Dec 22, 2008

Not quite the denouement I was hoping for

I´ve spent the past week on Koh Tao, or "Turtle Island".

named for the shape of the island, not after a dinky sculpture

It´s located off of the Southeast coast, in the Gulf of Thailand, about a 2 hour boat ride from Koh Samui. It´s a beautiful place.

I spent my first day here exploring the island a bit, and then, after discovering that the entire island is devoted to diving, decided to spend my last week of vacation doing just that. I went out the next afternoon with a very small group, just a young woman from Denmark and our French divemaster, Fred. Despite my general disdain for cheese-eating surrender monkeys, Fred was a good guy, and he seemed very happy with his life as a young divemaster on Koh Tao. Anyhow, we made our way out near the other boats

and did our descent. The visibility wasn´t great - apparently it´s been really windy here lately, which kicks up the waves, which, in turn, kicks up sand and whatnot and makes the water a bit murky. I was having trouble equalizing on the way down - getting my ears to pop - and kept having to stop and ascend for a bit before trying again. It was really bothering me, and even painful at times. Finally, I got it taken care of, although I periodically felt pain in my ears when ascending or descending. The dive was great, despite the visibility, and we saw a lot of great tropical fish and corals.

Later that evening, however, my right ear felt like it was either waterlogged or had wadded up cotton stuffed into it, and my hearing was off. When it hurt the next morning, I decided to take the next day or two off from diving. I had developed a cold as well, so I thought some time off would do me good. I ran into Fred again the other day, and he assured me that I wasn´t missing much due to unseasonably bad conditions. I mentioned my ear situation to him, and he recommended that I pay a visit to the local clinic, affiliated with Bangkok Hospital.

if that slogan doesn´t inspire confidence, I don´t know what does

An hour and about $50 later, I had a handful of prescription drugs and a diagnosis of mild to moderate middle ear trauma in both ears, along with strict orders to stay out of the water for several days. Oh, and my cold had developed into a full-blown throat infection as well. So it´s been a fun week.

Lest ye think I´m complaining about a week on a tropical island, let me assure you that I´ve thoroughly enjoyed spending lazy afternoons reading in my hammock on the front porch of my bungalow

while listening to the sound of the waves lapping at the beach about 10 yards away

and then wandering over to the beachfront bar next door for a sunset happy hour

before strolling into town to chat up some of my fellow travellers over food and drink. The crowd here is considerably younger than anywhere else I´ve been on this trip. Apparently the famous Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan was just last week and all the Eurokids decided to come here afterwards.

Two other good things to note about this week - first, I finally gave in and got myself a Thai massage (a legit one, not the kind that gives you crabs). When I walked into the joint, I saw a handful of tiny Thai girls and thought "silly girls, you can´t hurt me." But then the Mamasan who owned the place stepped out from the back room and ordered me to lie down on my stomach. She´s either related to former wrestling great Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka, or is Jimmy himself after getting one of those $1650 sex change operations advertised in the Bangkok Post. I don´t recall all that she put me through, but at one point she was behind me and had me in a double chickenwing, shaking me violently from side to side, as my arms flailed about helplessly. During the course of the abuse I almost bit through my tongue trying to stifle screams of pain. But after an hour, I felt pretty damn good. A round of applause for Ms. Snuka.

Also, like the rest of Southeast Asia, this place has excellent examples of Engrish.

So that´s it. That´s the trip. One helluva month. Tomorrow (Tuesday) morning I catch a 930 boat back to Koh Samui, then a flight to Bangkok, and late tomorrow night back to the good ol´ US of A via Tokyo. Thanks for reading, and Merry Christmas.


Dec 15, 2008


What happens in Bangkok stays in Bangkok.

I'm off to Koh Tao tomorrow for a week of diving and relaxing on the beach. I need a vacation from my vacation. I'm worn out.

Dec 13, 2008

Chiang Mai

This place is great, and my time here started off with a bang. I checked into my (very nice) hotel and wandered around town. I found a great used bookstore and picked up 6 or 8 novels I'd been meaning to read. I kept walking down the street and decided to stop in a bar for a bottle of Singha. Before long I found myself playing Jenga with the waitstaff.

Because, hey, who doesn't love Jenga?

Jenga gave way to billiards. These girls were total pool sharks and kicked my ass.

Then things got weird. Someone ordered plates of fried bugs. I believe I tried some but my memory of this part of the evening is a bit fuzzy.

Then some random elephant showed up.

Then I woke up my hotel room.

Yesterday I spent the day out in the mountains. I hung out with some elephants

floated down the river

climbed up to a waterfall

and ended the day with some whitewater rafting. Not a bad day's work. The jungle is beautiful.

And earlier today I took another cooking class. Like the last one, it started with a trip to the market.

My steamed fish in banana leaf, yellow curry chicken, and chicken cashew were all very good.

The instructors weren't as funny as Shecky Nguyen, but then he wasn't as cute as they were.

Also, I'm pretty sure I discovered the inspiration for Van Halen's "Ice Cream Man".

Hanoi/Halong Bay

The ride into Hanoi from the airport was depressing. The city seemed to be as chaotic and sterile as Saigon, only more run-down, polluted & depressing. Once the cab turned into the Old Quarter neighborhood downtown, however, things seemed to pick up a bit. The motobikes and suicidal traffic continued, but there seemed to be a bit of flavor to the area. So after checking into my hotel, I grabbed my camera and wandered around for a bit.

There's a big lake in the middle of the Old Quarter - Hoan Kiem - with a historic temple on a small island that you can visit via a footbridge.

I stopped in one of the lakeside cafes for a beer and some people-watching. My table had a nice view.

Crossing the streets is very much like a live-action game of Frogger. People just wait for a slight break in traffic, then walk into the street and hope/expect that cars/motobikes/etc will just swerve out of their way.

Halong Bay is kind of like Angkor - it's an incredible must-see-before-you-die destination that can't be fully appreciated unless you're there in person. We actually went to Bai Tu Long Bay, just northeast of Halong Bay, which has much less boat traffic than Halong Bay. In fact, the company that ran my trip has an exclusive license from the Vietnamese government (*cough* bribes *cough*) to operate in Bai Tu Long, so we only saw 1 other boat in 2 days.

Our boat was fantastic - a replica 17th century Chinese junk, swank, and staffed with 9 people for our group of 4 people. The food was ridiculous. Seven course meals? Try nine for lunch and ten for dinner. (No, I have not been exercising, so yes, I have packed on some pounds during the trip.) We did some kayaking, called it an early night after dinner, and visited a local fishing village the next morning.

Dec 9, 2008

The adventures continue

I thought I'd write a few words while looking for ways to kill the next 9.5 hours in the Hanoi airport. My flight to Bangkok was cancelled and the next available one is at 9 pm (it's 11:30 am local time). And that's too late to catch a connecting flight to Chiang Mai, as I had planned. I hope my Chiang Mai hotel gets my email indicating that I'll be arriving a day later than anticipated.

Anyhow, I was skimming my earlier posts and realized I'd painted a rather idyllic picture of things here. The reality is very much a mixed bag. I've seen incredible sights, eaten wonderful food, and met all kinds of warm, friendly and interesting people. I've been to places I'd go back to again in a heartbeat. I'm halfway through my trip and I've thoroughly enjoyed it.

But there also are a lot of things that are unpleasant or difficult to see. Shantytowns outside of the cities where people live in makeshift homes out of wood scraps and sheets of plastic tarp. Toothless women carrying burdensome loads of fruit & vegetables on their backs. Schoolgirls and one-legged men on crutches roaming the streets and hawking kitsch to any Westerner they see. Garbage strewn along the sides of roads. Countless stray, mangy dogs looking for any scrap of edible garbage they can find. Chaotic traffic, with neverending motoscooters belching out clouds of grey-blue filth. Smog in some cities that makes it difficult to see buildings that aren't at all far away. These last two things have given me a hacking cough for the past few days.

So, like anyplace, this region has its share of good and bad. Thankfully, the pendulum seems to be moving in the right direction. For years many areas in Southeast Asia had no regard for the environment whatsoever - and it shows. But local governments, tour agencies, farmers and fishermen are beginning to realize the importance and value of their natural surroundings and are taking steps to protect them. Development in a lot of cities seems to be providing opportunities that didn't before exist. There are plenty of reasons for optimism in the face of the ugliness.

One last thing, following up on the mangy stray dogs - on the way from Hoi An to the Da Nang airport the other day I saw a dog on the side of the road wearing a freaking necktie. I swear I am not making that up. I thought it was a shredded leash remnant or something, but as we got closer it became clear that he was wearing a tie. I don't know who decided to spruce him up like that, but plaudits to them. It's a sharp look. I need to look into some neckwear for the lads.

Okay, that didn't take much time. I've still got another 9 hours to kill. At least it's past noon, that makes it officially acceptable to have a beer. I'll post Hanoi & Halong Bay updates when I can.

Dec 7, 2008

Hoi An

Beautiful little town on the river with neat colonial architecture, beach and Cham ruins nearby, and about a brazillion tailors that will make you a custom-fit suit for a fraction of what it would cost in the states. People actually vacation here just to get themselves a new wardrobe. I gave in and had some SWEET silk Illini loungewear made. Orange smoking jacket w/navy trim & belt, navy pants. Just like Hef, my fellow Illini. All I need is a brandy snifter in one hand and my remote in the other. The people in Hoi An were terrific, and I met a lot of cool people from other countries as well - not many Americans, however. Australia and Germany were well-represented (as has been the case in other places I've been as well), along with France, Denmark, Sweden, Britain, the Netherlands, Canada, and Peru.

One of my favorite incidents took place over a bowl of Cao Lau, a fantastic dish unique to Hoi An. The hotel across the street from the restaurant where I was eating had just put up a Christmas tree. My waitress was standing near me and started singing "zingle bells". She only knew the first two lines and then hummed the rest. I started singing it along with her, and she clapped and ran off to the bar. She returned with a pen and paper and asked me to write down the lyrics so she could learn the rest of the words. I did so, and when she kept getting tripped up on "one horse open sleigh", I drew her a picture of said horse and sleigh. She went over and over the song at least a dozen times, then went out to a Brit couple sitting on the front patio and started to sing it to them. Poor girl, the husband didn't want to hear it. Laughing, he told her to knock it off, as he hated the song. She looked at me for support, and I told her to keep singing. So she finished, and then sang it a second time just to rub it in. She then taped my scribbles on the wall behind the bar.

Anyhow, it's a pretty town:

This was in an excellent bar/restaurant called Before-n-Now. Dollar Tigers, good food, and a playlist heavy on Led Zeppelin and Johnny Cash.

Making a living on the river

Sometimes the tides messed things up a bit

I also took a wonderful cooking class. We made our own fresh rice paper, spring rolls, Vietnamese pancakes with shrimp & pork, and eggplant & veggies in a clay hotpot. The class started with an early morning trip to the local market:

Some sort of insect-based snack. I think I heard someone say they were some kind of bee.



Our instructor. Not only a good chef, he was also very funny. I called him Shecky Nguyen.

My Vietnamese pancake was the BOMB