Chinese appetizer: part one

Now that you know where to find us, I’ll finally get back to where I left off – leaving Xinjiang Province to go discover a bit more of China.

Traveling through southeast Asia with English was no problem – it’s a part of the world that’s ready to welcome Western tourists. We’d heard that getting around China would be trickier though, and we were keen to try something new, so we decided to take a two-week crash course in survival Chinese before we did any more traveling. We’d later come to discover that we could get away with speaking English nearly everywhere we went – but I’m still so glad that we got the chance to get introduced to the basics of the language.

We decided to try out the Omeida Language Academy in the city of Yangshuo in Guangxi Province.

Quite a journey away from the northern peaks and deserts of Xinjiang, Guangxi shares its southern border with Vietnam and the South China Sea (the same sea that feeds the large bay that is home to the island where I’m sitting right now, actually 🙂 ). Geologically, Yangshuo also has a landscape in common with parts of northern Vietnam, with incredible karst landscapes that look as though they are ancient Chinese ink paintings of impossibly steep, knobbly, tree-covered hills and tranquil rivers sprung to life in vivid color. Lonely Planet also describes it as “family friendly” with “English speaking locals”, so we thought it might be a nice way to ease into China.

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Karst landscape around Yangshuo

Both Omeida and Yangshuo gave us warm welcomes. I’ll write more about Yangshuo later but for now let me sing Omeida’s praises.

It’s primarily a school to teach Chinese students English but they have a small and wonderful staff that teaches foreigners Chinese. The school is just outside of the touristy part of town, which suited us just fine. Accommodation was simple – a basic but clean room in an apartment building just round the block from the school itself.

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Lovely Anya

We arrived late from Xinjiang, but Anya, who was our contact at the school, and Lin, were awake and waiting to meet us despite the late hour when we arrived. They were so sweet and welcoming; everyone at Omeida was. We met our teacher, Becky, the next day, during a very brief placement text. (Can you read Pinyin (a version of written Chinese that used the Roman alphabet)? No? Do you know what this means? (a handful of words in Chinese) No? Can you read the Roman alphabet? Yes? Ok, well, we’ll start at the beginning then).

Becky eating pizza with chopsticks 🙂

She’s a fantastic teacher. Enthusiastic and demanding but easy going, with a propensity towards big, easy laughter. As challenging as Chinese is for a total beginner, it was miraculous how much we were able to learn in those two full but fast weeks at Omeida. Retention, without application, is another matter, but I’m still in awe of how much ground we were able to cover in the small amount of time, and I put it all down to her ability as a teacher.

I have to say, I was pretty intimidated about the prospect of learning a bit of Chinese. I thought I’d be frustrated and cursing the language and myself within days, but it wasn’t nearly as painful as I had expected. It felt funny to be a student again after so many years, but I got a kick out of it and I actually really like Chinese.

Ok so the pronunciation is killer. Those different tones are so subtle, and hearing the difference between words that are the same except for the tone is even harder than pronouncing them correctly. But I love the wonderfully direct and simple grammar, the way that words and sentences and meanings are built up and implied through the combination of single character words that have their own stable meaning, like solid, defined building blocks that can be arranged in an infinite number of ways to express all manner of things while retaining their own distinct form. Not at all like awful German grammar with its hundred rules and hundred exceptions, which alter words a thousand different ways, depending on gender, case, tense and which I seem utterly incapable of committing to memory!

Maybe some day I’ll have to spend more than just two weeks with the language – and see if I still like it then. I love the look of the characters as well, and the stories behind them. But there was no chance to learn any in such a short amount of time. It was enough to just get our heads around the Pinyin. Although I recognize the word “China” now (middle kingdom) and “shan”, which means mountain and rather looks like it: 山

Kashgar cast introduction

After the L O N G day of travel, we had finally arrived at our destination: Kashgar, or, to quote Lonely Planet “the westernmost metropolis of China’s New Frontier.” We were curious and exited for our first foray into mainland China, but more than anything we were totally exhausted and it was a relief to see our names on a piece of paper pressed up against the glass of the arrivals hall.

On the other side of the window, a young man in a moustache was waving enthusiastically at us. Enter Yusef, our character of a guide who was to be our companion for the next five days.

Compact and capricious, in looks he reminded me of the actor Jamel Debbouze. When hamming it up in his proficient but accented English he sounded to me a bit of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat. He shook our hands, introduced us to Hazid, our driver (whom he would refer to as “Driver” for the rest of the tour), ushered us into the waiting VW taxi that would be our ride in Xinjiang and proceeded to tell us about himself while we fought to stay awake during the drive to the hotel.

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Yusef, demonstrating to Roman how to pose for photographs like a strong man

He is descended from a line of blacksmiths, which is why he is naturally strong and energetic and doesn’t even need tea or coffee in the morning. His 60-year-old father still works as a smith today.

He’d been in a love relationship for two years, but both he and his girlfriend have now gone on to marry the people their parents chose for them. The night we met him, he’d announced that he been married for 55 days; his new young wife was about 40 days pregnant.

I wasn’t sure if congratulations or consolations were in order. Indeed as we got to know him better Yusef seemed to be a person passionately caught between tradition and modernity, deploring and praising each in turn.

I can imagine he’s not the only young Uighur to feel this way, as the encroaching tides of Chinese and foreigners hold up glittering but unattainable visions of western lifestyles, prosperity, freedom, while rapidly eroding the long-established and clearly cherished Muslim way of life in the region.

Yusef definitely added color to our experiences in Xinjiang. He had an answer for every question – some more believable than others (for example, I’d never before heard the theory that Egypt was the cradle of Buddhism, and for some reason I found it tough to believe that it was the Uighurs who introduced chop sticks to China).

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Yusef attempts to help Driver woo his girlfriend by singing love songs into the phone (much to Driver’s chagrin, I suspect)

He explained to us during our first morning on the road that Uighur is a musical language and during the journey he’d often break into song when the mood hit, which I loved and Roman hated. 🙂 He did have a wonderfully melodic voice whether he was singing regional folk classics or cheesy 1980’s love songs in English.

Some of the information I’ll share in my next Xinjiang posts will be courtesy of Yusef, so grains of salt may be required at times. Still, I loved and appreciate the added dimension of seeing Kashgar and the other places we visited through his eyes as well as my own.

Backtracking to Battambang

We’ve made it to our sixth country – Vietnam! Just got in to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City last night after a loooong day of bus travel. I’m excited to be here but for now I’m going to try to finish my posts about Cambodia, which means a bit of backtracking….

Our next destination after Kampong Chhnang was Battambang, where we had another short stay.

Fun with bus travel

Getting there from Kampong Chhnang was an experience. We’d bought bus tickets the day before and expected the short trip to get us there by early afternoon. The guy we bought the tickets from picked us up from the hotel and dropped us off at what we assumed was the bus station.

Apparently, however, there is no real bus station. Buses barrel down the road on their way to or from Phnom Penh (where they fill up – problematic for us). You have to flag them down and if (and it’s a big if) they have any free seats, they’ll stop. It took about three hours and five or six buses until one showed up with room for us. Not awful but it was a hot, dusty wait on the side of the street – be braced for a longer wait if you’re following the same route!

About Battambang

Battambang is Cambodia’s 4th most popular tourist destination (following the Angkor temples at Siem Reap, the country’s capital Phnom Penh and the beaches of Sianoukville). With a population more than three times that of Kampong Chhnang, it definitely feels like more is going on there. Hotels are plentiful and there’s a bit of a backpacker/missionary scene with a good number of cafés/restaurants catering to Westerners, ranging from pretty boring to pretty decent (Gecko Café was our favorite).

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Delicious spring rolls at Gecko Café

Hard to say how accurate my perception was, but to me, Battambang, unlike Phnom Penh, seemed to have more “middle class” Cambodians and that tourism hadn’t taken over. Walking around the streets and parks, it felt more grounded to me – I caught myself feeling relieved to see “normal people doing normal things” – like having picnics or doing aerobics or line dancing in the park, just having fun. Maybe somehow we managed to miss this side of life in Phnom Penh, but anyhow we enjoyed it in Battambang.

There was more to see in town than in Kampong Chhnang. We did our best to overcome the oppressive heat (felt like a giant sprung up from the molten depths of the earth sat heavily on the city, occasionally pushing the heat around with fiery sighs) and took in some of the crumbling French-era architecture, every day life along the riverside and the charmingly desolate train repair sheds, abandoned since colonial times except as an improvised playground for local kids. DSC 0624
At the train shed

More photos from around town here.

Out and about with Sum & Dollar

While there was more action in the center of Battambang, like Kampong Chhnang, the real beauty was outside the city. We got lucky again and had two great moto drivers/guides for a day’s excursion out and about (photos and details about sights seen to follow in a later post).

Dollar and Sum were young and energetic and good fun. They drove like mad men between destinations (great for me – anything for a stronger breeze! ;-)) and shared stories about their lives and dreams.

Best of all was chatting with them over a drink at the end of the day. They got sodas and then they got sugar rushes! Dollar kept us all laughing with really awful magic tricks and really awesome impersonations of tourists he’s met. He’s got a great ear and his Scots, British and Aussie accents were amazing! I loved the day we got to spend with them. 🙂

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Sum (on the left) and Dollar. To quote them, “Small but strong!” 🙂

Pakse travel notes

Our next stop after the lovely trek and home-stay experience outside of Savannakhet was Pakse. We used it as a base for a day trip to stunning Wat Phu, which I wrote about earlier, and for our awesome motorbike tour – proper post about this to come in the hopefully near future. 🙂

So Pakse itself was more about relaxing and research rather than sightseeing, which is why this post is mostly accommodation and food notes. 🙂

Overview and accommodation

I found Pakse to be more charming than Savannakhet (glad that we saw both though), and it was slightly more cool than Savannakhet too (proximity to the Bolaven Plateau I guess?). It’s certainly more geared towards tourists. It’s got more hotels, western food options, bike rental places – while still being a normal, down-to-earth Lao city – it doesn’t feel overrun which is nice.

All this made it a perfect base for us. We spent a bit more money (USD 18 a night) staying at the Sang Aroun Hotel. Good location, not the fastest, but decent wifi, very simple in the best way – think white floors, walls, linens – and delightfully clean. 🙂 We were really happy and comfortable there.

We love Bolaven Cafe!

Possibly the best part was it’s proximity to Bolaven Cafe. The area around Pakse is Lao coffee country, and the city is absolutely full of cafes (another reason we loved it), so we might not have found this place if our hotel hadn’t been so close. As it was, it was the absolute highlight of our time in Pakse.

The cafe in Pakse is brand-spanking-new. It’s part of a larger company of organic, fair trade coffee plantations in Laos. They employ farmers for a number of years, teaching them organic farming techniques before assisting them to buy their own land – a technique that benefits more people in the long term. The company has a few other cafes and distributors throughout the world. Their aim on the retail side is to get a strong franchise going.

That’s all great, but what made it the heart and home of our stay in Pakse was this particular cafe’s owner, Momma Tan. She’s Thai but lived in the States with her American husband for many years – and from the moment we wandered into the cafe she gave us an American-sized welcome. She really took us under her wing, treating us like her own kids, sharing inspiring stories about her life, giving us advice  on places to shop or things to do in town, using us as very willing guinea pigs to taste test her latest batch of baked goodies (all her own recipes), even driving us places.

As if that wasn’t enough, all the young Laotians working there were really sweet and welcoming and the food was delicious. The cafe has a top-notch espresso machine; Roman was enthusiastic about the best espresso he’d found in a while! With all that plus refreshing A/C and free wifi, it was the perfect spot to research our trip on and around the Bolaven Plateau. Really a home away from home for us! Thank you Momma Tan and everyone!

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The lovely staff at Cafe Bolaven. Momma Tan is in the middle (wearing glasses)

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Freshly baked coffee cake and pecan brownie with a mad good latte. Mmm….

A few of my favorite things

Other nice things about Pakse:

Hanging out on the bridge by the Champasak Palace Hotel, watching the approaching storm clouds and awesome daredevil swallows dancing over the Mekong River. They were a type I’ve never seen before, all black with a distinct white patch on the base of their tails. Wonderful to watch.

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View from the bridge; clouds gather over the Mekong – so beautiful!

Wandering the dark, peaceful streets of the village across the French Bridge, to the chorus of hundreds of chirpy frogs.

There were so many fantastic rain storms. We got treated to impressive thunder and lightning shows nearly every day. The last day we even saw a faint but lovely rainbow.

The musical sound of young students enthusiastically reciting in unison floating out of a simple school we passed on the way to the post office.

The cute twin ginger cats who were hanging around our table at Khem Khong, the floating restaurant on the Mekong we ate at one night. (Decent food, lovely river views!)

The service at Delta Coffee was so dismal that it actually was hilarious. The girls working there seemed so miserable at the prospect of having their gossip or TV-watching interrupted; they did everything they could to avoid making eye-contact. Even though there were scores of them just standing around, they couldn’t even take our order – we had to write it down ourselves. Roman and I have experienced amusingly indifferent service in Asia before, but this just took the cake. At least we had a good laugh about it. 🙂

Some of the best pizza we’ve found in Asia at Pizza Boy (also conveniently close to our hotel)! It’s not Italy good, but we were still pleasantly surprised! Just be prepared to put some effort into ordering if you want custom toppings. 🙂

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the real deal!

Savannakhet highlights

Here’s a bit of what we got up to we weren’t hiding from the overwhelming heat in Savannakhet.

Eating out

We went out for dinner one night with Antony. We were wandering along the Mekong trying to figure out where to eat when we saw an outdoor restaurant on the riverbank that seemed to be popular with the locals. Communication with the wait staff was limited pretty much to sign language, but apparently there was only one thing on the menu anyhow – a fun, interactive, Lao-style fondue.

A heavy brazier full of red-hot coals is set in the middle of the table. On top, a metal pot with a rise in the middle. The “moat” part of the pot is filled with a simple broth, the middle “grill” area is topped with some sort of thick lard that melts slowly, keeps meat from sticking and adds flavor to the broth as the meal progresses.

Everyone is given their own bowl of superbly delicious peanut and garlic based dipping sauce, and then the “ingredients” show up – one plate of all sorts of meat, from shrimp to liver, even some eggs, and one piled high with awesome mystery vegetables and packets of dry rice noodles. A metal kettle full of broth is on standby when a refill is necessary.

Add some tasty BeerLao and good conversation and you’ve got yourself an awesome meal.

I only took one (quick and bad) photo, which doesn’t do it justice, but hopefully it gives you some idea of how it works.

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Breakfast and company

We were searching for a place to eat breakfast our first day and happily were beckoned by a friendly, smiling face to take a look at the menu of a restaurant called Bounnam Natalie.

The owner of the face and the restaurant was a lovely older woman called Vongsot. A gynecologist by training, although she no longer has a practice she is still using her extensive knowledge to educate Laos about reproductive health and prevention of STDs, as well as nutritional health. Her husband is an engineer and she travels with him when his project takes him to different parts of the country, using it as an opportunity for outreach. When she’s in town though she also runs the family restaurant. She was absolutely lovely and welcoming, inspirational and interesting to talk too. We also really enjoyed her young (we think) grandson, nicknamed Lemon, who she was looking after. About five months old, he was a butterball of cuteness with an infectious smile.

The food was simple but good, and her fresh pineapple juice was a dream – creamy and refreshing. Needless to say, it became our regular breakfast spot in Savannakhet. 🙂

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The sign outside the restaurant, in case you might want to find it. 🙂

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Delicious pineapple juice, in an Arsenal glass no less!

Wat Sainyaphum was a lovely monastery that we visited. It had a quiet, peaceful atmosphere and beautiful grounds full of impressive flora. We timed it wrong though, stumbling upon it at mid-day, so the brutal sun made for a shorter visit. 🙂

A dinosaur of a museum

Apparently Savannakhet Province has been the site for some significant dinosaur finds over the years. Lonely Planet informed us that Province’s captial had a “small but well-presented” dino museum, which we were keen to check out. Even that description didn’t properly prepare me for just how small and simple this place was – but it was cute and we really got a kick out of it. The clear highlight for me was the life-size outline of a Brontosaurus that was sketched across three of the museum’s four walls in colorful Christmas lights. 🙂

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The left hand corner and back wall with display case are missing – otherwise that is pretty much the sum total of the museum there in that picture. 🙂

Trek prep

We took time to research and get signed up for a two day bike trek and home stay at one of the eco-tour places in town. More on that later, but here are some photos of a poster the place had up on the wall. All very sound advice on how to behave while interacting with villagers, but I really get a kick out of how Westerners are portrayed.

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I wonder what religion, exactly, he is representing? The Brotherhood of Barefoot Christian Warlocks?

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Do I look like that? (love the sunburns on the pic on the left!)

Little things I want to remember

The amazing ninja cat that scaled the bamboo framework as we ate dinner at Cafe Chez Boune.

The super cute, super cheeky puppy at Bounnam Natalie Restaurant

The site of a street full of moped drivers, all shading themselves from the sun with dainty plastic umbrellas.

Just how quiet the place was on Sunday – parts of the city felt like a ghost town.

The mounds of sugar palm husks piled on the ground by the river. Still sad I missed the chance to try some!

On the road again: Vientiane to Savannakhet

After the lovely reunion with Roman and introduction to Laos in Vientiane, it was time for us to start exploring the country’s southern half. Roman had already spent time checking out many of Laos’ northern highlights while I was visiting my family in the States – keep an eye on his blog (in German, he’s still on Thailand but Lao updates will follow) to learn more about that part of the country.

Our first stop was the city of Savannakhet, whose Lonely Planet description includes adjectives such as “crumbling”, “languid”, “forlorn”. Roman’s good friend and travel aficionado, Pirmin, who has seen a great deal of Asia, mentioned something along the lines of “there’s so little going on that even the flies don’t move in Savannakeht.” 😉

We got there by way of a dusty, nine hour bus ride. Roman had already seen a lot of the Laotian country side, so I enjoyed taking in the view from the window seat, watching countless acres of farmlands and wilderness roll past. It was amazing how much space there was between villages, and how dark it got out there once the sun set!

We met a nice guy from Liverpool called Antony on the bus; he’d been depending on the bus driver to let him out at a stop about halfway between Vientiane and Savannakeht – this totally didn’t happen, but happily for us he ended up becoming a lovely impromptu travel/dining partner for a couple of days.

There we further unexpected surprises with the bus ride besides them failing to alert Antony of his stop. When we arrived at what seemed to be the Savannakeht stop, we and the rest of the passengers ended up getting loaded into a small truck – evidently some sort of transfer to the city proper. They kept squeezing in people and goods until the thing was full to bursting – Roman and a couple other folks had to stand on the back edge, hanging on to the truck’s frame. When it was packed to the driver’s satisfaction, we took off on a longer than expected drive through pitch black roads till we reached the city proper (we knew we were there thanks to the appearance of street lamps, complete with frangipani and dinosaur-shaped christmas light decorations. 🙂 ). At the bus station, we haggled most unsuccessfully with the only tuk tuk driver there (he really had an unfair advantage! ;-)), and got dropped off at the first hotel we could find in Lonely Planet.

Maybe arriving after dark was a factor, but Sayamungkhun, described as having “spacious, spotlessly clean rooms” with “an inviting atmosphere”, was quite possibly one of the most grim and depressing looking hotels I’ve seen in quite some time. We left to check out some other options, helped out by a very sweet, very enthusiastic man we met who cycled around ahead of us to see if the places he was recommending were open and had room for us.

We ended up settling in at Phonevilay Hotel (more on that later) and the next day started to get to know the city. Crumbling it certainly was, it was definitely sleepy compared to Vientiane and the mid-day sun was so brutally hot I can understand why the flies wouldn’t want to move. But the place was not without its charms and points of poignant beauty, and we managed to really enjoy our time there. More details to come in the next post, but here are some initial photo impressions of the place.

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Street-side shrine

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Fading paint

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Dumpling vendor on a smoke break

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Statue in front of a sacred tree

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Honda repair shop

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Cigarettes for sale

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“Sorry for inconvenience”

Thai Island Dream: Part 6 (Ko Lipe, learning to dive)

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Ko Lipe is surrounded by a group of islands that form the protected Ko Tarutao Marine National Park. It’s meant to be some incredible nature and we’d had plans to hire a long tail and go exploring, but Roman enjoyed the dive intro on the Aquila so much that he came up with a suggestion: Why not get certified?

Lipe has a good number of dive shops that have Lonely Planet’s stamp of approval, so we decided to go for it, and we signed up for the PADI Open Water Diver course the next day. I’ve added “Seeing the Tarutao National Park” to my to-do list for the next time we go on vacation in Thailand, but the diving was such a phenomenal experience; I have no regrets about saving the park for next time. 🙂

We ended up diving with a shop called Ocean Pro. Chilled out but professional, and if all their instructors are as good as the one we learned with then I can recommend them hands down. Rebecca was our teacher, a very cool chick from NYC of all places. She was informative but very fun and knew tons about the fantastic marine life we got to see in and around the coral reefs we dived at. We also bonded over the time we’d both spent working in the in the finance industry making the money to fuel our dreams. 🙂

Learning to trust the breath

The first time I went diving was back in 2002. Getting over a hard break up I decided to shake things up and do something completely new, so I took myself on a short island vacation to Aruba. Following the “be adventurous” theme, I signed up for one of those hotel one-day dive packages, where you learn the ropes in the pool in the morning and then do a simple dive in relatively shallow waters in the afternoon.

It sounds basic, and it is, but for me it was a big deal, because I’ve got a bit of a fear of drowning. I’m not sure where this might come from, but not being able to breathe really frightens me, more so than the normal person. I was fine during the pool practice, but I started to freak out as soon as my head went under the ocean water in the afternoon and I began hyperventilating.

Luckily the instructor saw me and was able to “talk me down” using eye contact and sign language. What happened then was amazing. Using my mind and my breath I was able to calm down enough until the wonder of the dive – the amazing feeling of floating through the water as though I were flying and the excitement of seeing beautiful fish in their natural habitat – overtook and completely replaced all of the irrational but massive fear I had been experiencing.

Power of the breath

Holding to and working consciously with breath is something I learned even more about as I began and developed my yoga practice shortly thereafter. It’s something that is so simple and yet so powerful; it never ceases to amaze me when I can reconnect to it.

It was therefore really interesting for me to come back to diving after my first experience years ago and after all the practice with breath work that I’ve had from yoga. In fact in some ways certain things were actually harder for me – yoga breathing is primarily through the nose and of course when you’re diving everything is through the regulator in your mouth, so I had to overcome some well-ingrained habits.

But it was fascinating and fun to see how big of effect conscious breathing has on diving. The amount to which you can regulate your depth or the amount of oxygen you use is astounding. It was especially eye-opening to me when I was diving with an underwater camera (this was after we’d completed our certification) – I was distracted by taking photos and didn’t pay attention to my breath at all and I went through my air twice as fast!

Dive fans

The course was pretty full on (the days started early and were full of painfully dorky PADI videos, above and underwater practice, independent study and practice quizzes until it was time to sleep) but fun, and we loved the dives so much that we signed up to join a fun dive (means that the crew would set up and clean up your gear for you and you can just show up 🙂 ) bright and early the next day and ended up diving at three different sites.

We didn’t see any big critters under water, but the reefs around the islands were just teeming with life. As soon as your head is under the surface (or sometimes even before!), there’s not a direction you can look where you wouldn’t see something interesting. Puffer fish, clark’s anemone fish, sting rays, trigger fish (some that tried to attack me! 🙂 ), clown fish (the Nemo fish, in case you didn’t know that already 😉 ), porcupine and goat fish, ornate ghost pipe fish, fancy looking lion fish, poisonous and camouflaged scorpion fish, eels, sea slugs and cucumbers – the list goes on. And the anenome and coral were gorgeous and fascinating too!

We couldn’t get enough of watching it all, and we definitely plan to make diving a part of the rest of our trip, depending on location and budget. 🙂

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Dive plan Rebecca drew up for one of the fun dives

We got to use Rebecca’s underwater camera one day. I have a lot to learn about underwater photography yet – the pics aren’t great, but here are some of them anyhow. 🙂 Full disclaimer: Most of the pics have been pretty heavily doctored in iPhoto to try to get the colors to match my memory…

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Can you find Nemo? 🙂

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Sea squirts – This particular version are one of my favorites, they are so pretty and such an amazing color in real life

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Porcupine fish

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Can you see the scorpion fish in this photo?

Other random stuff
Just for myself, I want to remember:
– how amazing the sunsets were on Ko Lipe. Some of the most colorful and stunning we saw in all of Thailand, with the sky and ocean reflecting a ever-changing rainbow of pearly pastels at each other until the sun got low enough to turn it all to purple-grey.
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This is a photo of the least pretty sunset we saw on the island – and the only one I had my camera with me for. 😉

– the bizarre incident of breaking up the fight we happened upon as we walked back to our hotel one night, and how the Indian guy, Joseph, who was outnumbered and definitely getting his butt kicked, was happy when he finally found us a couple of days later to say thank you.
– the hilariously unenthusiastic and pathetic karaoke that was going on at the hotel down the street from ours. Hotel California with the words half remembered, sung by a guy who couldn’t even be bothered (or maybe was too ashamed?) to get up from his table. Cracked me up. 🙂

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! 😀

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

India recap: Bengaluru

After Hampi we had a quick stop-over in Karnaka’s capital, Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore). We went here because of the good travel connections – getting in and out of Hampi by train is somewhat limited.  Roman was also curious to see India’s IT capital.

We barely had any time there and a good chunk of it was used drinking smoothies in exchange free WiFi while we tried to figure out visa requirements for Thailand. So I don’t want to speak ill of Bangalore based on insufficient exposure, but it wasn’t particularly exciting to me. From what we did see, it had none of Mumbai’s vibrancy or Delhi’s sense of history and culture. According to Lonely Planet “the city has experienced a mad surge of urban development of late” (thanks to its IT industry), which may be a contributing factor to why it I found it to feel so flat. Certainly the hotel we stayed in didn’t help the city’s case. 😉

Highlights/points of interest included:

–       A nice (but not amazing) meal at Ebony’s – located on the top of a sky scraper it’s meant to be exciting for its view but I was more charmed by the paneer than the skyline.

–       Listening to blaring Christmas carols including “Feliz Navidad” while sitting outside in a t-shirt at the smoothie joint

–       We wanted to recharge our Tata Photon (wireless 3G internet connection) but discovered in the morning that all the IT shops don’t open until late. This is because they stay open late – my guess is due to remote tech support to the West?

–       Technically this is pre-Bengaluru, but I really enjoyed the overnight train there from Hospet – a town close to Hampi which serves as a transport hub. It was my last train ride in India. We met a lovely family who were traveling to a suburb of Bangaluru. Anurag is a young guy studying to become a doctor. We chatted with him and his parents (his jovial father boarded the train wearing three hats – one for each of them. His mother was shy about her English and barely spoke but had the most lovely smile.) and they shared some of their home grown fruit with us. We’d chatted with folks on trains before, but Anurag was so open and easy to talk with – really nice and interesting conversation and just another example of the openness and hospitality we experienced with people in India.