Singapore slings

On Monday evening I didn’t win two free economy-class tickets on any Singapore Airlines flight.  That honor went to Craig Zabransky, who blogs over at Stay Adventurous. Damn him.

Too bad, because thanks to Singapore Air PR guy James Boyd, I now know where to get the best martini in Singapore. And I sure could use a martini right now.

Never mind. I still had fun at the latest New York Travel Massive, the largest travel-industry Meetup in New York. The enclosed rooftop bar at Eventi Hotel was well heated by the exhalations and exhortations of 100-odd travel professionals. The travel industry is set to become much more interesting. Orbitz, Expedia, Kayak and dozens of others broke the first barrier by offering us price comparison. TripAdvisor et al gave us peer reviews to help gauge quality. But no one has quite cracked the nut of the thing that makes us price-hunt on Priceline or book a room at AirBnB: travel inspiration.

Right now, there’s no site I can search for, say, a vacation that during which I can be “active most days but relax other days, with great restaurants, English-speaking, within a 3-hour flight of my home airport and which costs $200 or less per day.” Worse, there’s no site that tells me, “Sure, I can book this trip to Bangkok for you. Bangkok is great. But the Songkran Festival will happen during your trip, and the wildest Songkran party in Thailand, by far, happens up north in Chiang Mai.”

And then there’s the destinations (and service providers to/at the destinations) themselves, trying to find new ways of marketing themselves. The more enlightened are reaching out to bloggers, leveraging social media, and engaging directly with potential travelers. But as in any other industry entrenched in its ways, these enlightened marketers are few and far between.

Speaking of which: I have never had any desire to go to Singapore. It seems a long way to go to eat good food and shop. Plus the famous chewing-gum nonsense. But now thanks to James Boyd at Singapore Airlines, I want to go get a cocktail at the following places:

3. The Ritz Carlton Millenia – “It’s got a good but basic lobby bar,” says Boyd. “And it’s my favorite business hotel in the world. The staff gets it – the needs of a business traveler. It just works.”

2. Blu Bar at Shangri-la – “Extremely glamorous.”

1. Compass Rose bar at the Stamford Raffles Hotel – “It’s on the 65th floor and has a sweeping view overlooking the harbor.” Plus, Boyd assures me, they make a great martini.





Writing, nostalgia and details

My article on diving Malaysian Borneo is up on Matador Networks. Enjoy.

Writing this piece was at once cathartic (the first draft exceeded 3000 words!) and nostalgic. I just celebrated my one-year anniversary of becoming a divemaster (Nov 30) and starting work at Scuba Junkie (December 10, I think). Last year at this time I was a newbie DM sharing a shitty little room with Rob, a sweet guy who helped me build up my confidence as a DM. Thanks, Rob!

Just a few weeks later I was a badass DM, guiding freshly-minted divers at Sipadan on Xmas day wearing a Santa hat.

Pulling together the info for this piece and the others I’ve been working on has only reinforced a lesson I learned from James Sturz during a travel writing course I took at MediaBistro a few years back: Great writing is about details. You must write travel pieces immediately, or you’ll forget all the important colorful stuff. You’ll lose immediacy. It’s better to know what story you will write *before* you go somewhere, so you know what details to take down. Etc. Etc.

I’ve discovered that I’m not delighted with what I write from my pitiful notes and memory. It isn’t bad, but it’s not as great as I want it to be.

All this makes me want to go back out into the world again.

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to this weekend’s snowstorm. If it’s going to be freezing cold, we might as well have snow!

The Road to Buffalo Shit

The morning after our evening at the karaoke brothel our Laolao hangovers were worse than ever. But never mind – we woke up early, ate a breakfast of fresh doughnuts from the market, chugged a few thick, sweet cups of Lao coffee, and hit the road.

After three days on the motorbike, I was asking myself, why didn’t I do this sooner? The cliches of slow(er) travel are true: on a bike you can leave when you like and stop where and when you like. But you also experience the road in a more personal way – it’s up to you to avoid potholes, gauge the right speed for the conditions, and decide when it’s safe enough to let go with one hand to wave to the gleeful children celebrating your passing through. Instead of catching whiffs of vomit from fellow bus passengers inevitably but discreetly puking into small plastic bags, you are surprised by the tang of pine trees at the top of the Plateau, or the scent of thick jungle around you – a smell that I can best describe as “green.” If you’re looking for an un-signposted waterfall, you merely stop and listen for the crash of water on rock.

The 90 kms of unpaved track between Paksong and the main road to Attapeu (pronounced as if you are encouraging your child’s toilet training: “atta-poo!”) was the most challenging riding of our trip. We had to weave back and forth across the road, avoiding deep ruts and the slippery loose mud. This stretch also features the most untouristed waterfalls, the largest packs of children gleefully shouting “sabaidee!” as you pass, the longest stretches without seeing another human, and the greatest number of chickens, cows, water buffalo, ducks and goats crossing the road out of nowhere. In other words, it’s the highlight. We did it twice (out and back).

We stopped at three waterfalls on the way out. At one we climbed over rickety “footbridges” that were no more than three skinny logs tied together with vine and that independently an unpredictably rolled as you stepped on them. At another we saw a man collecting bamboo shoots, carefully choosing only what he needed. At another we watched an older man showing his son how to fish in one of the pools. We didn’t see another foreigner, never mind a tour bus.

We crossed dirt bridges, found decaying funerary shrines being swallowed by the jungle, and only took one wrong turn. At last we rode into Attapeu, a provincial capital at the confluence of the ubiquitous Mekong and Se Don rivers, about 100 km from the Vietnam border. Attapeu, by the way, means “buffalo shit.” Evidently it was so named when explorers asked a local the name of the town, and the local pointed to a steaming pile of buffalo shit. I don’t care if the story is true or not. Do you?

We checked in to a quiet guest house off the main road and headed straight for a restaurant/bar on the Mekong for a sundown meal and beer. Though the Lonely Planet says the specialty of the restaurant is roasted goat, when we inquired about food the waitress opened the beer fridge and took out a plastic bag of wok-roasted crickets. This was the menu option. We decided to look around for something else instead.

As we rode around town, rejecting the various pho stands, Stu, with his keen eyes, spotted a hand-painted English-language sign for a restaurant. We rode right across town, to the banks of the Se Don river, to find the Sabaydee Restaurant. The only other guests were just digging in to what looked like Korean BBQ with fish and prawns. “We’ll have one of those, and three beers.” The Lao version of Korean BBQ includes a narrow trough around the edge of the grill. You pour broth into the trough, add fresh mint, coriander, cabbage, egg, and rice noodles, and let the occasional piece of fish or prawn slip into the soup. For dipping you also get a peanut sauce to which you can add fresh garlic, lime and chilis. The friendly, giggly staff showed us how to put all the pieces together. For 50,000 kip (about $6) total, all three of us were *stuffed* with the one of the best meals I ate in SE Asia.

The next day we did a day trip to see a Russian-made SAM (surface-to-air missile), a remnant of America’s “secret war” in Laos, on display at the nearby town of Pa-am. The ride out was pleasant enough, but the SAM is…a rusting missile sitting in a patch of scratch grass surrounded by a fence of barbed wire strung between decommissioned UXO (unexploded ordinance). Even that description makes it sound much more kitschy and interesting than it is. Whatever – we were all exhausted from our long ride the day before, so we retired to our rooms to nap and/or watch “New York Minute,” starring the Olsen Twins.

The next morning, over coffee, Wes told us how the previous night the Vietnamese woman who runs our guest house came to his room, at around 10 pm, with the excuse of giving him more toilet paper and shampoo. (Neither Stu nor I received the same service). Then she offered him a “massage.” He politely declined. She offered to call other nice (younger) ladies to give him a massage. Again, he politely declined. Good times. [I’ll link to his first-person account of the evening, if he ever writes it and posts it to his blog. (Not-so-subtle hint, Wes.)]

This was the day of our return trip to Paksong, retracing our tracks from two days before. This time we stopped at one of the biggest waterfalls on this road, what I think is the Katamtok waterfall but which is marked by a rough hand-painted sign for “Senajam Wather Fall.” We paid 5000 kip (about $0.75) each to park our motorbikes at a farm, and followed a steep narrow trail to the bottom of the roughly 60-meter fall. To me, waterfalls are kinda boring – usually it’s the trip to see them that’s the most exciting. But watching river water chase itself as it hurtles 60 vertical meters, crashing into the rocks below and creating a halo of mist that reached halfway back up the falls – this waterfall was special. So special, in fact, that I joined Stu in down another path to a different fall – Wes had had enough and returned up the trail to the bikes. The second fall wasn’t a fall – it was a wide flat bit where the two area rivers met – but still lovely.

As we began our climb back up the hill to our bikes, the rain clouds that had rolled over the hill started to spit and sprinkle. We decided to take shelter under a small stand of bamboo and let the shower pass. To make a long story short, the rain only got heavier and we discovered that bamboo stalks don’t offer much protection. We made a run for it, stopping only to grab banana leaves as makeshift umbrellas (another example of Stu’s resourcefulness). We arrived at the farm dripping. Wes was sitting with Sulin, the owner, drinking tea by the fire in the cooking area. Sulin, who had been drinking Laolao since 8 am, didn’t stop talking – telling us how much he paid for his farm (1,800,000 kip), encouraging us to sleep in his homestay, offering to show is the 10 area waterfalls the following day. We stayed only enough to dry off a bit and let the rain abate slightly – an entire night listening to Sulin would have made us all crazy.

It didn’t stop raining until we were practically in Paksong. The road, which I thought would be a muddy disaster, wasn’t so bad. But I got a flat tire. We were all soaked. We were worried about making Paksong before sundown. When we finally arrived, just before dusk, we were all shivering and none of us could feel our hands.

We decided to avoid the Green View, as the staff was unhelpful and had stolen my flip-flops…though we did stop by and I actually *found* my shoes and reclaimed them – all that is a different story. Anyway, after checking out every other guest house in town we ended up at the pleasant, friendly Paksong guest house. Hot showers all around, a noodle-soup dinner during which we met two strange, drunk expats, and to bed. A long, wet day.

Finally, the next day we dropped out bikes off in Pakse and checked into the Souchitra guest house in Champasak, about 20 kilometers south on the Mekong River. Other than one sweaty but lovely pedal-bike ride to nearby Wat Phu, Wes, Stu and I did nothing for the next six days but sit at the restaurant, sipping Beerlao and watching the Mekong slide by.

The perfect last episode of my 17 months in (mostly) Asia. Thanks, Wes and Stu. You guys rock.

On the bike with Wes and Stu

Yes yes it’s been ages since I posted. Beyond my well documented laziness, Laos somehow fails to inspire writing. I’ve been surrounded by beautiful nature, charming old colonial towns, bamboo villages clinging to hillsides, and hundreds of half-naked children shouting “sabaidee!” (hello!) as I go by, yet none of that seems create anything to write about. The joke about Laos People’s Democratic Republic (PDR) is that the PDR really stands for “please don’t rush.” While that attitude does translate into a wonderfully relaxing, mañana-time country, it also means that nothing much ever seems to happen.

Until I met up with Wes and Stu.

If you recall, I met Wes on a bus in Vietnam, bouncing from Sapa to Dien Bien Phu on the border. We kept in touch to see if our paths would again cross, and as it turns out we both wanted to hire motorbikes and tour the Bolaven Plateau in southern Laos. So I headed south from Luang Nam Tha, stopping for a few days each in Luang Prabang and Ventiene, crossing over to Nong Khai, Thailand, to renew my Lao visa, then back into Laos at the town of Tha Khaek. Finally, I caught a bus that took me 15 hours south to Pakse, where I was due to meet Wes. Wes was bringing along Stu, an Australian and avid biker he met in Vang Vieng. After traveling (mostly in Africa) for the past 8 years, Stu’s making his way home for his mom’s 80th birthday.

Due to the vagaries and delays of Lao internet, I missed Wes & Stu in Pakse – they left about an hour before I got Wes’s email. But they agreed to wait for me in the riverside village of Tadlo, about 85 km north of Pakse. Tadlo should be a backpacker’s paradise: cheap bungalows by a waterfall, friendly and tiny town, relaxed all around. Yet oddly, the place was empty.

How empty? The day I arrived the three of us went to find lunch. Our guest house restaurant was closed – the whole staff was asleep or watching TV. We wandered down the one road in town, and were rebuffed at two other restaurants. Finally one old woman agreed to take our order: three Beer Lao, one grilled pork, one chicken with basil and one beef with basil. About 2 minutes later we watched mama’s son run off with three warm beers – off to the shop to trade them for three cold ones. As we giggled over that, mama came back out to check our order: chicken with basil, right? (“Looks like I’m getting chicken, too,” said Wes.) Off she went, returning 10 minutes later with two frozen chicken breasts in her hand. (No, not in a bag. In her bare hand.) We sipped our beer and laughed. Minutes later, a disgruntled teenage girl arrived by motorbike, bringing with her a wrapped package of frozen pork. Finally, the girl was sent off again, this time returning with a bouquet of basil. Clearly the restaurant with the fewest resources – no ice box, no ice, nothing at all in storage – was the one that most needed our money, and was therefore most willing to piece together a meal for us.

This just-in-time system is reflected in many aspects of Laos. The small shops attached to most every house in town are thick with hanging vines of one-serving packets shampoo, laundry detergent, and other sundries. I can’t explain this aversion to stocking up – is it a lack of money? Storage space? It’s not like shampoo goes bad. Maybe it’s just that subsistence living is deeply ingrained in the Laotian psyche.

The next morning we set off late, sporting Laolao (rice whiskey) hangovers, for Sekong, a provincial capital about 140 km further east. We were meant to take a smallish road to the town of Thateng, and then carry on on the main road to Sekong. Imagine our surprise, then, when a couple of hours after leaving the Thateng market we arrived in a large town that was not Sekong. Confused, we pulled into a dirt track and asked a young man on the side of the road. “Sekong?” asked Wes, pointing down the road. He shook his head. “Sekong!” he said, pointing back the way we had just come. Impossible. “Where are we?” I asked. He shrugged – no English. This time I pointed at the ground. “Sekong?” He shook his head again and pointed down the road. “Sekong.” Impossible.

Now, in Laos you learn quickly that every place has at least two names, often many more. And like the Westwoods in Mass, New Jersey and California, towns with the same name can coexist in other provinces. So we tried to figure the directions of other towns in the area. We had already established the way to Sekong. “Attepeu?” I asked, pointing down the dirt track. He nodded. I pointed to the ground. “Where?” “Paksong!” he replied gleefully. Again, impossible. Paksong is another town, at the top of the plateau, where we would arrive in about 5 days. “Paksong?” I asked, pointing at the ground. He nodded. “We’re in fucking Paksong!” I said to Wes and Stu. “How the hell did that happen?”

As it turns out, we had taken a wrong turn (or, more specifically, not taken a turn at all) in Thateng and had ridden 40 km in the wrong direction. By then it was mid-afternoon and none of us relished the idea of rushing through another 80 km before dark – not on potholed, unfamiliar roads. Instead we checked in to the Green View guest house, had lunch, purchased a bottle of Laolao and settled in for the evening. Directly next door to our guest house was the main karaoke bar in town, so as we sat on the balcony watching the lightening in the darkening sky, we were serenaded by the atonal screeching and yowling that is karaoke heard from a distance. At least there’s an 11:30 curfew.

In the morning we stopped at a coffee bar/free Wifi place – the only one we found on the Bolaven Plateau – run by an odd, talkative Dutch guy and his sprawling Lao family. We studied the map and Lonely Planet and decided to skip Sekong and head straight for Attepeu, an interesting-sounding town at the confluence of the Mekong and Se Don rivers. Unlike what we had ridden so far, the road to Attepeu was unpaved clay, which can turn into mud pretty quickly in the rainy season. I probably wouldn’t have tried it alone, given my riding inexperience, but it was a no-brainer with Wes and Stu along.

But first we had to see the Ancient Rock. Yes yes, it’s true that all rocks are, in fact, rather ancient. But there was a giant faded billboard in town promoting the AR, which is clearly a must-see, as well as a couple of waterfalls. We’d visit the rock, pay our respects, and hit the road to Attepeu.

The road to the rock started as a wide, flat dirt track, passed through a couple of villages, and quickly deteriorated. A few km from the Ancient Rock we came to the top of a steep hill unevenly covered in rough, loosely packed stones. Stu started down. Wes stopped at the top and said what I thought was, “We should just walk down.” “Yeah, there’s no way I’m riding down that hill,” I replied. But Wes had really said, “We should walk ’em down” – meaning the bikes. Now, given that this was the beginning of my third day ever on a non-automatic motorbike, and my first day ever on non-paved track, you could correctly surmise that my ride down was a bit troublesome. Added to that, we weren’t on dirt bikes – We were riding 100 cc street bikes with mostly treadless back tires. I had to keep the foot brake slammed down to keep from rolling too fast, but occasionally I’d come to a pile of rock that required me to hit the gas…and then slam on the breaks to stop from flying down the hill. To make things worse, I was in second rather than first gear, yet was too scared to try changing gears on such a slant. It took about 10 minutes to go about 10 meters, but I made it. And I didn’t break my leg. Bonus.

After the stones – what Wes termed “the hill of death” – came the mud. Big, thick, slippery puddles of wet clay that we avoided by veering halfway into the brush, over tree roots and across rotting planks of wood. At last we rolled through a narrow mud track and stopped in front of a large Buddha tucked under a rock overhang. A sign in Lao pointed down a narrow, steep trail through the jungle to…something, 800 meters away. Another sign pointed up some rickety wooden stairs leading to the top of what turned out to be the Ancient Rock. My flip-flops weren’t really appropriate for the jungle trail, so Wes and I climbed the rock while Stu went to see what was in the jungle.

Wes and I wandered along a trail that crossed wide, smooth rocks bearded with moss. We came upon two sculptors sitting under a blue tarp, eating a sticky rice lunch next to half-finished Buddha statues. It started to rain, so we joined them under the tarp and worried about our bags, sitting on our bikes in the rain. We offered them cigarettes and they showed us how we could make an offering to Buddha, by sliding a 1000-kip note into a hole in the back of the hollow statue.

The more social of the two pointed down a path and mimed “waterfall,” so when the rain let up we followed the steep, muddy trail to the top of the waterfall. The fall itself wasn’t visible – we’d have to follow an even narrower, steeper trail to get to the bottom – so after sitting out another shower in a rotting wooden shelter, we clambered back up the hill. A cloud had rolled in, shrouding the hill in mist. One more shower ensured that we were nicely soggy by the time we climbed back down the stairs to meet Stu.

Our bags, miraculously, had been moved to a dry area under the rock overhang. There was no one else around. “Buddha moved our bags!” we decided, glad we had made an offering. We dried off as best we could, climbed on our bikes and picked our way back to the main road. Considering the tough riding conditions and my extreme lack of experience, I was feeling quite proud of my motorbiking performance. I made it up the hill of death with no problem. At the top I remarked, “Coming back up is so much easier!”…and promptly dropped my bike in the mud. Hubris, paid.

By then it was too late to ride to Attapeu, so we decided to check back in to our hotel and go to karaoke instead. You should know, first of all, that in most of SE Asia, “karaoke bar” really means “bar with party girls and convenient rooms upstairs.” This place was no exception.

It was Saturday night, so the place was fairly full. We were seated near the stage. The singers were accompanied by a man with a drum machine and keyboard. Occasionally the “couples,” who were seated at a long table behind us, would get up to dance. To karaoke. This so-called dancing consisted of awkward white-man shuffling counter-clockwise around a post in the middle of the dance floor. We just drank our Laolao.

A drunk soldier left his consort and introduced himself to us. He wedged himself between me and Wes, his beery breath suffocating, his rapid, nonsensical English dizzying. He offered to sing a song for me – “You know ‘Take Me to Your Heart?’,” he belched into my face. As his annoyed, miniskirted date glared on, he took the stage and began to sing. He only knew the refrain, so in between he would babble to the music: “I don’t speak English well. I don’t know all the words. But I want to sing this for my friends from America…” Finally he was kicked off stage by the main singer, much to everyone’s delight.

At a nearby table, a group of young men were (I imagine) waiting their turn with the girls (who were occupied with a vanful of Thai sex tourists, believe it or not). The bravest of them came over, offered me a glassful of beer, and asked me to dance. What could I say? As we joined the other couples for our round-the-pole shuffle, two other men asked Wes and Stu to dance. This was, by far, my favorite awkward moment of an evening full of them. Two middle-aged, white, straight men shuffling around a pole with two young Lao…gay men? Wes and Stu think they were gay, but honestly I’m not convinced. I think they were just trying to be polite.

The night ended fairly early and without incident. We did meet some of the Thai sex tourists outside the bar, as they handed out “tips” to the girls and piled back into their van.

ed note: Read Wes’s hilarious version of the night’s events here!

Next up: The Road to Buffalo Shit

NOTE: I’ll post the second half of our journey once I’ve written it. We three have been sitting in Champasak, south of Pakse, for 6 days, watching the Mekong slide by. Today Stu and I are going to Thailand – probably all the way to Bangkok, if we can make our connections. So my next post’ll be from my last stop…

OK, it wasn’t *exactly* a brothel

For the past week I’ve been holed up in the delightful Thoulasith guest house, situated in downtown (so to speak) Luang Nam Tha, Laos. LNT is a wonderful base for trekking to the surrounding hill-tribe villages, some of which lie in the nearby Nam Tha National Protected Area. At least that’s what I’m told.

I and 12 other tourists arrived by private minivan last Thursday. On the bus I met Raquel, an inquisitive and serene young Peruvian psychologist. She was in the middle of a multi-month, rather humanistic backpacking trip during which she was indulging her every curiosity. A few months ago she participated in an international entrepreneur’s seminar in Delhi, India, where she met Thon, a Laotian tourism professional from LNT. She was eager to reconnect with him, and I was eager to tag along – hoping for an insider’s itinerary instead of a pre-packaged tour.

“We will go have some drinks with my boss,” he commanded, after exchanging just enough great-to-see-you’s and nice-to-meet-you’s to be polite. Yes, we were puzzled that he offered us drinks at 2 pm, and before he had even *tried* to sell us any tours, but we shrugged it off as lack of experience. Still, we insisted on talking tours before drinking booze. After an hour of his vague and disinterested responses, we gave up being tourists and decided to be travelers instead. Thon seemed bent on showing off his western “friends” to his boss, even at the expense of a sale. “Sure, let’s go meet your boss,” I said, hopping into his company pickup.

He drove us 10 kilometers out of town to the “shop” where his boss would meet us. It turned out to be the Laotian version of a honky-tonk bar. Three other pickups were parked haphazardly in the weed-choked gravel lot out front. The saccharine screech of SE Asian pop music blared from the speakers. Inside, at a rowdy corner table, sat the all-male glitterari of the Luang Nam Tha tourism scene: directors, assistant directors, managers, founders. All were exceedingly drunk on Beer Lao, and on each middle-aged lap perched a 20-something girl, whose job it was to keep the ice bucket and glasses full and to remain within easy squeezing distance. Some squirmed more than others.

Raquel and I were introduced all around, and in great detail: we were given the vitae of every man at the table, and struggled to act suitably impressed. After much drunken chair-swapping we were finally allowed to sit down…each in front of an ice-filled glass of Beer Lao. It seems Lao custom dictates that if you’re late to a party, your penalty is to drink two glasses immediately. If you’ve come from a different province, you must drink four glasses. And if you’ve come from a different country, you must drink eight glasses. I suspect this last rule was made up on the spot, but we did our best to comply.

Suddenly the much-revered boss, a diminutive fellow whose name I can’t recall, staggered over to our end of the table to be sociable. He was by far the most drunk. His “girlfriend” was by far the most uncomfortable about his attentions. In short, he was the most seamy of them all. Then he started shouting in my ear.

I can’t remember what he was shouting about – trying to explain something to me, or to ask me something – but my pleas for him to step back and stop shouting fell on deaf ears. Leaning away from him and looking annoyed didn’t work either. In the end I had one hand on his chest, holding him at bay as he leaned in to try to shout directly into my eardrum, as the other hand wiped his spittle from my face. You’re not allowed to lose your temper in SE Asia – it causes your host to lose face and always ends badly – so I stood up, smiling, and said I needed some air.

As I paced in the dark outside the bar Thon came out and sort of half-apologized for the boss. There was a clear hierarchy at play at the table – Thon had to ask permission to do anything – so this admission of inappropriate behavior was surprising. I finally agreed to go back inside, if only to spare Raquel. But the whole scene was just gross. The men got drunker, the younger men waxed poetic to us about the obvious importance of the older men, and the women grabbed and cuddled or were grabbed and cuddled by whoever happened to be sitting next to them. We needed to escape.

At long length we got Thon to convince the boss to let us leave – Raquel actually had to invent an illness and overdue medication.

Our escape vehicle, driven by the sober Thon, was the boss’s luxury pickup. One member of LNT’s tourism A-list jumped in beside me to catch a ride back to town. “He’s too drunk to stay out,” Thon explained. I just hoped he wouldn’t puke in my lap.

“Why do you go to a bar so far from town?” I asked my neighbor, whose crooked grin and droopy eyes swam in his beer-soaked face. “So we don’t see our families,” he replied, his eyes briefly sharpened with surprise at his inadvertent honesty.

The next day, Raquel and I just rented bikes and rode through some area villages, exploring on our own. I’m sure the treks, kayaking, rafting, and other tours on offer from the dozen or so operators around town are just great. But somehow I’ve soured on official Luang Nam Tha tourism.

Buses and mud: getting stuck and finding kindness

I wrote this post in two stages….

August 6

I just arrived in Muang Khua, a village on the Nam Ou river in northeast Laos. It’s the next-to-last stop on a four-day journey from Sapa, Vietnam, to Luang Prabang, a tourist town in the center of northern Laos. My four travel companions and I arrived on foot, sweaty and muddy, in the late morning. Of roughly the 350 kilometers from Sapa, I’ve gone about 309 km on one of four different buses (17 hours), 40 or so kilometers (one hour) in a pickup truck, one kilometer (30 minutes) on foot, and about 100 meters (2 minutes) on a longtail boat across the river.

I arrived in Sapa on the night train from Hanoi on the last day of July. Sapa is a town birthed of tourism – before the boom it was a simple outpost where the French officials built summer cottages to escape the summer heat of Hanoi. Now it’s a town built for tourists: every building is a guesthouse or restaurant or hastily built housing for the Vietnamese who moved there to serve tourists pizza and fake North Face jackets. The town is crawling with Black Hmong and Red Dao ethnic minorities, who trek there every day to harangue the tourists into buying their embroidered bags or silver bracelets. Before I arrived my vision of Sapa was of a peaceful town nestled in the mountains, with breathtaking views and easy access to nearby hilltribe villages. I was right about everything except the peaceful part: if you’re not surrounded by indigo-clad Hmong shoving change purses in your face, you’re jumping at the blaring horns of the stream of buses and motorbikes passing through town. But if you hire a motorbike or just walk out of town, you’re rewarded with lovely views and friendly, marginally less pushy hill-tribe women.

And it is all women. As far as anyone can discern, the local men spend their time drinking rice wine, working as motorbike taxi drivers, or both. Some are opium addicts as well. The women are the ones who learn English, hand-sew the trinkets for the tourists, carry firewood for cooking, work in the rice and cornfields, and take care the of children.

In Sapa I met Su May, a 30-year-old Red Dao woman who guided me to Taufin, a nearby town where her mother-in-law, Ly May, has a homestay/guest house. We made the trek with three other travelers and their guide Cici, a 22-year old Black Hmong woman who speaks great English and is loads of fun. Taufin is out of the ordinary in that Red Dao and Black Hmong both live in the village, albeit in separate districts. It is a rather large town surrounded by hills whose forests have been burned down to make way for rice paddies and corn fields. This is a common story among the hill tribe people of SE Asia, whose only means of survival in the modern world is swidden farming. One thing I have yet to learn is: when and how did their livelihoods turn from dependence on the forest to dependence on agriculture?

In the evening Su May, her mother-in-law, and various sisters and friends and I sat down for a simple dinner and shot after shot of rice wine. Ly May would exclaim, “One hundred percent!” with each shot, meaning that we weren’t to leave any wine left our glass with each round. Their men had been invited to dinner, but they were elsewhere drinking and smoking on their own. So we spent dinner talking about how men are useless and lazy. It was Grrlz Night, Vietnam style.

Two days later I took the bus from Sapa to Dien Bien Phu, site of the decisive battle in the war against the French colonialists. We foreigners – Wes, from Austin, TX, and Michael, from Poland – were hustled into the back of the minivan and promptly blocked in with luggage and bags of rice. We spent the next 10 hours bouncing along a muddy, heavily rutted road winding through what seemed like an endless construction site. Every few kilometers we’d have to stop and wait for the Kamaz earth-movers to finish their work and get out of our way. As it turns out, the Vietnam government will shortly dam the nearby Ron River, flooding a number of villages. They are now hard at work on a new road and new villages for the displaced. The area has an American frontier feel to it: dust, horses and new towns springing up from nothing. None of the places we passed through seemed at all inviting.

August 11

This time I’m writing, at long last, from Luang Prabang, the epicenter of tourism in Laos. I’ve spent the past 5 days mostly recovering from the arduous trip here, and fighting the insidious beginnings of the flu.

As I wrote above, I took a 10-hour bus ride from Sapa to DBP in what in hindsight seems luxurious comfort: decent leg room, and springy seats that mitigated the effects of the potholed road. After a dinner of fried rice and beer with Wes, I collapsed into bed. I awoke at 4:45 to a misty morning that smelled vaguely like damp dog. I packed quickly and raced across the street to catch the 5:30 bus across the Vietnam/Laos border, to the town for Muang Khua. That was the theory, anyway.

As it turns out, the 5:30 bus left around 5:25 (I was there in plenty of time) carrying me, about a half-dozen giant bags of rice, and 4 men. For the next 30 minutes or so we drove around town, picking up a French couple and local women and more giant bags of something-or-other. At 6:15, about 5 kilometers from our starting point, we stopped for breakfast. Agh. I would have happily slept for another hour and taken a taxi to the bus. Eh.

The bus itself was like an old school bus, but with a giant platform up front near the driver where hill-tribe women lounged and slept on mats. The aisle was lined with the aforementioned giant bags, which we stepped on to get in and out of the bus. My feet stayed firmly off the ground, as my knees had to be jammed into the seat in front of me so that I’d fit in the narrow space between rows. This wasn’t such a bad thing, though, as it kept my feet off the 10kg sack of onions and two 20-liter jugs of rice wine on the floor beneath me. In short, I wasn’t particularly comfortable, but it wasn’t the most hellish bus journey of my life. After all, it was only meant to last around 7 hours.

We followed a winding, muddy road into the hills that form the border between the two countries. We crossed the recently-opened border without incident and began the slow, terrifying descent into Laos. It had been raining steadily all day, and the steep narrow roads were slippery mud puddles. The bus skidded around corners, no more than a few feet from a thousand-foot drop into the valley.

At around 11:30 we arrived in the small town of Muang May, where I saw a large group of westerners frantically trying to wave down our bus. The bus did stop, but not for them. The river that ran through town, and which we’d have to cross without the help of an actual bridge, was too swollen from the recent rain. We were stuck until the river receded, which the locals optimistically predicted would happen around 4 pm. They were wrong. We were stuck for the night.

A few of the other westerners, who had been stuck there since the day before, managed to convince the owner of a minivan conveniently located on the other side of the river to bring them the 40-odd kilometers to Muang Khua for an outrageous $15/person, but two couples and I decided to spend the night and hope try the bus again the following morning.

Like many towns in this part of the world, Muang May is surrounded by hill-tribe villages. Due to its remote location, however, there is little tourist infrastructure (a couple of guest houses). All this is set to change, though, due to the recent opening of the nearby border to foreigners and the new road being built to link the tourist destinations of Sapa and Luang Prabang.

It wasn’t long before we met the only English-speakers in town: the delightfully giggly Mrs. Manychan and her youngest son. She already runs a guesthouse in Luang Nam Tha, Laos, and plans to expand her business to Muang May once the road opens. Manychan overwhelmed us with her kindness, helping us to find a guest house, communicating with the bus driver about when we’d leave in the morning, and – most amazingly – cooking us a Loatian feast for which she refused any sort of payment.

Over dinner she told us about her life and family, bursting into a fit of giggles between each story – even when she showed us the scars from the American unexploded ordinance, leftover from the “Secret War,” that left shrapnel in her hip and killed her husband. She’s a shrewd business woman who bought or leased the best-located land in town, and who believes in a sort of capitalist karma: “I am so lucky!” she’d repeat over and over again. “I am nice to other people, and they are nice to me. If someone wants something that my business can’t give, I tell them how to get it anyway. I always get it back!”

We spent the night in a still-nameless, under construction, but very friendly guest house on a hill above the town. Early the next morning we reported to the bus, where we didn’t find the driver but did find that the level of the river had ebbed considerably. We watched as a few pickup trucks picked their way across the river, but by 9 or so there was still no sign of our bus setting off. Instead, we flagged down the truck of a civil engineer who was monitoring work on the road, and who the others had met a few days earlier during their own trek from the border. He offered us a free ride to Muang Khua, which we eagerly accepted. He crossed the river, we threw our bags and the boys in the back and rode in relative comfort for the bumpy 40-kilometer ride. He only took us to his job site on the outskirts of Muang Khua, but it wasn’t a problem to walk the kilometer or so to the *next* river crossing – this one with handy longtail boats to shuttle us across to the town.

(Incidentally, six hours later, as my companions and I sat sipping cool-ish Beerlao at a restaurant overlooking the river, we spotted our bus, finally arrived on the other side of the river.)

The next day we took a bus to Oudomxay, an uninteresting provincial crossroads full of Chinese truck drivers on long hauls from the nearby Chinese border and Thailand. There I left my companions behind, as they headed further west and I went south to Luang Prabang. I arrived in the later afternoon and quickly ran into my obvious choice for accommodation: Manychan Guest House (no relation).

Four relatively uneventful days later, I just bought my ticket north to continue my travels. The general plan is focused on trekking for the next two weeks or so: Luang Nam Tha and Muang Sing in Laos, then to cross into Thailand for a quick visit to Chang Rai, then back into Laos for the less-visited southern half of the country. Sometime in mid-September I’ll head back to Bangkok for the flight home.

mountains and sea

I’ve been stuck in Hoi An for four days. I arrived on Friday afternoon on a bus from Kon Tum, and the first bus/train I could get back out was today, Tuesday. Yes, it’s full-on summer holiday madness in Vietnam – especially on the weekends, when the locals go for weekend trips with their out-of-school kids.

Then again, Hoi An isn’t such a bad place to be stuck. It’s on the central coast of Vietnam, part of the main tourist corridor between Saigon and Hanoi. The town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, so the old town is well-preserved, if a bit over-authenticized, or rather, overdone (think paper lanterns *everywhere*). It is *the* place to buy custom-tailored clothing. I was deeply tempted by a wool jacket with a hood and silk lining, which the shop could have made for me in an afternoon for $30 (and I’m sure I could have bargained that down to about $20-25). I’m sure someday I’ll kick myself for not doing it, but hey – I’ve only got so much room in my pack, and a wool jacket takes up a shitload of space.

There are also a few nice beaches nearby, which comes in handy in the searing heat of mid-day. I have to admit I overindulged a bit here – my butt has been Barbie pink for two days. So much for evening out my tan.

As for Kon Tum, I spent a lovely couple of days there. The first day I rented a bike from my hotel and toured the nearby hill-tribe villages and veggie farms on my own. The next day I hired a guide with a motorbike to take me further afield, and to explain things to me. Like my guides Nzhia in Saigon and Mr. Hung in Dalat, Jean Ho in Kon Tum is in his late-50’s. A former army captain for the South Vietnamese, he worked closely with the Americans in the Central Highlands during the war. Since many of his men were from local hill tribes, he speaks most of the dialects. Now he’s a bookish English teacher who supplements his income working as a guide during the summer holidays. He’s got an extraordinarily sophisticated vocabulary but terrible conversational English and pronunciation. If I didn’t understand what he was saying he would spell out the words, and I would often do a double-take at his word choice: “r-e-t-i-c-e-n-c-e,” he’d spell, or “c-o-r-o-l-l-a-r-y.”

With less schtick than Nzhia and less tourism-bull finesse than Mr. Hung, he’s been my favorite guide so far on a personal level. But as a guide he’s got a bit to learn. Yes, he made sure I got a full day of his time (we started at 8 am and ended around 6 pm), but a good portion of that time was me sitting around while he chit-chatted with the locals. And like Robin, my hill-tribe guide in Burma a few years ago, he was obsessed with asking the local women how old they are and how many children they had: 45 with 10, 38 with 6, 30 with 6, 40 with 9, etc.

He would also point out how “dirty” they were – kids without shoes, covered in dirt. Remember how I said I had yet to see real poverty in Vietnam? Well, here it is. The hill-tribe families subsist on their farming – rice, corn, manioc, sometimes other veggies or even rubber trees. The homes we visited were stripped of any sort of decoration. Often the house was just four brick walls with a concrete floor and no furnishings – not even the old calendars and bamboo mats I saw in the hill tribe village homes in Burma. They drink water from gourds, carry firewood or their harvest in bamboo backpacks, and often have only rice to eat, once a day.

They are also fiercely independent. “They are like the Americans and French,” says Jean. “They like their freedom, and do what they want.” He said so bitterly, unhappy that the minorities don’t have to pay for farmland and tribal land, unlike ethnic Vietnamese. But I’d bet he wouldn’t trade places with a single one of the families.


I’m actually cold – cold! – for the first time in about a year. And I love it. I’m in Dalat, the honeymoon and kitsch capital of Vietnam. I decided to skip the well-traveled coastal road and go north via the Central Highlands. Which explains the cool weather: we’re about 1500 meters above sea level.

Most people travel the highlands by hiring an Easy Rider – a loose collection of Vietnamese tour guides who sling you onto the back of their motorbikes and drive you wherever you want to go. Many people do 4-6 day trips with these guys. I opted for just a one-day tour around Dalat, for two reasons. First, I don’t have the time – I want to save enough time to explore Sapa, northwest of Hanoi. Second, the going rate is around $50-100 per day – pretty reasonable, if you consider that you get a personal tour guide, transport, meals, accommodation, etc. But I wanna save that money for Sapa.

The first thing I noticed about Dalat is that people smile a lot more here than they do in Saigon. I suppose that’s a big city/town thing, but I suspect it’s also the weather. I did the Dalat tour with Mr. Hung (I kid you not), a charming 50-something Dalat native who’s been an Easy Rider for about 5 years. It’s hard to see much of interest around Dalat in just one day, but just the ride along winding roads through the pine-forested hills made the $25 for the day worth it. A perfect, sunny day.

So, Vietnam. I have to be honest – I thought I’d hate it here. I heard people are rude and money-grubbing in the same way that I experienced the Chinese in China, but for the most part it’s been surprisingly pleasant. Traces of the Vietnam war are everywhere, from the museums, to the trinkets sold by hawkers, to conversations, to the still-denuded countryside. There are Vietnamese flags everywhere, as well as banners with a gold-on-red hammer and sickle. And of course, the likeness of Ho Chi Minh is omnipresent, on patriotic banners and as statues in town squares.

It’s hard to get past all that, to the new Vietnam. I guess it’s all about making money…this is what I read in the guidebooks and online. And just like in China, I’m having a hard time finding any funk or soul. The hastily built homes are utilitarian and boring, except for the grand mansions of government officials and police, which are faux-opulent and tacky. The shop signs and billboards use more text than pictures, and so far I haven’t seen many ads with sexy young chicks holding up product. Maybe sex doesn’t sell here? Even the motorbikes and helmets – everyone’s got one – aren’t tricked out, like you’d expect. There’s just no personality.

The south Vietnamese – the only ones I’ve met so far – talk openly about how they hate the corrupt government. As a corollary, they mistrust the north Vietnamese, who were resettled here after the war, purportedly as an attempt at reunification but really to lock in control of the whole country. It’s the same tactic the Chinese government is using with Han Chinese and ethnic minority areas, and similar, I suppose, to carpetbaggers heading south after the US Civil War. I’ve also been told again and again how poor most Vietnamese are, but so far I haven’t seen poverty in as stark a form as I’ve seen elsewhere in SE Asia. I suppose it’s early yet, and I haven’t seen much.

To my ears, all this talk of corruption, suppression of civil liberties, poverty and ethnic division sounds like counter-propaganda. I suspect the south Vietnamese are telling western tourists what they think we want to hear. [As an aside, this is an affliction throughout SE Asia: if you don’t know the answer, or even if you do, tell the tourist what you think she wants to hear. It’s some weird attempt to make us happy, but ends up frustrating us.]


I didn’t post this yesterday, as I didn’t have the chance. Today spent 11 hours on a bus to Kon Tum, a little-touristed town between Dalat and my next destination, Hoi An. I’m hoping to do a two-day trek/motorbike trip around the hill-tribe villages in the area. Stay tuned!

The bottom line is, so far I don’t hate Vietnam. But I don’t love it, either.

Nothing to see here. Move on.

Today I booked a tour to the Chu Chi tunnels, part of the vast network of tunnels built and used by the Viet Cong during The War. I arranged the tour through Sang, the owner-operator of Hanh Cafe tour office, situated in an alley off Bui Vien St. I give the details (email; phone 08-392-06211) in case anyone is in the area and wants to book tickets, a tour, or whatever…because Sang is the coolest tour operator I’ve met since Anton, my buddy in Irkutsk.

Most standard tours to Chu Chi include a stop at a pagoda as well. When I asked Sang if the temple was worth it, he smiled and said, “Well, if you’ve seen a few temples around Asia, it’s not really any different.” In other words, he gave me his honest opinion instead of trying to squeeze a few more bucks from me. As a result, I’m now going to buy a 2-day trip to the Mekong Delta, plus a hop on/off bus service (very popular and cheap way to travel in Vietnam – sort of like the Eurail) from him.

Plus, he’s hilarious and will sit and tell you stories in an Aussie-tinged Vietnamese accent all afternoon if you let him. He’s the eldest son of a man who has fathered 22 (!) children with about 10 women in such far-flung places as Australia, Japan, the US and Korea. His father served as a fighter pilot for South Vietnam in the war, flying sorties over northern Vietnam. Referring to his father’s vigorous and far-flung seed, Sang says, “My father is a bomber!”

He also told stories of a Vietnamese guy he knows who is *the* marijuana kingpin in Canada, which those who smoke say produces some of the best weed in the world. Sang’s friend is now a multi-millionaire. Once, when the drug king came back to Vietnam for a visit, Sang went out with him for the night. “The man throws money around like it’s nothing. Two girls, bottles of champagne. We went to a bar and there were girls. Tall ones, young, old, whatever you want. ‘You like this one, take her!’ said his friend to Sang. ‘I don’t have the money to pay,’ he answered. ‘No problem! Take one! You want two? Take what you want, it’s no problem.'” Sang continues: “The guy spends $10,000 in one night, no problem. It’s nothing to him.”

He carried on talking, about the slang used on the phone to make drug deals. Which got him talking about gambling: “We bet on every single football match. There is a guy who owns a gold and jewelry shop around the corner. He had been losing heavily on bets during the World Cup. Then he put all his money on Brazil to beat Holland. When Holland won, he lost everything. $1.2 million. He killed himself.”

Sang could go on for hours. He talks about politics, the difference between South and North Vietnamese (who, he claims, don’t like and still suspect each other), the real name of his city (he agrees with me), corruption, visits by his father’s many children, and on and on. I’d break my hand trying to write everything down.

Instead, as I said, tomorrow I’m going to the Chu Chi tunnels. The next day I’ll do a 2-day trip to the Mekong Delta, including a homestay. Then, depending on how I feel, I’ll start making my way north. Sang, despite his clear prejudice towards south Vietnam, says there’s more to see in the north than the south. He points to an area just north of Danang, where the hop on/off buses don’t stop. “There’s nothing to see! Just rice fields. You see the same thing everywhere. Go to Hanoi. Go to Sapa. Go to Halong Bay. There, there are things to see!”