A month homeside

After we hit a bit of an emotional wall during our last week in Southeast Asia, the idea of a month back in the States definitely felt like a vacation from our travels. It didn’t matter that we’d be in 10 cities over three weeks, or that we somehow needed to get our taxes filed, or that, hey, we had about two weeks to decide where to move at the end of our year of travel, including where Brett would be going to grad school. No big deal! Not when there are clean toilets to be using (and flushing, oh the joy), and burritos to eat, and bourbon to drink, and reasonably familiar beds to be sleeping in, and friends to see, and English to speak.

We flew into LA to stay with Nick and Hayden and spent five days doing a lot of well-needed things, like getting haircuts and eating Mexican food and watching sports. We unpacked everything in our backpacks, appreciatively disposed of the things we’d no longer need (bye bye, four smelly and faded t-shirts, among many other things) and reunited with the items we’d left behind after South America (like my super comfortable and strange-looking Ecuador pants, which shrunk about 6″ in length after I washed them). We also spent a day in San Diego with two of our best friends who have since had a baby (it’s still crazy to think that we’ve been traveling longer than it takes for an entire pregnancy to happen). (Also, happy being born Baby Roxy! This is probably your first non-Facebook mention on the internet. You have a whole lifetime of the internet to look forward to, little baby. I can’t wait to meet you and start grooming you for watching college football.) (Go Ducks.)

Getty Center with Nick and Hayden in LA

Getty Center with Nick and Hayden in LA

Anyway. After LA we flew up to Eugene for about 18 hours, which included a massive to-do list of things like sleeping, unpacking, doing laundry, reuniting with our belongings, packing, filing our taxes (both as independent contractors – so complicated!), buying new phones, buying me a new computer, and setting up said phones and computer. Then we flew out for a whirlwind tour of our top three new home/grad school program contenders – Davis (UC Davis), Twin Cities (U of MN), and Madison (UW Madison). We had a great time in each place, hanging out with friends and touring what could be our new hometown, including potential apartment viewings for Davis and Madison (the university schedules there make housing markets a little intense, so we would have to find an apartment pretty quickly if we chose either of those cities). Brett had meetings on each of the three campuses, and to make a long story short you already know we made Madison our final choice. Each of the three places would have been great places to live and had great program options for Brett, but Madison was the best combination of both elements.

Davis Farmers Market

Davis Farmers Market

We chose Madison!

We chose Madison!

After excitedly making our decision about Madison and applying for our top choice apartment, we had a celebratory dinner with our friends in Madison. The next morning we flew to New York City, where we spent five days enjoying the start of spring – blossoming trees, blooming daffodils, and lots of walking around without a coat. We went to museums, cooked and ate many amazing meals, drank some delicious new cocktails, spent good time with friends and family, made somewhat of an effort to catch up on sleep, and mainly wandered around the city on foot.

One of many delicious dinners in NYC

One of many delicious dinners in NYC

Daffodils in Central Park

Daffodils in Central Park

Making homemade chorizo in NYC

Making homemade chorizo in NYC

Next we flew to New Orleans, our first time there together. We stayed with good friends and enjoyed many of the sights, sounds, and eats of New Orleans, including an incredible array of food, some amazing music, and again lots of wandering around the city. We spent an afternoon canoeing in the swampy bayou, went to a jazz concert, helped our friends welcome their newest family member (happy homecoming Puppy Wyatt!), and enjoyed a delightful lunch at Commander’s, which features a $0.25 lunch martini special (limit three per person). (The wandering around the Garden District after that lunch was possibly even more delightful than the lunch itself.) We also helped Gill and Jeff host a crawfish boil (if by “help” I mean mainly “accompany to seafood market”) and over the six days we were there met many of their lovely friends.

Street music in NOLA

Street music in NOLA

Beignets and café au lait in NOLA

Beignets and café au lait in NOLA

NOLA seafood market

NOLA seafood market

Crawfish boil!

Crawfish boil!

Then we flew back to Portland, spent a couple of nights there with friends and family, and headed down to Eugene for about six days. We drank Oregon beer and Oregon wine and ate lots of great spring Oregon food, and took full enjoyment of a wide range of our belongings that we really haven’t seen since November.

Field wandering with Ella and Evan (Jessie too - she's taking the photo)

Field wandering with Ella and Evan (Jessie too – she’s taking the photo)

Spring sloshing in Oregon

Spring sloshing in Oregon

Facetime teeth brushing with Hayden. (No real reason to put this in, just think it's funny.)

Facetime teeth brushing with Hayden. (This is by far the least embarrassing of the screenshots taken from this experience.)

We flew out of Portland again on May 2, and included a brief stop at our friends’ new homestead/farm/future artist workshop on the way. (No goats yet, but they’ve been promised.) April included many, many great places, and a lot of stuff that happened that I didn’t get around to mentioning. Just know that we had a great month full of wonderful people and wonderful cities and wonderful experiences.

And now we’re in Prague! Tomorrow we head for Cesky Krumlov, then to our five weeks in Vienna. I’ve never been so excited to unpack a suitcase …

Thailand, the end of Southeast Asia

Welcome back to the very delayed summary of our Southeast Asia trip! This post talks about our last week in Southeast Asia, which we spent in Thailand. Right before this week we finally hit a wall of exhaustion and the last nine months kind of caught up with us, so you’ll have to forgive the relative lack of photos and a somewhat more … pessimistic post. But this is what we remember most from this time, so bare with us …

First, let’s back up a bit. Back when we were in Hanoi (see this post for more details), we started making logistical plans for the next part of our trip, which was a week in Thailand before heading back to the United States. We had our plane tickets to Bangkok and then planned to hop on an overnight train up to Chiang Mai, where we’d stay for five days before heading south again. In Thailand the train tickets must be booked either in person or via email with a travel agent, which resulted in the following unfortunate series of events:

  • Four days before we want to travel, submit detailed ticket request form to travel agent
  • Receive email 24 hours later telling us the exact seats we want are gone, but there are others we could have – do we want them?
  • Send email saying “Yes, we want those”
  • Receive email another 24 hours later instructing us on how to pay for tickets
  • Pay for tickets using instructions
  • Receive email another 24 hours later (approximately 8 hours before flying to Bangkok) saying “Whoops, by the time you paid those tickets have been sold out too. No seats left, sorry.”

Now, up until this moment we had actually been feeling pretty fantastic. Whenever we’d tell people about how long we’d been traveling and what we’d been doing, their first question was inevitably about exhaustion, but we could honestly answer that we were feeling great! Fantastic! Doing fine! No problem!

Until this moment.

Our plans were to fly to Bangkok and go immediately to the train station and get up to Chiang Mai, but now we had no idea how we’d be getting there. Bus was the most obvious option, but we really weren’t sure we could handle another overnight bus ride. We were paralyzed by the idea of making a whole new series of decisions about what bus to take, whether to stop for the night on the way and where, which bus station to depart from and how to get there from the airport, etc. etc. etc. Traveling is an extended exercise in decision-making, every single day from the moment you wake up until the moment you go to bed, and it suddenly felt like the last nine months of decision-making had caught up with us.

So we had a mini freakout and spent about 20 minutes lying in the bed of our hotel room, throwing around ideas and getting more stressed out by the minute. I’m not entirely sure how we ended up coming up with the plan that we did, but I do know that it was definitely on Brett’s part that the next few days came together logistically. Thank you, amazing husband.

So. We flew from Hanoi to Bangkok and took a shuttle bus to Bangkok’s northern bus station, where we bought a ticket to a town about halfway to Chiangmai. We had a few hours to wait before the bus left, and managed to order ourselves a pretty delicious meal despite not a single letter of English in the food court. (Pointing is an incredibly effective mode of communication.) The supposedly 6-hour bus ride took only 1.5 hours longer than expected (practically early, based on Southeast Asia standards), the last two hours of which we spent on high alert making sure we got off at the correct station (and when the bus stops every 20 minutes, that’s a lot of high alert). This means we were treated to 7.5 hours of Thai music videos (every single one of which except one – one – featured Facebook) and 7.5 hours of Thai chips and cookies, the only thing available to eat on the journey.

Meal ordered entirely by pointing and nodding.

Meal ordered entirely by pointing and nodding.

After checking into our hotel our first order of business was buying a bus ticket to Chiang Mai for the next day, which turned out to be one of the more challenging communication-related situations we’ve been in all year. The bus station consisted of a few dozen windows at which you could buy tickets to various destinations, the signage for which were entirely in Thai. At one end of the station we found a sign that said Chiang Mai in latin script, so at first tried to identify the Thai characters in those words so that we could find a window that would sell tickets to go there. (“First letter looks like … an H with two swirly things. Second letter looks kind of like a present with a bow on top. Third letter is like an R with a spiral in the middle …”) This did not get us very far, but just before we were ready to stand in the middle of the station and yell “Chiang Mai! Tomorrow! We have money!” and see if anyone knew enough English to respond (oh, and I hate how all of this sounds … but honestly, walk into a bus station that has only a dozen or so words written in Latin script, and see if you can figure out how to buy a ticket …), a woman at one of the windows called us over in halting English. Through pointing and a small selection of English words we managed to buy a ticket for the next morning, and headed back to our hotel.

Supposedly this told us where and when to catch our bus.

Supposedly this told us where and when to catch our bus.

The next morning, we arrived at the bus station with enough time to get breakfast before our bus. Again there was no English anywhere, but we managed to get two bowls of pork noodle soup from a woman who at least knew the word “soup” and through gestures could communicate that the meat came from a pig. The woman who sold us the tickets the evening before had told us to show up an hour early, which we found a little confusing, but thank god we did and thank god she was working again the next morning, because when we arrived at the station she recognized us and motioned that we should get on a small minibus to go somewhere else. Lots of confusion ensued, but very long story short in turns out that our bus was leaving from the town’s other bus terminal, a 15-minute minibus ride away. Eventually we arrived at the other terminal, and a few minutes later we lined up to get on our bus. But they wouldn’t let us on. And no one spoke English. We’re honestly still not sure why they wouldn’t let us on that bus – a bus with the same number going to the same city – but all we know is that another bus showed up 10 minutes later and we tried again, and they did let us on that one.

Utterly exhausted, we arrived in Chiang Mai toward the end of the day and refueled/recuperated with steaming piles of fried noodles and a series of large bottles of beer.

Maybe the most-needed beer of the last nine months.

Maybe the most needed/appreciated beer of the last nine months.

The next morning, we headed out to the train station to buy our overnight tickets back south. I bet you see where this story is headed, but it doesn’t turn out at badly as you might think. The only tickets available left early in the morning and took all day, but we bought them anyway. Our five days in Chiang Mai were down to three, but we had tried our best.

And our three days in Chiang Mai were relaxed and lovely – Thai massages and temple visits and good food and lots of shopping at the night markets and a day-long cooking class. Our hotel wasn’t particularly notable, aside from the very strange pool, but overall the food was delicious and we had a great time buying gifts for family and friends and ourselves.

It took us about 5 minutes to confirm that the guy in the middle was not in fact a real human being. (it's a fiberglass statue of a deceased monk.)

It took us about 5 minutes to confirm that the guy in the middle was not in fact a real human being. (it’s a fiberglass statue of a deceased monk.)

Stupas holding relics for deceased royalty and monks.

Stupas holding relics for deceased royalty and monks.

Thai coke.

Thai coke.

Green papaya salad, ridiculously good.

Green papaya salad, ridiculously good (and spicy).

A totally normal shaped pool at our hotel.

A totally normally-shaped pool at our hotel.

Setup for our cooking class.

Setup for our cooking class.

We made and ate a ridiculous amount of food!

We made and ate a ridiculous amount of food!

I made this, no biggie.

I made this, no biggie.

Our time on the train back south wasn’t particularly notable either, but our next two days were pretty great. We were in Ayutthaya, a town about an hour north of Bangkok, where we met up with Chris, one of Brett’s good friends from childhood and high school. He teaches at an international school in a small town outside of Ayutthaya, and took a short trip in to hang out with us. We spent a day biking around temples and eating great food and having fantastic conversation, and it was wonderful to see someone we knew. Ayutthaya is a pretty interesting small little town full of beautiful temples and surrounded by a river on which we took a sunset boat trip, and the whole experience was wonderful.

A temple in Ayutthaya.

A temple in Ayutthaya.

Tourist transport between temples.

Tourist transport between temples.

Preparing for our sunset cruise.

Preparing for our sunset cruise.

We watched a whole team of people robe this giant buddha with blessed cloth.

We watched a whole team of people robe this giant buddha with blessed cloth.

Sunset on the river.

Sunset on the river.

Last temple stop with Chris.

Last temple stop with Chris.

Next was a short van trip back into Bangkok for our last night in Southeast Asia. We had splurged on a nicer hotel room and decided to not worry about heading out into the city much, just to relax and get ready for our return journey. We had trouble finding a good meal in the neighborhood of our hotel for our last night, but nonetheless had a pretty good last day (including the best massage I had on the whole trip).

Oh, but then there was our trip to the airport. Our final task before going to the airport was finding a gift for a particular friend. We headed into one of Bangkok’s crazy massive shopping malls, and found the perfect thing. The only trouble was that we had already budgeted out every last Thai baht we had – exactly enough for the cab to the train station and the train to the airport and the gift – but the gift we found was 10 Baht more than we had budgeted. First, note that 10 Baht equals approximately $0.33. This will be helpful in understanding the tragedy of this story. We tried everything to bargain it down, even offering to give the woman a US dollar instead of the last 10 Baht. (No.) (And to be clear, this would almost double the price she was asking for.) We offered to pay with a credit card. (No.) We offered to give her two US dollars. (No.) We found another Western-looking couple and asked them if we could buy 10 Baht from them for 1 US dollar. (They were French, didn’t want US dollars. No.) Time was running short on our timeline of getting to the airport, so we threw caution to the wind and bought the gift anyway.

As you will see, that 10 Baht wouldn’t have even mattered in the end.

Fast forward, we’re in a cab going to the train station. We had budgeted about 70 Baht for the cab ride, but now we’re down to 60 because of the gift purchase. But really it should only cost about 45, and so as long as traffic’s not too terrible we should be okay.

Traffic is terrible. And about 3 minutes in we’re pretty sure the cab driver is taking the most roundabout way to get to the station. Normally when we had this suspicion we’d make them pull over and let us out, but all our luggage is in the trunk and our timeline of getting to the airport is getting a teensy bit strained. So we persevere.

At some point, we’re pretty sure we’re way out of the way, and the meter keeps going up. We pass 45 Baht, then 50, then 55, then 60, then 70. We’ll need to find a way to get more cash to get on the train, but our number one priority is just getting to the train station. So we wait. And wait. Eventually we can see the station, so even though we’re stuck in traffic we just get out, pay the cab, and walk the rest of the way. That’s when we realize that the driver took us to the wrong station. Still on the same train line, so we’ll still be able to get to the airport, but no wonder it cost so much. Despite our protestations throughout the ride that we needed to go to a certain station, he took us to a farther one.

Ugh.

We made our way up to the train station with all of our luggage and realized that the tickets to the airport are actually cheaper than we thought, which meant that after everything we were only 12 Baht short. (This is $0.41, to be clear.) At least the 10 Baht for the gift wouldn’t have made a difference, which is some small consolation. The only option to get more cash is to use the ATM in the station, which gives out a minimum of 200 Baht with Thailand’s customary 150 Baht ATM fee. We paid a $5 ATM fee to take out about $7 to get an extra $0.41 to get to the airport, all because a cab driver decided to be a jerk on our last hour of our last day in Southeast Asia.

Thankfully, you can drink beer anywhere in the Bangkok airport. We again ran into the problem that we couldn’t check in for our flight until two hours before departure, so we sat in the arrivals area and drank Changs and tried not to hate the cab driver. Our trip back was pretty uneventful, including another layover at the Seoul Airport and a relatively easy arrival into LAX.

Brett watches over our belongings at the airport. With beer.

Brett watches over our belongings at the airport. With beer.

Thailand was pretty great, despite all of our travel frustrations. We had frustrations everywhere, really, but these seemed more notable because all the exhaustion had finally caught up with us. But we didn’t try to do or see as much as we had in Vietnam or other places, and that made our last week more relaxed and enjoyable. I don’t know that we immersed ourselves in the cultural aspects as much as we had in other places, but we still had a great time.

We’ve been in the United States for about three weeks now, and hopefully we’ll get a post up about that soon. In a few days we’re headed off to Europe for our final international travel, then back to the US for a month before we move. More to come!

Update!

Almost everything on this blog is a bit behind.  Or way behind.  But just for posterity’s sake, it’s time for a bit of an update.

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We’re moving to Madison this fall so Brett can start a PhD in Agricultural and Applied Economics at the University of Wisconsin!  Brett applied to schools in November before we left for South America, and starting during our time in Colombia was receiving responses and scheduling phone calls with potential future advisors and trying to navigate the details of various offers. Over the last three weeks we’ve been wandering the country to visit schools and see friends, and after visiting the top three options, we decided Madison in the place for us. We rented an apartment (a “flat,” technically, since it’s the first floor of a house) and are looking forward to moving at the beginning of August. Come visit!

Vietnam

Here is my recommendation: go to Vietnam.  Ideally you will (finish reading this post and then) drop whatever else you have to do and start getting the details together for you trip.  Yes, it is that good.  The food is incredible, the people are friendly, the cities are nice, the landscape is beautiful, and it is very cheap.  In fact, it is the cheapest place we’ve been all year in addition to being the best.

We came into Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, on a bus from Phnom Penh that traversed the upper portion of the Mekong Delta.  It was already evening when we arrived and we walked from the bus company office to our hotel through the neon-lit dark along the busy and crowded sidewalks.  The next day we headed out to walk the streets of HCMC.  Our first stop was the Ben Tanh Market, full of restaurant stalls, tourist knickknacks, coffee, and clothing.  From there we headed up toward the War Remnants Museum but happened upon a café in a park along the way and stopped for our first ca phe sua da, iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk.  HCMC had many such lovely parks and green spaces with lots of public art.  After the café we headed up to the museum to find it closed for lunch, so we wandered to find some food of our own and had our first banh mi and banh xeo.  For a lot more about Vietnamese food see Bowen’s blog, but here are a couple of thought from me: there are lots of lots of things called banh, which supposedly means something like cake, and they don’t seem to have much in common (but they’re all Vietnamese food, so they’re pretty much all delicious); we ate a lot of banh mi our first week but, while they were mostly pretty good, none were quite as good as the ones we used to have in Rosemead.  After lunch we returned to the War Remnants Museum, which featured US armaments left at the end of the war, models of the French and American prisons where Vietnamese were held, and lots of photos and exhibits.  Much of it had a strong propaganda slant, but it was none-the-less heartbreaking to be reminded of the huge cost of the war on both sides.  We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the streets and relaxing.  In the evening we sat drinking beer in a café on the street and then had incredible pho for dinner.

A cafe in the park

A cafe in the park

War remnants at the War Remnants Museum

War remnants at the War Remnants Museum

Our second and final day in HCMC was a day of wandering.  We saw the river front, the opera house, the post office, the cathedral and many other lovely sites.  If I needed any more evidence that the Vietnam War wasn’t a good use of resources, we sat on a bench in front of the Opera House, about two blocks from the People’s Committee Hall looking at posters celebrating the recent awards for small businesses; to my right was a Louis Vuitton store, and to my left was a restaurant called, I kid you not, Le Bourgeois.

The Saigon Cathedral

The Saigon Cathedral

The HCMC post office

The HCMC post office

Capitalism lives!

Capitalism lives!

That evening we took an overnight bus to Nha Trang, a beach town up the coast.  Many of the overnight buses in Vietnam, unlike the buses in other countries, we set up with reclining bunk bed-style seats.

Traveling in style

Traveling in style

Nha Trang was a great place to spend a few days relaxing.  We spent one whole day relaxing at the beach in front of the Louisiane Brewing Company (celebrating International Women’s Day, which is a significant holiday in Vietnam), and another day on a snorkeling trip in the bay.  We also at the best Pho of our trip.  The strangest thing about Nha Trang is that is appears to be the Russian equivalent of Cabo or Cancún.  Unlike the rest of the country, we saw loads of Russians all over town and almost all the signage was in Russian.  This made for an extra interesting day at the beach surrounded by burly Russian men pounding liters of beer at 10 a.m., and even one doing pull-ups on the support beam of his palapa.

Nha Trang beach

Nha Trang beach

Nha Trang bay

Nha Trang bay

After Nha Trang we took another night bus up to Hoi An.  Hoi An is a lovely little town that was a major trading port until the river silted up in the mid 19th century.  It’s kept its small-town charm, but become a major tourist destination in the past decade.  During much of the day parts of the old town are closed to motor vehicles so that biking and walking are more convenient.  At night many businesses light beautiful silk lanterns out on the street, and tourists buy candles in little paper boats to float on the river.  Hoi An is also a major center for custom clothes production and has hundreds of small tailor and cobbler shops.  We had some of the best looking and cheapest clothes we’ve ever owned made for us while we were there.  We had a wonderful time roaming the town, biking around the countryside to a village that grows herbs using seaweed for fertilizer, and eating fantastic food.

A bridge at night in Hoi An

A bridge at night in Hoi An

Silk lantenrs

Silk lanterns

A quiet street in Hoi An

A quiet street in Hoi An

Herbs growing in the "Vegetable Village"

Herbs growing in the “Vegetable Village”

Seaweed harvested for fertilizer

Seaweed harvested for fertilizer

We took the bus from Hoi An up to Danang, and then the train from there to Hue.  The train trip was an interesting experience in its own right, and much less cushy than we had expected.  It was crowded, and pretty run down, but took us through a really beautiful stretch of country.

The bus to Hue

The bus to Hue

Bowen had come down with a cold, so her time in Hue was mostly spent recovering.  But I got out and saw some more of the neat sights.  Hue was the capitol city of the Nguyen Emperors, and so has many great historical sites.  I biked around to a couple of really beautiful pagodas, and on our last day Bowen and I explored the old Citadel.

Dragon boats on the Perfume River

Dragon boats on the Perfume River

Thien Mu pagoda

Thien Mu pagoda

A small pagoda in the back of Thien Mu

A small pagoda in the back of Thien Mu

Bao Quoc pagoda

Bao Quoc pagoda

The walls of the Citadel

The walls of the Citadel

Inside the Citadel

Inside the Citadel

Riding a cyclo back from the Citadel, and feeling a bit imperialist

Riding a cyclo back from the Citadel, and feeling a bit imperialist

Our trip up to Hanoi was another overnight bus trip, and got us into the capitol early in the morning.  We promptly got scammed by two different cabs that had meters running fast (but we were only out about 3 extra dollars).  Hanoi is a great city for wandering, eating, and drinking.  We spent much of our first day setting up a tour of Halong Bay, and wandering the town.  We checked out the Ngoc Son temple, and drank delicious coffee on the smallest balcony I’ve ever seen.  In the evening we had our first experience with Bia Hoi, fresh beer (I had had some in Hoi An, but this was our first together).  Bia Hoi is supposedly made fresh every day, is very refreshing, quite tasty, and dirt cheap.  We sat in little plastic chairs along the edge of bustling intersection and drank it for 25-30 cents while watching the world go by.  This was a ritual we continued each night in Hanoi.  Our second day we visited the Cathedral, the Hanoi Hilton prison museum, and had our first taste of Bun Cha, a heavenly mix of grilled pork patties, pork belly, and green papaya in a soup of sweetened fish sauce, served with vermicelli noodles, lettuce, and herbs.  For dinner, we had our first taste of Bun Bo Nam Bo, fried beef and bean sprouts over vermicelli with green papaya, noodles, roasted peanuts, and fish sauce.

The bridge to the

The bridge to the Ngoc Song Temple

A gigantic stuffed turtle from the lake

A gigantic stuffed turtle from the lake

Delicious beer!  For 25 cents!

Delicious beer! For 25 cents!

A sewer duct through which Vietnamese prisoners used to escape from the Hanoi Hilton

A sewer duct through which Vietnamese prisoners used to escape from the Hanoi Hilton

Why am I not eating Bun Bo Nam Bo right now?

Why am I not eating Bun Bo Nam Bo right now?

The next morning we headed by bus to Halong Bay for a two-day excursion.  Halong Bay is an incredibly scenic area with limestone karsts rising out of the bay.  On the first day we kayaked around a small floating village and through sea caves, and had a cooking demonstration in which we made the spring rolls for dinner.  In the evening, we watched the sunset over the karsts and were bombarded by local women in large floating baskets trying to sell us beer and snacks.  I took a lovely swim in the bay.

A floating village in Halong Bay

A floating village in Halong Bay

Sunset over Halong Bay

Sunset over Halong Bay

The next day we hiked to the top of one of the islands, named after a Russian cosmonaut who visited the area with Ho Chi Minh, for great views of the surrounding areas.  There are about 2000 islands in Halong Bay, most of them tiny, and about half of them named.  After our climb, we visited the Amazing Cave, which was pretty neat and much less hokey than we expected.  Then it was time to return to Hanoi.  Where we had Bun Bo Nam Bo for dinner again.

A misty morning in Halong Bay

A misty morning in Halong Bay

Formations in the Amazing Cave

Formations in the Amazing Cave

Our last day in Vietnam we visited Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum.  We arrived about 15 minutes before it opened to a line that was roughly a kilometer long. His body, embalmed and on display against his previously-declared wishes, is on display nine months a year, but takes a three month trip to Russia each year for maintenance.  As we shuffled by through the eerie crypt, many of the old women were crying quietly. The man has been dead for over 50 years, but still draws a major crowd and endears a very emotional response on an average day.   We also viewed the homes he lived in during his presidency and the One Lotus Pagoda.  Then we visited the Temple of Literature.  The temple is over 900 years old, and housed the country’s first university to train men for the imperial public service exams.  We then had Bun Cha for lunch, wandered the city some more, had Bun Bo Nam Bo for dinner, and went out for Bia Hoi (are you sensing a pattern here?).

A video playing as we waited in line for Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum showing war protesters in the US, as well as the current air quality conditions

A video playing as we waited in line for Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum showing war protesters in the US, as well as the current air quality conditions

Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum

Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum

The gate at the Temple of Literature

The gate at the Temple of Literature

As I said at the outset, Vietnam is incredible.  My main disappointment was that the security guard at the airport confiscated my fork.  We can’t wait to go back.  Maybe we can meet you there.

It’s good to be back …

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Been waiting for this for two months. Worth the wait, but still …

 

Cambodia

After Bangladesh we had a night near the Bangkok airport, and then headed on to Cambodia.  The Poipet border crossing sounded pretty intense from our guide book and various websites, with fake visa offices and swindlers galore, but we had no problems.  The bus we took from the airport transit center brought us to within two blocks of the border, we went through Thai immigration, got our Cambodian visas (we had brought passport photos and declined to pay extra to the immigration officer standing around) and were through in about an hour.  We had met an American couple waiting in line and walked with them past the free bus to the expensive transit center out of town and hired a cab to take us to Siem Reap for cheaper than the tourist bus would have been.  We were pretty tired, so we stayed near our hotel for dinner and made a Cambodian family very happy by coming into their restaurant.

The next day we hired a tuk-tuk to take us around some of the Angkor temples.  Most people know the area as Angkor Wat, but really Angkor Wat is just one of many temples in close proximity built during the Angkor period.  Entrance to the temples comes in the form of 1, 3, and 7 day passes, and we opted for 3 days. (We probably could have done it in 2 if we busted our butts and didn’t bike, but 1 day would definitely not be enough).  We started with the Grand Circuit, checking out Preah Khan, a temple fusing Buddhist and Hindu worship.  Next was Neak Pean (there does not seem to be standardize spelling for some of the monuments’ names), a water temple that looked pretty cool, but you couldn’t get close enough to see much.  Next we visited Ta Sohm, with its smiling faces above the gates, West Mebon with its elephants gazing out from the corners, and then Pre Rup, towering above the landscape.  Then it was time for lunch.

A carved timpanum at Preah Khan

A carved timpanum at Preah Khan

Wall carvings at Preah Khan,

Wall carvings at Preah Khan,

A gateway overgrown by a tree at Ta Som

A gateway overgrown by a tree at Ta Som

Me with a carved elephant at Eastern Mebon

Me with a carved elephant at Eastern Mebon

After lunch we headed out to the Roluos group, an older set of temples set away from the others, where we visited Bakong and Prea Ko.  Exhausted from our day climbing temples in the heat, we headed back to the swimming pool at our hotel and then into town for the evening.

Bakong in the Roluos Group

Bakong in the Roluos Group

Carved text on a library door at Preah Ko

Carved text on a library door at Preah Ko

I thought Siem Reap was really lovely.  Pretty touristy, but also pretty nice with good cheap food and lots of places sit with a beer and people-watch while getting a foot massage ($3 for half an hour, beer included).  The Angkor temples thus are not only one of the greatest archeological sites to visit, they’re also the only great ones I can think of that have a nice town to stay in (Aguas Calientes?  Flores?…)  The highlight of the evening was a giant puppet parade that happens once a year.  The local school children make gigantic puppets and parade them through the streets, lit from the inside.  (Unfortunately, we had forgotten our camera at the hotel, so the only pictures we got were on my cell phone.)

A slow lorris puppet

A slow lorris puppet

The next day we rented bikes and headed back for more temples, this time hitting up the lesser circuit.  We started at the old monastery of Banteay Kdei with its bas-relief carvings of heavenly maidens, and then took a gaze at Sra Srang, the lake-sized bathing pool.  Next, we visited Ta Prohm, also known as the Tomb Raider temple because of the extent to which the jungle has reclaimed it with towering trees.  Then we climbed the very steep steps of Ta Keo.  One of the really interesting things was the extent to which the crowds varied by site.  Ta Keo was nearly deserted (probably because of its steepness), where Ta Prohm has been packed.  Next we rode into the Angkor Thom complex and had lunch.

A heavenly maiden at Banteay Kdey.  I don't think I've ever seen a carving like that at a monastery.

A heavenly maiden at Banteay Kdey. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a carving like that at a monastery before.

A huge tree in Ta Prohm

A huge tree in Ta Prohm

Another example of nature reclaiming the temple

Another example of nature reclaiming the temple

The steps up to the top at Ta Keo

The steps up to the top at Ta Keo

After lunch we visited the Terrace of the Lepper King (likely actually dedicated to the god of death), Phimeakas, Baphuon, and the Terrace of elephants.  All were incredible in their own ways with wall carvings, a wall designed to look like a reclining Buddha, a causeway, and carved elephant supports.  Finally, we stopped into Bayon, our favorite of all the sites at Angkor.  Built as a state temple, each of the towers features four smiling faces that make the area quite stunning.  We rode out through the gate and across the bridge with its hulking stone figures back to town.

The causeway from the top of Baphuon

The causeway from the top of Baphuon

A bas relief elephant at the Terrace of Elephants

A bas relief elephant at the Terrace of Elephants

Carvings along the Terrace of the Leper King

Carvings along the Terrace of the Leper King

Smiling faces at Bayon

Smiling faces at Bayon

The gate to Angor Thom

The gate to Angor Thom

Stone figures guarding the gate

Stone figures guarding the gate

The next day we headed back for the main event, Angkor Wat.  Considered the largest religious complex in the world (not sure what that means exactly), this grand temple includes incredible quality in addition to its quality.  The stupa towers seemed more beautiful to me than those of the other temples and the walls were covered with bas-relief epic tales.  Next we took the long tuk-tuk ride out to Banteay Srey, the citadel of ladies, so called because of the delicacy of the carvings.  Though it took an hour by tuk-tuk, the site did not disappoint.  The carvings were quite fantastic and detailed.  The Angkor temples were truly amazing; they were probably my favorite such site I’ve ever been to.  Throughout our three days, it seemed like each temple was better than the last.Templed-out for the time being after Banteay Srey, we had a relaxed afternoon.

The approach to Angkor Wat

The approach to Angkor Wat

Bas-relief depicting the Ramayana

Bas-relief depicting the Ramayana

One of the towers at Angkor Wat

One of the towers at Angkor Wat

Intricate and delicate carving at Banteay Srey

Intricate and delicate carving at Banteay Srey

I particularly like this scene

I particularly like this scene

The next day we headed by bus to Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city, but pretty small with only 140,000 people.  We spent two relaxed days here, getting our visas for Vietnam with minimal hassle (the whole process took 30 minutes, compared to a day in Phnom Penh, 3 in Bangkok and who knows how long elsewhere).  Bowen took a cooking class, and we enjoyed wandering the streets of a non-touristy town.  And ate great food, including the best spring rolls either of us has ever had.

The riverside in Battambang

The riverside in Battambang

Not sure what's going on here, but it doesn't look happy

Not sure what’s going on here, but it doesn’t look happy

We finished our time in Cambodia in Phnom Penh, the capital.  Our hotel was right across the street from a site that we discovered had been built for the old king’s memorial and began to be torn down the day after we arrived.  Our first day we took it pretty easy, wandering around to the main market, which was very cool, and checking out a mall.

The late king's funeral park

The late king’s funeral park

The funeral park at night

The funeral park at night

These clams, which I like to refer to as "the shits in a shell" sit out in the sun all day and are sold all over Cambodia.  We did not try them.

These clams, which I like to refer to as “the shits in a shell” sit out in the sun all day and are sold all over Cambodia. We did not try them.

The next day we walked over to Tuol Sleng Prison. Now a museum, it had originally been a high school and then when the Khmer Rouge closed schools, it became a prison where Cambodians were tortured until they confessed to bogus crimes before being executed.  The site has a very intense feel to it, enhanced by photographs of all the victims, as well as a few grainy ones taken of the corpses found when the site was liberated (with only 7 remaining inmates).

The exterior hallways at Tuol Sleng.  The extent to which this place really looks like a school only heightens the sense of dread about the place

The exterior hallways at Tuol Sleng. The extent to which this place really looks like a school only heightens the sense of dread about the place

Photos of the victims, taken was they entered

Photos of the victims, taken was they entered

An interior hallway

An interior hallway

After the prison museum we visited the Royal Palace.  Unfortunately much of it was under construction or off limits, but we did see some lovely temples, the throne room, and the king’s elephant mount.

The Royal Palace

The Throne Room at the Royal Palace

The next day we got a tuk-tuk out to Choeng Ek, better known as the Killing Fields.  This is the site where the Khmer Rouge executed “enemies of the state”, mainly ordinary folks who had done nothing worse than get on someone else’s bad side, and then buried then in shallow graves.  Bones and bits of clothing still come to the surface during the rainy season.  It was a very peaceful site, and hard to reconcile with the horrors that had occurred there.  The excellent audio guide explained many of the areas and gave the history of the site, but the memorial stupa, with level upon level of skulls, really showed the immensity of this particular element of the Khmer Rouges crimes (but doesn’t tell of the many other horrible things this group did).

Choeng Ek, the Killing Fields

Choeng Ek, the Killing Fields

Bracelets left along the edge of a shallow grave

Bracelets left along the edge of a shallow grave

The Memorial Stupa, filled with skulls of the victims

The Memorial Stupa, filled with skulls of the victims

The next day we visited the National Museum and saw more of the excellent stonework and other art of the premodern Cambodians.  Then we took a break and spent the afternoon sitting in a cafe.  Phnom Penh is a lovely city, fun and relaxed with a vibrant feeling in the streets and along the river, and nice cafes.  In the evening we treated ourselves to a happy hour cocktail at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club along the river before heading to the night market for a cheap and delicious dinner.

The riverfront from the Foreign Correspondents' Club

The riverfront from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club

Cambodia was wonderful.  It offers one of the world’s greatest tourist attractions in the Angkor Temples, but also good (if not very varied) food, low prices, friendly people, and a nice and manageable capital city.  The more recent history is truly heartbreaking, but also provides important sites to visit to help remind us of what can happen when governments care more about abstract ideas than about their own people.

Dhaka (and Bangkok)

We left Bali and flew into Don Muang airport, the other Bangkok airport, which we had realized only the day before.  Luckily, there is a shuttle between the airports, so we were able to get to Suvarnabhumi and catch the shuttle to our hotel.  We had planned to have just one night in Bangkok, but the airline had changed our flight to the following day, so we had two nights in Bangkok, and the world really was our oyster (sorry, couldn’t help it).  In the morning we took the airport train into town, and then caught a boat travelling along a small waterway into the old center.

A water taxi down the Khlang Saen Saeb

A water taxi down the Khlang Saen Saeb

We wandered for a while unable to figure out where in the heck we were, but eventually made our way to Old Siam Plaza to see the interesting food stalls.

Unknown delights in Old Siam Plaza

Unknown delights in Old Siam Plaza

From there we walked to Wat Pho, a fantastic old temple complex.  My advice to folks who visit Bali and then go to other parts of Southeast Asia is not to spend too much time or money going to Balinese temples, the other ones we’ve seen were way cooler than the Balinese ones in my opinion.  Wat Pho has many beautiful temples and Buddha sculptures, but more importantly has a gigantic reclining Budda, 15 meters high, 43 meters long, and covered in gold leaf.

A statue at Wat Pho

A statue at Wat Pho

Wow!  That's one large golden reclining Buddha!

Wow! That’s one large golden reclining Buddha!

Stupas at Wat Pho

Stupas at Wat Pho

An ornate roof at Wat Pho

An ornate roof at Wat Pho

From there we headed up to Khao San road, the main backpacker haunt, and spent some time wandering the shops and stalls and eating some great food.  Then we walked a few kilometers from there to the MBK center, a huge mall, where we spent a few hours enjoying the air-conditioning as we wandered past stalls and shops, movie theaters and restaurants and a grocery store.  After grabbing some dinner in the food court (ever had mama noodles in broth?) we headed back to the airport and caught our hotel shuttle.

The Democracy Monument

The Democracy Monument

The next morning we flew to Dhaka, Bangladesh.  We got our visas on arrival for $101 (don’t believe Lonely Planet, there are visas on arrival) and stood watching mosquitos fly around the head and shoulders of the immigration agent.  Our friend Joanna, a diplomat at the U.S. embassy, picked us up and took us into town.  I’ve never been anywhere like Dhaka before.  I spent a few months outside of Managua, Nicaragua in the town of Ciudad Sandiano, which had started as a refugee camp for people displaced by the 1972 earthquake, and Dhaka reminded me much more of Ciudad Sandino than of Managua.  And Managua was pretty basic compared to other capitals.  Dhaka is a fascinating, hectic jumble of people and sounds.  That evening we went out for dinner along one of the more touristy streets.  Which was not paved.  (For more on food, see Bowen’s post.)

A street scene in Dhaka

A street scene in Dhaka

Beautiful lanterns along a street in Dhaka

Beautiful lanterns along a street in Dhaka

Our first full day there Joanna had friends over for crepes in the morning, and then we went shopping and went on the Hash, a weekly walk/run that started amongst British expats in Malaysia in the ‘30s and is now done all over the world.  This was a really incredible opportunity to walk through some of the poor neighborhoods of Dhaka in a way the two of us never would have on our own.

A street view during the Hash

A street view during the Hash

Vegetables for sale in a residential area

Vegetables for sale in a residential area

Treking through the rice paddies just outside Dhaka on the Hash

Treking through the rice paddies just outside Dhaka on the Hash

The next day we visited Sonargoan, an ancient capital city that now houses a museum and some other interesting historical sites.  But when we were there, we were the main attraction.  Dozens of people approached us, calling me “boss” or “uncle” to take pictures with them, so many we felt compelled to decline after a while.  From there we visited some beautiful old buildings and an old mosque in the surrounding villages.

The biggest attraction in Sonargaon

The biggest attraction in Sonargaon

Beautiful old architecture near Sonargoan

Beautiful old architecture near Sonargoan

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A fifteenth century mosque near Sonargoan

A fifteenth century mosque near Sonargoan

We had planned to get out of Dhaka to visit Srimongol in the tea-growing area for a few days, but before we arrived some political turmoil began that led to a strike, or hartal, on the day we were planning to take the train.  So instead we spent more time around Dhaka.  One day we visited some areas in town.  Traffic in Dhaka is really intense, pretty much all the time, from what we could tell.  Streets are packed with cars, some going the wrong direction, rickshaws, and tuk-tuks.  Children ride to school in tiny bike-drawn carts.  It took us twenty-five minutes to get about 10 blocks, and then another hour to get to the parliament building, only about 8 kilometers away.

School buses

School buses

Another school bus

Another school bus

The Bangladeshi Parliament building

The Bangladeshi Parliament building

All the rickshaws have bright, colorful paintings like this

All the rickshaws have bright, colorful paintings like this

The next day we went out to see the National Martyrs’ Memorial and visit the town of Dhamrai, a majority Hindu town where there is a factory that makes incredible brass figurines. And then it was time to return to Bangkok.

The National Martyrs Memorial

The National Martyrs Memorial

The ceremonial chariot in Dhamrai

The ceremonial chariot in Dhamrai

Making a bronze statue at a workshop in Dhamrai

Making a bronze statue at a workshop in Dhamrai

On the road back to Dhaka

On the road back to Dhaka

We both really enjoyed out time in Dhaka.  It was a truly fascinating place, and one that very few tourists ever visit.  People were incredibly friendly and the city felt dynamic.  It was also fascinating to see a little bit of the expat life amongst the diplomatic community.  I’m really glad we went, and I’m really glad we had Joanna to visit, not just because it was wonderful to see her, but because I think Dhaka would be a very difficult place to visit as a tourist.  There’s not a lot of tourist infrastructure and it’s not all that cheap.  But it was a wonderful experience we’ll both remember forever, I’m sure.

A sweet young man trying to sell us Bangla-language newspapers

A sweet young man trying to sell us Bangla-language newspapers