Thursday, April 29, 2010


Cambodia. The extent of my Cambodia-related knowledge before crossing the border was there was some big war-thingy here in the 70s and Angelina Jolie adopted a kid from here when she was shooting Laura Croft: Tomb Raider. Yep, that's pretty much it. And for those of you who are in a similar boat, then just read on.

We took a bus from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) to Phnom Penh. It's a long journey, but was actually the most pleasant bus ride we've had. They even gave us a bottle of water! We get to the border crossing and hand off our passports and $25 to the bus-guy (there is a sign directly behind him saying Tourist Visa $20. If you inquire about the extra $5, the answer is, it's for the stamp. They'll give you the visa for a 20, but you need a little extra for the stamp). You then grab your luggage from underneath the bus, walk into a building, stick your luggage into an x-ray machine (only your big bag, if you have drugs or a massive weapon in a smaller one or on your person, it's cool), get a stamp exiting Vietnam, get back on the bus, drive 30 feet, get off the bus, walk through another building, get a stamp that says "Cambodia" in your passport, and then have some friendly Cambodian to tell you that if you get swine flu, go see a doctor. Actually, it wasn't too bad, just a little like that kids game where you imitate the person directly in front of you in line.

We spent two days in Phnom Penh and now we're in Siem Reap, the gateway to the Temples of Angkor. Below are some observations thus far, both amusing and grim.
  • You know that Toyota commercial where they say something like 92% of Toyotas are still on the road? Well, they are. They're all in Cambodia. I kid you not 90% of the cars in Cambodia are Toyotas. I don't know if they did an emergency evacuation for all of the ones in the States when concerned Americans started unloading them like hotcakes, or what, but there are so many of em you'd think it's the Munford driveway (Yes, my immediate family owns 5 Toyotas).
  • Asians do not believe in two things (perhaps there are more, but these two are verified): personal space and a queue. If you're standing at the post office trying to buy stamps, it is perfectly acceptable for someone to elbow you out of the way and then conduct their transaction right in front of you. "No, I wasn't here first. You're right. I know, I'm so small you probably missed me. "
  • The temples of Angkor are unreal. There's no way to see all of them, but we've picked out a few choice ones (including, of course, Angkor Wat) for our stay here. Film I feel like most watching right now: Indiana Jones. Ah, if only I had a leather whip and a matching hat, I am sure I could do some excellent re-enacting.
  • The landscape (from what I've seen driving through the countryside) is pretty desolate. The history is even more so. We visited S-21 in Phnom Penh, which is preserved pretty much like it was found by the Vietnamese troops in 1979. For those of you who (like me 4 days ago) aren't going to get the Cambodia Jeopardy questions - it was a high school that Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, and his henchmen turned into a prison during their reign. They emptied the city of Phnom Penh (the capital) and sent everyone to work as farmers in rural camps. Meanwhile, back in Phnom Penh they detained nearly 20,000 people in S-21 over three and a half years. Of the 20,000 only 7 survived. Pretty horrific and not something I'll forget soon.
  • Despite this gruesome history (estimates are as high as 3 million people died in the seventies - that includes some casualties from the Vietnam war spillover - or roughly 1/3 of the total population), Cambodians are some of the friendliest and funniest people I've met so far. 60% of the population is under the age of 30 so they're pretty much my age and love cracking jokes. All the tuk-tuk drivers, hotel staff, waiters, tour guides, even policeman have been really warm and friendly. Pretty remarkable resilience if you ask me.
On Saturday, I'll split off from the Shaman and fly back to Laos. I'm going to track down a school that was built with my beer money. I'm only half-kidding. My favorite DC bar, The Saloon, also runs a nonprofit called Bricks for Schools, which builds schools in developing countries. When I told Commie, the proprietor, I was headed over here he recommended I check in on a school they recently funded. I get to show up and make sure everything is going well. Bonus for me to spend some time in a village even Google hasn't heard of yet. (I'll actually be smarter than Google when this is over. I'll be "off-radar" for a bit, but then make my final sojourn back toward Bangkok (don't worry, I'm keeping pretty well informed on the political situation there) for my May 12 flight back to the States.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Reunification Vacation

Oh, Vietnam. A country I've grown up hearing about, but not until I arrived did I realize I knew oh-so-little. Actually, what knowledge I can conjure up from my formal education is primarily from my senior English class (Thank you, Mrs. Graham if you're reading this) and not so much from American History class (sorry, Mr. Houghtaling). But as diligent a student as I was, there are still many gaps in what I can remember. For example, it took me three museums to figure out that Ho Chi Minh had something like 4 different names throughout his lifetime. I thought I was reading about a gang of revolutionaries, but actually it was all one man all along. Sneaky guy.

The Shaman and I have been working our way south through the country. Hanoi - Hue - Hoi An - Mui Ne - Saigon. Both Saigon and Hanoi have a collection of fascinating museums that impart rather consistent (I'll give it to the Communists, they are very good at developing and delivering a consistent message) information about the wars of aggression against the Vietnamese people. First it was the French colonialists, then the American imperialists. I highly recommend the War Remnants Museum in Saigon. Although tough to stomach at times, it gives the best overall narrative of the war and the ecological, social and political damage the wars caused.

And a few more thoughts about Vietnam before I leave for Cambodia:

  • The Vietnamese are rather musical in nature. Even their car horns sing songs. I told you already about the different times one is required to use a horn, so it makes sense to have a little melody for all that honking. We hired a Jeep one day to take us to the sand dunes and our Jeep had a little ditty for not only the horn (even the Dukes of Hazzard had that), but also the blinkers (right and left conjure up different ditties), and putting the car into reverse. One hardly needs an iPod with such melodies. Just go listen to traffic.
  • The food is fantastic, especially at little street kitchens that pop up around 5 or 6 pm. You sit on little chairs (one might as well be squatting if you have these sasquatch legs of mine) and order several dishes to share amongst friends. The grilled fish with lemongrass and chilli, wrapped in banana leaf was perhaps one of the greatest meals of my life. And it cost me $2 (with beer, and two orders of noodles).
  • That said, they tend to eat things that I wouldn't necessarily regard as "normal." Flipping through the menu you'll find your normal dishes: beef, chicken, pork, fish, seafood...and then you get to: frog (not actually that odd I suppose), snake, cat, and dog. Yes, Fido isn't exactly the family pet, he's more like Thanksgiving. My favorite menu so far had the following: False dog meat with noodles use pig leg. Must be the Vietnamese equivalent to Tofurkey??
  • It is perfectly acceptable for women to wear their pajamas all day long. As long as you have a matching outfit, you can wear whichever PJ suit you so desire. This, I think, I might be able to get used to.
  • We took a sleeper bus between Hoi An and Mui Ne. The "sleeper bus" concept is hilarious to me. You have these rather spacious (Asian standards apply here) reclining seats. They fit 40 of these onto a bus in bunk bed style. I wasn't quite sure what was happening when the guy next to me woke up at 10 pm and then hopped in the driver seat. I thought perhaps my turn was next, until I realized that the drivers take turns sleeping so they can make it through the night. And of course our "sleeper bus" (note the singular usage here) is actually four different buses. At first we changed when we arrived in Nha Trang. Then another time when leaving Nha Trang. Then again on the side of the road in Idon'tknowwhereville.
  • How come all men, even those who speak literally no other English, know the word "beautiful"? It doesn't seem like the easiest word to learn, but by golly if that's gonna stop 'em! (This thought was inspired during our bus shuffle when it was just the three of us girls on a bus parked at some pit stop and that is literally the only intelligible English word either of the bus drivers could say. No, they could not tell us if it was the correct bus, or if we'd be ariving in the afternoon. But they could tell uù that we were beautiful. Aww, shucks, guys. That makes us feel so much better about this situation.)
  • Perhaps my favorite moment in Vietnam so far was this afternoon. After walking around I settled with a book in a nice lush park near Independence Palace. I was enjoying my book and some people watching - to the sounds of construction for the 35th anniversary celebration of the fall of Saigon, and to college kids playing some music. The college kids invited me over to join, which I happily did for a couple of hours. They were also joined by an older gent who called himself "my grandfather" and looked a heckofa lot like Ho Chi Minh-come-John Wayne (they do love Cowboy hats here). Grandpa had a fiddle and a mandolin and actually spoke decent English (Yes, he knows the word beautiful as well. I told you, they all do). The kids had a couple of guitars. We sang both the American and Vietnamese national anthem, as well as some classics like Bon Jovi, Mariah Carey, and Hotel California. All in the shadow of Independence Palace. Fantastic afternoon if you ask me.

Me and Grandpa in the park

Sunrise in Nha Trang, our 1.5 hour layover between buses

Our sleeper bus in action

The Belgians, Rachel (Dutch), Shorty & the Shaman: out for pool and free rum & cokes one night in Hoi An. Check out the new kicks!

Hue was home to the last Emporers, the Nguyen Dynasty. We rented bikes to go visit their tombs, which they built and would go to for vacation before they died.

Our hotel in Mui Ne, where three of us stayed for $6/each/night

Monday, April 19, 2010

Boats, Trains and Buses in 'Nam

I flew into Vietnam over a week ago to rendezvous with Sarah Schwarz, aka the Shaman, for our Adventures of Shorty and the Shaman. Yes, I'm "Shorty." We spent a few days in Hanoi, then up to Ha Long Bay for an overnight boat tour, back to Hanoi, then train to Hue, then a bus to Hoi An. We're leaving Hoi An on an overnight bus ride tonight to Mui Ne, a beach town down in the south. A few comments about 'Nam and travels so far:
  • Traffic in Hanoi was perhaps the inspiration for that video game of the frog having to cross the road. Red lights, I am almost certain, are for decoration and not for any sort of traffic signal. Pedestrians are the lowest on the food chain and must yeild to literally everyone else - which includes buses, taxis, motorbikes, cyclos, bicycles and especially ones that have ridiculous amounts of cargo on them. I have also determined there are exactly 6 different honks that are their own language. There's one for passing on the left, one for heading straight into oncoming traffic, one for passing on the right, when a pedestrian gets in your way, when an old lady gets in your way, and when there is literally no one else around and you're just bored. Our bus driver to Ha Long City employed all six of these liberally. In fact, I don't recall 10 seconds when he wasn't honking the horn.
  • The boat tour around Ha Long Bay included an overnight on the actual boat. Since there is limited entertainment when you're on a boat in the middle of a bay at night, the crew decked out our boat with a karaoke machine. I think primarily for their amusement, but we (three Belgians, an Aussie, two Swedes, a Brit, and two Americans) totally jumped in on that action. However, a word of warning: Never, ever under any circumstance let a British lady choose "Born in the USA" as a song in Vietnam. I'll let you Google the lyrics, but let's just say they mention a racial slur in reference to a war they're not so fond of over here. Whoops.
  • The train we took was an overnight bunk, three beds to a bunk and two bunks per cabin. The problem is that the bunks are too small to even sit on (except the bottom ones, which were conveniently taken up by an old Vietnamese couple who didn't seem very happy to see two Americans in their cabin), so for the 14 hour train ride you're either standing in the hallway, or your laying down. That's it. There is simply no other option. The other thing is that the entire car is non-smoking, which seems to be open to interpretation. Most people just walk to the end of the car and smoke near the bathroom. Our older gent decided it would certainly be of no inconvenience to anyone to just smoke in bed. With the windows and doors shut.
  • I feel so popular in Asia. I swear I never knew I had this many friends! Every town we walk into, we inevitably walk by hotels that want to sell us a room. They always have one person perched on the porch area yelling, "Hello my friend! Room for you." I'm actually getting pretty fond of it so I'll now walk into shops and cafes and greet them with "Hello my friend." Seems like it's the thing to do, so why not?
  • Vietnamese, similar to Thai and Lao, is a tonal language. That means that the word that seems like the same word to us, but put into a different tone (like say, as if you're asking a question) means something totally different. Here I am trying to ask a question in Vietnamese, and so my voice kind of lifts at the end, right? Well, I don't know what this translates into, but it's definitely not my question. They just laugh. I keep trying anyhow...
  • Uncle Ho. There's no way to post a blog entry without mentioning "the man" in Vietnam. He's everywhere - on street signs, banners, people's living room walls. When in Hanoi we had the pleasure of seeing Uncle Ho. That's right. Like great Communist leaders before him, Ho Chi Minh is embalmed and on display for the adoring public to pay their respects. Bizarre to say the least, but an experience worth having.

'Nam has been fun so far. Met some other folks we're traveling with and enjoying the sights along the way. Yesterday we rented motorbikes and went out to My Son, ancient ruins from the 4th - 13th century. They, of course, weren't in ruin until the Viet Cong based themselves there for a period of time and the good ole US of A bombed the bejeezum out of them.

After a few days at the beach we're going to head to Saigon and from there over to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat. From there I'm heading back into Laos on a mission for my favorite bar (more on that when it comes time).

I am not short

The following is an email sent on April 17th to my "adventure list." Email me if you want to be on it and you're not already.

Greetings friends, family, and fellow adventurers from a balcony in Hue Viet Nam!

Since my travels will hopefully last a good year or so, the plan is to send an email once a month to my "adventure list" (that's you) to share some stories, ask for input on next steps, and remind you that for more info on my adventures you can always check out the blog:

I left Jackson on March 16th at sunrise. I landed in Bangkok well after sunset on March 17th. My St. Patrick's Day was considerably shorter than I would have preferred, but the ticket price was worth the sacrifice. I recovered from jetlag in the company of a family friend who lives outside of the city, who was quite generous in her hospitality (and being from the hospitality state, I know these kinds of things). My general route from Bangkok was south to the beach, then double-header overnight trains to the north of Thailand before crossing over into Laos and down the Mekong. From Vientiane I flew to Hanoi to meet up with a DC friend, Sarah aka the Shaman, and we're currently working our way south to Saigon and then over to Cambodia. It'd be impossible to share with you everything, so I'll just give a cliffnotes version of some of my blog entries:
  • I am approximately twice the size of the average Asian. It's a good thing I don't have a body-image problem because this place would certainly aggrevate it. It does, however, make for comical transportation situations - like the time the Vietnamese man wanted to sit in my lap for a 4 hour journey, or the train where I couldn't even crawl on my hands and knees in my bunk, or the public bus where I had to "stand" in the aisle but the ceiling of the bus was maybe 5'5" and I'm 5'10".
  • The scenery is unreal. From limestone cliffs that drop right into the ocean, floating down the Mekong, cruising through Ha Long Bay, to exploring caves that could fit a full-size rugby pitch. It's a wild place (and becoming less and less so these days) and amazing to explore. I have much more to say on conservation and environmental issues, but I'll leave that note for personal conversations.
  • My math skills are going to be stellar when I get back. Forget NCLB, we should just send kids abroad and give them a wad of cash and see how long they make it. It was $1 USD for 31 Thai Baht for 8,400 Lao Kip, and 18,500 Vietnamese Dong. I still think it all looks like Monopoly money. I did, however, pay someone one million dong (roughly $50) the other day though and I felt like I was in the mafia.
  • Asian toilets. It's like those puzzles in third grade where you're given 3 objects and a task you're supposed to complete. Here it's a hole that looks kind of like a squashed toilet, a bucket of water, and a hose. No flush button, no toilet paper. Yeah, it took me about a week to figure it out.
  • A Vespa is a family-friendly vehicle. Yes, if only my parents had visited Vietnam before they bought that station wagon, all of our family trips could have been carried out on a Vespa. I indeed saw a family of five riding a Vespa (seemingly comfortably) in Hanoi.

I return to the States in mid-May and set off on my wedding-palooza road trip. Roughly I'll be taking the East Coast by storm in late May and June and then the West Coast in July and August. I'm still scheming up ideas for the Fall so if you're off to somewhere wonderful, or have a great idea - let me know!

Hope all is well wherever this may find you.



Friday, April 16, 2010

Hooray! Pictures again...

Okay, so after the jungle there was a camera fiasco, but I've got access to the right equipment now and here are some of my favorite photos from the last month. Enjoy!

Khao Sok National Park - the place I stayed (Nung House) in a bungalow

Sea kayaking around the Andaman Sea near Tonsai Beach in Krabi, Thailand

Sunset over the Mekong River in Laos (looking back into Chiangkhong, Thailand)

Catching the slow-boat down the Mekong

A Buddha in a cave in Luang Phrabang

Elephant trek down the Nam Khan River

Me and my 'phant for the day, Mau Ouk

Me and my 'phant go for a little swim in the river

The Rooster Gang gets bikes for the day in Vang Vieng

Most of the Rooster Gang (sans Wilde) at the Blue Lagoon and Poukham Cave

The cave we went to explore

Some of the gang underwater. Please note Elmer's delightful neon yellow shorts swimming by the background.

The nightmarket in downtown Hanoi

"Kayaking" around Ha Long Bay. The boat in the background is the junk we slept on.

This is how well I fit into most places in Asia (not very well). This is the train from Hanoi to Hue.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Land of a Million Elephants

Okay, I started writing this and realized I was beginning to travelogue, which I promised you I would avoid. I've condensed these longer stories into the following bullets. But below are adventures of elephants, blue lagoons, Lao karaoke and more travails of the Rooster gang. I spent three nights in Louang Phrabang and two nights in Vang Vieng with the Rooster gang. Enjoy.
  • Laos traces it's history back to the kingdom of Lan Xang, which translates to "Land of a Million Elephants." I shelled-out some dough for a one-day mahout course, which basically means that in addition to riding them in those silly little baskets, you also learn how to steer one yourself by sitting on the neck. You also get to go swim with them for their afternoon bath. There is now way for me to describe this experience, other than it's like a giant see-saw that weighs a couple tons in the river. Now put me on it. Yeah, it was hilarious.
  • The gang decided to get a little rowdy one night at Hive Bar, which like all LP closes at 11pm. This seemed far too early to this group of mostly Europeans so we hailed a tuk-tuk for the Lao disco. Inside was indeed perhaps the most bizarre nightclub I've every stepped into. The music was often American music, but dubbed over in Lao or Thai maybe. Again, hilarious.
  • Woke up early to watch the monks procession down the main street to receieve their offerings. Since no reasonable establishment is open at 5:45 for breakfast (that's right, no Waffle House in Louang Phrabang), we ate a street stall. The only offering was Lao coffee (as thick as mud) and these donut things. It actually wasn't that far off from New Orleans style coffee and beignets.
  • The bus ride from Louang Phrabang to Vang Vieng is stunning. Both the amazing scenery and the vistas of entire mountainsides that have been slashed and burned for agriculture. The air basically everywhere is hazy (in Thailand too) because of all the burning. I can't imagine that there aren't any erosion issues once the rainy season comes around.
  • Vang Vieng is hailed as a backpackers paradise. It's a party town no doubt, but also has these awesome caves, mountains, lagoons, and natural streams to explore. I was bit worried it'd be too much like a frat party, but in the company of the Rooster gang it managed to be great. We rented bikes ala the Von Trapps (yes, we sang Do Re Mi in unison) and biked through rice paddies to get to a blue lagoo to cool off.
  • Last night with the Rooster Gang needed to be epic, so we decided to check out a Lao karaoke. Now "karaoke" apparently isn't where you get up a make a fool of yourself. They hire like 3 really good singers to just do cover songs. Again, all in Thai or Lao. But the locals enjoyed dancing with us, so although I didn't get to sing "Stand by your Man" it was fantastic.

I've now left the Rooster gang. Some of them are headed home, others to different adventures. I'm now in Hanoi and met up with Sarah Schwarz (roommate from DC) at the airport. Luckily, the Hanoi airport is about the size of the Jackson International Airport. Plan from here is a couple of days here and then on to Ha Long Bay. Can't believe half of adventure #1 is behind me!

Oh, and in news somewhat related: I am now scheming up an African adventure for the late fall. Turns out if you go to Princeton you can get a sweet job in Zambia, or at least that's what has happened to Mary Reid. So, being such a good sister, I've decided to go see her while she's over there. So if you have suggestions/recommendations/friends let me know!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Northern Thailand and Down the Mekong

Ah, so where did I leave you last, my friends? I believe I had just arrived in Chiangmai, Thailand's "second city" of sorts and the hub for the northern region. It's a small city and I mainly stayed in the old city section, which is contained by a moat. I enjoyed a pleasant trip up the mountain to a hillside shrine, Doi Suthep where I was blessed by a monk with some holy water. Well, truth be told I walked into the shrine area and sat politely for a few seconds before a group of high school kids came in and they were getting showered with the holy water by a monk, and I happened to be in the way. Unsure of the right protocol, I just sat there and let the shower happen. I spent the evening with an Estonian and two Kiwis at Rooftop Bar, which looks out onto the city and then Reggae Bar, which had decent live reggae music. The next morning I took ill for a few hours and slept most of the day. But I did manage to crawl out of the guesthouse by 3 or so and take a walk up to the public park. At that point I decided Chiangmai didn't like me too much so I woke up early the next morning and took the public bus to Chiangrai.

Chiangrai is a smaller city, and I really enjoyed it. For the first time since I've been in Thailand not all of the signs had both English and Thai and I got the feeling I was starting to get a bit off the stereotypical backpacker route. Don't get me wrong, there were still some foreigners in Chiangrai, but I felt like Chiangmai was more centered on catering to foreigners who want to go trekking to the hilltribes and play with drugged-up tigers. I've heard wonderful things from other people about Chiangmai, but I wasn't a sworn convert. I spent a lovely night in Chiangrai and then headed to Chiangkhong on the public bus the next morning. The bus of course was probably built in 1950 and the road to Chiangkhong is paved with, well actually, parts of it don't seem to be paved with anything. The seats were far too small for my legs to actually bend at a reasonable angle, but I do think I may have invented a new yoga position. We'll call it the "Munny-on-a-bus-in-Asia" pose.

Chiangkhong is the Thai border town on the Mekong River. I enjoyed a nice lunch overlooking the Mekong before taking a ferry boat across into Lao People's Democratic Republic. After paying my visa fee and getting my passport stamped I walked up the dusty road to the main strip of town. I knew I wasn't in Thailand anymore when I failed to see a 7/11 (which is rather prevalent in Thailand). I walked the 2km stretch of town twice because it seems there is little else to do in Houayxai, Laos. Definitely not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

Ended up in a cool old colonial style hotel that overlooked the Mekong from the roofdeck and grabbed a beer at Bar How where I spent a few hours talking politics and travel stories with two Canadians, a Brit and a girl from Hong Kong. Woke up early the next morning and made my way to the slowboat pier just north of town to catch the boat to Louang Phrabang.

The slow-boat takes two days from Houayxai to Louang Phrabang with an overnight stop in Pakbeng. I met a gang of other solo travelers on the boat and ended up having a rather enjoyable time. The Mekong is surrounded on both sides with hills and mountains, making the trip a rather memorable one. When we disembarked in Pakbeng we were immediately the most popular people in town, everyone claiming their guesthouse would give us "special deal" on a room that overlooked the Mekong. I believe it was Danny, the Swede, who said it best: "We've been looking at the Mekong all day. I think we just want a cheap room." So we found a place where the seven of us could sleep for 50 baht each ($1.62). When it came time for dinner we strolled down the dirt road and found that literally every place tries to lure you in with their offering of free Lao whiskey. We settled on the place where the owner had written in English, German, Dutch, and French "My wife is good cook." After dinner we found a bar that claimed it played hip-hop music, and this seemed like a good fit after some Beerlao and Lao whiskey. We didn't realize that in Pakbeng the Backstreet Boys counts as hip-hop. But we settled at a table and played cards until 10:00 when we realized the rest of the town was already asleep. I kid you not, I looked up and literally every other place in town had turned off the electricity. But we managed to find our guesthouse and fall into bed by 10:30.

What our guesthouse owner didn't tell us was that Pakbeng is apparently the town of 5,000 roosters. At about 4:30 am the roosters start crowing and they don't stop. It was a wooden ramshackle of a place so when the rooster crows in the backyard, it sounds like he's on your bed in your room. By 6:30 I was plenty awake and ready for some coffee. We stumbled back down to the pier and departed for the 9 hour journey to Louang Phrabang and arrived late yesterday afternoon. I have now dubbed our motely crew the Rooster Gang. We're two Americans, a Swede, and Israeli, a German, a Dutchman, and a Brit. We've gotten along quite well and it's been nice to have the extra company around. No doubt we'll be splitting up in the next couple of days, but it's been a good last few with them.

I'll save the Louang Phrabang stories for the next round.