Month: December 2015

Laos: Off The Beaten Path

Peaceful Pakse

Peaceful Pakse

It’s taken me far too long to learn this lesson, but I think it’s finally sinking in… If I want to escape from the crowds, the chaos, the loud, bustling, maddening tourists that are everywhere in Asia – I need to make my own path. Sometimes, literally.

I started my Laos trip in Pakse – in the far southern region where fewer tourists step off the plane. And I was immediately smitten with the quiet beauty of this country. Staying in a sleepy, one-cobbled-street town on the banks of the gently flowing Mekong, I ate freshly-caught grilled fish by the riverside one night and was whisked down dirt roads on the back of a motorbike to a local market by my hotel’s kind proprietor the next morning. And my local guide Pieng drove me around his home town – perched on his motorbike navigating deeply rutted roads as I gripped the side of my sidecar.  Remote temples, frangipani trees bursting with fragrant, yellow blossoms, kind-eyed elderly women tying prayer bracelets around my wrist – gazing into my eyes and wishing me a peaceful life…this is the Asia I had been looking for.

My arrival in Luang Probang only solidified my love of this country. I awoke before dawn (thanks in part to an overly eager rooster next door) and wandered the streets – seemingly alone. I was the only person roaming a local temple – gazing upon countless statues of solemn, proud women draped in amber hues. I climbed the local “mountain” far before the hoards descended – finding myself atop the hill to enjoy the expansive view with nary a soul in sight.

Beauty in Luang Probang

Beauty in Luang Probang

And then … I got perhaps a little over-confident. Thinking I would escape the crowds once again – I awoke yesterday morning at 5:15am … wandering up the street to what I expected to be a quiet morning spent on the sidewalk – watching the local monks receive alms. Not so fast. As soon as I turned the corner an old woman scampered up to me – shoving a plastic plate of wrapped cookies and a bamboo basket of sticky rice in my face. “Monks!” she exclaimed. I kindly shook my head and wandered over to a bamboo mat – ready to perch on one of the handy stools set out. “No!” she exclaimed. “Money!!”  Apparently I had to buy her goods and pay her for the pleasure of squatting on the side of the road.

My purchased wares - waiting for the monks

My purchased wares – waiting for the monks

So I hurried back to my hotel room, grabbed my wallet, found my lady and handed over my Kip – taking the baskets of food and squatting down amidst the masses of loud, camera-toting Chinese tourists. Grumbling inside and shaking my head at the spectacle. And yet – I was part of it. I was the hypocritical tourist. And as the barefoot monks traipsed by – shrouded in bright orange and bowing as they received the crackling plastic-covered packets of cookies and small pinches of barely-warm sticky rice – I tried to remain present as I bowed my head and proferred my purchased goods. But really … I felt like a fraud.

And perhaps this souring mood of mine colored the rest of the day. Because I could just not escape. My van pulled up to gather me for my trip to the Kuang Si Waterfalls – and then we picked up a loud Australian family … And then somehow the driver crammed another Korean family of five into the van. I was left sitting on top of the gear shift as we hurtled up and down the narrow mountain roads.

Kuang Si Waterfalls

Kuang Si Waterfalls

Once we arrived at the waterfalls – chaos descended. I could barely see through the hoards of roaming tourists and decided to put my head down and march past them to get to the top … but was waylaid by people mulling around the cages of bears we had to walk through in order to continue up the path. I could not look. I finally made it to the top – past selfie-snapping girls and shirtless white dudes flexing their muscles as they posed for pictures on top of waterfalls they were not supposed to be posing on top of. Madness. And yet – once again – hypocrisy. Because I was part of it (even though I did not flash a peace sign at my own iPhone as I snapped my pictures).

On the ride back down the mountain – the elderly Korean grandfather smashed next to me in the front seat and I had a nice chat as the driver continued to elbow my side as he shifted the van’s gears. We both commented on the Che Guevera bumper sticker on the pickup in front of us. And I found myself smiling as he exclaimed “Oh America!” upon learning where I was from. But then he talked about his visit to the elephant farm – excitedly sharing how they got the elephants to move left and then right upon command (me thinking about the painful prodding that likely precipitated this “learned” behavior). And then the driver farted – casually cracking his window for too brief a moment. And really … I just had to laugh.

Kids awaiting the monks ... and their food

Kids awaiting the monks … and their food

So this morning – when the roosters started crowing at 5am – I reflected on yesterday. And, it being the New Year, I knew I wanted to do things differently. To start afresh. So I set off to walk the streets on my own before the sun rose. And when the sky started to lighten, I found a small, quieter side street and perched on the curb by myself across from a small grouping of children. And I focused on these kids – rather than the milling people who started to appear in anticipation of the monks’ arrival.

A boy and his dog

A boy and his dog

And I was treated to a sight of a young boy playing fondly with a friendly dog. And another boy wearing a Santa hat waiting patiently for the monks to pass by. You see – these were kids from the remote villages who leave their homes at 4:30am every morning to travel to town to receive extra food from the monks. And they sit quietly, bowing in prayer as their bags are filled with plastic-wrapped cookies and extra handfuls of sticky rice. And after the monks pass they gleefully compare their goods. And then they disappear, like the monks, around the corner. And peace descends once again. And I take a bit of it with me as I travel down the road.

Giving & Receiving

Giving & Receiving

Cambodia Part 3 – Peace on Earth

Sunrise over Angkor Wat

Sunrise over Angkor Wat

“&$%#!!!,” I exclaimed. (Believe me … this is not how I anticipated starting this post … my last from Cambodia and on Christmas Day to boot…). “Where is my iPhone?!”  I posed this urgent question to the lunch table full of my new American friends I had met at 4:30am this morning – the ungodly hour we were all picked up for our sunrise bike tour of Angkor Wat.

After a frantic search of the restaurant I scrambled outside to find our guide Sambo. “Sambo – I can’t find my iPhone,” I said in a disturbingly calm voice (‘cuz I was freaking out). And this man – this 5’3″ Cambodian man named Sambo – jumped into action. We searched everywhere as he called the Grasshopper Tours office. Since the tour was officially over, he  sent the others back to their hotels but then personally escorted me to the “Tomb Raider” temple – the last of the long series of temples we had visited on our morning trek around Angkor Wat. My mind was already reeling … could I get another iPhone 6 in Siem Reap? How does that whole sharing files between iPhones and iPads go again? And my PICTURES!!!

Ta Prohm (AKA "Tomb Raider") Temple

Ta Prohm (AKA “Tomb Raider”) Temple

Thankfully – Sambo’s own soon phone rang and, though he was trying valiantly to keep up with me as I trotted toward the temple, he finally stopped. And I stopped. And he spoke in Cambodian. That I didn’t understand. And then he simply turned around and started walking back the way we came. And then he hung up the phone. And then he smiled.

I’m a little horrified that I’m writing about the loss (and ultimate retrieval) of a tiny piece of technology after having spent the most magical nine hours riding a bike along painfully narrow paths through jungle-like forests and down roads where I glimpsed thousand-year old temples in the distance as the sun continued to rise. I mean seriously – this hallowed place was so full of peace and beauty and history. And the ride we took was exciting and terrifying and invigorating. And this morning was the perfect ending to my travels through this country I have come to love.

But this is where I am today. And really – I am grateful. And my gratitude is focused more on Sambo than the discovery of my stupid phone (though, if I’m being honest, I did start to tear up when I knew it had been found). I am just so thankful that I got to spend the day with this kind, generous man. Even before iPhone-gate – I was smitten with him. His love of his homeland, of the beauty surrounding us, the history, the splendor. It’s not something I get to experience often enough.

As the two of us huddled together in the back of a tuk tuk on the way back to town – he showed me pictures of his daughter. And his 10-day old son. And he regaled me with more stories about this enchanting place. And I sit here shaking my head that my memories of today – Christmas 2015, my first visit to Angkor Wat, my last day in magical Cambodia – will also hold thoughts of this man named Sambo. Because on this day – he was the true gift.

Now – a few more pictures from that pesky iPhone of mine…

All lined up

All lined up

 

My friend Sambo took this one

My friend Sambo took this one

 

A sweet calf staring at me as I rode past on a precariously thin strip of dirt (saying to myself repeatedly - "I can do hard things...I can do hard things"

A sweet calf staring at me as I rode past on a precariously thin strip of dirt as I said to myself repeatedly – “I can do hard things…I can do hard things”

 

Beautiful 12th century goddesses everywhere I looked

Beautiful 12th century goddesses everywhere I looked

 

Smiling from above...

Smiling from above…

 

One more sunrise shot - because seriously...

One more sunrise shot – because seriously…

 

 

Cambodia Part 2 – Turning 100

My best girl Millot on our last day together

My best girl Millot on our last day together

It was a coincidence really… This morning I got it in my head to count how many days I’ve been on the road. And wouldn’t you know it? 100. 100 days. Whoa.

And I will admit it. Today – I am weary. Climbing up and down the deep valleys far in the Cambodian jungles on the heals of eight wonderous elephants might have something to do with it.  The grief I still feel from my tearful goodbye as Millot (my fave elephant) disappeared into the tall trees could be playing a role in my fatigue. Or perhaps it’s remnants of the 36 hour “flu” I experienced earlier this week (during which I had the pleasure of throwing up into Cambodian toilets full of diminutive frogs at 2 o’clock in the morning) .

Regardless, my energy is low. And yet I have SO many stories to tell of the past weeks. So today – I will rely on images to tell my tales … along with a smattering of words.

Jiggly & Babe

Jiggly & Babe

These pigs had my heart … As soon as I started rubbing Jiggly’s ears she would topple over onto her side so I could give her prodigious belly a good rub. They’ll be given to local villagers soon as part of the Elephant Valley Project’s “Piggy Bank” program – whereby they “rent” pigs to villagers so they can then have piglets of their own – after which they’ll return the original pig. We built a pig palace on one of our volunteer afternoons – nailing and hammering and sawing together a fine house for our friends.

Shop on wheels

Shop on wheels

This “shop” (carted about by a single motor bike)  was just one of the colorful things I glimpsed from my breakfast table in the dusty town of Sen Monorom. Across from me that morning sat one man with one eye whose pet monkey recently passed away (and who wore his sadness like a heavy sweater in the heat) and his friend – another Ex Pat in for the weekend who invited me to visit him at the Correspondent’s Club in Bangkok when I’m in town.

"Room" with a view

“Room” with a view

My favorite lunch spot – a small platform nestled close to the coffee plantation I visited over the weekend.  Mr. Dol (a local motorbike “taxi” driver) whisked me into the hills to this little oasis – me wrapping my arms around his buddha belly as he gunned it down a narrow strip of red earth through the local black pepper fields. He got me situated here with my “Cambodian pancake” and I thought he would leave me to enjoy the serenity.  Alas, he settled himself into the hammock, turned on his tiny phone to play (surprisingly loud) Cambodian music – singing along from time to time before he fell asleep (when his singing turned to snoring). So not the zen retreat I anticipated. Still – a lovely afternoon.

My Happy Place

My Happy Place

Not sure I really need to put words to this one. Aside to say that I truly hope I get to visit this sign – this place – again some day in the not-too-distant future. It has my heart.

Cambodia: The Nature of the Beast

First view of an elephant!

First view of an elephant!

I never considered myself a hollering kind of girl – but after the scream that escaped when I got electrocuted by the lion fence in Zambia and my joyous cry when I saw the dolphin fly out of the sea in Zanzibar – I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when a yelp rang through the jungle as I witnessed the first elephant emerge from behind the thick trees. I quickly slapped a hand over my gaping mouth as I gripped the injured knee of Marcia – the lovely Australian volunteer perching next to me on the sturdy fallen tree – the two of us grinning from ear to ear as the four huge creatures lumbered by. It was, not surprisingly, love at first sight.

I just spent the last five days in the presence of eight retired elephants – deep in the jungle in the  Mondulkiri Province of Cambodia.  This wondrous place is called the Elephant Valley Project (EVP) and, as one of the few elephant sanctuaries in the world, they provide a natural home for these heartbreakingly beautiful elephants who have, sadly, lived painfully difficult lives. Today – they get to be elephants again.

We spent our days wandering down into various valleys to visit three separate herds – navigating steep paths etched out of deep red earth – our guides whooping into the air to call to the mahouts who care for these giants.  On some days we got to help with health checks – gazing into their eyes and ears and pinching their thick, cool, surprisingly hairy skin to determine if they are properly hydrated. Then throwing a long tape measure high over their wide frames to measure their girth – using a complicated mathematical formula to assess if they’ve gained or lost weight since the previous week’s measurement. We cheered when we heard that fragile (for an elephant) Maelot has put on a ton (not literally but close) of weight.

Health check time.

Health check time.

Throughout the week our guide John (an awesome, long-haired dude from Ohio whose enthusiasm for these elephants is endearing and infectious) told us the tale of how each elephant came to the project.  Maelot, for instance, had a life so tragic I sit here shaking my head and shutting my eyes as I type. The majority of her life was spent in logging and construction and likely tourism … her handlers using long, metal bull hooks to bend her will… blinding one eye in the process. Her ribs were compressed from restrictive harnesses to the point that her spine juts up from her back. She no longer has any teeth and her owner sold various body parts including portions of her tail and her labia to make money.

Gently bathing Maelot (you can see her ribs and spine protruding ... but the old girl is putting on weight!)

Gently bathing Maelot (you can see her ribs and spine protruding … but the old girl is putting on weight!)

I’m sorry to report that the other elephants’  stories are no less heartbreaking. (You can read about them all on the EVP website.)  Simply put, these elephants have lived in pain for the majority of their lives. But no longer. Now they are free.  In most instances and for various reasons, their owners sold them to EVP. Retired from hard labor and schlepping tourists around temples – these eight elephants now get to graze on fresh bamboo and get daily scrub-downs by their mahouts and enjoy mud baths whenever they want.  But many of them didn’t even know how to perform these basic tasks when they arrived.   They were fearful and unaccustomed to caring for themselves. And this is where my favorite part of the story comes in.

“Ning-Wan taught her how to be an elephant again,” said John  as we sat watching 65-year old Mae-Nang joyously rub her mud-covered body back and forth against a tall tree – her weight shaking the branches high up in the sky back and forth as if they were a surrendering flag.  With injuries sadly similar to Maelot’s, Mae-Nang came to EVP following a long life of abuse … arriving into the valley with no elephant “skills” – acting like a robot with no sense how to care for herself. Thankfully 40-year old Ning-Wan, the self-elected matriarch of the herd, took her under her wing and showed her how to forage, how to drink from the brown river, how to inhale and then throw clumps of the red earth across her body to cool herself.

An itch to scratch...

An itch to scratch…

This behavior – this instant acceptance and support that elephants show each other – is something I’d read about before arriving. But to see firsthand how these huge beasts care for each other is almost indescribable.  This past week I was able to witness Ning-Wan tend to Mae-Nang, her trunk snaking up toward her friend and blowing air toward her – an elephant act of comfort. And watch the younger girl Ruby (who has established herself as the herd’s bodyguard) come running through the jungle at the first sign of distress from one of the the other girls (which comes in the form of deep rumbling or surprisingly high-pitched trumpet calls).  And hear stories about how Easy Rider – who likes to pull her chains* out of the earth during the night to raid local farms – inevitably helps her best friend GeeNowl do the same so they can cavort together in search of low hanging bananas or their favorite cassava roots.

Gathering to comfort each other.

Gathering to comfort each other.

It is impossible for me to come to terms with the suffering these elephants have had to endure at the hands of humans. So I am going to choose instead to concentrate on the elephants themselves … their enduring trust, their resiliency and strength, and the sheer joy they display for the lives they live today. I can’t wait for another week of watching them tossing endless bunches of tender green bamboo into their mouths, rolling about in the cool brown water, and rubbing their bodies on any tree sturdy enough to act as a scratching post. It’s a beautiful thing to behold.

Time to head back into the jungle...

Time to head back into the jungle…

*Note: these elephants are “chained” to a tree every evening. The chains can be easily broken in case of emergency (i.e. a forest fire or some such thing). And they are placed strategically so they have plenty of food to forage throughout the night (these elephants can EAT!). But they must be kept under a modicum of control lest they raid the local farms every night.

End note: I know riding elephants is a thing. Especially in Asia, Africa and India. But I have learned that it is simply not a natural “thing” for these amazing animals. They are not built to carry humans in baskets on their backs. Their mahouts ride high up on their necks – the strongest part of the animal – only when necessary. But really – any kind of tourist elephant-riding situation … well, it simply causes them pain. So my personal plea is that you take this into consideration if you’re thinking about riding an elephant. I know I will never crawl onto one’s back.

 

Eating Vietnam

Some of the amazingly fresh ingredients that made all the food I inhaled taste so delectable.

Some of the amazingly fresh ingredients that helped make all the food I inhaled taste so delectable.

Since I arrived in this beautiful, complex, stimulating country three weeks ago I have been overwhelmed by its culinary offerings. So much so that I’ve rarely stopped to snap pictures of the amazing plates and bowls and banana leaves full of food placed in front of me. So I apologize in advance for the lack of beautiful imagery in this post. But I just haven’t been in the mood to frame a picture “just so” to get the perfect. shot. The food is just too damn good. So much so that I had a hard time figuring out how to capture all the delights – so I decided to focus on just one dish from each city/town I visited for this post. Let’s dig in…

HANOI

I had the good fortune to go on a wonderous food tour with an Australian Ex Pat named Mark (who runs Street Eats Hanoi)  who whisked us around Hanoi’s Old Quarter – stopping only in the most authentic joints in town. Which meant sitting on tiny plastic stools in narrow, open-air stalls and hovering over steaming plates of food I’d never seen nor heard of. My favorite bite on this tour didn’t even take place sitting down … Mark marched us up to a woman cooking away at a small cart, motioned to her our order and walked back with a small plastic bag. Then he unveiled a glistening piece of pork belly wrapped in paper – held it aloft and encouraged us to dig in. No plates, no utensils. So I selected a small piece of the pork and, at his encouraging, grabbed a tiny pale shallot and shoved it all in my mouth. And I sighed audibly. The pork (which had been roasting on a makeshift grill all day) was salty and a bit sweet and soft and covered with a crunchy layer of skin that was pleasantly charred. The small shallot was delightfully pickled, its briny, al dente bite the perfect foil to the richness of the succulent meat. We picked every piece of meat and shallots out of that paper-lined plastic bag. The pork belly didn’t have a chance…

The master and her meat.

The master and her meat.

SAPA

As I sweated and struggled through the mountains of Sapa, my kind and engaging guide Cuong attempted to take my mind off the steep inclines by peppering me with questions. And at one point the conversation turned to food – and I was temporarily distracted from the brutal terrain. We talked of my food experiences in his beautiful country and I mentioned that I really wanted to try green papaya salad. I was about to tell him that I made a mean version at home in America when I noticed his face light up – so I paused. “I will make this for you tonight!” he exclaimed. I thought I was hearing things so I smiled and kept trudging. But a few hours later when we arrived at the homestay – he pointed to a tree laden with weighty green orbs and grinned. A beautiful papaya tree stood in the yard. And not an hour later, as we sat around a table filled with other intrepid trekkers and a handful of guides, Cuong placed a bowl of homemade green papaya salad in front of me. He had carefully shredded the hard fruit (that he picked himself) into delicate, pale green threads and mixed it with tart lime juice, sweet cane sugar, salty fish sauce and the perfect amount of thinly sliced, bright red peppers (also picked from the local garden). It was sheer perfection. His balance of flavors and textures and the welcoming chill of the salad … let’s just say his version made mine pale in comparison.

A sumptuous supper in Sapa.

A sumptuous supper in Sapa.

HOI AN

Anthony Bourdain doesn’t mess around. I’d read about his beloved Banh Mi Phuong in countless reviews so I was eager to see if these sandwiches I so love were as good as reported. Tony don’t lie. A crusty yet soft roll. A slather of rich, almost-sweet pate. A few slices of tender roasted pork. A few more thin slices of cucumber. Some shards of carrot. Perhaps a bit of homemade mayonnaise? And just the right amount of bright, hot pepper sauce. Heaven. Oh – and only 25,000 dong ($1.11). (Sidenote – though these were amazing … the best Banh Mi I had in Vietnam was further south in HCMC … at a tiny, not-well-known shop called Huynh Hoa. They bake their own bread, make their own pate, roast their own meat – and have been doing it for something like 40 years. It’s no joke.)

Why hello Mr. Bourdain!

Why hello Mr. Bourdain!

HCMC

On my last night in this insane city – I just wanted to crawl into bed and order “spaghetti with tomato sauce” from room service to eat in the safety of my comfortable bed. I was just spent.  Thankfully I decided instead to dust myself off and take the advice of both Hanoi food tour dude Mark and my local guide T and navigate my way to a restaurant called The Secret Garden. It took me a while to find it – I walked back and forth on the dark sidewalk several times before gingerly entering the designated address on Pasteur Street. Which was a motorbike parking lot. Through which was the entry to an old building. Which didn’t smell all that great. Then up four flights of stairs. Which were hot and definitely seemed residential as opposed to the kind of stairs that one would imagine would lead to a much talked-about restaurant. And then … I came upon a landing adorned with a tiny altarupon which a round, happy buddha grinned at me. As if welcoming me home. Several smiling waiters motioned me in – encouraging me to walk past the kitchen and then into the sparkling, open-air, rooftop restaurant. It was like Shangri-La. Lanterns glowed. Enormous towers shined nearby. Even bolts of lightning lit the sky from time to time. A tiny kitten even launched itself into my lap when I sat down. I was completely smitten and I hadn’t even looked at the menu yet.

Full of joy at The Secret Garden.

Full of joy at The Secret Garden.

And the menu! Page after page of tantalizing dishes. Honestly – I was flummoxed. What to order?!? I started with a cool bottle of ginger/lemongrass water (all those stairs in that humidity? whoa!). Then somehow I decided on seared beef with morning glory and crispy sticky rice with pork and shrimp. And I wasn’t disappointed. The thin slices of beef had been marinated and grilled – resulting in tender yet slightly crisped pieces of meat that, when dipped into the fish sauce/lemongrass/pepper concoction in the tiny little bowl and cradled into a mouthful of soft, grassy morning glory (similar to spinach but better) … I’m shaking my head just thinking of that chopstick-full of food. And the little disks of lightly fried sticky rice upon which briny shrimp-spiked ground pork was piled – with a small dollop of bright red chili sauce and a single leaf of cilantro? I’ve always heard about the Vietnamese focus on balance – combining salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. And their insistence of using only the freshest ingredients. And these mouthfuls – well, they were everything Vietnamese food is meant to be.

There were countless other meals and bites along the way. But I’m afraid I’m out of time … I’m off to hunt down another one of my favorite delights … a cup of properly made Vietnamese coffee (dripped slowly into a cup) with a swirl of thick, sweet condensed milk. God, I’m going to miss Vietnam…

 

 

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