Thursday, April 17, 2008


We got off the plane in Hanoi and our first impressions matched up pretty well with the dreary images of communist countries that have long been perpetuated in the western world. The airport was stark and grey, immigration officers dressed in drab informs the color of pea soup stared at us grimly as they stamped our passports and everyone was cloaked in heavy wool jackets to fight off the cold. But it didn’t take long for our impressions to change. On the taxi ride into the city, our sense of gloominess transformed into nostalgia when we observed women and men seeding rice in classic cone-shaped straw hats and young people riding their bikes to school. It seemed to be such a simple and peaceful existence that we couldn’t help but feel perplexed as to how our country could have seen this poor agrarian society as such a threat to our way of life for so many years.

When we reached the center of Hanoi, our impressions were altered yet again. We had arrived in the heart of the bustling Old Quarter and were immediately stunned by the rich cultural tapestry that unfolded before us. The narrow winding streets accented with red doors and silk lanterns suggested a strong Chinese influence, while the wide boulevards, colonial buildings and imposing St. Joseph’s Cathedral across town betrayed the country’s many years under French colonial rule. The early seeds of a growing western influence can be found as well - especially the impact of the bourgeoning tourist industry.

The smell of pho soup wafted through the air, combining with the fragrance of plum blossoms and the earthy smoke of incense to create a heady and intoxicating aroma. Our eyes were treated to sensory overload as well, especially when walking through the local markets. Beautifully adorned flowers, perfectly cut vegetables, slimy eels and skinned dogs all vied for our attention. Lest our ears be forgotten, the cacophony of hundreds of thousands of honking mini bikes and the shrill yells from cyclo conductors offering us rides kept us on constant alert.

While some parts of the city are dizzying in their intensity, there are many others that provide a tranquil respite from the chaos. The city is on the Red River and is blessed with several lovely lakes. In the early light of the rising sun, people converge on the sidewalks to undertake their daily exercise – usually a session of tai chi or a vigorous game of badminton. On Hoan Kiem lake, a picturesque red bridge leads to a pretty Buddhist temple, while across town, the Temple of Literature, an ancient university dedicated to the study of Confucism, provides peaceful courtyards for local students and tourists to gather.

The Vietnamese are fond of their drink, and Hanoi is no exception. Cafes serve up a beverage that is uniquely Viet – an oily, herbal cup of joe, brewed one at a time at your table and served with a spoonful of condensed milk. Fear not if you’re not a fan of the bean, as local families have set up make-shift bars on several street corners to dole out something stronger. They consist of nothing more than a keg and a few stools set in the gutter, but who can pass up the opportunity to enjoy the purportedly cheapest beers on earth?

Of course, the culture of Vietnam, and Hanoi in particular, is heavily influenced by its politics and so no visit is complete without a tour of its more historic sites. We visited the Hoa Lo Prison (affectionately known as the Hanoi Hilton), which was appropriated by the French as a place to imprison and torture independence fighters. In time, some of these same revolutionaries used it for similar purposes – first to punish opponents of the communist movement and then to hold prisoners of war. The most famous POW is, of course, our current presidential candidate, John McCain, whose photo and flight suit are prominently on display.

The most bizarre part of our tour was undoubtedly the visit to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. After having our cameras, bags and hats confiscated, reading a list of peculiar rules and being set up in lines of two, we were marched through a massive building into a dark cave where his embalmed body is on display in a glass tomb. It all seemed a bit burlesque for a man who humbly asked to be cremated and have his remains spread throughout the country…

We couldn’t help but wonder what Ho Chi Minh would think of the rest of the complex that surrounds his resting place either. He would certainly approve of the simple cabin where he planned out his communist utopia, strategically situated next to the former French Governer’s palace for comparative emphasis. But we’re not so sure how he’d feel about the Ho Chi Minh Museum, a wacky exercise in experimental art that tries to explain the ideals of the communist revolution through exhibits that includes a fanciful replication of the brain that you can walk through and a basket of larger-than-life fruit. It was an amusing place to visit, but try as we might, we just didn’t get it...

We really enjoyed our time in Hanoi, which was made even better by our great company. We had been planning to meet a friend from San Francisco, Sue, but when she showed up a day later than we expected (word to the wise, you lose a day when you travel west over the international dateline…), we were lucky enough to come across her brother and sister sitting in the table next to us at dinner. Tim and Victoria filled in nicely for Sue until she arrived, after which the five of us traipsed around the city together, sipping lots of coffees and wondering about the strange land we found ourselves in.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Ko Tao

We flew from Chiang Mai to Bangkok and then took a train down to Chumphon where caught a ferry to Ko Tao in the morning. Yes, the trip was as long as it sounds, and unfortunately it was made even longer by the fact that our train suffered from “engine broke” on the way there.
Ko Tao is a tiny island in the Gulf of Thailand that has become a Mecca for those seeking dive instruction on the cheap. Evidence of its growing popularity, all of the accommodation on the main beach was booked when we arrived, so we headed to the south bay. We rented some basic garden bungalows and immediately got down to business. We arrived to the island around 2:00 and by 4:30 Gil was watching his first PADI dive instruction video and Jen and her parents were sharing a Chang beer in a gazebo looking out at the sea.

Gil’s PADI course was a success and he was rewarded on the final day with sightings of a whale shark! This majestic creature swam directly at him and even nudged him a bit with his tail. The visibility could have been better, but he also saw plenty of corals, brightly colored fish and, of course, tons of other freshly certified divers!

The weather was overcast and the sea was choppy, but that didn’t stop the rest of us from spending our days relaxing on the beach. Our favorite spot was Shark Bay, which luckily has been protected from the rampant overdevelopment occurring on other parts of the island. On our last day, we did a bit of snorkeling and true to its name, several reef sharks circled as soon as we reached the deeper water. Reef sharks are supposedly harmless, but it still gets your heart racing to see them a couple of meters away from you!

We also rented motorbikes, which allowed us to get around on the island’s few paved roads. We took them out to the cliffs to check out views of the small twin islands to the northeast of Ko Tao and Jen’s Dad braved the potholed dirt roads out to one of the more isolated bays in the east one morning. It was a fun way to scoot around and we only had a couple of minor mishaps…
All in all we had a wonderful time, but we sincerely hope that the island gets its act together and starts to invest some of the money its making off of the influx of tourists to construct a much needed water treatment systems. They could also use some stricter land use regulations, as the beach in the south bay has all but been swallowed up by the ever growing hotel and bungalow operations. Of course, the reefs will need better protections too, especially given the growing numbers of people diving in this relatively small area each day.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is the unofficial capital of northern Thailand and the second largest city in the country, but it seems to be a world apart from the modern metropolis that is Bangkok. First off, it’s a bit medieval with a moat and stone wall surrounding its perimeter. The city is also more spiritually inclined, with literally hundreds of temples gracing its elegant streets. It’s full of history, but has not been lost to it and today Chiang Mai’s stylish cafes, vibrant nightlife and colorful markets draw just as many tourist as its more ancient elements.

We began our exploration of the city with a tour of some of the most famous temples. The temples in Chiang Mai are mostly from the Lanna period and are heavily influenced by the Burmese, so they are quite different from those in the south. They feature tiered roofs and are often decorated with intricate wood carvings and gilded nagas, lions and umbrellas. A few of the highlights for us included a graceful minimalist temple made entirely of dark teakwood and the ruins of a giant chedi adorned with massive elephant sculptures. During our meanderings, we also observed some young monks dismantling a chedi to make room for a new structure – it certainly seemed a bit incongruous to see these peaceful people wielding sledgehammers and pickaxes! To preempt temple overload, we made a vital pit stop at one of the wats offering Thai massage and reflexology.

In addition to moderating your intake of temples, one has to be careful to avoid overdosing on shopping in this town, as there are opportunities aplenty. Besides the nightly craft market aimed at tourists, there are tons of local markets all around town, including a beautiful flower market. The Sunday market was our favorite, and luckily it was right around the corner from our hotel so we didn’t have to lug our purchases far.

Chiang Mai has some decent restaurants and fun bars down by the river. Since we had long been craving some live music, we were happy to discover that Tuk, a rocking guitar player that had impressed our friends Chuck & Jane many years ago, is still busting out the classic rock favorites every weekend and even seems to have an apprentice or two.

We spent a day at the Elephant Nature Park, a home for injured and mistreated domestic elephants. It’s a very special place and we felt privileged to take part in feeding and bathing these majestic creatures. It was heart breaking to hear about the tragic histories of many of the elephants, but encouraging to learn about the new methods the Park is developing to train baby elephants using positive reinforcement. If successful, it may help to revolutionize the traditional process of “breaking”, which consists of depriving and torturing the animals until they submit.

We also rented a car and spent a day in the mountains around Chiang Mai. Our first stop was the Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, one of the most important temples in the country. Legend has it that the site was selected by a divinely inspired elephant, and whether or not this is true, it does provide beautiful views over the city and countryside below. Many Thais come here to provide offerings in the hopes that they will receive good luck and positive karma. Jen’s karma must be a bit off, because she used fortune sticks there and received what must be the worst prediction ever – something along the lines of “You are terribly unlucky. No one can help you. You must watch every move you make or you will suffer.”

We also visited the King’s summer palace, which, like his mother’s palace to the north, has a stunning garden. It also has an Olympic-sized musical fountain, a gift to the Queen for her birthday. Now we all know what to give that person who has it all!

Chiang Rai

After a quick pit stop back in Bangkok to trade Gil’s mom for Jen’s parents, we flew up to Chiang Rai. We descended through luscious green mountains to land in a quiet little city that introduced us to the relaxed pace and friendliness that characterizes Northern Thailand.
Chiang Rai has a great night market with handicrafts from the local tribal communities, classic dance and music performances and stalls selling local cuisine. The food wasn’t particularly appealing to us (fried crickets, anyone?), but we did enjoy the entertainment and the cold pitchers of beer.

To learn more about the people who create the lovely goods we saw at the market, we visited the Hill Tribe Museum, which presented information about the culture of the various ethnic groups that live in the area. It was interesting to learn about the traditions of the Hmong, Karen, Akha and other tribal groups and about the challenges they face today in preserving their way of life. Most of the hill tribe people have migrated here from their native lands, as have thousands of Chinese. As it was nearing Chinese New Year’s, we got to see families presenting meals as offerings, lighting firecrackers, and undergoing other preparations for the big event.

There are some lovely temples in Chiang Rai, both ancient and modern. The most impressive one is situated about 15 kilometers south of the city. Nicknamed the White Temple, this work in progress is designed by a man who became an internationally recognized modern artist, and then returned to his local community to erect the monument. Standing tall in gleaming white and adorned with delicate embellishments, it glows like a bride on her wedding day. But this temple is not innocent and blissful, but rather presents a complex interpretation of the cosmos and the Buddhists journey toward enlightenment. On approaching the temple, you are greeted by red skulls surrounding a bottle of alcohol, warning you of the perils of not following the Buddhist precepts. You then step across a bridge spanning over ghostly arms reaching to pull you down into hell. Inside the temple, the back wall depicts a soulless science fiction future illustrated by scenes from the Matrix and an image of the Twin Towers burning, among other images. Finally, after you’ve been reminded of all the suffering that can be relieved by nirvana, you are confronted with a radiant image of the Buddha, painted in bright pastels and swirling brush strokes and reminiscent of something you might have had hung in your dorm room under a black light. It was very fresh and very different and seemed to give an ancient religion new relevance in this quickly modernizing society.

We rented a car and driver to take us to the border town of Mai Sai, where we needed to cross into Myanmar to renew our Thai visa waiver for another 30 days. We saw very little of Myanmar, but if it is representative of the rest of the country, the country consists mostly of bootleg videos, cheap cigarettes, dried mushrooms and other junk from China. Mai Sai didn’t have much more to offer, but we do get to say we’ve been the northern most point in Thailand and the Golden Triangle, the historic center of the opium trade.

Much more interesting was the countryside we passed through on the way to the Golden Triangle. We stopped at a cave temple frequented by mischievous monkeys and drove up into the mountains to visit the summer home of the King’s mother. She wanted to influence the lives of the hill tribe people by bringing them needed medical care and supporting agricultural initiatives to wean them out of the opium business. We were humbled by the relative modesty of her Swiss-style chalet, and stunned by the intricacy of her gardens, which included an orchid laboratory, rock garden and hundreds of fountains.

On the way home, our driver’s break neck speed slowed to a crawl as we tried to reach Mae Salong, a Chinese village nestled in the mountains. He yelled for us to get out, and suddenly we were running after the sputtering car. We finally reached a tea plantation, where we gave the car a rest and devised a plan to get the rest of the way to the village (two at a time). Given our troubles, we didn’t get to do much in the town other than taste some local teas (accompanied by fried bamboo worms), but it was a beautiful journey nonetheless.

Sunday, April 6, 2008


From Krabi we also went to Railey beach, an isolated peninsula jutting into the Andaman Sea. Arriving on the eastern shore, you have to climb out of the long tail boat and wade through mud to reach the beach, but your reward is access to one of the coolest places on earth.

Railey has three main beaches, the eastern one being the least inviting to most people, but rock climbers would disagree. The sheer cliffs, full of cracks and crevices, provide the perfect challenge for beginners and experts alike. The inspiring views from the top make the vertical scramble in the heat worth all the sweat and pain. This time around we only got to watch, but we will be back some day to take it on ourselves.

Phra Nang beach is the most breathtaking of the three, and undoubtedly one of the most spectacular in the world. The southern end of the beach is cut off by a limestone cliff with massive stalactites reaching down towards the cool blue sea like the fingers of a thirsty man grasping for a drink. There are also hundreds of caves dotting the cliffs, including one that has curiously been filled with thousands of lingam statues. The lingam is a phallic symbol sacred to Buddhists and represents power and fertility.

The beach was quite crowded, much more so than when Jen visited here six years earlier, but there was a festive air with locals selling wares on the beach and colorful long tails lined up along the shore. The monkeys were also enjoying the friendly atmosphere, jumping from limb to limb and grabbing bananas from wide eyed tourists.

Our final stop was Railey West, where we had ice cream for lunch and took a final dip in the sea. As if the place could be any more magical, it suddenly started to rain even though the sun was still burning brightly overhead. It felt like we were in a dream. On the way home, our long tail raced the storm back to Krabi. The sudden turn in the weather took us by surprise, but at least it made it a bit easier to leave such an extraordinary place.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Krabi, Ko Lanta & Around

We flew from Bangkok to Krabi, and were greeted by a fabulous sunset, the first of many we’d be blessed with over the next week. Krabi town is situated on a river flowing out to the Andaman Sea, adjacent to mangrove s and encircled by large rock outcroppings blanketed in green vegetation. There is a fun night food market, and lots of cheap and tasty restaurants, but not much else to keep you occupied. Still, we were pleasantly surprised by the likability of what we expected to be just a transit stop in our journey.

After an unnecessarily time consuming ferry ride, we arrived at Ko Lanta and our quaint bungalows just steps from Klong Dao beach. The beach was a long expanse of golden sand, lapped by gentle waves, and crisscrossed by baby stroller tracks (a clear sign we were in family territory, but, hey, we were with family after all!). The landscape contained more evergreens than the palm trees you might expect in the tropics, but it was a beautiful and quiet place to relax for a day or seven.

Our days mostly consisted of swims in the turquoise water, walks on the beach at sunset, choosing a place for dinner, and watching movies (or fire dancers) after dark. When the stress of this hectic routine got to us, we would retire to air conditioned comfort for Thai massages.
To liven things up a bit, we took a cooking class, where we learned to make some spicy curries and other Thai specialties. We got to eat our creations afterward, and although we hate to brag, it just might have been the most delicious food we had in all of Thailand. We were also lucky enough to catch some thai boxing, thanks to Mom’s hotel room overlooking a temporary ring. Sipping beers on the balcony watching as bunch of sadistic guys beat the %&^# out of each other for free really made us feel like VIPs.

We also went on a few day trips to visit surrounding islands. On our first outing, we headed south for a little sunning and snorkeling. At Ko Cheauk, a swim through a cave brought us to a sandy emerald-colored cove completely enclosed by sheer cliffs. Nearby Ko Muk and Ko Kraden, we snorkeled in tons of colorful fish. On the way back, our boat passed the eastern side of Ko Lanta, where we caught a glimpse of the island in its more wild state, thanks to the protection of the rare mangroves lining the shore.

Gil also took a trip by speedboat to Ko Phi-Phi, a set of islands to the north. Whereas Lanta has rolling hills and long sandy beaches, Phi Phi is volcanic nature and is characterized by steep cliffs and sheer rock outcroppings. This hasn’t limited development though, with the isthmus connecting the two islands inundated with hotels and bungalow operations. This spot was hit the hardest by the tsunami, and although the government pledged to limit rebuilding this time around, it doesn’t look like it’s had any effect. But, if you can ignore the crowds, it’s still a little slice of paradise.

The trip also stopped on a couple of smaller islands in the area with colorful snorkeling and pristine beaches. Bamboo Island is uninhabited, except for the backpackers pitching tents for the night, and is the type of place you wouldn’t mind being shipwrecked. Maya Bay on Phi Phi Le was also beautiful – so beautiful, in fact, that they filmed the movie version of “The Beach” there.