And now for something completely different

After the weeks and months we’d spent traversing Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, we figured we had a decent handle on South East Asia. We knew some of Vietnam’s cultural roots were pointing in a different direction from its westerly neighbors, with heavier influence from China over the centuries, so we arrived anticipating a variation on a theme. What we discovered, however, was a whole new melody all together.

For starters, Vietnam is highly developed in comparison to the countries we’d just come from. Perhaps there are areas of the country that are different, but in our travels, I observed only a handful of wooden houses. This was in village that was not on the typical tourist stop, and even there, most of the homes were made of concrete. There was not a single bamboo hut to be seen, neither in the places we visited or during any of the bus rides we took.

Vietnam has capitalized on its best sights, creating a slick and efficient tourist industry. Of course there have been tourists in all the countries we’ve visited. You expect and tolerate the song and dance and the crowds at places like the Taj Mahal and Angkor Wat but then you go to some place less famous and can get some space from all that.

In Vietnam it was difficult not to feel like part of a herd of Westerners that was being shuffled through the country. Most of the places we looked into that were not on the tourist trail sounded dull to somewhat unpleasant. We got off “the trail” for one destination and while it was drop dead gorgeous countryside, still we had some mixed experiences there too.

Like in any village we’d visited we got a lot of attention from the kids living there. They had a new way of greeting us though. Whenever we ran into some children, inevitably they’d start calling out “Hello, money!” Hmm…

Other differences and signs of development: This was the first country we’d been to that didn’t have any tuk tuks! I couldn’t believe it. Discovering each country’s take on this Asian, three-wheel wonder has been one of the little things I’ve really gotten a kick out of as we’ve been traveling (Northern India’s uber-compact green and yellow autorickshaw remains my total favorite!) and it felt like something was missing when Vietnam failed to produce one.

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A small flock of tuk tuks outside a train station in India (I can’t believe I didn’t take more/better photos of them while we were there!)

Although it does have the cyclo – like a backwards tricycle with seating at the front for passengers. It’s a really lovely way to get around a city – if you don’t get scammed or into an argument with the driver about the price.

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A couple of cyclo drivers observing the traffic outside the Reunification Palace in Saigon

We noticed that there were no street dogs anywhere – also a first. I wonder what they do differently from their neighbors to keep the population in check.

The primary mode of transportation, famously, is the motorbike. I was amazed and pleased to see the majority of people where headgear. The helmet comes in all colors and styles in Vietnam. There are even women’s versions that have an opening in the back for pony tails. It also was the first country where I saw any kids in child-sized helmets too, although even in Vietnam the vast majority of children ride without.

One thing that I hadn’t realized and that took getting used to was that Vietnamese is written in the Roman alphabet. Any time I’d seen letters I could recognize in Asia, almost inevitably the words would be in English, so I was used to keeping my eyes open for the alphabet for possible useful information. It took a while to adjust to the fact that seeing Roman letters didn’t equate to me being able to read and understand anything.

While Vietnam, like most of the other countries in mainland Southeast Asia, is primarily Buddhist, it primarily follows the Mahayana form of Buddhism, while in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, Theravadin is the prevalent branch (You can learn a bit more here).

Visiting Buddhist sites in the other countries we’d been to has been one of the highlights of travel in Asia for me. For me, there has been something about just stepping into a temple that has often helped quiet my running mind and something familiar and comforting about the peaceful faces of the statue work that can often be found around or within them.

The temples we visited in Vietnam were fascinating and beautiful but had a completely different vibe to them. I enjoyed seeing but couldn’t connect to them in the way I had in other places. They were dark rooms, decorated with lots of red and dark wood, with altars full of impressive but sometimes gaudy statues. Even the incense burned had a whole new smell from what I knew from other countries.

We hardly saw any monks. The cheery orange I’d come to associate with monks’ robes in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand in Vietnam had been assigned to trash collectors’ jumpsuits. The handful of monks we did see in Vietnam were dressed in somber maroons and greys.


Monks in Cambodia

A trash collector in Saigon at night

Buddhist temple decorations

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Myanmar

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Thailand

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Laos

A totally different feel in the temples we saw in Vietnam:

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I wonder if this description is tending too strongly towards the negative.  Along with all the other differences, it was the first country in which we actually experienced the “dangers and annoyances” always listed for each location in Lonely Planet, with some flagrant rip offs on the part of taxi drivers and of course my iPhone episode. Throw in catching a flu in Saigon and my bout with food poisoning in Hue and I’d say some days it felt like Vietnam was defying me to like it.

It wasn’t all bad though and for all the less-than-positive experiences we had, there was still something I liked about Vietnam that I’m still trying to put my finger on. Maybe its unapologetic attitude. 🙂 And there are certainly positive points to all the development and tourism like plenty of hotels to choose from with a pretty consistent and decent level of quality, wifi virtually everywhere, etc.

There is a lot of beauty too: From the glorious green rice fields to the impressive karst mountains. From the intriguing red and black temples to the forlornly lovely French-colonial architecture. From the picturesque vendors in conical hats bearing their baskets of wares hanging from poles slung over one shoulder to the blinding rainbow of neon that comes to life in the cities after sundown.

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So if you’re thinking of going to Vietnam, I’d say that you can hope to fall in love with it – just don’t expect it to love you back. 🙂

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Other bits and pieces from our stay in Vientiane

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Monastery visit

One of the nice things about sharing the tuk tuk ride to and from the Buddha Park was getting to know the other passengers. A monk named Sone was taking some other monks, newly arrived to his monastery, and his sister and his friend sight-seeing. They had limited English except for Sone, but were very smiley and sweet.

Their peaceful, small monastery was on the way back to the city, set on a ledge with a lovely view over the Mekong. When we arrived there, Sone invited us to take a look around, and we ended up having a really enjoyable chat with him.

He’s a really determined guy who worked hard to teach himself English fort he opportunities it would open for him. With his education, he’s been able to travel throughout Asia, which has been eye-opening for him.

He told us that the message the government pushes is that Laos is the best and the education and infrastructure and opportunities afforded through the benefit of communism are superior to what’s available in other countries. He said the average Laotian isn’t given enough education or perspective to question this. He feels very strongly that education is key, and he teaches English to a growing number of students.

Unfortunately we’d already made plans to leave Vientiane in the morning, so we couldn’t take him up on his invite to come meet some of his students the next day. I’m still so glad we met him and I hope I can help him out on the proof-reading front when he works on his applications for scholarships at some schools abroad next year (he makes me feel like a slacker! 😉 ).

Fruit of the loom

One other thing I did while we were still in Vientiane was a day trip to the Houey Hong Centre, a vocational school just outside the city center where underprivileged women (and actually a few men too) are trained in traditional Lao textile arts and given a chance to earn a living. I loved the day there. They offer tourists a chance to see the facility and do some simple dyeing and weaving.

The center comprises a clutch of simple, open, concrete buildings set on wooded land. Each building is used for a different part of training. There were no new students when I was there, so the weaving room was full of now-trained employees who were creating beautiful silk scarves and sarongs to sell in the center’s small shop. What I loved to see was the number of young children playing between the wooden looms; mothers are welcome to bring their kids who are too young to attend school. The atmosphere was totally relaxed and friendly, with the women chatting and helping out with each other’s kids.

The dyeing process was (for me – someone else had done a lot of the prep like weaving the scarf and preparing the all natural dye) easy, but stinky! I don’t know if all the colors smell the same, but the red I chose, made from bug resin (didn’t know that before I chose the color!) produced the most disgusting smell!! I tried my best to keep up wind of the steam as I stirred to help the color set. Luckily, the end result smells just fine. 🙂

The weaving took a lot more time and technique, but I loved it. I was the only tourist visiting that day, and once I got a feel for it, the woman who was teaching me left me to it. It was so peaceful. The rhythm of the wooden shuttle clicking back and forth with the gentle sounds of birds and insects in the woods and the children and women speaking in the back ground. It was almost a bit meditative and I really enjoyed it.

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The simple died scarf and woven material I made

Other little things I enjoyed about Vientiane

  • On certain roads, the beautiful trees had been labeled with their scientific names. Too bad I don’t know any Latin, but as a tree-lover I appreciated the city’s attention to the beautiful specimens lining its streets.
  • One tree that was everywhere in Vientiane was Leelawadee, or Frangipani. I’m slowly falling in love with this tropical beauty. I’ve seen it lots of places, but this city was really chock full of the trees and flowers. The flowers have a gorgeous scent that you can smell once you get close. In Vientiane though there were so many that the fragrance was in the air on certain streets.

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  • It was funny to see hammer and sickle flags everywhere. Also books and posters of Marx and Lenin for sale in some shops. And the stickers of Che Guevara on lots of the vehicles. Not the classic headshot of him looking all dreamy that we know in the West, but a more angular, harsh looking man with flowing locks and a red hat… (didn’t manage to get a photo while in Vientiane, where the stickers were everywhere, maybe I’ll have a chance elsewhere in Laos.) Need to find out more about communism in Laos
  • At the food stands at outdoor markets in Thailand, I’d seen people using plastic bags on sticks to shoo away flies that would land on the food. Saw something new in Vientiane though – a long stick with plastic bags on either end that was attached to a small motor and hung over the dried fish or barbecued meat, spinning like a slow propeller. Seemed to be pretty (or just as) effective. Genius. 🙂
  • One evening, I counted 32 geckos on the wall of the building down the street from our hotel. 32 on one wall! 😀

Snapshots: Backwards from Bangkok

I’ve decided to do my Thailand notes in reverse order, which means I get to start with today. Tonight I fly to a new country, Laos, to meet Roman, but I’ve already had a few lovely hours up and about in Bangkok, taking a morning constitutional before breakfast. Jet lag got me up early and as soon as it was light enough, I walked from my hotel to Lumphini Park for some easy jogging. I found the place packed with people and activity, even before 7am. Here are some snapshots.
Walking to the park in the early morning, the streets between Chidlom and Lumphini were still peaceful, although not quite abandoned. I shared smiles with vendors opening up their street stalls for the day, construction workers heading to a job and even one barefooted, mustard-colored robed monk with his begging bowl. I enjoyed the smell of a big bamboo basket of jasmine rice being steamed on a concrete brazier filled with glowing coals and set on the sidewalk. I admired the pluck of a ballsy street tom-cat begging at a food cart, and getting rewarded with some scraps of meat. Even shortly after the sun had risen, the air was lush and moist. Some blocks were filled with the smell of flowers drifting from small courtyards – if I’d closed my eyes I could have imagined I’d been transported to the inside of a tropical green house instead of walking along a big city street lined with sky scrapers.
By the time I reached the park it was already filled with thousands of people. Many of them were there for a spot of exercise before the day got too hot.
Older women with perfect, shiny red talons, faces full of make up and bouffant hair sprayed to within an inch of its life gracefully moved through Tai Chi sequences.
Wiry Thai men without an ounce of body fat sweat as they jogged along the broad pathways.
Grown children took their elderly parents out for some fresh air, slowly pushing a wheel chair or patiently keeping pace with the shuffle of swollen, aged feet.
Various big groups of people followed the aerobics moves of a perky instructor talking into a microphone.
There was an elegant martial arts practice or two, complete with long wooden staffs.
Bunches of women practiced traditional dances, their red and white paper fans glowing as they caught the occasional ray of sun that filtered through the trees and filling the air with a sound like one hundred clapping hands as they open and shut.
Yoga mats were spread on blankets spread on the grass, being pushed into the earth by folks grounding through their downward facing dog poses.
Some did work outs using the park’s simple machines while others used the benches, fences, piers or grass as their equipment for stretching and strength training.
Other people were there for less ambitious reasons. Old biddies sat at tables in the shade for an outdoor breakfast, pouring each other steaming cups of tea from metal thermoses and doling out plates of food as they gossiped together. Some people napped on park benches or watched all the passing activity. Elderly men perused newspapers. As I left the park, I could see some folks were also there for their morning shopping.
Outside the park, a temporary market had been set up. A few beggars with missing or withered limbs supplicated to shoppers in the space between the park gates and the tightly packed stalls. Clothes, food, accessories and a whole host of other things were on offer. Mystery meat, fruit and other foods abounded, some definitely looking more appetizing than others even when I had not a clue what they were. I caught whiffs of durian, spring onions, fried eggs. The huge chunks of massive grouper, stacks of rubber-banded blue and grey crabs and buckets of light peach shrimp were so fresh that there was no smell at all by those stands. A bit early in the day for me for all that food, but it was still wonderfully interesting to see.
The park itself was much more verdant and lush than the last time I was there, overflowing with orchids and other flowers, palms bearing berries, massive trees crowned in thick, deep green canopies. I was happy to see the amazing, huge monitor lizards again, sunning their long bodies (some of them are over 5 feet!) or swimming lazily through the park’s ponds. Sparrows and mynah birds flitted about and bathed in large puddles left behind by the heavy night rains that had trespassed into my dreaming.
Other bits and pieces I want to remember:
Fresh garlands of flowers on top of dried out blooms and weather-faded ribbons looped around sacred trees and small shrines.
The stubs of hundreds used incense sticks jammed into the knot of a tree.
The bloody chops of chicken I passed at a street stall on my way into the park that had been fried into golden brown bits of breakfast by the time I started to head back to the hotel.
The beautiful brown-shelled snails making their home on the wall of a construction site.
The sweet little black cats that live outside my hotel that were snoozing under the potted plants on the stairs as I left for the park.
How willingly and happily most of the people smiled back at me when I smiled first.

A day (and a bit) in Mandalay

After having that darn “Road to Mandalay“ song in my head nearly the whole time we’d been in Myanmar, I was happy to have the chance to see the actual place. The first hotel and neighborhood we’d stayed at when we were catching the ferry had left a pretty grungy impression. Though the city does have a bit of a run down feel, it came across as much more charming on our second meeting.

Given the day we lost when the boat got stuck, we had even less time than we’d planned in Mandalay but it felt like we managed to see a good amount in and around the city. There was a mix up with our hotel reservation, so the first day was all about sorting out a place to stay (we ended up at the Silver Star which was didn’t have much personality but otherwise just fine), reviving and getting cleaned up from the train journey, sorting out food (dinner was at a Lonely Planet recommendation called Nepali Food. We were waited on by the sweet teenage daughter of the owner who sang or did her homework at the back of the restaurant when she wasn’t working. The thali was great and it was fun to eat by candle light when the power to the street got cut).

We set out the next morning, our only full day in the city, with a laundry list of things we wanted to see. We hired a trishaw driver to take us to our first spot but hadn’t got very far before we heard someone calling our names. Who did we see but Elmer peddling madly after us on a bicycle! He and Ohmar just happened to be eating on the street by our hotel and had seen us through the restaurant window as we wheeled by. It was such a nice surprise, and we arranged to meet them for dinner after our sight seeing.

Sights and activities

Our first stop was an area of the city known as the monks’ district. The draw was an old teak wood monastery. We didn’t end up managing to find it, but we loved wandering around the quiet neighborhood, which had a lovely, gentle energy about it. We spent time at an open air tea shop, drinking three-in-one coffee sweetened (as if it needed more sugar!) with condensed milk and people watching and visited a (non teak wood) monastery where we shared an impromptu chat with a lovely, passionate monk.

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Monks and others watching TV in a restaurant in the Monk’s district

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Detail from a sign

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Bridge heading towards the monastery

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Communal water jugs inside the monastery

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Hard working bus boy (literally) at the tea shop

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Playing games below a chinthe

We visited a shop where gold leaf was made. The city of Mandalay is the primary producer of gold leaf for all of Myanmar and there is a whole neighborhood that centers around this old craft. Here is some info about the use of gold leaf squares in Buddhism – it’s about Thailand but definitely pertains to Burmese Buddhists too. The gold leaf is produced through some very hard core manual labor – pounded by hand by men with wooden hammers and muscles like rope, and finished by women into the small squares for fixing onto statues, gilded bodhi leaves or other items for sale in the shop.

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Pounding gold wrapped in leather

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This boy worked in the workshop. He looked about 11 or 12 years old, 13 max. Note the hard core tattoos.

We got a ride outside of the city to visit the U Bien bridge and watch the sun go down. It was a bit touristy (shops and tour buses just outside of the best camera shots 😉 ) but still beautiful and we enjoyed just hanging out watching people fishing the river next to the bridge.

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Fishermen wading in the shallow waters by the bridge

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Monks commuting across the bridge

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Buses before the bridge

Dinner with Elmer and Ohmar was great. It felt so fun to have friends to meet in the city, and we caught up over everything we’d all done since Bahmo over beer and a tasty meal expertly ordered by Ohmar. We had a lovely night stroll back to our respective hotels, walking along the moat of the old city palace, before saying our good nights. The next morning, Roman and I would be flying off to our next stop – Bagan. Elmer and Ohmar would be heading there too, but wanted to spend a bit more time in Mandalay, so we arranged, again, to meet up when we were all back in Yangon.

Other Mandalay photo impressions

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On the bus

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This particular blue was everywhere in Myanmar but specifically in Mandalay. Once I noticed it that day, I couldn’t help but see it where ever I cast my gaze. Here it is on a wall carved with text in the monk’s district.

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Laundry line

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Tea break

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Typical cabs in Mandalay – these gorgeous, old school Mazda trucks

Pics from my second visit to Mcleod Ganj

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Momos for sale; prayer wheels

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The stray dogs in Mcleod Ganj are healthier and happier than others I have seen in India so far. Apparently there is a program in place here to spay/neuter and feed them.

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People leaving through the temple’s gates after the Dalai Lama’s teachings.

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Prayer wheels at the temple

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Dumpster monkey!

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Dumpster monkey having lunch

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Thunderstorm approaching over the mountaints

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Waiting out the rain at a small roadside shop

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The shop’s innovative dishwasher

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Monks drinking chai during the hailstorm

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After the storm

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Monks washing clothes in the river