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Luang Prabang 1 and Vang Vieng


IMG_3542We had just arrived off our flight from Hanoi to Luang Prabang. As soon as unloaded our bags from the taxi, I asked Courtney, “Do you hear that?”
“What?”
“NO horns… silence…
It was true, and still has been so far; Laotians apparently have no need to incessantly honk their horns. After so much time in Vietnam I had forgotten that such people could exist.
This turned out to be just one of the reasons Luang Prabang was becoming a breath of fresh air (and that is not, even though it could be, a pun about the sudden lack of smog). This “city” is quite small; 36,000 people small actually. Even though it is quite overrun with tourists, it is one of the most charming places we’ve been to. The riverside (both of them actually, since the town sits at a confluence of the Mekong and Nam Song) are lined with lantern and tree-ringed eateries, making it an excellent place to have a drink at sundown. The people are very friendly, and even the occasional person who is touting for a tuk-tuk ride is polite and smiling. Perhaps we’re just a little cynical after having spent so much time in Vietnam and occasionally being stalked by a vendor or driver.
IMG_3628Being our first experience in Laos, we couldn’t help but notice the cultural similarities with Thailand, Buddhist temples everywhere. I’ve never seen so many temples in one place. So far we’ve passed perhaps a dozen, all active and filled with novice monks, who are so laid back that you can see them occasionally chatting with tourists; they seem to not mind (or perhaps simply used to) being constantly photographed by wandering tourists (who seems actually more polite themselves here, perhaps it’s just one of those places that rubs off on people). Courtney and I assume that the monks here are so friendly because (again, like in Thailand) most males are expected to join up at some point.
But I’ve got to stop here for a second, because it really isn’t fair to keep comparing Laos to Thailand, especially in the food department. I’ve never heard anyone saying “You have got to try this Laos restaurant!” We ourselves had no idea what to expect from Lao food; we had already become acquainted with Beer Lao, so we knew that at least we’d a have good lager, but maybe nothing more.
IMG_3552Thankfully, we were wrong. For those of you reading this that are lucky enough to have visited Pok-Pok in Portland… if you love that kind of food you’ll love food from Northern Laos. Many dishes that are considered quintessentially Thai, such as papaya salad, are actually Laotian (though I wouldn’t claim this to a Thai). It turns out that the Isaan region in Thailand, which Pok-Pok is inspired by, used to be part of Laos. Besides papaya salad, sticky rice is a staple at all meals (which are eaten mostly with the hands); in fact, sticky rice with a dip or paste can be considered a meal. Our favorite of these dips/sauces was called jeow bong which is a paste of tomato, chili and shredded water-buffalo ski (and very spicy).

IMG_3568After exploring LPB for a couple days, we took a day trip to Kuang Si falls, a 45 min ride by songthaew from the city. After our first ride broke down, he called a backup, so it took about an hour and a half… and right as we were arriving to the park entrance… SPLOOSH! Both Courtney and I were hit by kids wielding pails of water, drenching us immediately. This proved to be only a warm-up for what was to come in the weeks ahead. The falls themselves were beautiful, but we were there to swim, as was everyone else, though there weren’t many others, except at the lone rope swing. We spent a couple hours in the beautiful turquoise waters before the weather turned and we went back to town.

We had no plans, and we had debated whether or not to head to Vang Vieng, where the youngest/douchebaggiest of travelers congregate to get shitfaced. We decided that we needed to do it; for one I wanted to make a little documentary on our camera of the worst offenders and also we had been told of how beautiful the area is. So after finding several motorbike renters who refused to let us take their bikes since the gov’t doesn’t allow ones from LPB to leave the province (for some reason if you rent in the capital of Vientianne you can take them anywhere) we finally found someone who asked fewer questions.

IMG_3686We bought ourselves a copy of the GT Rider’s Laos map and so knew it would be a long trip; even though we were only going 224 kilometers, there was a lot of ups and downs. So we thought we could probably make it in 5-6 hours.  At 11 the next morning we took off, stopping only for gas and horrible noodle soup and arrived at around 7:30 that night, with bugs in our eyes and sore asses. The only event of note was at the halfway mark, when flames from the nearby crop-burning leapt over the road’s edge, fifteen feet or more in the air, close enough to singe us.

Just as when we arrived late in Bangkok, jet-lagged and bleary-eyed and threw ourselves into the surreality of Khao San road, we felt obligated to do the same here. So, bike-lagged and bleary-eyed, we headed out into the town of Vang Vieng, passing the stumbling half-naked teens that wandered the streets (you get an elevated sense of what young Brits do on their “Gap Year” in SE Asia).  Despite the occasional sign asking visitors to keep some clothing on while in town and the fact that it was nighttime, there were plenty of bikini-clad girls and shirtless dudes lurching through the town, many of them caught up in the sort of conversations only available to the young and very drunk. We had some pretty awful dinner (we quickly determined that it was fairly impossible to get a good meal, and all street food consisted of crap sandwiches), then sat in a bar overlooking the river, using the nearby napkin holder to cover up the puke that was on our seat cushion. It seemed as if the town was begging us to put our old bones to bed, and so we did.

IMG_3715The next day we moved to the Maylyn guesthouse, the proprietor of which is an old Irishman named Joe with no social filter (much more has been said on the tripAdvisor page, so just look there for the funny stuff, though he did take a look at me and say “Here for the cavortin’? I bet you’ve done a fair bit of cavortin’ eh?”.) The bungalows were rustic, clean and cheap and some had views of the karsts beyond.

All the youth come to Vang Vieng for the “tubing”, but having seen bunches of cut-up kids walking around with gauze-padded arms and scabby backs due to the low water level, we opted for kayaks. Unfortunately, the moment we decided to kayak was the same moment my body decided that it had eaten something disagreeable. Nevertheless, we were loaded up onto a sangtheaw with a troupe of kids and shuttled off to the river. The water was so low that at times the guides had to get out and guide our kayaks through small paths between the (very sharp) rocks. After a few kilometers of serene kayaking among the karsts, we reached the TUBING portion of the river. We knew it was coming since we could hear the thumping bass for perhaps a half an hour. We separated from the group at the Organic Mulberry Farm, which for years had been a quiet place to stay on the river, before all the bars slowly crept up until they were literally right outside.

We ate at the farm, despite my worsening condition, then grabbed our guide who had stayed back with us and got back on the river. This meant that within five seconds we were at the first of the bars constructed along the side of the river and the giant swings and slides they’ve constructed as the main attractions (despite my overwrought cynicism I would have tried one of these if my intestines weren’t battling me for my soul). This is best described with a video:

IMG_3742We arrived later in the day, so most people had already headed back to town; many “tubers” actually just rent the tubes, float down a hundred meters or so (out of the 4 kilometers), get drunk, and then hire a sangtheaw to take them home. As we arrived in town a couple hours later, as my fever started to build, we were treated to the sight of tourist balloons hovering over the river with the karsts in the background as the sun descended through the haze. I spent the rest of the evening huddled in our bungalow, sweating it out (don’t let anyone tell you that fever-reducing Tylenol isn’t one of man’s most important inventions).

 On our last day we headed to the “Blue Lagoon”, and explored the cave up above. This was a welcome break from the constant party that surrounded us, with the cold, calm turquoise waters, and the tree with rope swings and two levels of limbs to jump from. Well, it was a nice break from the party until the party found us, which went a little something like this:

  • “If Danny Boy was here he’d been doing flips’n’shit off those trees!!!”
  • “Hey! Danny Boy is here!!!”
  • “Hey Danny Boy, you gonna jump off those trees? Hey everybody, Danny Boy is gonna jump off the tree!”
  • “Hey Danny Boy, hold on, I wanna take a video of you jumpin’ off the tree.”

So we left.

IMG_3801On our way back, we decided to make it a two day trip, instead of covering the whole 8-hour trip in one go. So we stopped at Ban Nam Ou, one of the few places to stay in the mountains outside of the towns. Their 5 or 6 bungalows were stacked on the hillside, with their restaurant across the street and a hot spring pool in between. Truckers and locals would come by for a meal at the restaurant and/or a quick bathe at the springs. The waters were quite warm, and the locals were joking and friendly as we joined them for a dip; one woman encouraged her child to splash Courtney repeatedly over several minutes while shouting “Farang! Farang! Farang!” We weren’t sure if this was friendly or not. After a furious thunderstorm, we headed back to LPB.


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Tourists Serviced

Tourists Serviced by ryansigg
Tourists Serviced, a photo by ryansigg on Flickr.

Probably one of the few places that doesn’t actually mean it…

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Ha Long Bay & Sapa

95180008The events depicted in this (absurdly long) blog post occurred between the middle and end of March, 2011, in effect “straddling” the event of the last post (ha). All photos for the Ha Long Bay portion were taken on a “Doozy Sunshine” disposable camera, which actually resulted in some great images due to/in spite of its complete lack of quality.

Part I: Ready for Something Amazing

Oh my gootness. We are behind in this blog! Deearr. Well I’ll do my best to recap this 3 day trip out of Hanoi, Vietnam. We heard many people complain about the weather in Northern Vietnam at this time but we were determined to see the UNESCO World Heritage Site–Ha Long Bay–literally “Descending Dragon Bay”. Photos of the bay are jaw-droppingly beautiful. Unfortunately we have very few photos, since, as we mentioned in the previous post, our (basically brand new) camera decided to commit suicide RIGHT before we left Hanoi.

The bay is formed by thousands of limestone karsts and isles. You can choose any number of tours through the millions of tour companies on offer. We took the (typical) lazy route and booked a boat trip through our hotel, with a few night’s stay on Cat Ba Island. En route, our tour guide leans over the passenger side seat and announces that “due to the bad weather” (it’s grey and slightly drizzly…) there will be no tour boats or public ferry going out on Ha Long Bay today. And maybe tomorrow. Turns out most of the vessels are pretty old, with no navigatonal system, so if it’s even slightly cloudy or grey they just ground ‘em.

Part II: No Boats Today

Ryan and I decided to tough it out and  stay the night in Ha Long City, a total shithole of a town,to wait and see if the tour will leave the next day. We woke up and saw grey skies again and knew that no tour boats would be heading out to the island. We called “Tam”, the tour guide who was waiting with the rest of the group at their (too expensive) hotel; they were the remnants who decided to wait and still get 2 days of their 3-day tour. “Boat no leave today, maybe you catch ferry. You want ride back to Hanoi with others?”

We held out hopes of still catching the public ferry to Cat Ba Island. The weather still looked mild, though drizzly and a bit windy. The word was that the government was wary after the drowning deaths of 12 tourists in January (which apparently had nothing to do with weather). We figured if no tours were running, we could at least wait out the weather a little more and hopefully book a tour through the bay in a few days.

After a long taxi ride, several offers to take us immediately to Cat Ba for “very fair” price, lots of waiting in the drizzly weather, and having to force our cab driver to stop so he didn’t take us back to his house so his wife could shove us on a boat for the aforementioned “fair price”, we managed to buy a cheap ferry ticket and sat waiting for our boat for the 1.5 hour cruise, with the only other prospective passengers: 30-odd uniformed members of the Vietnamese military.

As we were waiting, we kept saying to each other “I hope THAT’s not the ferry”; referring to a “ship” sitting neat the ferry dock. We held out hope that the actual ferry was on its way. Then, lo and behold, our chariot arrived. It was the damn barely-a-boat contraption we had seen earlier. Part of what had so worried  us earlier is that there was not a single place for a passenger to sit, and definitely nowhere inside except the wee control box up top. As it was in the low 40s, rainy, and all we had were light jackets, we were worried.

Then it got worse. As soon as we got on board (and the Army drove their vans on) we made a bee-line up the two stories to the control box. We had been sitting outside for the several hours at this point and were ready for any small comfort. The boat crew immediately made it clear that were weren’t allowed inside, which became the all the more frustrating as he stood to the side for each and every soldier to file in, all of them making pantomimes of extreme cold, eg. rubbing their hands together and blowing on

View from the Ferry's cabin

The only surviving photo from inside the cabin, taken somewhat discreetly (though it's pretty hard to disguise the horrible winding and clicking of a disposable camera).

them etc. Courtney and I stood outside the window on the top deck, the only ones standing outside, as the boat pulled away from the dock. I was pissed and started feeling stubborn; “I’m just gonna go climb in one of their cars then!” I thought. But Courtney was persistent, knocking on the door and making the same “I’m cold!” motions the soldiers had made. Some of the soldiers just waved back cheerily through the window, seemingly oblivious to our pleas, until finally, one of the crew members let us inside.

We arrived at dock to find a large group already waiting for busses; apparently their tour boat had come over no problem (we never figured out what the hell was going on for those few days)! Earlier, we had been determined to wait for the local bus and avoid the scammers who offered rides (we were 30k from town) for $7 per person. However, now, soaked to the bone, we attempted to slide in with the tour group when their tour leader ordered them onto the busses. But the previous scam artist helpfully pointed us out and had a chat with the tour guide, so that the price was magically the same as had been quoted earlier. We paid it.

Part III: MONKEY ISLAND

We arrived in Cat Ba Town, and here’s where the blog post gets short… This place was just miserable. There’s much to do when it’s not hovering around 40; there are trails, rock-climbing and a National Park that we were set on visiting. As it was, we were just trying to stay warm and dry some clothes out in our room at the Cat Ba “Dream” (it’s totally a dream if you are a fan of black mold and residing on the same floor as a tour group of shrieking children).

And so the next few days went; all the restaurants kept the doors open, apparently thinking that if you closed them tourists would think the restaurant was “closed” as opposed to “warm”. This resulted in us eating in our room twice (one time from Duc Tuan; even eaten from tin foil, this was one of the best fish meals of my life).

On the third (or fourth, or whatever) day we booked a tour, weather be damned. It left the next day and we jumped on a boat with a couple Frenchies and a half-dozen Germans. The first stop, where we learned that this tour would be completely different than the one we were sold, was to MONKEY ISLAND. The day before, Courtney had been warned about Monkey Island by an expat who owned a restaurant in Cat Ba town. “Whatever you do,” he had said, “DON’T GO ONTO MONKEY ISLAND.” According to this guy, 6 tourists had already been bitten by the monkeys in March alone; like so many other “Monkey Islands” we had heard about (in Thailand and Cambodia), the monkeys become a tourist attraction, tourists come and feed the monkeys, the monkeys get aggressive… So, when we reached the island, we declared our intentions of staying on the boat. “The guy told us NOT to go onto Monkey Island,” we said. “Come on, be adventurous!” the Germans said, making us feel weak and very American in our preoccupation with things like safety from rabies.

95180013

A clue as to as to what befell Monkey Island? The sign reads "To Sell Food For Monkey"

We got off the boat. The monkeys came closer and closer, nibbling on pieces of trash, as our new friends edged closer as well, snapping away with their cameras, until finally the monkeys finally ran off into the depths of the jungle. That excitement over, we waited in the rain for the boat to return, wandering through the ruinous buildings on the island, which apparently had been the headquarters of some sort of natural park (that is, until the MONKEYS took over). There was not one building without broken windows or a generally dilapidated and weather-beaten appearance. We kept saying to each other, “this is probably what Jurassic Park looked like after it closed”.

95180004

Doozy of a Jellyfish

After the boat returned, we went to a cave with a concrete, well-lit walkway, had some lunch, which was awesome even though it was prepared in the back of a tiny boat by a perhaps teenage cook, and headed to a floating fishing “village” to do some kayaking. Miraculously, at the very moment we stepped off the boat it stopped raining. We hopped in a double kayak, confident in our abilities having done this before and… wait, what the hell? We couldn’t control a thing. We both paddled at the same time and would go left, or right, or in a circle. The rest of the group zoomed around the Bay like pros, and we were struggling to catch up, and getting soaked by our paddles in the process. We did this for an interminable amount of time until the guide set us free and we could return to the boat. On the way back, experimenting with various magical incantations and reverse-logic (“maybe if YOU paddle on the right and I paddle on BOTH sides, we’ll go STRAIGHT!”) methods, Courtney pointed out a plastic bag looking thing beneath our boat. To our amazement, heaving just under the surface, was the biggest jellyfish either of us had ever seen outside of an aquarium. We snapped a photo with the disposable camera and returned, now soaked, to the boat. Thankfully for my pride, no one else seemed to avoid the dousing. We spent some of the remainder of the trip on the top of the boat, since the rain was still holding off for a while, and this was just breathtaking… we wished we had been able to stay outside the entire time.

After we got back from the tour we decided to give it one more day to get sunny so we could tour the park. When we woke up it was still awful and cold, and the power was out in our area of town, so we said “Screw this” and decided to try and catch the early boat. On the bus as we headed the port, both of us holding mental middle fingers up to the Cat Ba, the sun broke through the clouds for the first time in over a week, bathing the island in a ethereal glow.

Sometimes, no matter how stupid and trivial the reasons are, it is hard not to feel sorry for oneself.

Part IV: Overstaying our Welcome- Sapa

After a return to Hanoi to dry off on the only sunny day in March, we headed to Ninh Binh. Somewhere in our Hanoi trips we had to renew our visas, since we were about to overstay our 30 days. Then we returned back to Hanoi again, struggling with whether we should visit the last place left on our Vietnam list: Sapa. Since the weather had been so unrelentingly awful, we were somewhat persuaded to just call it quits for Vietnam and head onto Laos, which neither of were really ready to do (which was strange since Vietnam had done nothing but dump rain on us for the last three weeks). After several sessions of the usual SiggMaxcy Indecision Committee, it was decided that we would head to Sapa on the overnight train, spending a night in Bac Ha, since we were just in time for the Sunday market that our German Ha Long buddies had told us about. Our departure was delayed a day since the sleeper cars were all booked up for the day we wanted. but that just left more time in Hanoi, and I would never complain about that (except for the incessant honking).

Before leaving, we hauled our bags to Quan An Ngon for one last meal. After we finished another excellent round of fancy-ish street food, we left for the nearby train station. When we boarded the train our faces both fell; there was not one, but two small children in our cabin (we ain’t kid haters, I swear). In the end, the family turned out to be the best cabin-mates we could have, even though neither of us probably slept very much at all in the end.

IMG_3337We got off the train and hopped on one of the many minibuses waiting to ferry tourists to the Sunday Bac Ha Market, where each week all the hill tribes from nearby would congregate. The villagers in the hills of Northern Vietnam consist of many different groups, among them the H’mong (who are also spread throughout Laos, China and Thailand), Red D’zao, Flower H’mong, Muong, and many many more, all of them known for their colorful and interesting traditional clothing. Even though none of them are actual ‘tribes’, you will still hear highland groups commonly referred to as ‘hill-tribes’ through most of Indochina.

Simply put, Bac Ha was an awful, disheartening experience. We had breakfast at the hotel we planned on staying at, where we got nothing we asked for and were charged for things we never received. The minibus which took us their was also heading to Sapa the same day so we just went back and told we’d be joining them. Then we headed into the market.

IMG_3307It was still early, so it was quiet and one could wander the stalls mostly unmolested. After bargaining unsuccessfully for a few blankets, we headed to the livestock market, which Courtney tried to walk as quickly as possible through, especially when we hit the puppy area.

We decided to sit down at one of the small stalls and have coffee. The market soon started to fill up with busloads of tourists, and so we started to figure out just what kind of a tourist circus/charade we’d let ourselves get into. I take that back, we still had much to learn about the level of tourist bullshit we had gotten ourselves into. I noticed that the coffee making woman had two glasses out for coffee; I told her that we only wanted one. As we waited for the coffee, we nibbled on some peanuts and dried coconut that the coffee-stand women had actually put directly into our hands (as in, grabbed our hands and put the food directly into them). Having been in Vietnam for well over a month, we were somewhat used to this sort of unnecessarily forceful behavior. A Polish couple from our minibus sat down next to us and started ordered some drinks as well. we should have known we were in trouble as soon as the vendor waved off a Vietnamese couple tried to pay publicly, she waved them off so we wouldn’t see the amount (usually this just means we’re paying the “tourist tax”, overpaying from the locals by 5,000 dong or so, which is a quarter). So we got up to pay, and the women informed us that the total was around $15. For coffee. In VIETNAM. When we balked, she explained that the tiny plates of peanuts that we were given were $5 each (not to mention $3 for 2 coffees, plus a $1+ for a water. In VIETNAM). In the end, not wanting to cause a scene (of “lose face” as they say here), we paid, as did the Polish couple. In the end, in our ridiculous, petty way, we got our revenge: every time I would walk past her coffee stand, I would walk up to any tourists and let them know that their peanuts could set them back more than their night’s accommodation. The market was now officially a tourist zoo; a soon as someone would step into the market, they would be completely surrounded by women selling cheap mass-produced version of local handicrafts.

The only good thing I have to say about the Bac Ha Market is that they probably don’t eat THIS:

Tourists ServicedSo we were the only ones who were early to the minibus, waiting impatiently to get the hell out of there. By the time we arrived in Sapa, some of the frustration with Bac Ha had worn off, and we were able to appreciate its dramatic beauty, which is not unlike  a Swiss resort in the Alps. We suddenly realized why so many tourists decided to congregate here.

IMG_3454The mini-bus did it’s normal stop at the predetermined hotel, to try and lure anyone not having reservations, before dropping us at the Cat Cat View, one of three in the “Cat Cat” family of hotels. Once we sorted out which Cat Cat we were supposed to be staying at, the receptionist took us to a series of rooms. Considering that this was to be the most ($30!) that we had spent on ANY accommodation in the entire country, we were determined to be happy with this, especially given the temperature outside; we assumed we’d be spending a lot of time here. After showing us a couple decent rooms, she took us to the elevator and hit ‘7’, which was strange considering all the hotels we had seen had only a few stories. The elevator opened up to a rooftop patio (read: ‘magic garden’) with trees and flowers, which continued on up a series of stairs. At the top was the hotel’s restaurant, 3 levels of mountain-view rooms, and what was to be our own personal terrace and the most spectacular view we could have imagined. The room was nice in the shabby way of a nice hotel that has such a gorgeous view doesn’t really NEED nice rooms. And it had a fireplace. It was kind of like the hotel from the ‘Shining’, but since that type of place speaks to our Pacific Northwestern-ness, we were pretty thrilled.

IMG_3407The next day we rented a motorbike, to be ready in case of a break in the weather, which came for a few hours in the afternoon. We rode up to the Silver Waterfall with a picnic lunch from the ‘Baguette and Chocolate’ cafe, and after that rode out towards… well, we didn’t know, but near the end of the days’ wanderings Courtney was challenging park rangers in a ping-pong match.

But it wasn’t all fun and games. Even more so than Bac Ha, Sapa is billed as the place to go for ‘trekking'; this word usually means not only ‘hiking’ but also ‘visiting villagers in some pathetic search for the exotic’. This activity seems to take place in all those above-mentioned areas, from Northwestern Vietnam all the way to Northern Thailand (where we had first heard about it). In Sapa, however, the tables have turned. The business of trekking has proved so lucrative for many of the surrounding villages that you will literally get stalked by persuasive women in traditional garb. As soon as we left our hotel the first day, there was a H’mong woman and young girl. They quickly introduced themselves in broken English but said nothing more; we said hello, and moved on. Then we noticed that we were being followed. We did the usual; we changed our route. Then when they continued to follow us we stopped and politely told them that we weren’t going to buy anything and so they were wasting their time. Every once in a while someone from another ethnic group would approach us (usually this meant getting physically run into while the vendor shouted “You buy meeeee? Shopping?? What your name?” in a sing-song voice), but our little duo held on. After telling them a few times that their time was wasted on us, we finally ducked into a (power-less but fireplace-warmed) restaurant for lunch and we were soon joined by the Polish couple who had come into the same place by chance. We pointed out our stalkers. They seemed confused, as if they hadn’t been harrassed at all since they arrived. When we left lunch and said goodbye to the couple, they continued to follow us to every place we went in town, never saying a single word. That is, right until we were entering our hotel… then the sale pitch began, even though it was the same one we had heard a hundred times from everyone else. We can’t imagine that this sales technique had worked before (though we were tempted a few times to just buy something if they would go away).

That night we lost power a few times… 3 times proved to be the magic number for power loss in the coming days.

I’ll make this last bit real quick… Our third day we visited the “village” of Cat Cat. Surely at one point it had been a real village, but situated as it was a single kilometer’s walk from Sapa, that point must have been long ago. Though the villagers seemed as destitute as many others we had seen, all the walkways had been turned into concrete sidewalks, and the village center had become a “cultural performing arts center”. Every home now sold the same mass-produced “authentic” handicrafts. It was one thing to see how the Vietnamese government (who handled the concessions for all the villages, you had to buy a ticket for each and it was never stated how much the villages received) exploited the minority groups for their tourism potential, it was another thing entirely to see the tour-bus folks blithely handing out candy to the dirty-cheeked village children and taking their pictures, as if the one thing they needed was some tooth-rot in exchange for an appearance in someone’s “Exotic Trip to Asia” scrapbook (they should just sell pictures of dirty half-naked babies at Scrapbooks ‘R Us). The next day… sigh… we motorbiked out to one of the villages (sorry other travelers, I can’t remember which) that the tour companies sell “treks” to, just to see what these chumps were purchasing. Once again, it was a trip to a town that now supported itself fully on tourism; we watched as the folks got out of their minivans and “trekked” to the village, where they were immediately accosted by dozens of vendors. Not that our cynicism exempted us from this, it just made us bike right on through… I’m sure there are interesting cultural experiences to be had through conscientious and responsible tour agencies, but we sure didn’t see any.

On the way back, passing through a rural crossroads where vendors usually waited for minibuses to empty out, we remembered, “mangoes!” We had bought a bunch of tiny mangoes to give to any children we happened upon, prompted by our over-sensitivity to the candy-giving (and probably guilt from our own motorcycle/orphanage trip. ugh). So we turned around and headed back to the crossroads, where a couple of women waited with a group of children. Here it is, my ridiculous brain imagined, our one interaction in Sapa that won’t be dictated by a cash transaction. Just people, right?

Courtney was talking to the children and handing mangoes out, while I parked the bike. As I approached I began to make out the children’s words.

“Money!” they cried, grabbing at the mangoes, “Money! Money!”

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Hanoi I

Hanoi from the Hanoi Guesthouse

The view from our room at the Hanoi Guesthouse

“Are there any more beautiful women? they drive by on their motorbikes in tight white silk ao dais, slit to the tops of their thighs, black silk pants underneath, driving gloves that reach beyond their elbows, white surgical masks covering their faces, bug eyed sunglasses and conical straw hats. Not an inch of flesh is visible” – Anthony Bourdain (yes, again), A Cook’s Tour

Apparently a lot has changed about Vietnam in the mere ten years since those words were written; nowadays you are much more likely to see young Vietnamese women wearing sequined jeans and super-high heels than the traditional ao dai, despite the fact that Hanoi is supposed to be the bastion of Vietnamese conservatism. The same goes for the young men except more so (since at a certain point women are expected to be more conservative), endlessly preening, sometimes fixing their hair in their motorbike mirrors and decked out in the type of tribal-tattoo-design t-shirts you expect to see at meat-market clubs (in this way they seem similar to most of the younger men we’ve seen in Indochina). But what makes this city so fascinating now (as opposed to the drab straight-forward modernism of Saigon) is the blend of old and new; examples of this are shoved at your senses every second you spend in the labyrinth of Hanoi’s streets. One nearly ran right into us tonight; a woman balancing her wares in a  bamboo basket on top of her head while texting on her phone.

Of course, our camera broke right before I had the chance to illustrate any of this, but more on that later.

IMG_2786To me, Hanoi has all the qualities of a great city: the old co-exists with the new, it’s so whirring with life that you could get literally knocked down any moment if you’re not paying attention, but there are still tranquil areas to be found among the chaos.  Chief among them is Ho Hoa Kiem Lake, which is central (literally and figuratively) to many Hanoians daily lives. It’s one of those gathering points that makes a city actually alive; it seems you can see everyone out there (despite the fact that it really just a shallow pond of muddy water)… couples out for romantic evenings, folks practicing tai-chi or running, groups of businessmen getting drunk after work, families eating ice cream (ice cream is huge in Hanoi, Courtney once had to force her way to the front a rabid crowd to get a couple cones) …

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Watching, with the crowd, for a giant turtle sighting

Speaking of the lake, legend has it that “emperor Lê Lợi handed a magic sword … which brought him victory in his revolt against the Chinese Ming Dynasty back to the Golden Turtle God… in the lake and hence gave it its present name”. We had read of sightings of giant (but not teenage, mutant, or ninja) turtles in the lake, but from what we had read their current status was more fiction than fact; there is a stuffed one (found in the 60’s) mounted in the pagoda in the middle of the lake. After we had visited this weasel-faced specimen in his glass case we noticed some commotion along the water’s edge. I thought it couldn’t be, but still stood staring with the crowd at the water… then there it was, an enormous, almost mammalian snout poking out of the water about 40 feet out in the murky water. I quickly grabbed Courtney and made her watch for the next ten minutes or so until it resurfaced.

All the Vietnamese seemed quite excited, but we brushed it off until later, when we were walking down further along the lake and saw a MASSIVE gathering of people by the water. Folks were jumping their motorbikes over the curb and running to see the turtles; every time it bubbled to the surface the crowd let out a gasp. We could never figure out whether there are many turtle sightings or it is merely good luck to sight one (turtles seem to be the only real sacred animals here, along with the mythical dragon, unicorn and phoenix. Perhaps they were all merely endangered once too… hmmmmm….). In any case, it was one of those euphoric moments where everyone is so charged up, it was something wonderful to stumble into (and answer the question of other tourists, who would stumble up to us, confused, asking “What’s all this then?”).

Quan An Ngon: Redux

Quan An Ngon is actually two restaurants, one in Saigon and one in Hanoi, that offer a really amazing take on street food. They’ve clustered dozens of food stalls into a pictureqsue soutdoor restaurant setting.

Our previous experience in Saigon had been disappointing, as we didn’t realize that the locals all ate so early; when we arrived around 9pm, the place was pretty much cleared of diners as well as cooks. Almost everything we ordered was no longer to be had, and the dishes we did get were rather disappointing. In fact, most of our meals were pretty boring in Saigon, and I still wish we had given ourselves more time there to explore…

So when I heard that there was another location in Hanoi, I felt the glow one gets when offered a sort of redemption. You enter into the courtyard and immediately are struck by how perfect the setup is; waiters are rushing everywhere with plates stacked high steam pours out of every pot, and the entire thing is soundtracked with the din of a couple hundred chattering diners. It is very much like stepping into a movie.

Quan An Ngon

The hostess plunked us down across from a couple of lunching Vietnamese girls and near a few other travelers. I took a quick stroll to get an idea, but as much of Vietnamese cuisine is stuffed or rolled into something else, I sat just as quickly back down to look at the menu. We ordered a banh xeo, an enormous yellow crepe filled with bean sprouts, pork and shrimp (eaten shells and all) which you wrap in greens and dip in sauce. We also had an amazing seafood and mango salad, some shredded pork-skin rolls, and the best chicken skewers I’ve ever had, served with a dipping sauce not unlike hawaiian bbq. Also on our list to try was che which is almost a cold, sweet soup. The type we tried was called che bap and was loaded with beans, corn, tapioca and swimming in a coconut milk liquid (this is another that of course, doesn’t sound tasty at all but is quite amazing and refreshing). Given that we’ll be returning to Hanoi a couple of times before departing Vietnam, I know we’ll be back here soon (edit: we were)…

But as amazing as Quan An Ngon is, it’s a bit of a cheat when there are great examples of street food everywhere; it’s just that EVERY dish is amazing, on the street you have to be prepared to be grossed out or bored once in a while. We would hear about some dish, like bun cha (a bowl of noodles with grilled pork patties on the side) and go out hunting for some special place, find it to be closed, then settle for some random place where you end up pushing half the dish away, unsatisfied. Then we would invariably discover that there is a great spot literally across the street from our guesthouse (this was true with both bun cha and pho). Of course, our camera was broken for many of these excursions as well, missing completely the giant pot (always a good sign) of no-name simmering soup with fried tofu and almost raw beef (this was so good we returned on our third visit to Hanoi to have breakfast and get documentation. I think it’s on the corner of Hang Bac and Hang Dao).

Another impressive place is KOTO, a non-profit that teaches street kids restaurant and life skills, a model it has helped popularize. They have a great mix of local and Western food, and given the chance to finally have a real burger, not some sad soggy version in a sad backpacker’s restaurant, I immediately ordered one. Courtney had some fantastic, very American-Italian pasta. It was all incredibly satisfying, especially when finished off with an iced Vietnamese coffee (those who are aware of my annoying stomach issues have heard me complain about no having coffee in a couple of years; somehow, despite it being stronger than anything I’ve ever had in the states I can handle this just fine) served with sweetened condensed milk.

Just the act of making Vietnamese coffee is wonderful; they give you this personal filter that sit on top of your glass (Courtney has mused “What do you people have against mugs?”) and drips… very… slowly… into… your glass. Then you mix the sweet milk in and enjoy. It’s very thick stuff, about midway between American coffee and a milkshake.

Since we perhaps be posting about Hanoi and its wonders again, I don’t have the time (nor do you have patience) to rattle off all the wonderful things we did, but here are a few worth mentioning for fellow travelers:

  • The Cart – actually not a cart, but perhaps the best place to go when you just need a real deli sandwich (one day I had their roast beef sammich; this is an evil teenage internet-ism and I won’t say this again but OMG) or a piece of carrot-cinnamon cake (ok I lied, OMFG). It’s more than a little hidden so look at the map on their website first.
  • IMG_2792 Hanoi Cinemateque – A great movie house/club tucked into a neighborhood off Hai Ba Trung, with an attached garden restaurant and great ambience. The only place to see older and art-house films in Hanoi; the only other movie option is the nearby multiplex. We saw most of “Out of Africa” (c’mon it’s 3+ hours!). If you’re not a member you have to pay like a buck more to see a movie.
  • Trang Tien St. – This is where the hordes go to fight for ice cream, at the end near the Ngo Quyen intersection, and where we bought our eyeglasses at Kihn Thuoc, 56 Trang Tien.

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Confucianist crabs?

Confucianist crabs?
Confucianist crabs? a photo by ryansigg on Flickr.

Like, confusion is an illusion, man.

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Hoi An to Hue: Three Days Late and 8 Million Dong Short

The events in this  blog post took place in the 2nd week of March 2011. Anyone reading the blog (if there are any) will notice a curiously increasing difference between the posting date and our trip dates… The posts are already written, shoved in notebooks and the back of novels… they’re just waiting to be matched up with photos and given some finishing touches. So we’re going to attempt shoving out the rest of these posts in the next WEEK, before it ends up that we’re home and still writing about crap that no one cares about, the least of all us… Thanks for paying attention. All the photos can be seen here.

“I’m hurtling full speed down Highway 1… in the back of a hired minivan, horn honking constantly, heading up the center line into oncoming traffic. During the war, Highway 1 was said to be dangerous snipers, sappers, ambushes, command-detonated mines, the usual perils of guerilla insurgencies. I can’t imagine it’s an y less dangerous now. Understand this… The thing to do is keep up a constant attack with the horn. A beep means ‘keep doing what you’re doing, change nothing, make no sudden moves, and everything will probably be fine. It does not mean ‘Slow down’ or ‘Stop’ or ‘Move to the right’ or ‘Get out of the way’ If you try to do these things on Highway 1 after hearing a car horn behind you – if you hesitate, look back over your shoulder, slow down, or even falter for a second – you will immediately find yourself in a burning heap of crumpled metal somewhere in a rice paddy. The horn means simply, “I’m here!” – Anthony Bourdain, A Cook’s Tour

So… here we were on the same highway, strapped to the back of a couple motorbikes, horns honking all around us as our drivers pulled directly into oncoming traffic to overtake black-smoke-spewing trucks. “Today we go TOP GEAR!” shouted Leo, our motorbike guide, an “Easy Rider”, a name that used to mean something long ago, before anyone with a motorbike and a little English started shuttling tourists around the Central Highlands on the back of motorcycles.

But first, I should backtrack….

IMG_2205There’s a certain conveyor belt feeling to the North-South (or visa versa, I suppose) travel route in Vietnam. Yeah, we’re all on the same path, and we could get (and have gotten) into all sorts of discussions about the beaten path and the no-so-beaten-path and the beaten-to-death-with-a-stick path. But Vietnam is so attuned to getting your tourist dollar that this question almost becomes moot; “traveling independently” is a nice wish at best.

At the same time sometimes you just want to not care about where the tour bus set is going and just have an interesting experience, whatever may come out of it.

Courtney and I have banged our heads against this more often than not here, because of the aforementioned same-same path we’re all on, but also because I have been working so much. It’s easy to get into a routine when you have mounds of work ahead of you; it’s hard to think about much else, let alone what city you’re going to be in the next day.

Ryan’s routine, Vietnam version: Get up, have breakfast, work, maybe some sight-seeing, lunch, work, beers, work, crappy movie on pirated HBO, sleep (can’t sleep? work).

This first became an issue in Nha Trang, a place that normally wouldn’t have held our attention for more than two days, and we were there a few hours shy of a week, which was mostly spent with me huddled over the laptop. Nha Trang was redeemed by a vibrant city just blocks outside the tourist bubble and Vinpearl Land.

But now we had moved on, and after a brief stop in the curiously un-touristy city of Quy Nhon (if you’re heading there, look up the Hai Yen Hotel, those people are the nicest folks ever!) we had arrived in Hoi An.

IMG_2232Hoi An is just wonderful, in a Venice sort of way; by that I mean, it’s effing beautiful, but it’s like Disneyworld. Oh, there’s a real city there buried beneath the postcard-perfect ruinous beauty, but it’s all geared towards your tourist dollar. Every restaurant serves the city’s signature dishes, cao lau, white rose, fried wontons (and we loved every single one), and almost every shop in the Old Town is now a tailor (no joke), to capitalize on some idea that all the great cheap tourists have somehow congregated here.

So after a few days of “what do we do?”, we just embraced it. People come here for cheap tailor made clothes? OK, I got a 3pc suit for dirt cheap (and it’s the most beautiful piece of tailoring I’ve ever seen, I want to sleep at night nuzzled next to it’s silk lining*) and Courtney got a winter coat and some pants. All made in a day, with fittings.

IMG_2257Hoi An is great place to learn about Central Vietnamese cuisine? Sign us up for that cooking Class (@Red Bridge Cooking School; despite not ever cutting up our own veggies or really preparing anything ourselves I’d still recommend it).

You say that the best way to take a tour of Vietnam’s countryside and highlands is by motorbike (AKA with the “EasyRiders”)? Sold.

COURTNEY: The next step in the process was finding a guide that we were comfortable with. After doing some internet research, we stumbled upon “Mr. Leo” who had good reviews and was asking a reasonable price for the three day journey to Hue. He offered (slash…demanded…ignored red flag #1) to meet us the next day to chat about the trip (and then called about four more times that night to “helpfully” remind us to “watch out for fake Easy Rider” -ryan). Mr Leo arrived about four hours early to our hotel for our meeting, red-eyed, cracked out from an all night ride and in need of a night’s sleep. Oh deeearr….

RYAN: Despite our mis-givings about our first meeting (and the fact that we found one horrible review after we had already thrown down a wad of ca$h), we signed up. After all, who among us has been in top form after a night of no sleep and after a handful of Sting (yet another type of heart-stopping energy drink here)? Leo met us after our last visit with our tailor, again early, waiting with the bike and rain gear for us.

Leo & Me w/my badass 150cc clutchless manual 4-speed Yamaha Nuovo. Hell yezzzzzz betches.

We got on the bikes, Courtney riding on the back with Leo,  and set off. Everything went great in the beginning, even Leo’s ploy to have me give a flower to Courtney since it was Woman’s Day in Vietnam (which apparently is the only day that women don’t have to work all day AND do everything at home as well) seemed like a nice gesture even if he was a bit too insistent on it. Then came Leo’s first test as a “guide” when we stopped to see some local ethnic minorities. As we peered awkwardly into their home from the door, Leo’s enlightened us on their way of life: “They do nothing” he said. “What do they eat?” Courtney asked. Leo shrugged.

The real annoyance started when we arrived at our hotel for the night up in the North-Central Highlands. We moved into our room after a weird negotiation session between Leo and the staff. Then we had some beers with him and his hilarious friend “Eddie Murphy”, and even though we had obviously booked with him in the end, the conversation mostly consisted of him talking about how he was a “real” Easy Rider and how he “only worked for charity”, and asking us (more like interrogating) why we talked to others before booking him. We soon learned that even though Leo is over the top with the protection of “his” brand, he wasn’t the only one. Other people on motorbike trips were steered away from talking to us by their drivers (true or not, Leo told us stories about getting into fights with other drivers for letting their clients talk to each other) who seemed fearful that we would chat about prices or which guide was better. In any case, it started to feel like being held hostage; since our guide was not exactly the greatest conversationalist we felt like hanging out with someone, anyone else, yet the other groups or travelers were all being forced to hang out with their driver and ONLY their driver. Lameballs. It seemed that despite the omnipresence of capitalism had wormed their way through Vietnamese culture, these guys hadn’t quite gotten the grasp of the whole competition thing (and the whole “real” vs. “fake” easy Rider thing wasn’t helping).

IMG_2461 Even though out night had been underwhelming we held out some hope; we really didn’t have any other choice. We knew were were visiting an orphanage and Leo had bought some candy to give to them, which we hated the idea of. Instead we headed into the town to pick up schoolbooks and a few shuttlecocks. First we visited the village’s bathing spot, a pretty spectacular set of rapids. Things seemed to be looking up. Then we arrived at the orphanage, where Leo took out the candy along with the things we had bought. Neither of us felt we could deny the kids candy after they saw the bags. I gave the books to the teacher, and then Leo started dictating how many pieces of candy to give to the kids! Needless to say, it was uncomfortable, as was the next stop in the village, where we were swarmed by parents with their naked babies with outstretched hands. We gave out the rest of the candy and toys and wandered off by ourselves, despondent.

IMG_2533 The rest of trip was actually quite great. We started heading through even more beautiful scenery and wonderful backroads, visiting a rubber tree plantation, made awesome by a local who happened to be wandering by and who showed us the rubber coming out, which had the quality of Elmer’s glue. We had a nice lunch, one of the greatest soups we had eaten yet.

When we hit the highway on our way back, Leo actually started showing his talents, and this is what I appreciated most. As busses and trucks roared in and out of oncoming traffic, Leo would guide me with signals and kept us all really safe, despite the reputation of the “Easy Riders” as being more reckless than your average Vietnamese driver. We ended the day with a tour of Marble Mountain by his sister; it’s a truly haunting and beautiful mountain with a temple complex dug right into it and holes in the top from U.S. bombing (China Beach, the 1st place the army landed at, is right outside). Then we had dinner back with Leo’s family and, hoping to not recreate the previous night, said goodbye early and paid a ridiculous sum to hit up a bar in no-so-nearby Danang.

IMG_2655The next morning Courtney and I both rode on the backs of bikes as we headed over the Hai Van Pass, a particularly beautiful and dangerous (much more so in the past) stretch of Highway 1. At the top were several left over bunkers and views South to Danag and north towards Hue, our destination. My driver frequently became impatient with Leo’s more restrained approach towards passing, and several times went around other cars on blind curves, only to be loudly chided by Leo. As we approached Hue, it started raining… and then Leo took us to a hotel that he had connections with (this is the most common “scam” any traveler will face) instead of ours, but then drove us down the street to the hotel we had actually booked. We said farewell, and despite our slight troubles, we felt a twinge of sadness at separating and both gave Leo big hugs.

Cyclo Stalker

Cyclo Stalker

Then we were in Hue. And we were hating it. Not only was this the beginning of actual bad weather (in the highlands one expects some drizzle) but it seemed that this was the sort of city so overrun with tourists that the locals didn’t just dislike tourists, they hated them. When we toured around the citadel cyclo drivers would actually stalk you, hounding you to ride with them.

We left after a day, having stocked up on rain coats… These would come in handy over the next few weeks…

IMG_2318 *Visit Mr. Xe; can’t remember the address, but it doesn’t matter since everyone knows him. He might be the only gay tailor (or “ladyman” as some women we met called him) in Hoi An, of that I’m not sure, but the man does some fine work and he was very concerned that we were happy with the final product. We highly recommend him, as long as you are okay with a small amount of man-handling (not more than the usual, I think?); I may even order a winter coat and have him ship it to the States.

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Thank you for your good corporate!

IMG_0852 by ryansigg
IMG_0852 a photo by ryansigg on Flickr.

Just one of many wonderful hotel signs in Cambodia…

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Sampling Local Flavor…

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Let me take you on a culinary journey. You don’t need even need to leave the States to experience some SE asian magic… They don’t sell these in the U.S., but I have identified all the mystical flavors that, when combined, conjure up such an authentic Siamese dish.

Here’s the recipe:

  • Throw out noodles.
  • Open the flavoring package and dump in the open Pringles can.
  • Shake that shit up!
  • Taste one.
  • Then taste two.
  • Then throw the whole thing out; really, it’s pretty gross.
  • Suddenly you want more. Did you throw it in the garbage? Maybe it’s still sealed. MSG, she is a harsh mistress…
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Of Duck Fetuses and Spider Asses

This is a post about food.

Cambodians, it is said, will eat anything (except dog, which they leave to the Vietnamese). Whether this is from the starvation years under the Khmer Rouge or simply a function of a traditional culture that has changed little over a thousand years… that seems up for debate.

Until our bus ride to Siem Reap, I hadn’t really seen this phenomenon in action. True, when you are a tourist, many times the food on offer at even the most “authentic” seeming restaurant/food stall is limited to your presumed palate. The countless offerings of “fried noodle or rice with [insert meat here]” were broken up with respites of amok (a coconut curry, distinct from but not unlike a Thai curry) lok lak (stir-fried beef with a lemon pepper sauce), a preserved lemon soup, and bor bor (a standard meal for Khmers, rice porridge with meat and fermented soybeans). But sometimes the really great stuff is in the most innocuous food stall or cart, and you’ll never find the good stuff unless you are willing to try the boring or bad.

Coconut rice and beans inside bamboo One wonderful bus stop snack is called krahon, and consists of a bamboo tube with a concoction of coconut milk, sticky rice and dried soybeans inside. Another delightful surprise was nehm; raw spiced river fish wrapped in edible leaves (mine was fresh and wonderful, but sadly at first Courtney didn’t get to try hers, a sad little banana-leaf-wrapped package that had mold on the inside. Er-er. But we went back and bought a bundle of them later). There are also small freshwater clams carried around on head-balanced baskets. These are everywhere, and were very tempting, but then I found out these little guys are just dried, and even Cambodian doctors are trying to get people to stop eating these due to worms and bacteria giving people food poisoning and diarrhea. Thanks, but we’ve already done that this trip.

Then there are the insects, which we yet hope to try.

IMG_0859 The idea of eating a bug almost seems like a novelty, something meant to intrigue kids and show up on “weird food” programs and reality shows. We thought these would be trotted out for the tourists, and indeed Courtney said she did see some crickets frying in that tourist mecca, Khao San Rd. But in Cambodia the closest we’ve come to these is passing through the town of Skuon on the way to Siem Reap. There they were among the market stalls at the bus rest stop, giant piles of crickets in baskets next to… big-ass spiders, the kind that most definitely had some “fur” on them when they were still crawling. I got excited; to me this was like breaking some sort of lock that was preventing me from being able to say “I will eat anything once”. I stood for a moment, fishing for some small bills in my pocket, as excited as a child (for example, one who’s about to eat a bug)…

But…

There was this smell. At first I thought it was like rotten vegetables. Then it reminded me of a diaper. A full one. I couldn’t do it. After I had backed away, I returned a few times, but always left in revulsion. The door would have to stay shut. I would not eat a shitty-smelling bug. Not today.

So what was I talking about? What I’m driving at (digressions aside), is that while Cambodia is not known for having as diverse of a culinary range as Thailand or Vietnam, so far I’ve just covered some of the street food. And the most ubiquitous street food, here in the eastern portion of the country, is the innocent-looking egg.

IMG_1425 In Kompong Cham and Kratie, the two Mekong river towns we’ve stayed in for the last few days, there are tons of food and beer stalls along the riverfront. They’re the perfect place to grab a cold beer and watch the sun go down, which is especially satisfying since the temperature is doing the same. These places usually have a blender to make you a fresh fruit shake and maybe a propane heater to make you some greasy noodles with a farm-fresh fried egg on top. But they always have a charcoal-heated pot of water with eggs in it. We were curious, do people really love hard-boiled eggs in this place? But we had also heard something else, something that would slam the doorway to “I’ll eat anything” forever. We needed to confirm it. After a couple sunset beers, we went up to the pot of eggs, peering at one that was partially cracked.

“Are those….?” we asked the woman who ran the place.

Jaaaa” she said, grinning happily, as she started to flap her hands like little wings, and make bird noises. “Cheep-cheep” she chirped, giggling sweetly.

The door sealed shut like a tomb. One more bit of personal myth-making obliterated.

Perhaps in Cambodia, cheep-cheep is what baby ducks say, or what they would say, if there were not still fetuses. The people who eat them first crack open the top of the egg and suck out the juice before consuming it (for long life!). I was not shocked by the fact that someone would eat duck fetus, but what I was, and still am shocked by is the popularity of the duck fetus. There are perhaps 30-40 food stalls across the street from our guesthouse, each with a large pot of these eggs and small groups of people enjoying a large plate of them (along with a vast and delicious-looking array of condiments, I might add).

The people of Cambodia have consistently impressed us; they are so warm and welcoming, quick with a smile and genuinely excited when you stumble through an attempt at a Khmer phrase. By the time I post this, we’ll be in Vietnam, but I know we’ll be missing it here, the people and the (surprisingly) the food.

But if they won’t eat anything (and I’m thinking dog here, because I can’t think of anything else) I’m not going to beat myself up for not trying everything.

Cricket? Update: Courtney and I did finally get to eat some bugs. After we returned to Phnom Penh in order to catch a bus to Saigon, I took a walk to the Central Market. I had to search forever, and if I hadn’t know that the word for spider was “ah-ping”, I would never have found them, right near the entrance to all the clothing stalls instead of among the freshly butchered chicken and fish, where I had been looking. Along with the assortment bag of bugs (including tiny frogs?), I had brought Courtney back a couple of gifts, including some freshly made banana sticky buns… in order to soften the blow. Courtney ate the leg of a spider, as did I, but she stopped at the crickets and the beetles. She definitely was less than happy to see the largest member of the group, the sausage-sized cockroach, but she held it for a sec and then looked on in horror as I forced my self to take a bite… The abdomen of a cockroach is probably not the best place to start, but I decided to not go for the head (“I can see it’s FACE”) or it’s legs (“who knows where those have been”). I quickly regretted my decision as my teeth tore out a chunk of its side; the inside of a cockroach, if you haven’t seen it before, is apparently filled with some sort of sponge-y looking thing, and for whatever reason this immediately triggered my gag reflex. I forced the sharp pieces down, but I’d already eaten enough roach for a lifetime.

P.S. One of the great things going on in this country is the self-sufficient NGO phenomenon. Many of them have started restaurants, boutiques, or various programs to free themselves from international aid and become a self-funding entity. One of our favorites: Smile, an NGO-run restaurant that serves more than your regular Khmer fare (in fact some really outstanding dishes that we saw no-where else). “The aim of the project is to teach orphans and vulnerable children a trade, thus giving them a chance on the job market while also providing them with a safe place to live and a community of peers.”

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Cambodia pt 1.

When we finally hopped on a bus to cross the border, we were expecting lots of scamming and hassle. But since we had our e-visas in hand, we had already paid… The only thing we had to pay was for a medical “check-up” where we paid an official 30 baht to point a little temperature reader at our heads and get a form saying we weren’t sick. After that, besides the monopoly-style prices at the border it was pretty easy. We did encounter an Indian couple who had apparently fallen prey to one of those scams we heard about in Bangkok: you buy a ticket for someone to take you all the way from Bangkok to somewhere in Cambodia, and when you arrive at the border, they have you cross through and after that they disappear, leaving you less some cash and still needing a ride. Instead of getting on another bus Cambodia’s sole beach resort, Sihanoukville, we decided to stay for a day in Koh Kong, a formerly seedy border town that is apparently trying to get some eco-tourism going since they are located near a virtually uninhabited island, several waterfalls and an endangered mangrove forest. You wouldn’t be able to tell any of that, unfortunately, from the state of the town and the fact that the information. Cambodia is most definitely one of those place where all business is tied together; you will be taken to your taxi driver’s friend’s hotel, your hotels will sell bus tickets and tours from companies they’re tied into, so you only know what is available by how many different people you talk to.
Anyways… eventually we arrive in Sihanoukville, which is right now in full boom-town mode…. Everywhere you look there is a new hotel going up, and even in our guesthouse they are adding a whole new section of rooms. Just on the street we were staying on there must have been six places under construction.IMG_0549
Once we arrived at the main tourist beach, Serendipity, I wanted to leave. Like Koh Samet, there was nothing but restaurant after restaurant down 3km of the beach, filled with bronzed Europeans shooing away souvenir toting children and land-mine wounded amputees.

(more…)

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