Thursday, December 9, 2010

Vietnam!

Vietnam is a country blessed by nature. From its Islands and beaches to its lush jungles and misted isles, it has more vivid color and beauty than most.  Vietnam is a country of resilient optimists who’ve survived colonialism, war and communism, and now stand ready for the world of capitalism. More than anything Vietnam is a country on the move with dynamic forces shaping a bright future.

Highlights:

• Eating Pho Ga in Ho Chi Minh City
• Meeting up with Coop and Miles on Phu Quoc Island
• Exploring coffee plantations and villages in the hills surrounding Dalat
• Drinking fresh beer with Coop, Miles, Justin and Janie in Hoi An
• Cruising among limestone islands in Halong Bay for Coops birthday
• Celebrating Thanksgiving dinner in a most unlikely place: Hanoi
• Drinking Weasel coffee with Miles in Ninh Binh


Cities / Areas Traveled to:
Ho Chi Minh City - Ha Tien - Phu Quoc Island - Dalat - Nha Trang - Danang - Hoi An - Hanoi - Halong Bay - Ninh Binh

Southern Vietnam

HMC is a low-lying, traffic congested city of six million. Its’ ageing architecture hints at French roots but the millions of moto’s hint at something more like Bangkok. I stayed in the bustling area of Pham Ngu Lao for three nights, mostly rain free. It was here I tasted my first Vietnamese-made Pho Ga and perused my first American war propaganda store.

From HMC I traveled south through the Mekong Delta to Ha Tien right on the Cambodian border. Not much to write home about, Ha Tien is on the map because it’s a border town and Phu Quoc Island lies southwest of it. After a couple days of light rain I decided to wait for Coop and Miles on Phu Quoc itself. That morning I jumped on the ferry and ran right into them.

Phu Quoc Island is a major domestic draw. Its bathtub-warm water and palm tree’s leaves little imagining why. We stayed for three nights, enjoying the good weather and relaxing by the beach. From Phu Quoc we took a night bus north into HMC. Janie’s flight landed a few hours later. Over the next couple days we toured the Cu Chi tunnels outside HMC, saw the war remnants museum and explored the city.


From HMC we took a bus northwest into Dalat. French colonial-era buildings free of bomb scarring combined with an alpine climate make the city feel more European than Vietnamese.  We spent three nights and enjoyed fairly good weather. During two of those days Coop, Janie and I rented motorbikes and explored the surrounding hills and country sides. Due to its climate, farmers cultivate avocados, strawberries, artichokes and coffee. Vietnam is famous for its strong coffee and we enjoyed many cups at local plantations. After three nights it was time to head northeast to the beach. 

Although the weather was reported to be good in Nha Trang we arrived during a storm that lasted the length of our stay. The town is very popular with backpackers and locals for its clear water and white sand beaches but unfortunately we never got the chance to find that out for ourselves. After a couple nights we threw in the towel and headed north to Danang. 

After reading so much about the role Danang played in the war I was curious what we’d find. A busy city with busier people, Danang seems to be the business capital of central Vietnam. Miles and I even spotted a Ferrari (the party chiefs, we joked). As vacationers in a business-oriented city we had little to do but read and wait for Justin. The night he arrived we took a taxi down to Hoi An and enjoyed fresh beer (made without preservatives) for pennies a glass.  

Northern Vietnam 
The next day we flew out of Danang and into Hanoi. I enjoyed Hanoi more than Ho Chi Minh City.  It has a distinct feel to it, with its wide tree-lined boulevards and French architectural influence.  It has great restaurants, hotels and cultural destinations like Ho Chi Minhs’ Mausoleum. As a major city it suffers from overpopulation and pollution. 

To celebrate Coop’s Birthday we did a one night, two day cruise through Halong Bay which is east of Hanoi by about three hours. The limestone isles shrouded in mist made a great backdrop for the celebration. 

We celebrated Thanksgiving back in Hanoi. The five of us, Coop, Miles, Justin, Janie and myself. A few months earlier I would never have guessed that I’d be having a pork chop for Thanksgiving in Hanoi. The day after Thanksgiving marked the end of the journey together. Coop, Justin and Janie flew to HMC while Miles and I took a bus down to Ninh Binh. Coop and Janie went west into the Mekong Delta and Justin flew back to San Francisco. As for Miles and I, we embarked on an epic marathon read of the Stieg Larsson novels partly induced
by drinking weasel coffee.  On the 28th Miles and I said our goodbyes and I flew south to HMC where I boarded a night bus that took me into Cambodia and Phnom Penh. 

From the southernmost Island of Phu Quoc to Hanoi in the north I spent over three weeks and traveled over 1,800 miles in Vietnam. From simple village meals served on plastic tables to complex dishes served aboard a Junk in Halong Bay I tasted only a modicum of what Vietnamese cuisine has to offer. And that really goes for all things Vietnam, a vibrant country that should be on any traveler’s top five.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Andaman Islands of Thailand


Ko Phi Phi

Starting early, we retraced our steps back onto the Thai peninsula. From Suratthani a bus took us across the thin strip of land into Krabi on the Andaman side. From there a ferry took us about an hour and half out to Ko Phi Phi where we arrived mid afternoon. Ko Phi Phi is probably the most beautiful island I've ever seen. The rich waters surrounding the small densely forested island are part of a marine reserve. Don a mask and fins and the protected biodiversity attests to the restorative power of such measures. Limestone cliffs that jet from the turquoise ocean have inspired photographers for generations. Miles and Coop stayed for two nights but had to leave when their visas expired. I spent an additional four nights. Once we said our goodbyes and made plans to meet in Vietnam I took a water taxi, essentially the only mode of transport on the island, out of town and discovered Viking Nature Resort tucked into a small bay with a beautiful white sand beach. I booked the remainder of my time on Phi Phi at Viking where my bungalow faced the beach and was protected from the elements by a large fig tree. I spent those four days hiking trails cut out of dense jungle, snorkeling coral reefs rich with life and just enjoying the scenery. I spent those four nights eating fresh sea food, chatting it up with fellow travelers and reading multiple books. I have to say there's nothing quite like sitting on a perfect beach drinking an ice cold beer while reading a Haruki Murakami novel, in Thailand no less. One night I sat and watched a massive storm build in the distance. For about three hours it built up on the horizon, occasionally illuminating the darkening sky with flashes of sheet lightning. The island was quiet except for the occasional boom of thunder in the distance. Then the rain started falling, soft at first but persistently getting louder as it landed on the roof above. Flashes of sheet lightning came in shorter intervals followed by thunder. Soon it became deafeningly loud. The full force of nature unleashing its raw power on this tiny island in the Andaman was an incredible experience that I'll remember for years to come. I thought about the shrimping boats out on the horizon and almost wished I could experience the storm from that angle.  That changed however when the wind picked up and the storm intensified, forcing my retreat back inside to wait it out. It was by far the biggest storm I’ve ever experienced first hand.

Ko Lanta and Phuket 

A few days later I took the ferry across rough seas (the lingering effects of the storm) to Ko Lanta in the south. Lanta is a long island with a ridge running down the middle. I found a place on the beach and stayed for four nights. It rained two of those days and nights so I spent a good amount of time reading and waiting for the sun to break through the clouds. It was quite inexpensive; my room was less than five dollars a night so at least I got rained in without it adversely affecting my budget. On the third day the storm finally cleared and the sun came out. With my first day of sunshine I headed south into the national forest. I hired a guide and along with a few German guys I’d met earlier, trekked into the jungle through waterfalls and rubber tree plantations. We toured a limestone cave system, spending half an hour exploring caverns and tunnels. It got pretty tight at times and exiting I had to crawl on my stomach through a tunnel for about ten yards with only my headlight to guide the way. The next day I rented a motorbike and drove around the island, stopping off at points to eat and shoot pictures. The roads were dried out by then so the riding was fast and a lot of fun. I’m not sure which I enjoyed more: the beautifully lush scenery of Ko Lanta or hitting curves at eighty kilometers/hour.
As I’d been traveling alone and been rained in for two nights, I'd been pretty friendly with the staff and guests and on my last night the staff invited me out for karaoke and drinks. At ten we all piled into a Honda and drove out to a Thai karaoke bar. As I found out, the Tha├»s take their karaoke seriously. The english selection of songs was limited to early 80's dance hits that must have been hits back in the day but, to me at least, were humorously from another time and also completely unrecognizable to me. The whole experience was a lot of fun, from the singing itself to the social dynamic among the Thai’s. I'd managed to find myself at a locals karaoke bar in Thailand, drinking beer with the guy who’d been taking my food and drink orders. It was great. I left Lanta early the next morning and arrived on Phuket still feeling the Chang's from the night before. Phuket is a beautiful island. Its sheer natural beauty and reputation draws the flocks from all around the globe but I found that to be its biggest drawback. Too many package tourists for my taste. To be fair I was only on Phuket for a night but it feels more like Hawaii than Thailand. From Phuket I flew to Bangkok, had lunch in the city and then spent the rest of my layover walking the super modern international terminal and getting free samples of Johnny Walker Blue Label. After a few samples and an Economist it was on to Ho Chi Minh City. Finally, Vietnam!!.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Adventure begins. A night in Bangkok. Full Moon over Ko Phang Ngan

Getting ready

With my bedroom and living room devoted to getting my things organized, everything was starting to come together as I had planned. I had finally heard from Coop and Miles that they were going to meet me at the airport in Bangkok. Scott was driving me to SFO and we’d have a beer before my flight. Rahul and I were meeting for dinner before that. Thursday night college football was on TV. Still, a twinge of anxiety would creep over me now and then. Watering the plants and feeding the Koi while making farewell calls eased my mind. I told my sister I felt as one does right before entering the final exam hall in college, everything is set and you’re ready (or maybe not!) but the gravity of the situation still weighs you down. The unseasonably warm October air reminded me of preparing for my study abroad term in London, exactly four years earlier. I thought of all that occurred between these two dates. Getting into UC Berkeley, studying politics in Washington DC and my past summer internship at Bella Terra in Orange County.  Everything led to this point, I was set to go and perhaps most importantly, I felt I was supposed to go...


After  a couple beers with Scott at SFO we said our goodbyes and I went through security. Luckily, I got the emergency exit row and could stretch my legs out.  A fairly large Taiwanese man sat next to me, profusely sweating and constantly wiping his forehead with a white handkerchief. He asked me where I was headed, I told him. He still seemed to think I was actually staying in Taiwan and proceeded to spend the next ten minutes using my i-phone to show me where he lived in Taiwan and explain that it was the best part of the whole island. He went into detail with the train route from Taipei and everything. I didn’t want to interrupt him, thinking he’d quickly drop some local knowledge my way and then think of something else. He seemed to have a million tiny things on his mind. He finally did and the rest of the flight was uneventful, I slept the majority of the way to Taipei (Thanks Liba!).

The Boeing 777 landed in Taipei in the early morning to fog and light rain. I changed some money, got some noodles and drank a coffee while reading a Dan Brown novel. The longest part of my journey was over and I was excited, if not a little tired, to see Miles and Coop. The terminal was impressively modern, lined with duty free shops, restaurants, cyber cafes and rest areas. Students, Christian groups, families and backpackers boarded the flight to Bangkok along with me.

It was raining and grey when I landed at Bangkok International Airport, a complex of steel and cement, I guess like most airports are. I somehow expected something less modern. Being a citizen of the US, I didn’t have to go through a customs checkpoint and after a few standard questions I was cleared through immigration. I recognized Coop and Miles almost immediately. Miles had a rooster haircut, buzzed sides with the top gelled up. Coop had a Mr. T likeness that along with his black shirt made him look like he belonged more in Afghanistan than here in Bangkok. It was as if no time had passed at all, we were back joking with each almost immediately.

Bangkok Dangerous 

The subway took us about an hour into Bangkok. Light rain falling from grey clouds. Bangkok seems to be the epitome of East meets West. Buddhist temples in between shopping centers. At almost every intersection you’ll see a gigantic picture of the King dressed in a suit staring past the camera as if into the future. The city center lies on the banks of the Chao Praya and emanates outwards in all direction for miles. Like most cities, Bangkok is home to virtually every walk of life. Down every narrow street can be found contrasts between modern city life and that of the golden kingdom. Delicious food smells mixed with the stench of rotting garbage. After settling into a guesthouse in the city’s more touristy area and waiting out the rain, Coop, Miles and I decided to explore the surrounding marketplace. We had a pretty good time of it. We went to a rock concert, quite out of accident, got our feet cleaned by hundreds of tiny fish (Coop bet me I wouldn’t be able to stand the feeling of hundreds of little sucker-mouths on my feet and legs) and met an interesting guy from Montana who piqued my interest in fake passports and exit strategies. Kind of an odd conversation for my first night I thought. I was getting pretty exhausted from the two days of travel and we headed back to the guesthouse. We were about a block away when a group of Thai guys came up behind Miles and hit him over the head twice with a wooden club. Coop was walking in front of Miles and I in front of Coop. Coop turned around first and ran into the group, tackling the guy with the club and landing blows on some of the others. When I turned around I saw Coop and Miles surrounded and ran into the fray myself. Grabbing onto one of the punks by his shirt collar I yanked him out of the fight. One of them hit my left arm with a club but by then they seemed to notice it was no longer six on one. They took off into the crowd. I was okay but spent the next day with Miles in the hospital where he received thirty four stitches in his left ear and four more in the back of his head. Coop was a little shaken and had bruised his knee but was okay otherwise. What a way to start my adventure! We all had a pretty dismal impression of Bangkok after that and left the day after.
            Looking back on all of it, it’s difficult to give an unbiased account of Bangkok. The attack happened on my very first day in country and prevented me
from enjoying the rest of the city. I’ll be back at the very end of the trip and I’m sure I’ll be able to see the floating market and royal palace, among others. What a way to start off a two month journey! Welcome to Bangkok, wham!

Train to Suratthani

As the train took us deeper into the southern Thai peninsula we passed by rice fields and palm forest illuminated under the waxing moon. Coop, Miles and I sat in the dining car playing cards and drinking Chang beer. It was hot and humid, the only breeze coming from the open windows. The rhythmic sounds of the tracks under the train and its engine pulling us towards our destination. A man sitting a few tables away, who seemed to hate every part of the experience, drank from a fifth of Sang Song Thai rum. Thai pop drifted our way from behind the counter. I watched the dark landscape fly by my open window, almost mystified by the experience. Miles mentioned he had felt the way same going up to Chiang Mai from Bangkok. Ahead of us awaited sandstone mountains covered in jungle, surrounded by emerald sea. Beaches pictured on postcards

Ko Phang Ngan

It took us quite awhile to arrive on the island once we departed the train. With little sleep we had taken a mini bus to an offload station where we then waited for two hours to load onto another bus which took us an hour to the ferry. The ferry ride to Ko Phang Ngan took an hour and half but we finally spotted the island and rejoiced. The wait had been worth it. The island rose from the signature Thai emerald sea, thick with jungle and bordered by pearly white sand. Paradise. We jumped in a truck taxi loaded with other backpackers and drove about forty minutes up and over steep winding hills to Haad Rin, at the islands southern point. It turned out the place we booked was at the center of the happenings and a three person room at Coral Bungalows set us back five dollars a person the first night. A large Chang cost less than a dollar. We stayed here for the duration of our visit to Ko Phang Ngan. Although we were primarily here for the Full Moon party, the island offered tons to do. One day I rented a jet ski and flew up the coast, inspecting the bays and inlets. The 1400 cc machine powered through the water with such great speed that when I stood up and held down the throttle I felt as if I was flying over the water.  Another afternoon I took out a motor bike and drove back to the port town, where I walked through a traditional Thai open-air market. Vendors sold everything from fried birds' nest to American red cross t-shirts. One night Miles, Coop, myself and some people we had met on the Island went for sea food in Haad Rin. Miles and I ordered the seafood platter and I consequently worry for the sea creatures around Ko Phang Ngan. The platter included a tuna steak, large whole squid, whole crab, two tiger prawns, seven shrimp, seven mussels and a salad to top it all off. We were given the opportunity to substitute the tuna steak for shark but we both passed on that golden opportunity.

Over the course of two days I joined up with some guys we’d all met at Coral Bungalows and played in a beach soccer tournament, or football tournament to be more correct. The first day we had strong team and won three out of four games. I had a couple strong shots on goal, and an assist. Our team won the division and qualified for the single elimination round the next day. That night Coral Bungalows put on a Muay Thai fight at the Haad Rin “stadium” across the street. The event had seven fights which featured five knockouts. One of the fighters knocked out went down in front of me (we had bought front row tickets afterall) and I remember those dark eyes of his looking into mine but registering nothing. The blood and the sweat, the hard hits and the knockouts transferred a ton of energy into the crowd. Right after the fight, Coral put on a pool party that lasted till three in the morning. I went to bed that morning around six. The next afternoon it seemed that I had had a relatively tame night compared to some of the other teammates. Some had taken mushrooms and hadn’t slept since. Most were still nursing hangovers. Our star player, who had scored the majority of goals the day before, had sprained his ankle running from the police who had stopped him and his friends the night before. Although on the lam he still showed up to cheer us on. Half the team didn’t even show up! The night had provided one useful resource: new recruits. With these and our current players we fought hard but lost in overtime of the first game.

Full Moon Over Haad Rin

The day of the full moon party I could feel the energy and excitement build among us all at Coral. It was to be held that night on a beach about ten minutes away. Following Coral Bunglalows tradition of excellence, the official pre-party was to be held at Coral. Coop, Miles and I went out and bought sweatbands, incandescent pant, shorts, beads and sunglasses for our party fits. After dinner a lot of people disappeared for a couple hours only to return wearing absolutely ridiculous outfits. As for myself I donned short neon green shorts, beads, sweatbands and loads of incandescent paint in tribal designs all over my back, chest, arms and legs. I can honestly say I’ve never gone this all out before. Nick would be proud. Coop, Miles, Myself and the friends we’d made all pre-partied and added even more incandescent paint to each other. At around one in the morning we all headed down to the beach. Picture a small bay with white sand and hotels all blasting hip-hop and techno. Now add fire-dancers and stages for dancers and performers. Now add ten thousand party-goers and you can begin to get a picture of the Full Moon Party.


We stayed at Coral for another night to recover and plan the next leg of the adventure. Ko Phi Phi, the site of the movie “The Beach” and one of the most beautiful islands in the world awaited us on the other side of the Thai Penninsula