavers guided by flashlights towards Angkor Wat. Others moved to spots to catch the rising sun, while we headed further towards the temple steps drawn by faint chanting. Lights out, we sat in pitch dark listening to the four voices and there insistent, repetitive intonations. At first light, the female monks drew away, the spell was broken so we set our sights on the perfect photo op by the pond. The sacred and the profane moments were packed into a very tight schedule.
A museum in Siem Reap finally put things in proper perspective. We might have been in better shape if we had started out here to understand the Hindu cosmology. A great room of sculpted heads and multi-faced Shivas were close enough to allow me to check out the carving technique. A display of period style changes in the sculpting of clothing folds and wraps lent clues for placing pieces in specific eras and locations.
Brunch at The River Garden, and we passed a studio of travelers taking art lessons. Ants were consuming muffins but the eggs and other pastries were delicious. Another gallery #1961 on River Road, showcased a woman’s portraits of herself draped in voluminous yards of red fabric standing in Cambodian fields, and on city streets. A far cry from Pol Pot and the horrors during the Khmer Rouge regime.
A Jaguar saves the Day
We nixed the slow boat to the floating villages or the dubious speed boats along the lake. Our options for transit to Phnom Penh were a new bus with wifi and no toilet, or an older bus with toilet but no wifi. We opted for the former. We headed out with the hipsters and hoped our digestive tracts cooperated for the trips’ duration.
Barreling down the “highway”, water bottles at the ready in climate controlled comfort and I-pads sending photos home, we occasionally looked up to see houses hugging the road along with ducks, pigs, chickens and children. The rice fields extended far outward. Only the occasional palm tree broke the horizon line.
Arriving in Phnom Penh, I waved off the touts to collect my thoughts as Michele called the hotel to check on available transport. Within minutes a Jaguar XJ6 appeared, and we slide across leather seats into the lap of aging luxury right up to the gates of the Pavilion Hotel. Given the history of horror in this town, this was totally absurd. As an artificial oasis in a corrupt capital, we had invested in this hotel as a buffer from the harshness of unknown surroundings. I was planning on visiting a site of past atrocities… and this hotel was the retreat I might need to handle a dreadful awakening to another example of humanity’s cruelty. A large pool with cabanas was just steps away in our flip flops. We were “Swimming to Cambodia” using very different strokes.
An evening stroll along the Mekong took us past the Royal Palace and the memorial to the deceased King, a man who ruled while Pol Pot ravaged the country. Mourners placed bouquets beneath his large portrait honoring his life if not his grace under pressure.
On the boulevard, we settled on a restaurant since further exploration meant stepping around an impoverished woman on the sidewalk. It was too much reality in one dose trying to rationalize inequity, and ration compassion. We ate without much enthusiasm as The Buena Vista Social Club selections played over the sound system.
83 Street 240,
Oknha Chhun, Phnom Penh
A Night at the Street Opera
Next to a row of boutique shops on street #240, the Daughters of Cambodia restaurant trains young woman in the hospitality trade, though the organizers do not restrain these trainees from working the streets. They offer the young women positive options for the future. The director was a young, earnest and vivacious woman from Tacoma Washington. She did point out the overwhelming dependence of Cambodia on NGO funding. And all this help when the country has a hard time bringing the perpetrators of massive killings to trial.
The National Museum has an enlightening collection of large Steles, Buddha figures and most striking, a large bronze sculpture of Vishnu from Angkor Wat.
I was so used to statuary stonework, that this partial figure with head, shoulders and arms got me wondering what other remarkable pieces might be scattered around the globe by both legal and illegal trade. On my way out, I glanced at a small photo on a wall…a group photo of museum personnel. The caption noted all were killed by the Pol Pot regime.
We returned after dark to sit on bleacher seats outside the Museum walls and watch a live opera performed by students. The director was a survivor of the horrific period, and set himself on a mission to make sure a traditional art form was not lost. The folk tale put to music touched on themes of trust and betrayal, love and sacrifice and the tensions between leaders and followers of differing class.
A Tuk Tuk ride this side of Hell
A tuk-tuk driver drove me out of town, through bumpy short cuts and dusty roads to the edge of a hell, the memorial Killing Fields. On a self guided audio tour, I moved at my own pace passing grim sites where structures once stood, holes in the ground where bodies were piled, sidestepping around scraps of clothing still emerging from the inferno below. Not in the least cooled by the rain that eroded the soil around them, the fragments carry like talismans the burning horror in their warp and weave. To look at them is to feel the threads sear your conscience. Yet some hope still exists if you listen to the extended recordings in which survivors share their songs and readings.
An enormous tree is covered at its trunk with ribbons of colored cloth, evidence of prayers extended to the dead. A Khmer Rouge leader recently on trial, on returning to the Killing Tree (where childrens’ heads had been bashed in as parents were forced to look on and loudspeakers hanging from the branches blared music to hide the screams of anguish), wept and apologized.
Lunch at the Friends restaurant that supports street youth was well worth the wait. Their Friends ‘n Stuff shop sells crafts that we found suitable for compact travel. At least we were giving a little support for the cause of psychic repair and economic recovery.
Moving from the Killing Fields to the Royal Palace is enough to make any head spin. The Gold Buddha with encrusted jewels sits without blinking an eye at the poverty outside the walls. A giant gold stuppa was being constructed for the King’s funeral and it appeared the government was sparing no expense.
Chocolate croissants on the Mekong Express
Before heading to Saigon, Michele rushed over to the local bakery and got a bag of fresh croissants. A taste of decadent colonialist influence as we crossed borders…but a delightful treat for a long bus ride.
Dropped off on a Ho Chi Min street in the middle of urban chaos, we chose the driver who seemed to know where we wanted to go and sure enough, we ended up at the Hotel Continental. We settled in, after some rearrangements (I wanted the Graham Greene experience!), moving to a corner room looking out on the National Theater plaza and Dong Khoi street.
To slow down the pace a bit and get a feel for this corner of town, we took a table outside the hotel. I sipped Singha beer and Michele a gin and tonic while we listened to Que Sera Sera over the speaker system. A nice fatalistic message in a communist country that yearns for a market economy.
After wandering down Dong Khoi, we sat at the river front and watched the Dinner Cruise boats compete for customers. Business was slow. There were more rats than tourists at the water’s edge. We opted to stay on land for dinner. We chose a bistro that seemed to be straight out of the Vietnam war era, a two-story restaurant with open air seating upstairs. Yet after dinner, on the route to the hotel it was clear we were in a very different world. Dong Khoi was the 5th Ave of Ho Chi Min City with swanky stores, pricey coffee shops and high-end hotels.
Hotel Continental Saigon
132-134 Don Khoi Street, District 1
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
A Splash of Puppets
Breakfast service spread out across a large dining room was excessive. Grey haired travelers packed the tables in the courtyard, making it appear a bit like a Vietnamese version of the Marigold Hotel. So the question had to be asked, “What are we doing here?”. Rather than contemplate the metaphysical, we heard our stomachs growling so we plunged into the smorgasbord.
A late start meant we reached Notre Dame and the Museum during lunch hour so we paid to enter the zoo. If Vietnam had an ASPCA, they should be shutting down the pathetic institution for cruelty to animals great and small. The only creatures appearing to have a good time were the love bird couples hanging out in quiet spots around the grounds. One lone gibbon did have an island all to himself, and I realized he might be the only monkey/ape I would see on this trip. We had nixed the Gibbon Experience in Laos due to safety concerns and our peace of mind. (Why pay $400 to stay in a shack in a tree, and plunge along questionably rigged zip lines that any wild gibbon in his right mind would stay miles away from?)
We backed away from the doomed menagerie and retreated into the Museum of Vietnamese culture and artifacts. We lingered around the exihibits so we could attend the Water Puppet Show. And it was magical and surprisingly hilarious. Like street theater it was right up close and personal, with dragons squirting the audience, and frolicking fish splashing the front rows. The humor in many scenes was infectious, as the Japanese tourists up front could not keep from laughing hysterically. Once the show was over, the actors took a bow, wading out in the pool from behind the curtain looking like flood victims. Apparently, this art form started when flooding hit a village and since the show must go on, the performers waded in.
Finding a safe walking route is a challenge, and often you are faced with obstacle courses. I carried a mini-LED light to blink at drivers at “cross walks”. Hundreds of mopeds and motorcycles rush through intersections and no walk signals to be seen. Pedestrians are on their own. We realized that the only strategy is to head into the mayhem with fierce resolve. To hesitate is to tempt fate. The system works on predictability and mopeds anticipate your trajectory..and plan accordingly. If you freak out, that throws the flood of mopeds into damage control. Making our way to the Notre Dame Cathedral was a challenge in navigation, and Michele, the titular catholic in the family, said a few Hail Marys.
At the Continental, our laundry came back pressed and in plastic bags almost like new, and our train tickets were delivered to our door. Michele has worked miracles herself. Hail Michele!
A Crooners Return
Good Morning Vietnam brought an orchestra to the steps of the National Theater, and just like a drive-in movie theater, scooters pulled up behind the rows of seats to watch. We had free balcony seats looking out from our French windows.
First thing out the hotel door, we made sure we bought tickets to an event at the National Theater so we could get inside. Prices were exorbitant but Michele was on a mission.
The Saigon Art Museum is housed in two old French colonial houses. Filtered light came in through shuttered windows along long hallways. The silence was seductive. Not a patron or tourist in sight. The art ranges from social realism, to abstraction with a few startling nudes in between. Once you get past the heroic mythology of the social realism and anti-colonialism permeating certain rooms, you can wander room to room without any interference and appreciate recent and past expressions in various mediums. Art was for sale in the back courtyard and we bought a few tiny sketches. The large paintings of nude Vietnamese women seemed destined to appeal to those enthralled by an exotic orientalist perspective complete with the allure of seductive beauty.
When I suggested a cross town walk, the Chalon district did not seem quite so far on the map. We had survived several boulevard crossings, why not go for broke. Given the looks in our direction, I do not think some of the neighborhoods we trekked through had seen an American visitor in a while. Hungry and hot we found a lunch spot. We were the only foreigners. We pointed in the direction of what looked great on the next table over.
Gaining some sense after our energy was restored, we jumped in a tuk-tuk to the Chalon Temple. The light of the temple courtyard traces the incense smoke spiraling up past dark wood beams. The chanting vibrated in the muggy still air. Fruits and vegetables were neatly arranged near the sacred relics as supplicants ignored the interruption of an intrusive clicking camera.
Michele had been concerned about the proper attire for our evening at the National Theatre, trying on inexpensive but colorful dresses as we wandered across town finding multiple clothing shops. On entering the performance hall, and to our relief, it was clear attire was casual…actually very casual. On stage appeared a live orchestra and an aging Perry Como style Vietnamese-American crooner. The backdrop was a huge video screen filled with flowers and leaves moving in a gentle breeze. Once the music started, we were feeling a bit culturally discombobulated. Was this a sample of 60’s Saigon? Good Evening, Vietnam! We headed out for dinner (after rubbing elbows with the Ho Chi Minh monied elite), and ended up at the only restaurant nearby open late, The Bier Garden. The seats were occupied by aging European men drinking alone. I had a flashback to a Manila restaurant, mid-80’s where a highly recommended goulash was served but the crowd of aging males broke into a very mean Uberland del Ales. This Bier Garden was beginning to show signs of such decay.
By the time we returned to the hotel, signs of the two courtyard wedding receptions had vanished.
Toasting the town on the Rex Hotel rooftop
With almost a full day before the overnight train to Hoi An, our ambitious plan was cover two temples, a palace and one rooftop bar. Tran Hy Do temple held massive figures honoring past military leaders as saints. Devotees were leaving offerings, stroking a wooden horse, releasing gold fish into a cistern “pond” and placing turtles in a tank after inscribing messages on their shells. Having raised turtles I was a tad judgmental…these creatures were piled in a hell hole that seemed anything but sacred.
Xa Loi was quiet during lunch hour, but somewhat haunted by the history of President Diem storming the gates and killing monks.
A last minute decision to tour the Palace (x-US Embassy) was brilliant since the site is outrageous in many dimensions. From the basement bomb proof communications room to the upper level Rat Pack style play room, it is testament to entrenched and corrupt power with a touch of privileged decadence to add to the glimmer. One can stand on gleaming marble and look down on the palace grounds entrance where North Vietnamese tanks rolled over embassy gates as the propped-up nation toppled.
Food for thought…but we were out of there to seek lunch. By chance we wandered into a destination luncheon place, Nha Hang Ngon, where we sampled our first Banh Xeo crepe …complete with eating instructions through pantomime from our waiter.
Michele’s persistence got us to the Rex Hotel rooftop bar to sip a drink and reflect on the various characters who took in this view over the years. Not hard to imagine the crazy journalists slinging back tales and drinks as all hell broke loose around them.
Replenished with pastries, we braced ourselves for the rush to our train cabin. With a plan of attack, we pressed for a prime pole position to race to the car and claim our territory, or bunks in this case. No need though for any hyperventilation since all was well. We staked out our berth without rolling over anyone. Our cabin mates were two young Swiss women with whom we chatted into the night until settling into our private spaces.
Unfortunately, the train proceeded to run into someone. A sudden braking and abrupt stop dislodged baggage and tossed people around including a baby in the cabin next to us who screamed. Stewards moved through the car with stacks of white towels…and in a few minutes we were moving. No investigation by authorities. We had a schedule
China Beach without Dana
At Danang station, we avoided the touts and managed to pull a good WT move – a hand off of a driver by one departing crew to us, the arriving crew, based on instant reference- “He’s Great!”
Passing China Beach on the coastal drive to Hoi An, scenes from TV’s show of the same name flickered through my mind until the very real remnants of the DaNang Air Base loomed into sight – concrete hangars designed to withstand incoming barrages and years of neglect..
I am immersed in city names: Saigon, Danang, Hue and more. Still familiar from two generations past and yet weighted with old news. I toured Europe with my family only 20 years after my Dad had fought there. How clear his images of war must have been everywhere we traced his footsteps yet, as kids, we were not privy to the horrifying cinemascope in his head. I never realized, nor empathized, with what he must have felt…though now I was gaining insight long after he was gone.
We may have missed the China Beach TV set, but we walked into a movie set at the Vinh Huang 1 Hotel. The Quiet American movie crew used one of the bedrooms for the lodging of Michael Caine’s character. An historic home built for a Chinese businessman, the place was as remarkable as any of the spots on the local self guided tour. Through the open living space, we passed through the courtyard and past the private well to our room. Dark wood walls were brightened by a window onto the courtyard, and lighting that created a warm atmosphere. Cool stone floors dissipated oppressive heat.
Too late for reservations to the highly rated restaurant Morning Glory, we dropped into a artisan shop, Reaching Out, where merchandise is produced by people with disabilities. I was curious, having known and worked with US citizens and recent immigrants with disabilities, what efforts were being made to support those usually ostracized in their own culture and in an adopted culture. The work environment appeared conducive to creative work but this was such a cursory glance.
Vinh Huan 1 Hotel
143 Tran Phu Street
Hoi An City Center
Hoi An , Vietnam
We Have Separation Houston!
Sipping juice and savoring fresh pastries at our hotel lobby, we slowly watched the quiet street open up…scooters and motorcycles are banned in the morning (and 2 other times during the day in this old historic part of town). As an elder man slowly placed bird cages on outdoor hooks, and begins sweeping the front steps, a canine orgy is taking place in the narrow street. One poor wretched critter is locked in coitus with no exit plan. Other dogs join the conga line and the elder man tries kicking the two headed beast…to no avail. Only after washing down the steps does he twist the hose and spray the two dogs, and “Houston, we have separation”.
It dawned on us as we strolled the village streets that we were in a Vietnamese Disney World with stage settings that created a retreat from history and war, from poverty and disease, greed and envy, from autocracy. This was becoming, not a workers paradise, but a tourist fantasyland where only the workers were in on the illusion. Oh hell, it was relaxing. Give in to the plan, Man. The dogs had to be real. Let’s hope they don’t end up on the menu. And the birds were singing a sweet song from captivity.
Besides I had my priorities, finding a bank that would actually cash a Traveler’s Check. Perhaps the traveler’s check is an anachronism, yet I relied on American Express back in the 70’s. Now as we sat in the bank, each check is scrutinized, personal identity papers copied, multiple papers signed. Maybe it is time to leave home without them, but I still find American Travelers Checks comforting. They may not be seen as cash anymore, yet I like their feel of security in case of dire emergency.
Over chicken Tiki masala and mango lassi drinks at Ganesh, we watched tourists come and go at a tailor’s shop, and the clothes horse in me wanted to be suitably attired.
Two cheap suits are better than one. That is what I told myself as I stood for fittings in two separate businesses, one recommended by our hotel manager and the other rated #1 by Trip Advisor. Again, I justified this strategy by telling myself I needed to compare costs and quality. I was asked to strip to the waist at one shop as the cool tape measure wrapped my torso. Given my thin frame I thought perhaps I should take a big breath (like a horse resisting the tightening of the saddle cinch) and expanded my chest size. To avoid looking like a scarecrow in an oversized suit, I punched my ego and Whoosh, I exhaled.
Hoi An at night is better than the Magic Kingdom, lanterns from both sides of the river glow and reflect creating at least a thousand points of light. Across the river, a young girl’s street urchin smile was the lure to buy two floating candles. Michele and I bought into the romantic mood by slipping the luminaires into the current. But the current was not cooperating or feeling the love. While trying to avoid pitching into the river, I steered the two beacons of love past eddies and all variety of detritus near the shore.
A politically correct dinner at Streets completed the day, as attentive young men training in the hospitality business, served lovely beef curry. There seem to be an extraordinary number of young people being trained in hospitality as waiters, tour guides, desk clerks. We are helping the country move into the 21st century. They are moving boldly into the future of the service economy.
Thanks for the memories, Tricky Dick
Crossing Route 1 towards Cats Tooth Mountain and My Son, we passed young girls in blue and white school uniforms, pedaling in pairs and threesomes, with upright posture and pony tails swinging back and forth in synchrony. Then just down the road, a Vietnamese military team was scouring the landscape with a metal detector. Nothing bucolic in these hills, just a danger zone. Shards of innocence crunched under the tires.
We were alone in the morning sunlight. Spider webs glistened with dew throughout the forest perimeter and the My Son site. You can be transfixed imagining what the site was like during the Cham dynasty. Then you are faced with detours on the path where bomb craters collect rain water and you suffer recall whiplash to a time when Nixon tried to blow this Viet Cong hideout right off the face of the map. Inside one building were fragments of carved stone displayed next to large US made, shell casings. We stopped by a stream for lunch yet wisely sat on the cement path, since warnings are posted that mines are still buried in the rich forest litter along the way.
Trying to use up our Hoi An historic district tickets, I happened upon ablutions being performed on the figure of Thien Hau at the Hall of Fujian Chinese. A caretaker was carefully combing out his beard, a private ritual for a very patient statue.
We talked our way into the Museum of Trade Ceramics and were surprised to find a display on Hoi An architecture. We seem to be visiting historic sites back-ass word. This was the place to come first, to understand the period building styles and depictions of restorations.
I had purchased my two wool silk suits.
I will say that this was not the first time I had clothing made for me on the road. In Bombay, I was so low on cash that I ordered a Nehru jacket from raw silk that I had selected…but I could not afford to pay for silk yardage for the sleeves. I asked the tailor to make it into a Nehru vest. Once completed and as I tried it on, the tailor asked if he could borrow my design. This time Michele was with me and got to invest in a locally designed organic cotton dress.
At another Hoa An epicurean treasure, Ms Li’s, the proprietor’s husband told us we just missed seeing the Mayor of Chicago at the restaurant by a week. Bourdain came and went. Emanuel came and went. What’s left to explore? Hoa An has been found.
Hot chocolate at Mermaid buoyed our spirits. We launched two more floating lanterns from a much better strategic location, mid-bridge with the help of an elder woman. The romantic flames managed to navigate down a direct path to the sea…at least as far as our eyes could see. Flares arched over the waterway…though this display must be disconcerting for some Vietnam vets with PTSD since night illumination did not always bode well and often preceded night terror. On the brighter side of life, I started humming the tune to “When you wish upon a star.”
Marble Mountain Buddha Factory
The kharst rises up along the coast and our driver highly recommends a stop but at first glance we seem to be in a Vietnamese road side attraction to trap the gullible. Once whisked by elevator up to the jagged slopes of Marble Mountain, I felt I had dropped into the final scene of Sleeping Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Deep within the mountain, in the enormous Huyen Khong cave, shafts of light penetrated from above illuminating the Buddha statue high up in a rocky niche. Almost enough natural special effects to make a believer of lost souls.
Below lay the world of marble reproductions crowding up to the mountain like so many supplicants. But everything was for sale, from the sacred buddhas of all shapes and sizes to naked nymphs. Michele found a tiny stone Buddha that would fit in a bag side pocket.
We just had time for our toes to touch the sands of China Beach before boarding the train to Hue. Along a curving coast line, we looked down on rock scree slopes and impressive house size boulders piled up along sheltered beaches.
A five-minute ride in a Mi Linh (green) taxi brought us to the doors of Saigon Morin and a spacious room with French doors looking out on the Huong River and Le Loi Road. My traveling habit had been for so long to find hostels and cheap hotels catering to backpackers for the night that this comfort was very seductive.
At the Hotel courtyard dinner, I chose the Vietnamese sampler. We dined to the sounds of a live band playing Western 70’s/80’s classics and…Que Sera Sera again! The saccharine tune and theme can get stuck in your head, and is as close to brainwashing as I ever want to get. Across the courtyard from us at a long table, Americans were taking turns telling stories to introduce themselves to their newly formed team. They are members of a Veterans group called D.O.V.E. It was hard to distance myself from the “American War” and all its consequences no matter how much Que Sera Sera was in the air. A member of the group said they are working in villages where at least three generations of people are showing the deleterious effects of Agent Orange. Another project of theirs delivers sturdy, easily assembled, hand cranked wheel chairs to disabled villagers.
Along the riverfront, we walked over stone pavers past the night market – booth after booth selling trinkets and clothing to a young crowd. Even with full moonlight and gas lanterns ablaze, we were all but invisible to the crowd that was so focused on cool customized key chains and other bright and shiny things. We were dull in comparison.
30 Le Loi Street
Escape from the Tuk Tuk stalkers
With plans for a walk across Phu Xuan bridge to the Imperial City, a full breakfast seemed essential. We were not disappointed given all the Western and Asian choices spread at stations across the inner hotel courtyard. And there was Hot Chocolate. Michele was very pleased.
Heading down Le Loi street we could not shake a couple of Tuk-Tuk drivers. Desperate to ditch the highwaymen, we sought refuge in an art gallery. Our hiding place was a high-end spot with La Ba Dang’s work on exhibit. In his 90’s and still producing , his work ranged from social realism during the Indochine war and American war, to abstract images with cats eyes, to topographic bas-relief work of cast paper . Though living as an expat in Paris, he returned regularly to support his home village.
Free of our lurking Tuk-Tuk stalkers, we managed on our own to get to the gates of the Imperial City, but not before two more tuk-tuk drivers tried to persuade us that the City was closed until after lunch…and we should hire them to take a short tour. So we narrowly escaped being tuk-tuk fucked twice over.
The restoration of the Imperial City following several wars is limited but stunning as you walk down recently painted red and gold corridors. Past the digital recreation of the full city, around the corners of devastation, you see signs of the havoc. Bullet holes still pockmark a gate to the garden. Foundation outlines hint of structures long obliterated. In some niches you can sense the splendor and extravagance of the royal presence: the Throne room with poetry painted on the beams, the nine large dynastic urns with molded iconic images of clouds and rain at the Pavilion of Splendor, the Queen Mother’s residence, Dien Tho Palace with the Truong Du Pavilion over a lotus filled pond. Though passing an old bomb shelter tempers the thrills.
We missed tea at the lotus pond (Mother was a no show). But we found an old guard house, now tea house, at the Hoa Binh northern gate. We climbed above the street crowd for a respite of coffee/tea and treats. On the one side the moat and Imperial City, and on the other side a busy boulevard and historic neighborhoods. We sat with just a few other local couples suspending a little time.
Mausoleums to Die For
A tour of the mausoleums of dead emperors may sound like a total downer, but these are not your average Grant’s Tomb. They showed distinct style and excess, each in their own way. Some of these guys actually lived on the grounds of their mausoleums prior to departing their mortal coils and riches.
Minh Mang includes a park like setting with constructed ponds and hills designed as a heaven on earth. One hill holds the sepulcher and the gate to the underground is opened once a year. Tomb Raider territory for sure. We were alone with the guardian statues until the first bus load of tourists cracked the silence.
Grey stone statues of mandarins and animals were the honor guard positioned on either side of the walk up to Khai Dinh. They loomed over us as we passed from one steep stone staircase to the next. The tomb showcased over-the-top rococo style interior spaces.
A riot of color and reflecting pieces of glass in wall mosaics would not let the eyes rest. Such décor probably disturbed the sensibilities of the traditionalists, but hey, the Emperor was the Liberace of his day.
On an enormous Stele at Tu Duc’s Mausoleum, the emperor’s regrets for not doing enough for his people are etched in the 20-ton rock. This is like a long gone distant relative, Judge Sewall seeking forgiveness on his death bed for condemning the women of Salem as witches. A little late, don’t you think? As we circled the Stele a haunting sound of grief, soul wrenching sobbing, inhabited the space. We found the source, a woman huddled against the outer pavilion wall consumed with inconsolable sorrow.
And, supporting the ancient monument in a few places, Crosby clips once again holding relics in place.
The last mausoleum stop was a peeling, rusting Austin car. A metal monument to the memory of Thich Wuang Duc that sits on up the Perfume River at the Pagoda of the Heavenly Lady. Thick Wuang Duc drove the Austin from Hue to Saigon in 1963, and then set himself on fire to protest the Diem regime. A photo of the self-immolation is on display…and provoked of disconcerting déjà vu. As a twelve year old, I had seen that image on T.V.; the fierce orange flames fueled by red robes soaked in gasoline and the black acrid smoke swirling above and there, at the very core, was a still, pale body in meditation. Sitting before a black and white T.V., I could not have viewed such a vivid image, but I had touched up the horror with a wash of striking colors over time.
We had the cabin to ourselves for the train to Hanoi so we locked the door, wrapped ourselves in silk sleeping bag liners and were rocked to sleep passing over the ties in the night.
A Cake on our Bed of Rose Petals
Arriving before dawn in Hanoi, we were greeted by a Hotel Elite staff person who guided us to a curb and then disappeared in the dark. But before we could call on the spirit of Jane Fonda to save us, he reappeared with a taxi for us and took off on his scooter with our driver in hot pursuit. Dropped off in a dark alley, we had to put our trust in the holy Trip Advisor and follow down the narrow passage. And we were so relieved when doors opened and a lobby welcomed us.
With hot tea and a shower restoring our drive, we held map in hand and walked into the teeming streets of Hanoi.
Though within blocks of Hoan Kiem lake, the Huc bridge and Ngoc Son Temple , the HSBC bank temple of funding brought the most immediate joy since it honored our debit card and we had cash!
Having heard that Water Puppet theatre same day tickets were hard to come by, we jumped at the chance to get into a morning show. Yet with a really large pool, big live orchestra in a very big theatre (and only ten in attendance seated at a comfortable distance from the action), this show lacked the spark of the performance in Ho Chi Minh. No splashing and squirting into the audience, no humor, no engagement, this show was too formal and was missing the sense of village street theatre. Dramatic lighting gave it some life.
Taking on another cross town trek, we passed down the higher end boulevards with swanky shops, dared crossing major intersections and found the Temple of Literature, a quiet oasis paying ample homage to pursuits of higher learning. Several rows of huge stone turtles bore steles on their backs honoring doctoral candidates. Now that beats a bit of parchment and being used and abused at a series of Universities, with tenure appointments being dangled in front of anxious post docs.
Around the iconic One Pillar Pagoda, past Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, we headed for the oldest pagoda, Tran Quoc, relocated at some time in the past to West Lake. Swan boats slipped across the lake’s still surface, almost too still in its golden glow. A few dead fish floated on the surface. No one was swimming.
Michele ducked into the Catholic Church on Pho Phan Dinh Phung to light a candle to her mom, and then we closed the circle past French colonial style government buildings to the old quarters and a hectic pre-Tet buying frenzy.
Exhausted on our return to the hotel room, we were set to collapse on the bed only to find a white frosted cake, card and rose petals on the coverlet. On the audio system romantic background music cloyingly tinged a saccharine atmosphere. All in honor of our anniversary, that Michele had happened to mention on booking the reservation. This was not the only surprise perk of the evening.
Biding our time before dinner reservations at an espresso bar with a view of Hoan Kim Lake, we sat down with our coffee and tea only to be asked by a police officer if he could join us. Probably not a good time to be rude to authorities, we welcomed him to have a seat. Young and pleasant, his questions were not out of the ordinary, but we realized later that he had found out the basics about us and our trip without too much prompting. I spilled whatever beans we had.
We had dinner at a sister hotel, Hanoi Elegant Diamond Hotel, up on the roof. A window table had been reserved for us …and desert was on the house! You’ve Got to Love these Guys.
10/50 Dao Duy Tu Street
At sea aboard our Luxury Junk
On the road to Halong Bay, and delivered by the company van to one more roadside attraction. Why not make an impulse buy of a several ton marble Buddha or maybe order a photo duplicated in embroidery by artisans stitching away before your very eyes? Or maybe just buy some good old American stand-by M&Ms to remind you of home?
Assigned to our Indochina Junk Cruise ship, we boarded for two nights exploring the karst dotted harbors. Though all the boats had hulls painted white by government edict, the interior spaces were lined with dark wood, and very well appointed. This was really my first “cruise”, though Michele had taken Holland America to Alaska. This was not my first time aboard boats having worked as a supernumerary steward on a Cook Island freighter from Fiji to Singapore, and an AB seaman aboard the Yutana Barge lines in Alaska. This was not the cabin to which I was accustomed and was a shock to my system. Yet it did not take long to adapt to the private bathroom and broad, soft bed with down comforter.
Given the misty conditions, we moved past karsts that lost their sharp edges until we were immersed in a seascape of water color brush strokes.
Over an elaborate dinner we became acquainted with our fellow English speaking passengers (the French passengers stuck to themselves): Tom and Elise from Germany, Stine and Aslak from Norway, and Neil and Lucy from England. With each course a new centerpiece was presented of carved vegetable: first two goldfish, then a swan with the prawns and finally an eagle with the clams. Applause all around for the “piece de la resistance”!
Michele has a sixth sense for things that gently go bump in the night…that I usually sleep through and sure enough, on our first night she nudged me awake. Another Junk had actually bumped hulls, drifting wide at anchor. No one seemed particularly concerned and the crew of the colliding boat moved casually in solving the problem. This did rise to the alarm level I experienced on the Cook Island freighter years ago in the Straits of Malacca. That time our idiot Captain nearly got us run over by an enormous ship when we crossed into the major shipping lane. As the huge vessel barreled down on us, their lights flashing and horns blaring, we stood on deck waiting to jump. Our Chief Engineer rammed the tiny ship into reverse…and we stood hearts pounding and holding our breath as this gigantic hull of steel crossed our bow. So a gentle bump in the night did not impact my sleep pattern much, though Michele’s heart might have skipped a beat or two.
Dragon Pearl 2
Indochina Junk JSC
No 11, Alley 12B, Ly Nam Se str.
Hoan Kiem, Hanoi
Tel: 04 3 9264085/86
The glow of Candlelight, Red wine and BBQ prawns under the Stalactites
Our boat taxi to the floating village was round and made of woven materials, much like a basket. We formed an armada of invading tourists. Our oarswoman skillfully propelled us to the edge of the schoolhouse as class was dismissed. The departing “school bus” was a small boat rowed by youngsters. Over tea with the village leader, I posed a couple of indelicate questions about his ease of communication with the mainland. Apparently the government wants to move some floating village residents to the mainland. Odd timing since the resident teacher has only been assigned to the village a few years ago. First they lived in caves, then they were moved to floating villages, and the future may be relocation to apartment buildings…and a return to caves of a sort.
Kayaking in the mist among the karsts was an option I relished. I trained to roll a kayak in a college pool, and tried my skills in a West Virginia river but it had been years since I had used those skills. This was partly because I kept rolling inadvertently in that river’s frigid waters that spring, and lost some confidence. But also because my comrade in beginners training was in Inuit who demonstrated that he could move down a river as if he owned it, and sensed every nuance of ripple, eddy and hole. I never thought I could gain that stability. But in Halong Bay, on flat water, I felt gooood.
That evening we were barged into a beach, followed candle lit steps up to a cave entrance and walked into a transformed space with glowing smooth rock walls, stalactites and stalagmites. A long table was set for all of the guests, and the evening was spent sampling bbq of all sorts, sipping wine and pinching ourselves that this stage setting included us.
Aboard again we headed to quieter anchor that night, and I stood alone on the upper deck as the moon broke through the overcast. We moved like a ghost ship, silently passing within yards of cliff faces. I held terror in check telling myself this was not the hull of a massive ore boat, but remarkable geological formations slipping past. The narrow passage opened and we tied up to the buoy.
A Comic Page turner
We were evicted from our rooms a little early, so the crew could collect the laundry for the rapid turnaround back at the Halong Bay main dock. A demonstration of vegetable carving kept us entertained as we moved at half speed home.
There was one more chance to buy the several ton statues but we all passed on this rare opportunity, and returned to Hanoi, saying good-bye to our ship mates.
With a quiet evening, we ended up in conversation with a hotel clerk who was practicing his English. Since he was pursuing an English language newspaper, Michele recommended learning by reading the cartoons. He was stumped by a Calvin and Hobbes panel involving snowmen and references to evolutionary biology. I tried to draw an explanation but this toon was just too dense. It lost a lot of humor in translation.
Mother Goddess and Female War Hero adulation
The shortest route to the Women’s Museum was not through the Metropole Hotel, but the slight detour gave us a whiff of the upper class act. Then it was a few more steps and museum displays were extolling the virtues of heroic female fighting leaders in the American war, fighting colonialism in the name of communism. Maybe their grandchildren can afford the opportunity to be in the service industry, and serve tea at the Metropole one fine day.
Videos of Mother Goddess rituals such as Hau Dong that instills a sense of joy in acolytes, showed a whole new side of a belief system unknown to us. But it was the display of tribal clothing and its production that was the most informative in preparing us for the next leg of our journey.
On the way to lunch we quite deliberately skirted the perimeter of the Hanoi Hilton where John McCain spent so many horrific years. The tours, we were told, were heavy on propaganda so we passed and found the well regarded street food emporium.
This was the spot for the less adventurous, and those about to make long journeys who wish to avoid unsettled stomachs. We overindulged in samples, while at nearby tables European males treated local women, dressed to the max, to the fare. So glad that visitors are spreading the wealth.
Along the outer wall of the Temple of Literature, calligraphers gather to sell their work. Michele commissioned a wall hanging with the symbol for Wisdom, and I requested a little additional touch that entailed a subcontractor, fellow artist to paint a bird on the scroll. Several of these artists looked the part, with long grey beards and creased faces. I tried my hand on a piece of paper but the work was pathetic…though one visitor took a photo of me struggling with the ink wash.
With time for the National Fine Arts Museum, we entered another quiet space of social realism, filled with painting and sculpture displaying the virtues of the glorious fights against intruders. Interspersed were a few female nude figures, not carrying guns or harvesting wheat.
Another cathedral and one more lit candle for Ethel before departing. Our hotel guide rode with us in the taxi to the train station and escorted us, winding past a freight train, to our cabin on the Sapaly Express. Of all the train berths I have slept on, this was most decked out. I have slept on wooden floors when hopping freight cars across the northern US, third tier metal bunks from Calcutta to New Delhi, and Amtrak sleeper cabins from Seattle to San Francisco, but this was actually decorated for the Tet holiday, free beer, soda and chips were on the bedside table and down comforters stitched with the company logo covered the bunks. Paper Cherub dolls were pasted to the windows. A light with tinted shade lit the room in soft colors. All was almost perfect as we turned out the light, except two female tourists determined that they would kibbitz right outside our room…not theirs. I had to get up half dressed and give’em a subdued version of hell until they got the point.
Climbing to the Sapa Peaks
Pulling into the final stop @ Lao Lai, we packed up at a leisurely pace since the track ended here. Down the road and across the bridge was China. Drivers with signs caught the attention of passengers but as they loaded up in vans and disappeared into the darkness, no one was seemed to be expecting us. I was coming to rely on the personal greetings as we stepped off trains in strange locales. Not to panic, eventually our hotel van did arrive, and we headed out for the Victoria Sapa Hotel. Climbing into the hills, the early light washed the mist pink as the haze burned off. Rice paddies were stacked up against the steep hills. Around every hairpin turn there seemed to be a motorbike roaring downhill with large flowering branches tied to their frames. This was the Tet version of the trucks bearing Christmas trees back home. Homes that pitched out over the slopes, had piles of the branches on the shoulder for sale. Everyone must want a bush for Tet.
A Christmas tree lit the path to our room, apparently there was an extended season of joy in the mountains complete with twinkling lights and odd sentiments. Well Merry Christmas and Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh!
From the hotel that occupied a hill crest with incredible views, we took steep stone steps to the town square and settled in @Baguette and Chocolate for Hot chocolate and flaky pastries.
An excursion to Cat Cat seemed doable so we made arrangements through Sapa Chau, since they made a concerted effort to train local youth as guides. Lem, in a Mung tribal outfit, lead us down one remarkable set of stairs into the valley floor. Like our visit to the Grand Canyon, we had to remind ourselves that the rough part of the hike was to come in climbing out. The route downhill was not a path less taken. Dyed fabric festooned the edges of the path, and all for sale.
Crossing a suspension bridge to an old mill building, sure enough we found another Crosby clip helping to secure the cables. Glad to see that my great grandfather prepared a path before me.
Inside the old mill, young dancers twirled parasols and stepped between giant bamboo poles beating to a rhythm, but there was more excitement expressed outside by boys jumping between boulders above the roaring torrent. Who was watching their antics?
A solution for exiting the valley floor was much more satisfying than the mules in the Grand Canyon. Lem found three motorbikes to carry us up the incline. It felt like we were cheating as we passed other hikers struggling their way up the hillside, but I also felt good. Contrary to the age old aphorism, “ No Pain, No Gain!”, I was gaining elevation and enjoying the ride.
That evening, near a burning fireplace, we savored sticky rice and chicken, as we listened to Tracy Chapman. Christmas decorations of reindeer covered the windows. We had the restaurant all to ourselves.
We were sole swimmers to take advantage of the pool that evening. In a large separate facility atop the hill, the dim lights made the whole scene a little spooky.
Victoria Sapa Resort and Spa
Xuan Vien Street
Lao Cai Province, Vietnam
Tel: (84) 203 871 522
A Hill Climb Race for Pocket Change
The Victoria Sapa breakfast was generous as usual with omelets to order, fruit, yogurt, croissant and coffee but I passed on the bacon, after seeing so many poor squealing pigs strapped down on the back of motorbikes recently. A fire burned in the middle of the room, and the view looked over a ridge of mountain tops. Nice but we could not linger since we had an ambitious trek ahead.
Wanting to avoid roads, we had requested a “off the beaten path” route this time. The chosen path seemed to go straight down, not one of Michele’s favorite directions given her lack of depth perception. The path was dry and that was a huge advantage.
Along the way we had picked up some followers, two women and a child. Though we were not certain of their intentions, pure coincidence as in “you going my way?” or deliberate marketing strategy, they proved useful in some rough patches where extra supporting hands were needed. Much to Michele’s relief the route started to follow contour lines above and along the river.
Dormant rice paddies cut up the many slopes around us. What color beyond the green trees, was spotted on the laundry lines next to houses. Bright orange and red towels, along with indigo dyed clothing dried in the sun as geese, dogs and pigs snoozed on the smooth dirt.
Arriving at a rest stop, tired and famished, when we were most vulnerable, the merchandise appeared out of the multiple cloth bags the women and child at been carrying. Like out of a magician’s cloak, fabric kept being pulled from thin air. Not that our fellow travelers had risked their lives like sherpas to get us safely to this hut, but we did feel somewhat obligated to complete some form of grateful transaction. Though I made the kid cry on refusing to bargain over her cheap, tin bracelets. I felt badly but I had to make a stand somewhere or we would be carrying just too much crap out of the valley.
We picked up a narrow cement motorbike path for much of the way down the valley to our pick up site, past a couple of villages with homestay sites.
More tourist shops started popping up and even a Homestay Museum. A return by car got us back to Baguette and Chocolate before the clouds moved in. We let the hot chocolate heal the strained muscles.
Knowing we wanted to buy at least one example of the embroidered Mung cloth blankets, we circled the plaza full of sellers whose goods were spread across the stone. Once we spotted our target we set a direct course, picked out our choice and bargained. Within seconds, Michele and the seller were surrounded by other women with their items, criticizing the choice and praising the quality of their work. Under the onslaught we grabbed the sale, and headed towards the hotel, hotly pursued by Thelma and Louise, two aggressive elder women carrying their wares flapping in the wind. For a brief moment they vanished when the police drove past, so we took the opportunity to start running up the stone steps that lead to Victoria Sapa. We were within sight of the top step, and the elder women, with the acuity of vultures, were suddenly upon us. We all ended up laughing so hard, we were out of breath and could not continue the race…and we bought more fabric.
After a powerful storm swept over the ridge, we ventured out again passing a few Mung women still huddled under tarps with their goods. A well rated Italian restaurant had a table and we lingered in the chilly evening talking with a retired Australian banker and his wife. And when they excused themselves to huddle in their hotel, we struck up a conversation with our table mates in the other direction, Canadian Vietnamese siblings who were visiting their grandmother for Tet. Since their family had left when they were quite young, the brother did not speak Vietnamese.
The Rice is always greener on the other side of the Mountain
By morning the broken pine boughs and leaf litter, that were scattered across the road last evening, were all gone, as well as the lobby Christmas tree that had vanished to be replaced with a Tet flowering tree already decorated with bright ornaments.
The hotel’s four wheel drive RV we had hired for the tortuous trip to Dien Bien Phu looked new and the tires were in excellent shape. Now we had to put our lives in the hands of an unknown driver and we were off for Tram Ton Pass (the highest in Vietnam) and beyond.
Once over the pass, it was clear the climate was remarkably different.
The paddies stretching out in the valley were bright chartreuse, with some fresh shoots still being planted by lines of women who dipped their hands methodically into muddy water. They only broke their motion when interrupted by my stop for a photo op.
Past a new dam and displaced farmers now seeking an existence on the slopes above the new lake, we found a vista spot where we shared the hotel’s box lunches with our driver. After many more curves and narrow road beds, we arrived at Him Lam Hotel in Dien Bien Phu. We tipped the driver…and then he headed right back to Sapa. A shot of coffee and he’s good I guess but that seemed just insane.
By the initial scoping of the Him Lam, we seemed to be the only guests. Our room in a two story four-plex, looked out over the nearby lake. The swan boats, one of the big attractions for me, were in dry dock for the season. I had so wished for the cross cultural experience peddling a swan boat so popular in Boston Commons.
So instead we caught a cab and went into town.
The Victory Monument was first on our list of attractions to visit. After climbing killer sets of steps, we reached the Monument, a tribute to the vanquishing of the French troops. Enormous figures, all depicted in a social realist style, cast long shadows. Righteous soldiers and a fervent mother with, one gargantuan baby at her breast, faced the setting sun. On the paths of the forested slope below, joggers and evening walkers took advantage of the shade.
Our driver insisted on taking us to a nearby market over the Muong Thang Bridge. Flowers, live chickens and other critters, and fresh produce filled the river edge.
And all of this across from a bunker, replicating the site where the French forces surrendered. A nearby spot had an old tank on display, but this war museum needed a lot of work before becoming a major tourist attraction.
Back to Him Lam and we ordered dinner in a vast dining hall. We actually ran into another guest, a Frenchman with very young Vietnamese wife and mother-in-law who were on tour with a car and driver. Turns out his father was with the French colonial troops but did not get stuck in Dien Bien Phu. He was immersed in the legacy of colonialism, or at least marrying into it.
Him Lam Hotel
Him Lam Ward, Dien Bien Phu
Dien Bien Phu , Vietnam
Crossing the Frontier
Lesson learned to heed the advice of the Lonely Planet guide when it comes to climbing aboard a bus at dawn in Dien Bien Phu. Our hotel clerk dissuaded us from rising too early, so in taking our taxi to the station 45 minutes later than suggested, we lost out on the option of choosing two of the four seats with leg room for the 7 a.m. departure.
Once in place, and waiting forever in the dark, a guy came aboard to change money giving us a good argument for ditching Vietnamese currency for Lao. I was suspicious but, hey it’s all play money anyway. I kept some in reserve for the border.
We finally started rolling, went about a block and pulled into a garage. The brakes were needing a tune up. Who am I to argue when we are about to climb into the mountains and navigate treacherous curves along the way? Once the maintenance was complete we piled back in ready to go. Only then we stopped back at the bus station to pick up the passengers waiting for the second bus west to the frontier. The 9 a.m. departure had been canceled. Then we were off. Only now we had to make several stops picking up more passengers and gear on the way out of town.
Finally we headed for the hills.
As we climbed slowly up the hills, a billboard loomed above the ridge forest canopy. It turned out to mark the border where we all spilled out, had our temperature checked, paid for photos, and paid for visas in an orderly fashion. Well, at least some of us. Some locals tried for an end run, but the officer waved them off and took our passports. On closer inspection, the custom official turns out to be the moneychanger. Small world.
One of our fellow passengers had converted all her cash so lacked sufficient funds to pay for the visa. I gave her the money, thus paying off a long held debt from my past. When approaching the Kyber Pass by bus in the 70’s, gun carrying tax collectors walked down the aisles looking for donations. A French traveler offered to front me the money. Once in Kabul, I was unable to track him down a few days later. I carried that obligation for forty plus years.
A tribal woman seated in front of us was berated by the bus attendant for vomiting out the window onto the side of the bus, directing her to use the tiny plastic bag. She looked miserable, so we offered her a Handi-Wipe. She was clearly perplexed. We instructed her with pantomime gestures and then she seemed to appreciate the cool refreshing cleansing.
Once off the bus in Muang Khua, it was every traveler for him or herself. Michele sat on our bags while I wandered across a long suspension bridge (with motorbikes passing me) and then, coming up empty, across town where we ended up at the Sernnaly Hotel, the top place in town…which might get a rating of one star. After checking out the boat launch for the trip to Muang Ngoi, we returned to the Sernnaly only to find a crowd gathered outside the gate. A wedding party had taken over the hotel. This was THE event of the week…month…decade? We had to walk through the reception line to get to our room. Feeling very underdressed, I was composing a few comments in my head on the lovely wedding and beautiful bride when we found a break in the line and ducked, through avoiding the formalities.
Following dinner above the river, I made a few connections over a beer with a couple of guys and arranged for a private boat in the morning. I classified this transaction in the “cool” column. It was a very “Casa Blanca” or maybe “African Queen” scene.
By the time we returned to the hotel, the place was out of control rocking and the decibel levels were high. As we found our way to the stairs, the hotel manager, with a sly wink, slipped us a couple of beers from the reception tables. Somehow Michele and I both managed to sleep soundly.
In search of Kurtz
Stale beer permeated the air of the lobby and the floor was tacky as we maneuvered our way through the reception tables to the street. Bottles were still strewn everywhere as women started the clean up of the courtyard. They moved from table to table, gulping down the water left in bottles on the stained tablecloths.
My agent was driving out as we headed to the river, so I thought my arrangements were shot but he said that everything was set, and a boat was waiting, though he had to drive to Dien Bien Phu. In odd French couple had agreed to split the fare but we could not get them to commit and were ready to slip down river when they appeared. Our comfortable seats look like they were salvaged from some auto wrecking yard but we settled in to find Muang Ngoi, one of the last river villages around that had no access by road.
Our Gortex outerwear proved invaluable for the run through short rapids. We switched seats with the Gilles and Lisette, who were drenched. A pit stop on a sandy beach allowed a quite change of clothes, a release of excess bodily fluids and then onward downstream.
The landscape was low hills with forest until karst like geological formations appeared to thrust up from the surrounding land, hemming in the river and forcing the current to swirl and boil. We all had to stand up (without rocking the boat) to take in the spectacular setting. And Muang Ngoi happens to be set right in the midst of these formations.
On landing, Gilles and Lisette grabbed the first room available and we were left to scramble once again but dang, if we did not luck out. I went on a search through the village for a room while Michele, once again sat on the bags. Striking up a conversation with a woman, this person opened up her smart phone to show Michele her guest house and, right there we had our spot. Relatively new, with a porch looking out over the river, it was a great, quiet retreat. The owner had grand plans, to expand in the future with a restaurant and additional floors. I was glad we had the opportunity to appreciate it before development. And I immediately regretted that we only had set aside one night for this.
Though the village was small, at the end of the one street was a trail that lead to the base of a hill with caves. I ended scaling the crazy trail in my toe-socks/sandals, up homemade ladders, across razor sharp rock outcroppings to a point over the village that allowed for an all encompassing view of the fortress like hills.
Yet I could hear the buzz of chain saws that sliced through the idyllic scene. A road was coming to Muang Ngoi and a little bit of a sanctuary was soon to be sliced and diced by tourist avarice.
An Indian restaurant became our base camp as we squatted for the afternoon and into the evening for lunch and dinner and chai in-between. The owners’ young daughter leaned in on my bent knee, picking at our naan and carefully discarding the burnt parts.
Lerdkeo Sunset Guesthouse
Muang Ngnoi, Laos
A sublime cold beer above the Mekong River at Sunset
One hour downstream and we landed in Nong Khiaw, where a van took us to the bus stop. The song thaews were full, though in typical fashion, Gilles and Lisette managed to arrange a front seat and leave us behind trying to pull together six people to get a van to Luang Prabang.
Michele, once she heard that a fellow passenger had not been keeping food down for two weeks, launched into Auntie mode, and told her boyfriend (packing a guitar) that they needed to fly out to Bangkok, and not to fool around with this condition. Our other fellow passengers had just floated down the Namou, on a homemade raft. They had traded their inner tube raft for a couple of nights in Muang Ngoi. In one more odd coincidence the woman owned a cabin on Orcas Island in our home state of Washington.
Though the Belle Rive Hotel had been highly recommended by a coworker, and on Trip Advisor, we were not prepared for the classy place. Three older French colonial houses had been joined together, and faced the river across the Baan Phonehueang street . Our room could have been the movie set for The Lover. Dark wood louvered French doors opened up onto a small seating area.
Drinks were served across the road at the private outdoor lounge area. We settled in with a beer and a gin and tonic watching the sunset over the Mekong. Boys played soccer on a sand bar while others floated in inner tubes. Thoughts of the Laotian repressive government were very far removed from the golden light, refreshing suds and incredible calm after several days of winging it.
Exploring the main tourist street of Sisavenguong was quite the contrast. Europeans and Americans packed the restaurants. Wandering into the night market, pop up tents stretching several blocks, I had the same feeling that I get in malls. I need to come up for air. All the woven silk, wooden lanterns, postcards and more for sale were numbing my appreciation of Luang Prabang, but maybe I was appreciating an artificial Luang Prabang. We had crepe from a street vendor and headed back to Belle Rive.
Belle Rive Hotel
99 Baan Phonehueang,
P.O. Box 444
Luang Prabang, Lao PDR
+856 71 260 733
A Moon Rock and Lincoln Continentals
Wat Xieng Thong walls shimmer with glass mosaics of village scenes. Inside, used stencils pile up as craftsmen work on gold leaf patterns over red walls. One Buddha in the back of the Chapel of the Funeral Chariot glimmers with a glass shard robe.
Crossing a bamboo bridge, Christmas decorations are still strung up at each end.
Arrows direct us through the halls of the Royal Palace, home of the Golden Buddha. The throne room walls also reflect the interior light in Japanese class mosaics. Many small Buddha figures sit under glass. And then under glass in the state gift room, lies a Moon Rock from Apollo 11 next to a mini-model of the spaceship. All are relics of man’s exploration of the universe and its meaning. Outback some more vintage relics, several Lincoln Continentals that were gifts from the US- tokens of the American way, envy as a commodity.
Just because its there, Michele and I decide to climb Mount Phousi…and so do a whole throng of other tourists to crowd around Wat Chomst. One the way up we inadvertently contributed to animal cruelty by buying a tiny bird cage with three itty bitty birds. This act was politically incorrect, but we became temporary caregivers and took our job seriously. We revived the poor creatures by providing them with a tiny birdbath in a bottle cap. Once they sang and fluttered with some vigor, we released them in some faux sacred ritual. Grabbing a shot of the sunset over the Mekong was a logistics nightmare given all the other idiots trying for the perfect photo op.
Descending, we had to move off the stone path to avoid being trampled. It was like the running of the bulls with the hordes rushing by…probably headed for a Singha watering hole.
We still found a place for dinner on Sisavanguong in a very French feeling bistro. Food so-so but an attractive French looking waitress made the moments pleasant. Walking back to the hotel we passed several shops promoting Elephant experiences. Be A Mahout for a Day! For the pachyderms it must be better that pulling logs over rough terrain.
Billowing Clouds of Orange
Lined up next to an enormous Buddha at Wat Aham were several five foot skinny buddhas standing vertically with hands directed straight down. We read that this was the “more rain please” position. These guys would be in their element finding bliss in Seattle. Across the high cathedral ceiling was an expansive piece of orange cloth, draped as a billowing cloud above the huge golden Buddha head. Perhaps it was there just to keep detritus from falling on praying supplicants, but it was impressive.
Escaping the heat into a very politically correct arts and crafts store, we splurged for a tiny bottle of local Whiskey to carry home and located the upstairs display on Laotian culture. Edifying but not scintillating so we moved over to the L’Etranger Books for chai and ginger tea.
Circling around Mount Phousi, a local art gallery offered serene images of monks contemplating waterfalls, not dissimilar from the photos in the “Floating Buddha” exhibit at the Royal Palace. Accolytes in retreat sitting alone in remote spots facing eternity. Actually there were other paintings that evoked a much more disturbing mental state of an artist, dark images swirling around self portraits. Not something to contemplate on a wall at home but provocative statements of an unsettled Laotian life.
Stopping by Big Brother Mouse non profit near our hotel, we participated in a conversational English session. And we just happened to run into a couple from Bellingham WA. Big Brother Mouse publishes books in Laotian and gives them to young children in villages, and they have supported local illustrators to draw cartoons for the new editions. For a few hundred dollars one can subsidize a book party in a village, or help publish a new volume. I wonder if I could return and give drawing classes…hmmm.
We waited for a table at Tamarind where I tried a frog delicacy and Michele sampled food poisoning.
Mekong or Bust a Gut
I said, “What the hell, let’s use that travel insurance and fly to Bangkok to get you fixed up!” But after investing so much in the next leg of the journey, Michele was not going to miss out on it. She determined to forge ahead.
Once on board our Luangsay Cruise boat, we found a relatively comfortable niche where Michele could sleep …and easily purge her system in a bathroom. I meanwhile could empathize, recalling fine puking moments at Siem Reap, but I took full advantage of the side tour into the Pak Ou caves. The cave shadows were saturated with buddhas of all shapes and sizes, wood figures all slowly losing their distinctiveness, wearing down in immense time.
Our English speaking guide spent time with us chatting about large river systems in the US. I recommended books by Mark Twain, so he might get the flavor of the older Mississippi life. Trying to explain the origin of the Mark Twain name gets lost in the translation even though I valiantly tried to make parallels to the poles that Mekong rivers boatman use for marking river levels.
Landing at Pak Ben, we were set up in our own cottage after a climb up the bank above flood level. Michele just made it to the bed and slept through the night, while I joined the others for dinner and a performance.
A woman next to be started imitating the young children’s dance moves. She told me she used to dance, and briefed me on the ratings of various ethnic dance: Indian and Bali high while Laotian was mid range in score. Her movements brought back an image from Bali one evening years ago, when as the sun was setting, two young girls danced mirroring each others’ moves in shallow water, waves washing gently past them.
The Luang Say Lodge and Cruises Co, Ltd
50/4 Sakkarine Road
Ban Vat Sene
Luang Prabang, Lao PDR
Tel: +856 (0) 71 252 553
F: +8546 (0) 71 252 304
Let the Tet Begin
We left our lovely dark wood cottage, with louvered shutters looking out over the Mekong, too soon but the longboat was continuing on to Houei Xai. Michele actually ate some breakfast on board. In my opinion, the food was good and snacks plentiful, while tea and coffee were always on hand, and though this was not actually luxury travel, ( we are not talking Windstar here) at least it beat the crowded boats most travelers took upriver.
We passed two freighters moving upstream, large ‘houses’ stacked on the stern. They move like large behemoths pushing against the current. On the bow, plants honor the spirits, next to the poles for marking depth of the river. Having worked as a deckhand on a barge line along the Yukon River, I had a sense of this river life. The slow upriver haul, engine throbbing, water swirling against the hull, as you pass forests yielding to the currents…all this brought back the life on the Yukon but this time I didn’t expect to drive heavily laden fork lifts over timbers to the beach of the next village. Sighting a logging trail cut by elephants across a beach brought me back to the Mekong.
One more stop before our destination, a village of “animists” according to our guide. A satellite dish sits near the heart of the village. A cluster of women watch soccer on TV in one hut, while boys on the porch try lacing up oversize boots.
A young girl wrapped in a tight sari, kneels on the beach and swings a bunch of branches over her head, and then slaps her bundle against a rock repeatedly while her hair sweeps across her face. The dried twigs will make up innumerable brooms for market.
Disembarking we are escorted through customs and reached the ferry to Chang Khong. As we peel off into the current, an Australian shouts “Goo’day Yank!” from another longboat. It is Rick and Barbara who we first met in Phnom Penh at the evening opera, then crossed paths again in Hoi An, only to intersect with their tour once again on the Mekong. We are not far enough off the beaten path I guess.
The hotel golf cart takes me to our digs, while Michele hops on the back of a motorcycle. ( By now she is an experienced rider!) Dinner is on a roof deck looking down the Mekong as the opposite shore lights up with Tet firework displays, and the hotel band played into the night. A late evening walk takes us to a western style coffee shop, era 60’s/70’s, with a vintage Harley Davidson out front. We order two hot chocolates and a time warp to go.
Chiangkhong Teak Garden Hotel
Chiang Rai, Thailand
Crocodile skulls, grizzly skins and whale skeletons, Oh My!
After a poor buffet breakfast (we had been spoiled by The Saigon Hotel), our driver arrived on time for the run to Chiang Mai.
Our first stop: the Black House in Chiang Rai.
The main hall’s cathedral ceiling soared above a long wooden banquet table with python skins as table runners. Throne chairs adorned with blackened buffalo horns and crocodile skulls certainly did not offer a respite.
Several guest houses offered beds with wolf and grizzly hides as comforters. Spending a night here must just be terrific, the blackness filled with howls and the gnashing of teeth from the salvaged dead creatures splayed around you.
Beneath one house, a complete whale skeleton looked like it just emerged from the sewer pipes. Speaking of bathroom, they were adorned with collections of wooden phalluses hanging on the walls, a very different set of trophies.
On to the White Temple whose designer was a mentor for the Black House architect.
Our pupils experienced traumatic stress moving from the dark interiors of the Black House to the White Temple glaring bright white cement surfaces with mirrored inlays. But this sanctuary was no less terrifying: white plaster heads of Freddy Kruger and Hellboy hanging from white trees, and disembodied white hands reach up from below as you pass over a bridge to the inner sanctum. Inside the temple a mural of the cosmos reflects a whimsical mythology with quite the cast of characters: Superman, Harry Potter and Mickey Mouse all share the firmament. The Architect’s gallery extends the element of the surreal with garish colored paintings referencing Buddhist and Christian iconography. We invested in a signed Tot bag and 2 wild T-shirts just to broadcast in Seattle that we were hip.
Having regained her stamina, Michele, with encouraging words from me and frequently repeated, “We’re almost there!” made it to a lovely waterfall. Except for the occasional rush of running students going to and from the site, we had the trail to ourselves. As I struggled with a toilet hose like a figure in Lacoon fending off a serpent, Michele struck up a conversation with a solo traveler who was using Chiang Rai as a base for exploring the country. With the popularity of Chiang Mai, this was a quieter choice for a loner.
Arriving in the old city center of Chiang Mai after dark, our driver went in circles until, using his cell phone, the hotel clerk guided him in.
The exceptional Makka Hotel lies hidden down an alley, its two main structures reflecting the sites of the day: a Black lobby under a soaring cathedral ceiling set across a courtyard from a White building of similar lines that housed the library and breakfast area. Large surreal images of female figureheads dominate the rooms with their gaze.
Our corner room had an enormous pink lotus flower painted by the same artist on the wall above the bed. With a small exterior courtyard of our own and a flat screen TV, we were in plush surroundings.
Taking it easy, we did not go far for dinner and chose Hot Chilli in the Rad Klang Vieng Plaza. We managed to get a swing seat for two that swayed from the roof line. Once the obnoxious older German guy, who complained about slow service, exited the premises, we could digest our fine Phad Thai in peace.
18 Soi 8 Phrapokklao Rd,
Phrasing, A. Muang, Old City ,
Chiang Mai Thailand
Wat Walks and Wax Monks
We settled in for a slow morning, enjoying the Vietnamese breakfast on the porch outside the second story White library. The library shelves are stacked with self-help titles. The large wall mural, by Arnan Ratchawang-inn with the female head in a beatific frame of mind, casts an aura of calm. Who would not feel restored in this retreat but why waste your time on these texts? Just go immerse yourself in the space around.
We made the rounds of sacred grounds. A most peculiar contraption caught my attention at Wat Chedi Luang, where a cable pulley system allowed believers to send a can of water (for a price) skyward to pour blessings on the Wat peak. In another side building, a life size replica of Acharn Mun Bhuridarto, supreme mentor of forest monks, sits incased in glass, staring unblinking at the abyss. Glass amulets with small precious and semi-precious stones were lined up around the small room like some apothecaries display case, cures for what spiritually ails you I guess.
A side trip to the Lanna Folklife Museum did help to establish better cultural bearings. One exhibit explained the architectural symbolism of the altars, another described the musical instruments-sueng, pie and sula, and another, the various weaving styles by tribe detailing the structure and patterns of the pha sin (sarong).
Exploring the murals of Wat Phra Singh and the stories of Santhong and Suwannahong lead down paths of exquisite radiance and dark erotic twists and turns…or maybe this was just my frame of mind. Pennants of devotion, bills of many denominations attached to orange paper, fluttered over the prayer floor, offering tantalizing glimpses of the golden Buddhas with each oscillation of fan motors. Outside we listened to the monks chanting for evening prayers as fading light turned the temple walls pink.
La Villa Italian offered a nice small garden spot niche for dinner.
In search of silver, baubles and a good therapist
Heading towards silver shops, the Jang Mueng Gallery drew our attention but beyond the erotic door handles we were not impressed with the oil paintings of stock landscapes and people. Over the moat and onto Wua Lai, we moved from silver shop to silver shop handling silver cups with horoscope images pounded into the metal. Full prices stayed at full price so we left the items to collect dust.
On down Sri Dornchai,, I couldn’t resist the Tianzi Tea House, a stunning little getaway. Entering a gate into a quiet garden, you leave behind the busy thoroughfare and the major high rise hotel next door. Over green tea, we introduced ourselves to “The Wandering Therapist”, Arthur Poirier and his wife, an artist. They, like many expats, spent most of the year in Chiang Mai, and they found Tianzi to be the perfect spot. Our conversation covered everything from the life of expatriates, to the sins of corporate America, and a pathetic US democracy driven by money. For a therapist, he seemed to be doing a lot of talking that was very negative. Well time to Go.
On Tha Phae, we scrutinized rubies and emeralds and green sapphires while speaking of matrices and other imperfections to lower the going prices, but they were still out of range, and we left those items under glass to collect light.
Over Nakorn Ping Bridge to the Gallery for a late lunch, we were seated out on the courtyard. We are alone until one other couple arrives ..and sits one table away from us. WTF. We try to focus our attention on delicious Indian lamb curry and on the river and the site where Hillary Clinton stood to admire the waterway some years ago.
As we passed the US consulate, we felt the positive American energy flowing again as we saw pro-US murals by local children. Propaganda does marvels in countering negative therapists.
Michele finally made it to shopping heaven at J. Imbon Supermarket where one can find a vast selection of Buddhas and other icons cast in various metals. Most of the larger gaudy sacred figures are pre-wrapped in plastic, like baskets at an auction. The proprietors, surprised at seeing Americans shopping gleefully in their store, asked how we found them. We pointed out that the The Nancy Chandler map had them highlighted.
Jumping on a red truck back to Tha Phrae gate, we were just in time for an Aids demonstration by a transgender group in blond wigs.
Picked up our laundry, dropped it in the room and then on to another red truck to a vegetarian restaurant on Nimmanhaemin. Down an alley, up stairs and we were lucky to find a seat for two. The owner was turning people away after we sat down. The hassle was worth it for this special meal for our final night in Chiang Mai.
Hell on Wheels
Left on the train for Bangkok at 8 a.m. and did not arrive until 11 p.m. The overnight train would have been more enjoyable. As it was we were freezing most of the way. We broke down in the middle of nowhere, though the station could have been a location for Once upon a Time in the West.
Trusting a taxi driver in the middle of the night is challenging. We passed on the first offers until a driver recognized the address. Amazingly he found the quiet square where the Bluthorn was squeezed in between several shops. Arriving close to midnight, the hotel manager was there to greet us and showed us to our antique room.
96-98 Phraeng Bluthorn Rd.,
San Chao Phor Seua, Phra Nakhorn
Bangkok 10200 Thailand
Tel: +662 622-2270
Fax: +662 622-2338
A Royal Flush
This old house (the Bluthorn) has a tiny open courtyard…more like a light well with just enough room for a breakfast nook with table and two chairs. That was all that was needed to start the day with a newspaper, coffee and lovely egg breakfast. We needed the rest and the sustenance for a day around the Royal Palace grounds in the sun.
A few steps away we crossed Atsadang Road, Klong lod Canal and moved from utter calm into a massive wave of tourists heading for the Royal Palace.
Given the throngs squeezing into the Palace, it takes some strategizing to plan a route for smooth circulation and maximum appreciation, while avoiding the mass of humanity disrupting precious tourist moments or photo ops. We hugged the perimeter to follow the narrative of exquisite wall murals, and to get our Palace bearings. While getting this orientation, I did my part for mural restoration, picking up gold leaf fragments to help the art restoration supervisor. Every bit counts…quite literally.
On one side of the main hall a guard was balling out a SE Asian tourist for posing with bare shoulders while leaning on a door frame. He escorted her OUT. While on the other side, a family dipped lotus blossom buds into a font of water, and then touched each other’s head with the dripping lotus wands before entering the building. They were all smiles.
The Queen Siriki Museum of Textiles told of a much more recent cultural resurgence. This is a story of the Queen reviving the textile industry, visiting the villages to encourage production while designing and wearing outfits with both traditional and new patterns. I bought a silk shirt to support the movement…or at least that is how I justified the expense.
Given that we were short timers in SE Asia, we went for “safe” food at a restaurant while looking out on a whole line of street food vendors catering to locals and foreigners on the way to the ferry dock and tourist sties. It felt so peculiar though, given all the places we had now eaten, and a far cry from our first dinner on the streets of Bangkok just a few weeks before. But then again, looking out on the back side of food vendor stalls makes one question the sanitary nature of some establishments. No grandmother was out washing dishes in the back.
But no time to linger, next stop the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho. As you circulate it is hard not to reconsider all the warnings about “foreign” pick-pockets, while trying to take in the enormity of scale that is before you. Buddha is a Gulliver in Lilliputian land. The large hall is filled with the ringing of change being dropped by a line of tourists into a line of 20 and more bowls for good luck. The soles of the Buddha’s feet are a wonder to behold. The patterns reminded me of a foot massage diagram that ties pressure points to various body parts. Only in this case these were diagrams for the mind. Several footprints overlap like footsteps on a beach path, symbolic of Buddha’s significant passages in time and place.
Dinner reservations lead us in to the more intense backpacker hostel territory where we ended up at Phra Sumen Fort watching an evening aerobics class move to a boom box. Pop rock surged over the churning waves at the Chao Phraya riverbank. Thai specialties at Hemlock were a delicious diversion, then around the corner down on Rambuttri where Michele finally found a suitable plastic Buddha in a lovely golden color.
The chaos and noise of Rajadamnoen Klang sends us into the Royal Hotel, and their café for dessert. The place is way past its prime but the lounge features crooners. One gentleman from a nearby table steps up and joins in a duet, much to the delight of the intimate but sparse circle of aged friends. We join in the applause and feel, briefly, like more than just participant observers.
We move through a maze of vendors in the night market along the Klong lod to sleep one last night in SE Asia. The four poster bed, antique armoire and wicker lounge chair put us in a very special frame of mind. Our surroundings were not artificial, but imbued some sense of Thai heritage that we could briefly touch.
A Jewel in the Crown of Our Trip
To come this far and not invest in a stone would be such a shame. So we held our breath (we can do this), boldly opened the door (no need to buy, just look) to Johnny Gems and…almost turned right around and ran. All around the circumference of the room hung the photos of American Generals, Admirals, Presidents, and Astronauts…and all happy customers apparently. As it turns out most of these characters frequented this spot during the Vietnam War, doing their duty propping up dominoes, buying exquisite baubles and sending the gifts home to stressed-out wives. We did sit down because the clerks were incredibly welcoming even if our sights were on stones of much less carat weight than those looking down on us from above. Looking through the photo album shown to us by Johnny’s son, it was evident that the senior Johnny had catered to not just military brass and elected officials but to the pope and cardinals, designing crosses and rings for the cognoscenti. So along with the tiny ruby we managed to afford, Johnny junior gave us a metal elephant for Michele’s mother, who as Michele had mentioned, loved to collect little elephants. Michele had forgotten to mention that her mother was dead, but she accepted the gift graciously.
To capture as much as we could on our last day, we sought out a taxi to go to the Ananda Samakhom Throne Hall, to view the Art of the Kingdom exhibition show. After renting a sari for Michele, we wandered into a space that revealed unexpected marvels of local crafts in every medium, many done for the King’s 60th celebration. Pieces that took many artisans up to 2 years to complete in gold, with jewels and beetle wings, replicating royal thrones and barges, silk and cotton textiles and much to bedazzle. We stood in front of one wall spanning textile piece for some time mesmerized by the handiwork. Much of the work had been again supported by the Queen to engage and revive the cultural traditions in art. But all that gold and jewels in a nation of incredible disparity, and civil strife. What is that legacy worth?
Walking back we happened upon the National Gallery, and though we were running short on time, we were surprised by an extraordinary exhibit of young modern artists in The Young Thai Artists Award 2012 show sponsored by the SCG Foundation. Works in film, literature, sculpture, photography, two dimensional and three dimensional art were all on display. This was truly a highlight of Bangkok showing to us the current cultural strengths of the country. Haunting sedge woven work called Rural Identity by Ponpimon Pupanya resembling nest structures and the Disappear photo images of seniors losing their identity by Sudarut Wongnangam could not easily be forgotten.
And then we were gone, flying back to Dubai and Seattle. Our stop in Dubai was like a stop at the edge of the galaxy. Bizarre and the answer was 42.