Archive for December, 2009

This trip is truly a discovery/rediscovery of myself and the world around me.  Many of you don’t know that Livia and I broke up a few weeks before my trip.  It was somewhat unexpected, but really the right thing for both of us.  I still planned on moving to New York, and in some ways it created a blank slate of new opportunities.  The road ahead in a new city was just for my own making.  Now, I could spend this trip for me, and not missing someone back home.  But those can be just words of consolation, as I try to see the positive side of life – always making lemonade out of lemons.  I have truly enjoyed this trip, but in quiet moments, I am sometimes rehashing my past relationships, my role, what I will do differently next time, what do I really want – standard break up fare. 

So it was a big surprise when I developed a crush on a 22-year old Laotian young man a few days ago!  He was our guide for a walking tour of Khmu ethnic minority villages in Nong Khiaw, Laos. We had wonderful conversations about everything, and we both revealed ourselves to each other.  On the boat ride home, I realized I had developed a small crush on him that made me smile.  I smiled because it felt good to know there are many people in this world I can develop a connection with – over the span of just a few hours.  Now if I can just find a more age-appropriate woman 🙂

I really loved my time in Nong Khiaw, another sleepy town nestled in the hills and on a river.  I spent two night there, the first night in the fanciest bungalow in town for the high price of $40 (and it doesn’t even have a flush toilet – just a bowl, no infrastructure for plumbing).  The next night I downgraded to a rustic bungalow for $6 (squat toilet and I was a bit fearful of bed bugs).  Both bungalows had stellar views of the river.  Both nights I also had the most amazing steam baths.  There is a small wooden 5′ x 8′ shack.  It take one hour to prepare the steam for you, individually creating a fire with aromatic herbs and wood, and the steam flows up through a small hole in the floor of the house.  It’s not too hot, so you can steam for about an hour.  Afterwards, they serve you delightful lemongrass tea in the cool evening air.  The total experience costs less than $2 and I slept like a baby.

I’ve returned to Luang Prubang and had a wonderful Christmas.  In the morning market, they sell little sparrows in bamboo cages and locals buy them to release and make a wish.  On Christmas morning, I bought two birds and made wishes for my future.  Seemed like a great gift to myself.  Spent Christmas day at the Tad Kuang Si waterfalls.  The owners of the guest house invited me to their Christmas dinner and we feasted for many hours.  Today, I will go on a bike ride and wind down with a massage.  Tomorrow, I fly to Hanoi for my final scheduled four weeks in Vietnam.  I am thinking of extending my stay though – maybe a few months in Thailand, Nepal and India, who knows? And that is the amazing thing about life.  One door closes, and smacks wide open a whole new world of possibilities. 

Attached are photos on an elephant trek (they usually only put max two people on the seat, and at first they placed me on the elephant’s neck, terrifying as we moved an I imagined myself coming all the way to SE Asia just to die from a fall from an elephant?!? So we crammed into the seat), my gleeful self with my 3-inch catch from net fishing in Nong Khiaw, and the view at twilight in Nong Khiaw.

Net fishing in Nong Khiaw, Laos.  I caught this three-inch fish and couldn’t be happier with a 25 pound salmon!

Twilight at Nong Khiaw, Laos.

Read Full Post »

Laos has been totally refreshing this past week. I spent three days visiting the temples surrounding Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and it is a truly magical place. But I also spent a lot of time hiding in my hotel room, watching endless movies on HBO/Cinemax. Generally, I am pretty fearless, but I was feeling afraid of the world and just wanted to hunker down in the safety of my air conditioned room. There are so many street vendors everywhere – from tuk tuk drivers to children selling post cards and water. Tourists (myself included at times) adopt this stance while walking on the street of looking down, avoiding eye contact and scurrying by the somewhat aggressive vendors. My isolation in the hotel room was an extrapoliation of this avoidance. I didn’t want to be this way, but just found myself slipping into this space while in Cambodia.

The Southeast Asian Games (regional Olympics) were occurring in Vientiane, Laos, so I headed for the hills and spent two nights in Vang Vieng, Laos. As soon as the bus left the city, rounded the curve and I saw the mountains, I breathed a sigh of relief. I forget how much I need nature sometimes. Vang Vieng is a beautiful town, located on the river and nestled in the hills. Spent an absolutely lovely day kayaking and caving. We used a sea kayak, and passed rice paddie fields and water buffalos cooling off in the river. I knew my days of fear were over when I entered a pitch black cave with only me and the tour guide, and I was laughing at the absurdity of it all (this is fun?! people pay money to scramble around in the dark?) instead of being afraid of being alone with a stranger in a cave. There is another weird side of Vang Vieng that includes backpackers sitting in restaurants watching endless episodes of “Friends” – I don’t know why they all play the same TV show, or getting drunk on the river and inner tubing. I was ready to leave and finally get to Luang Prubang, Laos.

They say Luang Prubang is a tonic for the soul, and this is definitely true for me as well. The town is straddled by two rivers, and has low lying buildings and just has a very relaxing vibe. I’m staying in a sweet guest house that fosters a communal sense so all the travelers spend their days together. I have emerged from my coccoon and ready to suck the marrow from life once again! This morning, we walked along the dark streets at 5:30 am to witness and participate in the daily alms for the monks. Hundreds of monks (most of them novice teenage boys) pass along the street collecting rice, bananas and other offerings from both locals and tourists. There are also local children that dot the streets kneeling with cardboard boxes. On occasion, the monks take food they have been given and provide it to the street children. It is an interesting circle of life, generosity and poverty.

My plans are evolving, but I will likely spend the next few days in the north at a small rural village on a homestay with a local family. They don’t have electricity or plumbing, and I want to get a sense of how most Laotians live outside the cities. This feels like the perfect way to spend Christmas, and I continue to be so thankful for my life, this experience, my family and friends. Thank you to all of you for being in my life!

Attached are photos of me at Angkor Wat, Cambodia; view from my bungalow in Vang Vieng, Laos; me providing morning alms to monk in Luang Prubang, Laos.

Angkor Wat in Siem Riep, Cambodia.
Bumpy bike ride outside Pnomh Penh, Cambodia.
Morning alms in Luang Prubang, Laos.

Read Full Post »

The transition from Bali has been pretty rough. I arrived in Bangkok after 10pm, and got a bit lost before finding the guesthouse the guide book described as charming. Traveller hint, charming is code word for decrepit! Shared bathroom, the floor was wet from the shower (no separate tub, the shower is like an RV and gets everything wet), and no toilet paper. The 8 x 10 room was hot, dark, and there wasn’t even a top sheet! The next morning, I set off to find a new hotel and after going to 8 places that were full, I found a room with a private shower but it wasn’t available until later that morning. So I took a ferry, then the skytrain to a posh mall and watched a movie (New Moon, I needed something familiar). Hours later, I returned to the new hotel to check in and they told me it wouldn’t be ready for two more hours. They let me lie down on the couch because I was so exhausted and I turned my head and cried. What was I doing at this $10 night hotel and did the next six weeks include other horrid experiences like this (sorry, the question marks and punctuation are challenging to make work on a Khmer keyboard). Homesickness was hitting me hard!

The next day, I arrived in Pnomh Penh, Cambodia and decided not to be cheap and went to a hotel that was $27. When they showed me the room, I think I cried a little, but this time with happiness from a flat screen TV and separate shower. I was disturbed when I read the rules posted inside the room, since the first one was no sex with children allowed in rooms. At night, I coud see evidence of the sex industry on the streets. The next day, I went on a 25 kilometer bike tour that was billed as easy. Yes, it was flat the whole way, but very little paved roads so quite a bumpy experience! We took a ferry, and then cycled past Muslim slums. And then passed the Vietnamese shantytown with the streets lined with small homes along the river on stilts with corrugated tin roofs. We went to the zoo that had fallen into disrepair and they only have one lonely snake. As we walked along, the tour guide pointed out the palm trees, and then proceeded to tell me the Khmer Rouge used the jagged edges of the fronds to kill people during the war. There is so much sadness, poverty and despair in Southeast Asia. My heart breaks a little bit every day. But then there is also so much hope for the future. The tour guide told me his younger sister is the first person in his family to graduate from University, and he hopes to attend next year as well.

Yesterday, I arrived in Siem Riep, home of Angkor Wat and the renown temples. It is a lovely city, and feels quite safe and comfortable. I went to Angkor Wat last night during sunset, and it just takes your breath away. In a few days, I fly to Vientiene, Laos. Decided to splurge and spend the money since it’s a 30 hour bus ride from Siem Riep.

I know this isn’t the usual upbeat e-mail full of wonder and awe, but it is the real other side of life in this part of the globe. And it motivates me to want to continue to change the world. Attached are a few photos from paintings on the wall and ceiling in a temple in Pnomh Penh; and the South Gate to Angkor Wat.

Glorious painted ceiling and walls in a Buddhist Temple outside Pnomh Penh, Cambodia.
South gate entrance to Angkor Wat in Siem Riep, Cambodia.

Read Full Post »

Today is my last full day in Bali and I head to Bangkok tomorrow. In order to prepare myself to be jarred by big city life, I will be getting my sixth massage in 13 days! I am going to have my final Balinese splurge and get a 3 1/2 hour package. For the low price of $30, I will have a spa day that includes a 90 minute massage, honey and cucumber facial, and hair creme bath.

These last few days have been amazing. Need to find a new adjective because everything is just so AMAZING! I attended another cremation ceremony. This one was relatively smaller for only one person, so I was able to see the more intimate details of the ceremony. The streets of Ubud were closed as the delegation of gamelan troupe, women carrying offerings on their head, friends/family/community, proceeded down the city streets into the Monkey Forest. I could hear the chanting and see all the offerings they placed into the coffin.

Yesterday, I went on an amazing bicycle tour. The tour starts with breakfast overlooking a lake and Mount Batur (still active volcano). We stop at a coffee plantation and learn about the process and sample five kinds of drinks including Bali coffee, ginseng coffee, lemongrass tea, cocoa and ginger tea. We bike 25 kilometers (all downhill!) with many educational stops along the way. The tour guide is very informative and we visit a family compound (the pigs in the backyard he calls a living bank, just like an ATM!), rice farmers, village temple and more. As we bike through small villages, the children come out and scream “HELLO!” Again, I felt so lucky to be witnessing everyday life in Bali.

Last night, I attended a fantastic cultural performance of Kecak Fire and Trance Dance. It’s outside and in the round and we were in the front row (I’d heard before about fireballs and was ready to raise my feet!). Men are chanting, the story unfolds and the costumes are spectacular. Before the fire walk, my friend leans over and asks if I want to walk on the hot coals and for a moment I pause because I felt/feel like I can do anything. It has been a long time since I felt like I could do anything and this sense just pervades my being, to the point that I think I can walk on fire! Well, I didn’t walk on fire but am ready for new adventures in the coming weeks in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Thank you to everyone for partaking in my journey!

Attached are photos of the cremation ceremony (the body is inside the bull), pounding rice on the bicycling tour, Kecak fire walk, and me with the Kecak performers.

Read Full Post »

The journey continues and I keep wondering, how can it get any better? And it just does!

I left Ubud on a very high note with a $15 three hour massage (yes, that makes four massages in seven days)! The masseuse went to my new friend’s home, Denise and Ketut, in Denpasar. Walking into their home is unbelievable and I was already relaxed before the massage began. I felt like I was in paradise, getting a massage, the windows flung upon, their daughter playing piano and their son is swimming in the pool.

The next day, I arrived in Lovina, on the north coast of Bali most famous for their dolphin tours. I have a bungalow on the beach, and can hear the gamelan music from the adjacent temple. Yesterday, I went snorkeling at Menjangan Island and it was spectacular. So many fish that I have never seen before, and the coral and underwater life is amazing. It makes me want to paint, sculpt and create jewelry/metal work!

This morning, I went on the dolphin tour from 6am-8am. There were five of us on a motorized catamaran and we saw THOUSANDS of DOLPHINS! I sat next to the guide and he would happily scream, “Dolphin jumping! Look!” One of the best parts of the tour was his total glee to see these dolphins even though he gives this tour every single day. It was as if he was seeing them for the first time. And this trip makes me feel that way too. I want to savor this feeling of wonder and awe that I feel every day. I know I will bring that home with me and it is such a gift.

Afterwards, I had a personalized tour by motorbike of a nearby Buddhist Monastery. Bali is 90 percent Hindu, although most of Indonesia is Muslim. Then I capped off my day with a trip to the hot springs. Only a few tourists from China, Java, and many locals too. It’s a natural hot springs and the water is spewn from the mouths of dragons. I thought I should really do it up, so I asked my guide about swimming with the dolphins (they have this offered in a hotel swimming pool in Lovina). He said I didn’t need it, because it’s for people who need power and I didn’t need any more power!

Tomorrow, I head back to Ubud for four nights before leaving to Bangkok. I am so excited to return to Ubud. On my first (and only) trip to Vietnam in 1998 I fell in love with Hanoi. We took a two day trip to Halong Bay and were so excited to return to Hanoi. I have this same feeling about Ubud, it is like going home.

The attached photos include the crystal blue water at Menjangan Island, the dolphins in Lovina, and the natural massaging force of the hot springs (this was the coolest part of the hot springs!).

Read Full Post »