itinerant dayze

gabe's online travel journal::2003-2004

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

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here's the rough plan:

leaving on 20 OCT 2003 for australia (via NZ). 3 weeks down under in queensland after which i'll fly into singapore. i will spend the following ~5 months exploring malaysia, thailand, cambodia, laos, viet-nam and possibly myanmar (burma). after all that i'll fly to delhi and, if i've still got any money/energy left i'll try to get into tibet for a few weeks via nepal before returning to the UK in ~may/june.

i'll try to update this site as often as i can, but i don't know often i'll be able to get to a computer.


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Thursday, May 27, 2004

new pictures up:  click here 

maggie and i arrived in pokkhora on may 1st and had just enough time to buy a map and some trail mix before hitting the annapurna trail on the morning of may 3rd.  the annapurna trail is a fairly popular trekking route surrounding the annapurna mountain range in mid-western nepal.  our trek began in Besishahar and took us in a big ~300km circle, counterclockwise, to Beni.  95% of the trek is through the Annapurna Conservation Area in which there are no roads or motor-vehicles and electricity is sparse.  it took us a total of 17 days.  the trek follows the course of one river from Besishahar up to its source in the mountains at the Thorong-La pass (5417m/17,768ft) -which is the high point- and then back down along the course of another river on the other side.  sorry for the disorganization of the following account, but it's the best i can do at the moment:

it was just incredible. the first few days involved slow and relatively easy climbing through lush green hills and valleys. for almost the whole trek you're following a river up to it's source in the mountains (and then another river back down the other side) and here at the beginning the river was large and turquoise blue. there were wildflowers everywhere and rainbow-colored butterflies the size of small birds.  the trail here was fairly wide and covered with nettles and cannabis, which grows wild all over thes mountains.  we were walking only a couple of hours per day. definately the easiest part, objectively, but getting used to walking for hours every day with a big pack on your back was not at all easy. (my pack was ~11kg/25lbs).  these early days were perhaps the most difficult part psychologically... especially day 3. day 2 (my birthday!!!) had involved our first real climb and we finished the afternoon in the rain.  we were so worn out that getting back on the trail in the morning was less than easy.  my big mistake was footwear: i wore my old sneakers which proved to be grossly insufficient. i had an average of about 1.2 blisters per toe by the end of the trek. by the fourth day we started getting glimpses of snow capped mountains way off in the distance. very exciting. the tea-houses (guesthouses) at this point were probably the most minimal. in some of the bigger villages the you could get solar-heated water and relative luxury (very relative) but the towns at the beginning and end of the trek were poorest and the accomodation was extremely spartan. by days 4-5 we were getting into a good routine. on the trail by 7AM and usually finished by 1 or 2 in the afternoon. the landscape was getting dryer and dryer. walking through pine forrests and valleys full of tundra. approaching 3000m (~10,000 ft). on day 7 we reached Manang (3,500m/11,500ft) which is one of the largest cities on the trail. there is a small airport a few hours' walk away so it is well supplied. it is in the middle of a large valley at the foot of some spectacularly large mountains. looking out of our hotel room window we could see the peaks of Mt. Gangapurna (7454m/24,449ft) and Annapurna II (7939m/26,039ft, #15th highest in the world) and IV (7525m/24,682ft) larger than life. watching the sunrise was just spectacular. the sun hits the peaks of these mountains nearly an hour before it hits the ground and the colors look like fire running down the mountain. i have some amazing pics. Manang is really a spectacular place. we spent an extra day there for acclimatization as the days following involved steep climbs. on our "rest" day maggie rested and i took a morning hike up to a gompa (temple) at ~4000m to get a panoramic view of the mountains surrounding the valley and see Gangapurna's enourmous glacier & lake up close. wonderful. neither one of us had any alititude sickness which was lucky.

from Manang we decided to do a 3 day detour to lake Tilicho which is apparently the world's highest lake. it's off the main Annapurna trail, which is desireable as the development (especially around Manang) is considerable (VERY relatively speaking: remember there are no roads here so EVERYTHING that exists is carried in on foot or by donkey. that's quite limiting.) anyway, the trail to Tilicho lake is also a bit more difficult than the regular trail. we made a grueling 7 hour hike to Tilicho base camp which is at ~4,200m/13,700ft and goes past some spectacular scenery. at this point there were huge snowy mountains staring us in the face the whole way. you feel like you're walking right into the heart of the himilayas and you are. the base camp hotel was extremely spartan. no electricity or anything. consider what it means that EVERYTHING at the hotel is carried in via a steep 7 hour climb from the nearest village. a large section of the trail was over huge scree slopes (enourmous mounds of broken rock/gravel falling off the mountains) that were quite challenging: the trail, when it existed, was a few inches wide and had a 1000 meter drop down into a river on the side. often the trail would get swallowed up by falling scree for a few meters and you would have to run as the scree slid into oblivion below your feet to keep "afloat". not too difficult, normally, but we were seriously beginning to feel the altitude at this point and after exerting yourself for a few seconds you had to stop and catch your breath.  on the way there we saw a huge avelanche from a distance on one of the slopes ahead. exciting! very happy to finally make it to base camp. it was difficult to sleep. you kept waking up gasping for air. i was wishing for more hemoglobin. next day we set off for the lake at sunrise. it took us about 5 hours to make the climb up to ~5,100m/16,700ft where the lake is. at this altitude you just have to go impossibly slowly. the trail here was quite steep and the last 2-3 hours were simply zig-zagging straight up to the lake. you have to take tiny little baby steps very slowly, with one breath per step, to maintain your pace at this altitude. this, for me, was perhaps the most difficult day, psychologically. it was easier for maggie, but i kept on trying to go a little faster and then burning out and needing to rest. it was just 5 straight hours of climbing with no flats or descents. as we began to hit snow, though, i started getting more and more encouraged and feeling better. finally you're surrounded by snow (walking through it) and you have these HUGE snowy mountains all around you and you look back and you can see dozens of snowy peaks looming out of the clouds and it feels like you're on the top of the world. it's just amazing. we finally reached the lake which turned out to be completely frozen over. a huge ice lake. we were absolutely the only people that day which made it quite special. we just sat there breathing and listening to the glaciers creak and moan as they melted slowly. up here was one of the few times we needed our fleeces, coats, gloves, and hats. the sun was warm but the wind was pure ice. this area was perhaps the most amazing place i've ever been. it might as well've been the moon. we made it back to base camp around lunchtime and spent the rest of the afternoon lazing in the sun. that evening we saw our first Yaks close up which was very exciting. they're so beautiful and weird.

the next day we decided to bypass Manang and head for the next town up, Yak Karka, as a "shortcut". it turned out to be extremely difficult and involve a 9 hour hike which took us up over 4,500m mountains again, down through valleys, and then back up to 4000m where we gratefully slept. this was another killer day. Manang is basically the last real village on this side of the pass and all the settlements between here and the pass are basically just trekkers hotels. next day we made it to Thorong La High-Camp which is at 4,800m/15,700ft and involved a steep steep climb in preparation for the pass. compared to other trekkers we were doing quite well, though, because we'd had a few days of practice at these altitudes at the lake. the rule is slowly slowly. impossibly slowly! thank god for snickers and trail mix. the landscape at this point was pure desert. there was almost NO vegetation anywhere and it felt quite a bit like hiking on the moon. it was still quite beautiful, but very strange and surreal. Yaks were common on distant slopes. what are they doing up there?? next morning we head for the pass. this is literally the high-point of the circuit. Thorong La pass is at 5,417m (17,768ft) and is considered the highest mountain pass in the world. the climb to the pass, though, turns out to be more gradual and easier than the climb to the lake. or maybe we'd just had more practice. at this point i'd learned how to put myself into a trance and just climb slowly and steadily without thinking of anything but my breathing. it's the only way. the pass itself turned out to be a bit anti-climactic. it's very high and very beautiful, but the views are actually quite inferior to those we saw at the lake. we were feeling very happy to've seen the lake at this point. i was thinking it had been a hard climb, but then we had to go down. after the pass you need to descend over 2000 meters before you reach Muktinath, the next settlement. it involved about 4 hours of nonstop, unforgiving descent, which was absolutely killer on the knees and toes. by the time we reached Muktinath, though, things were beginning to get green again which was quite a relief. in Muktinath, which is in Mustang which is an old Tibetan kingdom and part of the tibetan plateau we had amazing views of Mt. Dulighuri which is ~8,200m/26,900ft... the highest mountain in the region (#7 in the world) and only a few hundred meters shorter than Everest. very dramatic. the next few days were through more of Mustang which, although the cities are well irrigated, is very dry and harsh. we spent ~6 hours walking through a sand-storm on one day (maggie was nearly blown away... she was not happy) and spent days walking through valleys that looked more like Mars than the himilalayas. still very striking and beautiful though. as we passed the 2-week mark things started to get lush and green (and hot!) again and we started realizing we were close to home... which was very bad, psychologically. as soon as we realized it was almost over, we began to want it be over and lost all of our drive. we put in a few greuling 10 hour days (with dysfunctional knees and bloody feet) and finally made it to Beni on day 17. we had to stay there an extra day due to a general strike in all of nepal and then finally took a bus back to Pokkhorra 19 days after we left.

honestly, i probably wouldn't have done something like this if i had carefully considered how difficult it was going to be, but boy am i glad i did!  being so close to mountains of that size fills one with an indescribable sense of awe, and after making the pass i felt like i had really accomplished something...  because it's there... and i climbed it!  :)  pardon the pun, but the whole trek was, perhaps, the high point of my whole trip thus far.

leaving Asia in 2 days.  UK for 1 week and then back home... i can't wait, honestly.

much Love (and happy 30th anniversary to my wonderful parents!!!)

Posted at 17:14 by travelgabe
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Thursday, April 29, 2004

more pictures up: click here. there's one pictuer from ko mac, thailand, and then the rest are from india and nepal.

so varanassi was just too goddamned hot.  it topped 42/108 degrees three days in a row and i decided to get the hell out.  it's a fascinating city, but it was only possible to leave the hotel for an hour or two in the morning and again in the evening and it was very difficult to sleep and... whatever.  i hopped a bus to the nepali border (which broke down, had to be towed back to the previous city where we caught another bus 3 hours later) and then took an overnight bus to kathmandu the next day.

first of all, the moment i crossed the border, the crazed intensity of the people lessened quite a bit.  it was quite a relief.  nepalis are physically and culturally quite distinct from indians.  they smile and joke and are generally quite friendly.  as the bus left the border town (sunali), it stopped at 5 or 6 military checkpoints in the first hour.  nepal is literally on the brink of a civil war and especially in the provinces, fear of maoist rebels is high.  after a rough, 16 hour bus ride, i arrived in kathmandu.  the climate here is SO pleasant compared to india and it's proven to be quite a difficult city to leave.

for the first week, i was struggling with various gastrointestinal problems that are pretty common to traveling in this area. it's not pleasant, but it's more pleasant here than in the swealtering heat of central india. kathmandu is nesteled in amongst the mountains (at the foot of the himilayas) in a large sprawling valley. the city itself is at about 1500m/5000ft which is what makes it so cool and pleasant. on clear days you can see snow-capped mountains looming over rooftops in the distance. despite the stomach problems, i did manage to explore the old city a bit, which is just stunning. the center of the old city is known as 'durbar square' and is just filled with ancient wooden temples, statues, and stupas. this is the old asia i'd dreamed of. it's stunningly romantic and picturesque. the temples (and many of the ordinary buildings) are adorned with fantastically intricate wooden carvings. some are simply decorative patterns, but -especially on the roof-struts of the tempes- others are wild sculptures of the thousands of many-armed gods in the hindu religion. they're extremely colorful, lively and intricate. on some of the temples, there are small erotic carvings showing some shockingly explicit and exotic sex-scenes. one of the pictures in the latest set shows a woman being pleasured by a horse. nobody really knows why these erotic sculptures are there. there are similarly erotic and similarly mysterious carvings in various places throughout india.

at the end of the first week, maggie (27, french-canadian) the girl i've been traveling with for a while had her purse stolen. passport, credit cards, cash, plane tickets... everything. we spent the next week going around to the police station, consulate, airline offices, etc and sending faxes all over the world. it has not been easy but nearly everything should be replaced fairly soon. however, during our many trips downtown, we've gotten to witness a bit of the political instability here firsthand. as i said before, the country is basically on the brink of a civil war. the international media makes it out to be political, but it's really just a power struggle between the king and the 5 political parties that exist. there are rebels in the provinces attacking military baracks and killing police officers daily, and people in kathmandu protest and riot in response. one day we nearly walked into a protest which degenerated into a bunch of students throwing rocks at police who were in full riot gear. and we've seen at least 4 demonstrations by the various political parties who basically just march around waving flags and making a lot of noise. somebody new is on strike every day (students, police, transportation, farmers, etc) and when they're striking, they usually spend the day marching through the streets. it's not quite chaos... but it's getting there fast. makes the local newspapers interesting, anyway. if you want to see some photos of the riots and stuff, click here.

hopefully, by the time you read this, i'll have gathered up my strength and inertia and left kathmandu. maggie and i are planning to go trekking in the annapurna region as soon as we can get out of here.

lots of love. miss everyone back home. see you soon!

Posted at 16:13 by travelgabe
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Saturday, April 10, 2004

i saw my first dead bodies about 5 minutes after leaving the new delhi international airport.  the taxi pulled up at a red light (one of the few lights he actually heeded) and in front of us was a truck full of bodies.  there were feet sticking out of the back.  it was just the first of a long string of shocking sights, sounds, and smells that is the india experience.  this is an intense country.

delhi, comprised of somewhere between 15 and 20 million heat-crazed souls is the largest city i've ever seen.  it is not so much the chaos that astonishes me... i've seen chaos before.  but it is the sheer volume of people and the fact that there is pure unadulterated chaos EVERYWHERE you look.  you cannot escape it.  before leaving the guesthouse i have to close my eyes and take a few deep, meditative breaths.  (it doesn't surprise me that this is the country that invented meditation).  the moment you step outside you're instantly hit in the face with a wall of olfactory confusion.  the number and intensity of smells that come from every direction is truly amazing.  walking down the street you must be on high-alert every second.  you cannot relax for an instant.  there is no place to hide from the people, bicycles, motorcyles, rickshaws, tuk-tuks, cows, goats, taxis, carts, jumping and dodging every-which-way all day and all night.  stop for 10 seconds and you're surrounded by three rickshaw drivers trying to take you somewhere.  it sounds unpleasant, and if you don't have a seriously strong sense of humor, it can be.  but it's also the most indescribably colorful experience of my life.  it's simply beautiful. 

everywhere you turn you see robed and bearded holy men hobbling down the street with wild-painted face and crazy-eyes.  huge cows sleep in the middle of interstate highways blinking stupidly while traffic snarls around them.  armless, legless, faceless beggars confront you everywhere you turn.  people sleep on rooftops, cartops, and if they can't find a somewhat sheltered spot they sleep on the filth of the street itself.  street vendors sell everything from samosas and japati to toy boats and talcum powder. 

the only place i've ever been that is comparable is the middle east.  especially the sordid soukh's of marakesh and fez.  but morrocco lacks the overpopulation that gives delhi such fierce intensity.

after two days of wandering through delhi's old city i hopped an overnight train for varanassi - the holiest city in india.  "hopping" the train was not nearly as easy as it sounds  i reserved my ticket a few hours in advance and made it to the train station early to avoid the legendary chaos of the indian trains.  no such luck.  as the train pulled into the station, people jumped for the doors and held on while the train was still moving.  other people jumped on those people so that as the train slowed to a stop, all of the doors were covered with big knots of fighting people desperately trying to be first in line.  i wonder why, since most of the seats are reserved anyway?  i figure if everyone is rushing there must be a reason, so rather than wait for the fighting to subside, i push my way in as soon as the doors open along with everyone else.  my seat is in the middle of coach S3.  i find the coach marked 'S3' and fight my way in.  there are people going in both directions and the train is seriously overloaded.  there is simply not enough room.  i think i killed a few children and knocked over an old lady or two while getting to my seat.  it was unnavoidable.  so i finally find my seat only to find someone sitting there.  "that's my seat" i say and show him my ticket.  "this coach is S6" he says.  shit.  i fight my way back out and double-check.  the coach still says S3 so i ask a police officer where i should go.  he points me to a coach three cars down marked S6 and says "that's S3".  of course.  makes perfect sense, right?  whatever.  the train ride is actually very comfortable once we get going.  all night long vendors go up and down the aisles peddling 'chai garam' (hot tea).  all night long. 

varanassi is an incredibly old and beautiful city.  somewhere between 3 and 4 thousand years old, it is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world.  the whole city is built on the west bank of the huge ganges river and all along the banks itself are 'ghats' - stairways down into the water where various holy rites (bathing, drinking, creamation, etc) are perfomed.  it is an extremely holy city.  it's also extremely hot.  the streets of the old city are tangled and narrow and all of the buildings go up at least 5 or 6 stories on either side.  these streets are too narrow for cars.  to beat the heat, anyone who can spends the evenings on the rooftops and from the cafe at my guesthouse i can watch kite-flyers, cricket-players, and meditators - to name a few - staying cool in the evening.  the other occupants are wild monkeys.  every morning and evening hundreds of wild monkeys overrun the rooftops and i soon noticed that anyone relaxing on thier rooftop has a 'monkey stick' close at hand.  the monkeys are not friendly and are known for attacking people, stealing everything, and shitting everywhere.  but they are beautiful and fun to watch.  my room has a big window overlooking the roof of the restaurant and every evening a few monkeys come and press their faces against the glass and roll around and screetch and fight... it's endlessly fun to watch.

for hindus, varanassi is THE place to die.  being creamated on the banks of the ganges river in varanassi offers hindus the opportunity to escape from the cycle of life-death-rebirth and finally achieve nirvana.  that being the case, the old and sick come here to die, and those who don't make it in time have their bodies sent here to be burned.  my guesthouse overlooks the ganges river and is a 5 minute walk from the holiest creamatorium (called the 'burning ghat') in india.   a short walk down to the burning ghat and you can sit and watch the bodies being burned.  carefully prepared bodies are carried through the streets of varanassi by chanting/singing funeral processions atop bamboo stretchers.  when they reach the burning ghat, untouchables separate the body from the stretcher and place them on a big funeral pyre consisting of a few hundred kilos of cedarwood.  then they set it on fire.  all out in the open.  you can sit and watch body after body go up in flames.  there are other outcastes who's job it is to poke and stir the bodies to make sure they burn completely.  a lot of times the head doesn't burn so they have to break it open with their sticks.  or they push a foot back into the fire if it was sticking out.  any parts of the bodies that don't burn are thrown into the ganges.  15 meters away, children splash and play in the water and pilgrims bathe and drink. 

it's all a bit overwhelming, but also incredibly romantic and breathtakingly ancient.  it simply has to be seen to be believed.  i am loving it. 

i am also very sick and very hot.  everything comes with a price, i guess.  i'll get better and head for the himilayas soon. 

email me.


Posted at 19:11 by travelgabe
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Sunday, April 04, 2004

ok.  i haven't blogged in almost 2 months, i'm sorry.  i've kind of been avoiding it because i didn't have much internet access in Laos and after a few weeks i was not looking foreward to recounting everything that happened so i just put it off.  well, i'm just going to skip almost everything.  here's the quick version:

  the rest of laos was incredible.  had a wonderful time traveling all over the north and north-west.  the country is indescribably pristine and unspoiled, compared to the rest of south east asia.

  after laos i went to san diego for a week to interview for graduate school at the scripps research institute (TSRI).  the interview went well, i got accepted, and am now planning to move to san diego sometime this summer which means my travels must come to an end by ~june/july.

  back in thailand.  spent a week relaxing on a truly utopian island called koh mak in the gulf of thailand and then headed back to bangkok.  i have spent the past ~10 days getting everything (visas, plane tickets, etc) ready for my trip to india.  it's all ready now.  i'm flying into dehli tomorrow afternoon.  i will try my best to update this blog on a regular basis from india.  it's gonna be weird, wish me luck!  :p

Posted at 00:04 by travelgabe
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Saturday, February 07, 2004
Dry Season????

ok so after another lovely day of wandering around the old city in Hanoi, i took my first and only package tour to Halong bay because it was the fastest way to do it. halong bay is perhaps the most famous natural sight in vietnam. it's a large area of islands and islets near the chinese border with huge limestone rock formations jutting out of the water and forming numerous lagoons, bays, and caves. the boat-trip was definately beautiful but unfourtunately the weather was very grey and foggy and visibility was quite low. it gave the whole area a very eerie mysical feel, but only the closest islends and rock formations could be seen, which was too bad. the group on the tour was quite nice and i actually had a lovely afternoon, after which, four of us went out for a great indian meal. the next morning i left hanoi.
i headed for a park called Tam Coc which is closest to the city of Nin Binh. as soon as i woke up, though, i was stuck by the cold drizzly-ness of everything. it got progressively colder and drearier as the day went on and by the time i made it to Tam Coc it was downright freezing. Tam Coc is sometimes referred to as 'halong bay on rice paddies' and is composed of similar rock formations and jagged mountains forming an inlet around some rice-farming areas with a little winding river running through it. the boat-owners who run the tours take you out in little rowboats which they use their feet to propel the oars! there were a fiar number of tourists there (nothing like halong bay, though) but the whole area was extremely well preserved and free of touristy-development. the boat meanders down a little river before it goes through a huge cave at the base of one of the mountains and then spits you right into a chinese scroll painting. it was really one of the most magical places i've ever seen: a slow winding river dancing between verdant rice paddies full of peasants and water buffalos extending all the way up to sheer 1000-ft rock walls covered with sparse vegetation and the odd bamboo grove. it was positively freezing, however and by the time the boat returned i was well-ready for some hot Pho and tea. after that i hopped a bus for Vinh which is an industrial-communist hell-hole where i spent a night and caught a bus in the morning.
a new border between Laos and VN just opened up to foreigners a few months ago and i decided to go through there instead of at the well established ones. it was both a good and a bad idea. the bus took me through about 8 hours of breathtaking chinese-scroll-painting-country widing up and up and up into the mountains as the road condition got worse and worse. i made it to the city nearest the border around 3:30 and caught a motorbike (an old russian 150cc Minsk) to the border itself. the moto-ride took about half an hour and it was practically straight up into the clouds. when we got into the clouds it was all wet and foggy and visibility dropped down to about 5 meters (who'dve thought clouds were full of rain?). i finally made it to the VN side of the border which consisted of a little official-looking building with lots of flags and communist propoganda and absolutely no english or other people about. the vietnamese guards were typically slow and corrupt and after the head-honcho guy spent nearly an hour making me take EVERY single item out of all of my bags simply so that he could flip through my books, practice his english, and detain me as long as possible, he advised me that i better hurry because the Lao-side of the border was probably already closed. i got my stamps and left vietnam and trudged through the 500m no-man's-land in three inches of freezing mud and zero-visibility-fog. luckily there was one guard at the lao-border station and i was immediately struck by how much friendlier he was than everyone in vietnam. i was also immediately struck by the complete lack of infrastructure in Laos as after getting my stamp he told me (with a bemused laugh) that i'd have to walk to the nearest town as all the taxi's went home hours ago. so i walked the nearly 16 kilometers to Nong Haet with all my bags up a mountain (500 vertical meters) in the freezing rain and the dark. even if it hadn't been completely dark (and i mean COMPLETELY dark, 60% of Laos doesn't have electricity) i wouldn't have been able to see more than a few feet ahead of me due to the fog and rain. it took me just over three hours and during that time i didn't pass a single vehicle or welcoming abode. i was not a happy camper. it was just about as 'alone' as i've ever felt in my life.
during The Long Walk, i kept on repeating to myself that "It's always darkest before the dawn" and, as usual, it turned out to be true. i finally trudged into the guesthouse in Nong Haet (the "city" isn't even on most maps) and was greeted by about a dozen Lao men who were gathered around a fire drinking to ward off the cold. before i could get my bag off, i had been force fed two shots of Lao-Lao (distilled rice-wine, aka Lao whisky) and was frantically shaking hands with everyone who were all absolutely stunned to see a soggy american walk in off the mountain in the middle of the night. amazingly, two or three of them spoke english and i spent the next few hours getting all warm and toasty and drunk before sleeping the sleep of kings in a little wooden shack with about 4 blankets piled on me to keep the cold out. there was no running water and when i woke up, it was about 5C/40F degrees out and the locals were out back pouring buckets of rainwater over themselves and scrubbing down with stiff wire brushes. nobody wears shoes out there. they are incredibly tough.
i hopped a big 1960's-style banger bus to Phonsovan and made it there by noon. it was still ridiculously cold, drizzly, and dreary. Phonsovan is a real city (by Lao standards, that is) and i quickly found a decent guesthose with warm-ish water. the main attraction in Phonsovan is The Plain of Jars which is an eerie Stonehenge-type site consisting of hundreds of huge (2-3m) stone jars littered all over the countryside. i hired a moto to take me out there and spent the next few hours wandering around the PoJ all by myself. the fascinating thing about them is that nobody knows where they came from or who made them or why. it's almost a complete mystery. most estimates reckon they're about 2000 years old and the leading theory (which is almost entirely unsupported by evidence) is that they were used for burial ceremonies of some sort. there's a tired guy in a little shack collecting the $0.70 admission fee who then points you in the direction of the jars. there are no signs, trails, or anything. just a bunch of rolling hills with big spooky stone Jars all over the place. very mysterious and moving. the enigmatic nature of the site made it almost more interesting to me than Angkor Wat. i had some more nice indian food in Phonsovan and then caught the morning-bus to Laung Prabang in a desperate attempt to escape the cold.
on the bus, i met a nice canadian couple (Mathew and Sasha, 25 and 24) whom i've been traveling with ever since. the bus ride was about 6 hours and comfortable enough. about half-way through the ride, we stopped in the middle of nowhere for a bathroom-break. we're standing around peeing off the side of a cliff and Matt notices a big hole in the ground with a pig in it. he mentions something and people start crowding around looking at this pig that obviously fell into the hole and can't get out. finally one of the Lao guy peeks in and jumps back into the bus and re-emerges with a long rope. "great, he's going to rescue the pig, how nice!" i thought. he makes a lasso and manages to drag the now-squealing-pig out of hole, quickly hog-ties it's legs and climbs up on the roof of the bus and puts it there with the rest of the luggage. free pig! we could hear it squealing from inside the bus for the next 4 hours.
Luang Prabang is another World-Heritage site and is a very slow and relaxing little town on the Mekong that's just lovely to stoll through. it's getting a bit warmer, altho still cloudy, and i'm thinking of staying for another day or two before heading up north towards the chinese border to experience the real Laos. the people here are so incredibly friendly and kind. i didn't realize just how intensely everyone in vietnam tries to rip you off until seeing the contrast here. it's been a rough couple of days but i've recovered and am enjoying the warmth of the people and the wonderful food immensely. the exchange rate here is around 10,000 kip to the dollar and the largest bills that are in common circulation are 2000 kip. i changed $100 and got a six-inch stack of 2000 kip notes. i'm a millionare!


Posted at 16:33 by travelgabe
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Sunday, February 01, 2004

ok so i got bored and decided to post my VN pics:

they are here.

the order is roughly south to north (chau doc to hanoi) with the exception of hoi an


Posted at 18:49 by travelgabe
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Saturday, January 31, 2004
el norte!

ok it's been almost 2 weeks since my last post, so i'll try'n review:

-after Dalat, Noime and i caught a horribly uncomfortable bus (at 3AM!) to Lak Lake.  the bus wasn't as uncomfortable as rides in cambodia, but i wasn't trying to sleep on those...  i foolishly stayed up until 3 thinking that i would sleep on the bus, which did not happen... not even a little bit. as soon as the sun started coming up, however, the scenery was breathtaking.  Lak Lake is a tiny little town up in the central highlands.  most of the population is comprised of ethnic minorities which do not consider themselves vietnamese (jung, h'mong, montangards, etc)...  this does not stop the VN government from forcing them to learn vietnamese and preventing them from getting decent jobs, though.  anyway, it is just beautiful.  [incidentally, a number of these ethnic minorities are matriarchal societies in which the children get the mothers name and the oldest woman is head of the household, etc etc... interesting]  as the name suggests, the city (it's actually a collection of small villages) is right on a big lake.  the "hotel" we stayed at consisted of thatch-roof 'long houses' which are big communal wooden houses up on stilts that can sleep around 50 people.  it also had a floating restaurant which was... well... a restaurant floating on the lake.  our first day there we met up with Ross, who came on his own from dalat on his motorbike.  we were nackered from the trip which was just as well because the first day of Tet is usually spent with the family, so we just lounged around the lake all day reading and talking.  the next day, we went to a cafe and met a bunch of guys who were already into their second case of beer... by 9 AM.  long story short, i was blind drunk by 11AM (when the elephants showed up) and it all just sorta deteriorated from there... they have these big ceramic jugs of rice-wine with a big straw coming out of the top (sorta like a hooka) that was just deadly.  everyone kept giving me little 500 and 1000 dong bills folded up into beautiful origami shapes.  lovely holliday.  i passed out by 2pm and spent the rest of the afternoon sleeping.  the next day was another rest day and then Ross and Noime left.  that evening a bunch of the locals showed up all dressed up in their traditional garb and played traditional music, cooked coconut rice in baboo over an open fire, and drank lots and lots and lots of booze.  i left early the following morning.

-after leaving Lak Lake i spent one night in Buon Ma Thuot, which was not interesting except for the coffee.  it's the best in vietnam as there's tons of it grown in the region.  the two really visible reminders of the french occupation are coffee (and proper coffee shops) and french bread.  and laughing-cow cheese which is the only cheese you can get in SEA.  i left the next day for Kon Tum which involved another long (but gorgeous) bus-ride through the mountains.  Kon Tum itself was not terribly interesting, but on the outskirts of town are a number of even-smaller, even-poorer and traditional-er ethnic-minority villages.  i did not see a single tourist in three days there.  i spent the second day just wandering around taking pictures and then i met Ninh, who was a Batma (one of the ethnic minorities) who spoke excelleng english (apparently because his language is not tonal which makes it easier for them to pronounce and hear english) and he agreed to give me a tour on his motorbike the next day in exchange for practicing english with him.  very nice.  so i stayed one more night and then Ninh took a few hours showing me around all the various villages and sights.  interestingly most of the villagers are catholics (and have been for a few generations) and there are a number of churchess and seminaries/orphanages around, which we also visited.  kind of a surreal juxtaposition of cultures...  in the villages they have 'rong-houses' (not to be confused with 'long-houses' which have a huge tall (~15m) thatch roof and are also used as communal meeting houses and all the villages teenagers sleep there for some reason... (actually makes a lot of sense, when you think about it... we could learn something from these people).  the next day i tried to catch a bus to Hoi An, but missed and ended up in Qui Nohn.  [the bus station at Kon Tum has a big sign in vietnamese that prohibits the sale of bus-tickets to foreigners... so you pretty much have to argue with the driver for an hour to give you a reasonable-ish price...]

-Qui Nonh is on the coast and was the first time I had seen the ocean (the gulf of tonkin) in nearly a month.  large-ish city with a lovely port and hundreds of beautifully painted fishing boats in the harbor.  i arrived in the evening and left early in the morning for Hoi An.

-Hoi An was the most beautiful city i've seen in Asia so far.  it was an important trading port during colonial times and a whole slew of influences (french, chinese, japanese, malay, etc) are evident in the architecture.  it's been very well preserved and the old-city is now a world-heritage site.  cars aren't allowed in the old city either, which is nice.  walking through the streets feels like going back in time somehow.  it's just intensely romantic.  it is also quite a tourist hotspot which was a bit shocking after so much time in the mountains.  but like most (not all) tourist hotspots, they're there for a reason and it's worth the hassle and expense.  Hoi An is famous for it's tailors, who can make any item of clothing in any style for you overnight from the finest vietnamese, italian, and japanese silks available.  there are about a dozen tailors/clothes stores on every block that won't let you forget it, too.  incredibly beautiful stuffs to buy.  i got a silk Mao (chinese-style) shirt that makes me look like a chinese gangster :-p.  i would've had a suit made but i'm running out of time so i think i'll get one in thailand.  in countries like these you really realize that the service industry has died in the west due to labor costs.  here labor is so cheap that you can have clothes tailor-made, shoes, watches, and all manner of vehicle fixed, and pay basically only for the materials...  in the west the cost of labor has made it impractical to fix things or have anything handmade... pity.  it's beautiful to watch real craftsmen work, too...

-i would've spent more time in Hoi An, but i'm running out of time on my vietnamese visa so I had to split the next day.  i took a 20hr public bus (by flagging it down on the high-way, very cheap) to Hanoi, where i've just arrived this morning.  i'll skip the details this time, just trust that it was very uncomfortable (but cheap!!!).  the ride was also beautiful though... shortly after passing through Denang we went over a high mountain pass that basically divides north vietnam from south, both politically and climactically.  the top of the mountains were shrouded in misty clouds, and it's been drizzly, cold, and grey ever since.  Hanoi is just lovely.  the old-city here is also a world-heritage site and it definately deserves to be.  all of the different streets are named for the commodities that are (were) sold there.  there's a shoe street, silk street, belt street, door-knob street (really...), cake street, etc etc.  it's charming.  the architecture here is all crumbly and romantic and already i like it much more than saigon (although it's not quite as intense).  i've only explored a little bit today so i'll describe it more after i've spent some days here.  i only have six days left on my visa after which i have to be in Laos.  and i still want to see Halong Bay and Nin Binh before leaving... so it's gonna be a quick couple of days (to make up for all the lazing i did in HCMC and the highlands...).

much love to all.  i miss you.

i'll try'n update more frequently now... sorry for the lapse.

ps - i just dumped my camera's memory onto CD so i probably won't be posting any of my pre-hoi an pictures online... you'll just have to see me when i get back if you want a look.

Posted at 16:08 by travelgabe
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Tuesday, January 20, 2004
Happy Tet!

so i basically spent an entire week in saigon just sitting around in cafés reading and watching the bustle. i did do a few things:

-went to the 'War Remnants Museum' (recently renamed from the 'Museum of American War Crimes') which was gruesome but fascinating. i'm sure it's just as biased as the crap you read in American textbooks, but probably if you average the two you get a pretty good idea of what went on. it had lots of gory pictures and huge american bombs and planes and tanks. all the captions to the pictures referred to american (and south-VN) forces as 'puppet army'. also had jars with horribly mutated fetuses caused, apparently, by agent orange.

-rented a motorbike and rode around for a day and survived! it's actually surprisingly easy. just watch your own ass... don't hit anything, nothing will hit you. i only made physical contact with one other vehicle during the day which i think was pretty good. i rode down into Cholon (chinatown) and had some yummy food and wandered around the spice shops which sold shark fins, dried (intact) tiger penises, snake wine (rice wine, with whole cobras in it), little fetuses of some sort and everything else aromatic you can possibly imagine.

before i forget, a word of caution to anyone traveling in this region: if you buy a hardboiled egg on the street somewhere, be very careful... some of them have chickens in them. intentionally. to be eaten. little tiny baby chickens. yeesh...

and now i've arrived in Dalat, which is wonderful. it's quite a big holliday spot for vietnamese people as it's at about 1500m and the climate is cool and pleasant. it actually reminds me of european mountain villiages. it's all pine trees and twisty turny streets with stunning vistas at the ends. doesn't look at all like the vietnam in the movies (maybe because all the vietnam movies were filmed in thailand). they even have a big replica of the Eifel tower on one side of town. yesterday i met a french canadian (noime, 26), an australian (ross) and an australian-canadian (mark, 32). mark and ross both had their own motorcycles and today the four of us went up into the mountains for some adventure. after about 15km the road dissapeared and it was all dirt roads and gravel. the scenery looked more like montana than vietnam. tall pine trees, cool mountain lakes, and stunning waterfalls. after a few hours on the bikes, during which we encountered maybe 2 other people, we rolled into a tiny little village in the middle of nowhere. within about 5 minutes the ENTIRE village was gathered around us staring, asking questions (in vietnamese) and trying to be hospitable. we packed our own lunch which went well with the local mulberry wine they gave us. as we sat inside a hut eating, about 15 kids piled on top of eachother right outside the door just staring and laughing. really memorable afternoon.

the market here in dalat is maybe the best i've seen in asia so far. the bustle and excitement is just incredible. it might have somethign to do with the holliday preparations (read on...) but whatever the case, it's a sight to behold. i'll post pictures as soon as i can.

now i'm saddle-sore, sunburned, and tired as hell....

tomorrow is the first day of Tet, the vietnamese new year (of 'the tet-offensive' fame). as dalat is a popular holliday spot, the entire city is basically booked for the next few days so Noime and I are catching a bus (at 3AM ?!?!?!) to Lak Lake which should also be a little village in the middle of nowhere. i have no idea what to expect from the Tet cellebrations. a few years ago they outlawed firecrackers, but now you can buy tape-recordings of firecrackers being ignited so the atmosphere should remain intact. that fact really captures the spirit of the vietnamese to me... they're a really funny people.

Posted at 20:45 by travelgabe
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Tuesday, January 13, 2004
the mouth of the beast

ok short one, i'm hungry.

after leaving phnom penh, i took a lovely boat trip down the mekong across the vietnamese border and landed at chau doc.  as with the thai-cambodian border, it's like night and day going across.  first of all, everyone still wears those conical VC hats all over the place which are beautiful.  secondly it's an intensely dynamic and entrapreneurial place.  EVERYTHING is for sale and every structure also functions as a store selling anything from hookers to goat-intestines to lottery tickets to rice.  which i find interesting since this is the first truly communist (i.e. not-capitalist) country i've visited.  Chau Doc was quite a small delta town with a significant portion of it literally spilling into the river.  there are floating houses and markets and lotsa boat-people.  some of the first people i met were war-vets who'd worked with the Americans to fight the VC (their english, along with that of teenage-ish schoolkids is the best).  [after saigon fell, everyone who faught for the south was imprisoned and either killed or stripped of their citizenship so they can't hold decent jobs even to this day.]  it's a very complicated country with a lot more issues (at least prima facie, on the surface) than most. 

i hopped a minibus full of vietnamese to siagon which took about seven hours and went through miles and miles of beautiful wet-delta-rice-paddy-country.  the little kid behind me spent the first two hours spitting lotus seeds down the back of my neck and laughing, to everyone-elses general glee.  getting into saigon is kinda like entering new york city.  it gets dense and hairy a few hours before you're actually there.  and it just keeps on building and building in intensity until you're in the mouth of the beast itself.  first a word about the traffic on the way in:

the road has a line down the middle, but the traffic isn't organized into lanes, so much as braids.  apparently, the eternal-yet-futile goal of driving in vietnam is to get to the front at any cost.  the driver (and all other drivers) do not feel comfortable behind other vehicles, so, whenever they're behind one (which is always) they just veer out into the oncomming traffic, give a nod to the bhudda on the dashboard and fly crazy past whoever is in front of them only to jam themselves in behind the next guy which gives the guys on the other side the half-second-window that they need to try the same thing.  it gives the whole thing a nice kinda suicidal swish-swash sorta rythm.  now this is not on some super-highway with big walls on the sides, on either side (where all the motorcycles and bicycles are forced to flee) are houses, shops, children, trash-fires, card-games, meals, and everything else spilling right out into the insane road.  crazy.  but all that was just a prelude to what was to come once you're actually IN The City.

the first thing everyone notices about saigon is the traffic.  first of all, motorbikes and bicycles outnumber cars or trucks about 800 to 1.  they're like hornets.  everywhere.  a big dense seething breathing mass of them flying everywhich way (they usually drive on the right-side here).  there are virtually no traffic-lights, so it's basically all about balls.  when they want to turn left, they just stop in the middle of the road and wait until enough other turners have accumulated to scare the oncoming traffic into stopping as they surge blindly into certain-death.  crossing the road is intense, but good for the circulation.  today an old lady helped me across the road.  it was humbling.  you basically just have to go.  they're going to kill you but you have to go anyway.  there's no other way.  and then somehow miraculously you're on the other side still alive.  it's actually quite fun.  bangkok's got nothing on this place.

i spent today wandering around exploring on foot.  tomorrow i may rent a bike and then if i'm still alive i want to get a motorbike the next day.  boy i wish i had gotten that travel-insurance.

i'll write more about the city itself after i've actually done some stuff.  today i mostly just crossed roads and read.


Posted at 21:43 by travelgabe
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Friday, January 09, 2004
Cambodia - reflections

Heading for Vietnam tomorrow via Chau Doc. New pictures: click here

Rather than a normal entry, here is an excerpt from the book I just finished "Catfish and Mandala" by Andrew X. Pham. The scene is a backpacker's ghetto in Hanoi, but it could just as easily be Phnom Penh, Bangkok, or anywhere else:

"No-name is a ten-year-old street boy. A deaf-mute who spends all of his time hanging around the foreign-tourist district. He befriends the tourists and tails them around town. His tourist friends don't know where he lives. No one on the streets seems to know anything about him. I could only trace his lineage as far back as a month before I met him. A German couple, on a brief three-day tour of Hanoi, had befriended him. They introduced him to a French girl who, before her derparture, acquainted the boy with Steve, an Aussie. Steve took the boy to dinner with a group of tourists and introduced him as No-name. The name stuck. Steve bunked in the same dormitory as William. When Steve left on a train to Saigon, he entrusted a map of Hanoi and No-name into the care of William, who wanted desperately to know more about the wordless boy. So I came into the picture, the next foster brother.
No-name's gift is a room-splitting grin, his curse a continually runny nose which he drags on the sleeve of his sweater. he is the magic of the streets. You could be walking, shopping, dining anywhere within the ten city blocks of his stomping grounds, and suddenly, he materializes out of nowhere walking beside you, standing at your elbow, or making faces at you through restaurant windows. He moves with you as though not a single beat has passed since you were last together. But he is no Oliver Twist who picks your pocket. He is much more dangerous. He steals your heart, and when you leave, your heart breaks as roundly as his.
I find myself lingering in Hanoi because of him. When I tour the city on my bicycle, he hops on the rear bike rack for a ride, laughing his mute laugh: Ackackackack ack ack! I carry him, my silly monkey, my little brother. We point to sights we know nothing about and smile at eachother. Then he's off to some other part of his domain. Perhaps to visit another tourist. Perhaps to go home--wherever he lives.
He is a soloist, a pariah among the children in the area. A scrappy bright-eyed boy, the runt of the litter. Kids are cruel as only kids can be, and No-name always seems to be ducking from the pranks of one tormentor to the blows of another. They resent his easy camaraderie with the fair-skinned foreigners. These kids are decently dressed, fleshed out, and scrubbed clean, the stamp of children with homes and family. No-name is somewhere along the side, on the edge. He bears the earmark of a child relinquished into the care of a lone grandmother or a kind but poor aunt.
I zealously nurture a morning coffee habit and No-name often pays me a visit during my grumpiest hour. An orange juice for him. An espresso for me. Toast, butter, and cheese all around. He only lets me treat him half of the time. He pays his share with a greasy fist of dime-bills. The waitresses used to shoo him out, but once seven tourists, with me as their translator, assured the owner that if she ever mistreated No-name, we would never eat at her cafe again. Other tourists would hear about her cruelty. These businesses rely heavily on tourists' word of mouth and so she took the message to heart. Now, every other dawn, No-name sits next to me, contemplating the dust universe in the sunbeam angling through the window while I read the newspapers.
One morning, he signs me a question in his personal language. He doesn't read or write. Hands out, face turning about, looking; fingers touching hair, hands far apart; index finger to the sun; hands about knees, describing a garment: Where's sun-bright long-hair girl? I shake my head, fingers walking away. Gone, gone. I say, and he turns from me. I see tears rimming his eyes. He burrows his head into his folded arms on the table. When the waitress comes with his juice, he flees into the street, his breakfast untouched.
I know that when I go, I will leave as silently as Jen did. One morning he will come and I won't be there with my paper and my espresso. And some morning, somewhere a world away, I will look at the sun angling through a window and I will think of a boy called No-name."

Tears came to my eyes when I read this passage on a bus yesterday as I left Sihanookville. It still gets me every time I read it. So many fleeting acquaintances... so many children. I feel like I'm doing something good by befriending them and shedding the warmth of my culture on the poverty and squalor of theirs. But I always leave. Am I just assuaging my conscience? My guilt at being born into an infinitely more-priveledged world than they? It's easy to block-out questions like these. Easy to be firm and indignant with beggars out of a lofty sense of social-morality. I try to be compassionate and beneficent, but really I just gape with awe at their poverty along with everyone else. What am I doing here?

Tomorrow, Vietnam.

Posted at 15:46 by travelgabe
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