Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Laos

We weren't sure if we were going to make it to Laos, but the timing was right and our Vietnam visa was almost expired, so we flew from Hanoi to Luang Prabang on a little propeller plane with Lao airlines. It was actually quite nice and they served these funny little hot dogs on the plane. An hour later we touched down in Laos. Right away I noticed a big shift from chaos to calm and my heart rejoiced in it. On the way to our guesthouse from the airport, our taxi driver drove so nice and slow, there was little noise outside and the air seemed calm and clean. There were scant motorbikes on the road and hardly any lights. The first few days I was still sick in bed, but I emerged for meals enjoying the calm of the Mekong River, the less crowded streets, and the pretty architecture and wildlife.


At our guesthouse we had our first mosquito net over our bed and Brian took to being our mosquito hunter at night. They have this cool tennis like racket bug killer thing that you swing through the air and if the contraption zaps a bug it makes a loud sparkle sizzle noise! Brian rather enjoyed this...


Each night there was a cute and serene night market that sold all sorts of handmade goods and lots of good food. We stocked up on some gifts for our families because the haggling was actually quite pleasant and friendly. Like in most other parts of Southeast Asia, most sellers have little calculators that you punch in your price and you banter back and forth each changing your offer a bit until you agree.


We took a boat ride across the Mekong to 2 little temples. We waded through the Mekong and hiked up the hill to get there, it was a little adventure!





We walked through a little town on that side of the river and saw this kid carrying large jackfruit. He would walk a little way, and then sit down for about 10 minutes, walk a little more then sit down and relax. I liked his style, he knew how to take it easy!


We also hiked to see the top of Phu See Hill where there is a temple and some amazing views. The Lao teens seemed to like hanging out there and playing music on their cell phones too.







When we left Luang Prabang, we took a 7 hour minivan ride to Vang Vieng. This was an experience. We were basically hugging cliff sides for 6 hours and the entire trip was s curve after s curve up and down big mountains.


Along the ridge-line you would see these thatched roof huts on stilts right on the edge of the cliff. Families lived here and I don't know how! Young children walked and played precariously close to the edge of the cliff near their homes, and many homes seemed terribly isolated. What blew my mind though was that no matter how poor, how run down or bare a little home was, almost always it had a big satellite dish. ??? We are seeing this all over southeast Asia. Even the most poor seem to have cell phones and satellite dishes. This is incredible to me, and really shifts my concept of what lives are like for these populations in remote and impoverished areas.

Vang Vieng was interesting. It felt like this strange boom town catered to young westerners that wanted to get wasted and go tubing down the local river. At many of the local cafes the tables were like beds and large loud tv's played episodes of Friends and Family Guy over and over again. Many cafes offered "Happy shakes" and "Space Pizzas" and it seemed you could get just about any illegal substance your heart desired. I didn't like the vibe of this town. Maybe I am just getting too old, but I didn't like seeing wasted youth everywhere, particularly youth that were blatantly disrespecting the local culture. In big signs by the river tubes it says to please cover up and not walk around in bikinis because it is very disrespectful to the local community, it also says this throughout our Lonely Planet on Laos. But for some reason, all of these young Western women pranced around in nothing but skimpy bikinis and it made me so angry. Why? Did you not see the sign or read anything about this place you are visiting, or is it that you just don't care? Maybe I expect too much from young people as I get older, but I would like to think I wouldn't behave that way if I was 22. Who knows...

We moved on to Vientiane the next day and we like it here much better. On our first day we finally took the plunge and rented a motor bike. We both took turns driving and it was pretty empowering and exhilarating :)


We drove to a place called Buddha Park. This place was something else...


An enigmatic man named Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat created this beautiful but odd park of sculptures that blends Buddhist and Hindu iconography and history.


How do I say this, it felt sort of all over the place? I felt like I could see this man's imagination and creativity running wild out in the open, with nothing holding it back. He hired amateur artists to create all of these sculptures and up close there is this sort of slip shoddy feel to them. But I LOVED them. Why? I think because they are so playful, and expressive and undone. I loved seeing this person's vision become a reality and provide so many with so much wonder. In our guide book it says children love this park, and I can see why. It felt like possibly the way the White Witch's topiary must have been like after she froze so many of her subjects into stone in Narnia... Below was this sort of pumpkin you could hike up in concentric circles to the top and look out over the park.


This was the view.


I liked this guy..






So today is our last full day in Laos. Tomorrow we catch a night train to Bangkok and then we fly to Osaka on the 3rd. I can't believe it. This trip is winding down now. We have a month in Japan, and then we head back to the U.S. We stop in LA, Tucson, and Chicago before heading to New York for the summer before we move to Arizona.

I will be doing a 10 day Vipassana Meditation retreat here in Kyoto while I am in Japan. I am really excited about this and feel ready for the challenge. I am a little scared too, but I really want to be able to complete the experience and deal with the 4:30 wake up call, 2 small meals a day and almost 14 hours of meditation each day. I know it will be intense, but I think I am ready for it. I am so looking forward to seeing Brian's family in Kyoto and meeting many of his close friends that live there as well. It has been a little lonely with just the two of us for so long! But it also has brought us very close together. I love that husband of mine! I am one lucky lady :)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Halong Bay

So we weren't sure if we were going to make it because I have had a bit of a flu thing going on, but we took the plunge and booked a 2 day one night excursion in Halong Bay on a beautiful Junk Boat called the Salsa. I am sooooooo grateful that we did this. This experience has skyrocketed into #1 place for the most awesome thing we have done thus far on our trip.



After the chaos, noise and pollution of Hanoi and Hue, the quiet, calm, outrageously beautiful Halong Bay soothed my soul. Floating quietly on our junk boat through hundreds of rock formations in the aquamarine water was surreal and unlike anything I have ever experienced before.


Our tour guides and captain were exceptional, and we were thrilled that our boat didn't capsize while we were sleeping.


We spent most of our time on the top deck of the boat just taking in all of the sights and relaxing.


We also stopped at one point and visited "The Amazing Cave", the largest cave I have ever experienced.


We went kayaking for part of the time and here is a shot of our boat in the background with its beautiful sails raised :)


The sunset was gorgeous and so tranquil and our dinner was dish after dish of fresh seafood and vegetables. By far, the coolest 2 days we have spent so far....


Friday, April 22, 2011

Hanoi

Hello! It's hubby Brian. I am guest blogging an entry for Hanoi as Katie was sick the entire time we were there and only left the hotel to get pho ga (chicken soup). Hanoi was equally as crazy, if not more crazy than Ho Chi Minh, but it definitely had more charm. The traffic situation is insane, especially around the Old Quarter where we stayed (and I did not get too far from the Old Quarter myself, due to time constraints and Katie’s illness). The streets in the Old Quarter are rather narrow. And the sidewalks are used entirely for street food seating, and motorbike parking, so one is required to walk in the road, along with all the various motorized and non-motorized traffic. I sat at a bia hoi one afternoon and took several videos of the traffic because it is like nothing you see in the States. Here is a link to one of those videos. There is also a link showing one of the walking full service, sit down restaurants here.

The Old Quarter is largely a market area, and several streets are named for the items that are predominantly sold on that street, so you have “tin street” and “silk street” and “shoe street” etc. Hanoi also has several lakes dotted around the city, giving at least a small sense of nature to the crowded urban streets.

My favorite past time in Hanoi was enjoying beers from the little corner beer shops called bia hoi. Every morning, someone from the shop goes to a larger brewery (the bia hoi I went to got its beer from Bia Hanoi) and fetches the day’s supply. “Unlike canned or bottled beer, bia hoi has no additives or preservatives and is essentially made to be consumed on the day that it leaves the factory. As a result, there is no stocking of bia hoi, and outlets must forecast accordingly. They must purchase just enough to last one full day. Locals will tell you that bia hoi, which typically has an alcohol content of somewhere between 4 and 4 1/2 percent, is best when served early in the day--as close to when it has been made as possible.”

I enjoyed the beer as much as any I have had in Southeast Asia (though I hear Beerlao is quite nice, and I intend to sample that this evening, or even this afternoon. Perhaps Beerlao is also better served earlier in the day?!?), and each glass is about 33 cents. The environment at the bia hoi is very social and communal (and male). I was made to feel welcome at the local bia hoi near my hotel despite my language barrier, and it was a great place to watch the local traffic go by.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Traveler Profile - Matt


I met Matt in my cooking class in Hoi An, Vietnam and he and another friend I met there, Sylvie, went out to dinner together with Brian that night. At the end of the evening after much laughter and good food we did this interview and Matt charmed us with his humor and sarcasm :) Soon to come is my interview as well with Sylvie!

Name, Age and Country of origin

My name is Matt, I’m 29 and I’m from London.

Can you tell me where you’ve been traveling already and what you have coming up, and how long you’ve been traveling?

I can :) I’ve been traveling about 3-4 weeks now, I’m not entirely sure because time doesn’t really seem to work well. So far I’ve been in South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Cambodia and now Vietnam and I’m here for another week before I go back to the U.K., then I’m off to the U.S. for two weeks.

Did you have any goals for yourself for this trip that you were hoping to achieve, or things you were hoping to focus on with the time you had on this trip?

In a word, no. Um, to have fun. And to see what I see, it’s about experiencing as much as I can in life.

If you had to describe one of your favorite moments on this trip, what would that be?

Probably right now, being interviewed. I mean this was kind of actually what I was hoping for when I came out for this trip. Meeting a band [Ha]!

My favorite bit so far, in Vietnam is actually cycling around on the streets. I’ve spent so long being run over by people on bikes and mopeds that I thought it was actually quite fun to be part of that big group myself , getting in the way. That was quite fun, I recommend it, you should do it.

Now what about some other places you visited besides Vietnam?

Probably just hanging out with friends, because I’ve been seeing friends in different places, yeah Korea was great because I got to see a friend I hadn’t seen in 6 years, so that was great. I mentioned the sauna there earlier, that was quite fun.

At this point a young lady comes up to us to sell us bracelets:

Matt says: You should buy something (to me). Would you like to be interviewed (to the woman selling things)

Lady Selling things: Where you from? (To Matt)

Matt: If you watch the video you can find out…

So being away from London for a while, and it sounds like you travel quite a lot, do you feel like on this trip in particular you have learned anything new about yourself that you find interesting?

No, not really. I’m not particularly introspective (all laughing) I’ve basically learned that I’m still awesome.

Can you summarize your philosophy of life in one sentence?

Um, yes I can. I’d say to you experience as much as you can in life, push yourself as much as you can and look after your friends and family.

Brian: Awww he’s a softy, who knew he was a softy?

Matt: I’m just saying that to make you all like me.

Any other thoughts?

I want you guys to busk in Vietnam, maybe this evening.

Brian: I have one more question, would you like to buy some tiger balm?

Matt: Um, no.


Friday, April 15, 2011

Hue Imperial City

In Hue, we visited the famous Imperial City. This was a magical place. Much of the compound had been destroyed in the French and American wars, so there were ruins amidst in tact citadels and temples.



All through the walled in city, the scent of jasmine wafted on the breeze and loud cicadas wailed in the trees.


We loved these windows above.



It was a special treat to walk around the complex totally alone and unsupervised, we just walked where our hearts guided us to. There were few people around, and the quiet of the old abandoned city was soothing. There were moments when Brian and I were walking through ruins that we felt like we were experiencing what Narnia or other magical worlds from childhood stories would feel like. The smells, the sounds, the quiet breeze, the long forgotten emperors, concubines and eunuchs. An echo of a lavish past.


It is hard to explain why, but even though this old city was riddled with trauma and destruction, still I will think of this peaceful, quiet, beautiful corner of the world to calm my mind in future meditations.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The internal and the external journey


I have been having a hard time writing on this blog lately. My mind has been preoccupied with a lot of things and I haven't been able to focus enough to create an isolated blog entry.

First off, Brian and I have decided to come home the first week of June to the states. There are many reasons for this, but namely finances, a desire to spend some time and money on myself to develop a new career, and also we are a bit travel weary and feel like we would get more out of visiting Europe refreshed and with a bit more money at some point in the future. We also miss our friends, family and cat very much and want to be reunited.

We have also decided that we will be moving to Tucson, AZ a few months after we return home to be closer to Brian's family, and to experience a new and warmer place for a while.

So knowing now the endpoint, and where we will be headed after we return home, something has shifted inside of me. It is comforting, but also distracting. And for the first time in a long time, I am thinking about money and the need to make it. This is unfortunate. Oh if we could all live in a blissful state of satisfied needs without the concern of monetary support. I listened to a TED talk recently (a brilliant non-profit designed to share riveting and inspirational ideas) by a woman named Rachel Botsman on the case for collaborative consumption. What she focused on in her talk has been much of what has been in my thoughts on this trip. The idea that there needs to be a seismic shift in how we consume goods and resources for our species to survive, and that this shift can actually be cool and much better then the way we have been going about things. Sharing resources instead of owning one of everything, particularly when you may use an item only once or twice a month (or year) like a lawnmower, drill, or even a car, makes absolute sense! And it brings people closer together, builds stronger communities, and shifts our focus onto more important matters, instead of how to make more and more money.

Many of the non-Western cultures I am experiencing on this trip do this already. They share everything, often it is because they have very little, but this sharing is moving to see and seems so incredibly natural. I am grateful that there is impetus now for our Westernized culture to make drastic changes back to these sort of tribal communities of support and sustenance. And technology is affording us all sorts of ways now to share goods in ways we never imagined before. Check out swaptree, a site that offers free swapping of just about everything for free. And this is just the beginning. Think about a world where each community has a "goods library" where you can "check out" things you need instead of owning everything. Better for the planet, better for your wallet, and better for your peace of mind.

So Brian and I took an incredible bike tour through Hoi An with a lovely Vietnamese guide named Vinh who ended up giving us a private tour because no one else signed up.








At one point we visited this very special Buddhist temple (pictures above) and he talked to us for a long time about what Buddhism means to him. He described the idea of this "absolute zero" in that each of us own absolutely nothing. Everything we experience or think we possess is completely borrowed, even our lives. Ownership does not exist, the only thing we possess completely is our soul. Broadening that spiritual outlook to our daily lives with each other in this global community, I feel absolutely the same way. No one "owns" any piece of this universe and what it provides for us, we are all guests sharing this beautiful and bountiful place together. We need to be respectful guests, tidy guests, and grateful guests. And we need to realize that we are not the only guests, there are millions and millions of other guests we need to be respectful of as well.

Our lives are not vacuums. We touch every other life on this planet by the decisions we make every day. There is so much still to learn about how to be the best guest, but I love that so many of us are really trying. I really believe we are.


But back to the title of this blog. I have had the good fortune to dedicate time almost every day of this trip to yoga and meditation. And it is changing me. And it is amazing how there are still so many ways to grow and learn and evolve as a human being even after living so many years already. And I feel like there are always new ways to bring more joy and more peace into our lives.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Hoi An, Vietnam

I am falling for Vietnam, and I think Hoi An is to blame. I am feeling more and more at home in this country as I meet more Vietnamese that smile at me, joke with me, put their arm over my shoulder, pat my back, laugh with me and spontaneously burst into song.


There is an easiness in Hoi An, a slower way of doing things maybe, more attention to detail and beauty, a peaceful quality.


Hoi An is for lovers. At night in the old town, only "primitive vehicles" are allowed and beautiful classical music is piped through light posts along the alleys and streets. There are no motorbikes to drown out the lovely music and the sounds of children laughing, adults talking passionately, or the sound of water lapping in the river gently.


The evening is illuminated by all types of silk lanterns.


I can't tell you how magical this is. It feels like being taken back in time, to a simpler, magical, idyllic time where beauty and romance are priority.



There are a smattering of street performers at night to please the tourists, and on this little stage when there aren't formal dance performances, traditional Vietnamese music plays and young children improvise themselves onstage, making up their own expressive dances together.




The French influence can be felt here in a number of ways, the architecture, some music, but mainly in the food. You find crusty baguettes for sale just around everywhere, and the quintessential Vietnamese sandwich is the Banh Mi, a taste sensation of pickled vegetables, liver pate, and all sorts of meats and herbs.


This is Brian's favorite one in Hoi An. I haven't been eating meat for a while, but I hear from him they are amazing...



We came across this incredible shop in the old town the other day of all of these miniature ships of all sorts, from all periods of history. Pretty amazing.



I took a cooking class yesterday and it included a trip to the market. I am still seeing foods in Asia I have never seen before! It is exhilarating to start to understand the massive diversity of fruits, vegetables, fish, etc. that exists in this world.



I actually got to make home made rice paper for making fresh spring rolls. An interesting process, you puree rice that has been soaking a long time in a blender and then place a piece of cloth tightly over a pot of boiling water.


You spread a thin layer of of batter onto the cloth, cover it, and in one minute you have this!


And then this!


Another traditional food here that I have come to love is the Banh Xeo, which is a cripy pancake made with a rice batter with shrimp, bean sprouts and usually bits of pork.


The traditional way to eat this tasty thing is to wrap it with lettuces, fresh herbs like mint, basil, and cilantro in a rice paper wrap and dip in either a sweet chili sauce or a peanut sauce, yum!


Hoi An is known for its silk, particularly in its lanterns and in the large number of tailor made clothing shops around the city. The silk is made here and I was able to see a little bit of this process. It is amazing!


Silk worms are fed and kept for about 16 days. The worms eat eat eat and then they actually stop sleeping at one point. They then develop their pupa. This pupa is the key.


It is harvested and then soaked in water. At that point you can pull very easily these tiny tiny perfectly formed strands of silk. They then reel these filaments together to create one strand of raw silk and then these strands are wound to create skeins of silk that are then dyed any number of colors.


The skein below shows the natural color of silk once it has been spun.


The artistry here in Hoi An is pretty impressive. From the tailors to the painters to the lantern makers and chefs. I've decided that I can't pass up having some clothes tailor made for me out of beautiful linens and silks for a ridiculously low price, so I may be getting a pair of slacks made. I'll show you a picture once their done!