Our second guest post for FamiliesGo! is called Siem Reap with a Toddler: Beyond the Temples. Even after ten nights in Siem Reap, we had trouble saying good-bye. Cambodia is a beautiful country with lovely, friendly, and welcoming people. We encourage everyone to visit, and hope this post helps with some of the logistics, especially if you’re bringing a child. If you enjoy the post or find it helpful, please “like” or tweet it. Thank you!
Then we saw it. A green arc extended from one horizon to the other, not unlike a rainbow, but a single color and too faint to be picked up on our camera against the night sky. We continued towards it on the open highway and within five minutes it was gone. Was that it? we wondered. Several minutes of dark were then interrupted by an enormous red cloud peeking out from behind a mountain on our right. We followed the road around the mountain until the red cloud was directly overhead, like some sort of massive alien blimp.
Jude was chilled out in the backseat at this late hour (after a monster afternoon nap) and asked at semi-regular intervals, “Where’d Northern Lights go?” Still, we could hardly keep on our responsible parents’ hats if we kept our two-year-old out chasing the Aurora Borealis until dawn. We were also pretty tired ourselves, so we headed back, speeding first through the countryside and then through Reykjavik’s empty streets, before arriving back at our rental apartment. (Note for other visitors: the best lights don’t usually come on until after midnight, though apparently our night’s show was a mild one by Icelandic standards, so we didn’t miss much by cutting out early. Some Icelandic tourism posters show dramatic sky-covering greens and blues, and we didn’t see anything like that. There’s always next time.)
The Northern Lights provide a major draw for tourists to visit Iceland in January, but they are certainly not the only reason to come at this time of year. For one thing, Iceland gets a bum rap—I think because of its name—and people often think that it’s colder than it is. In fact, Iceland is roughly the same temperature as New York City or Toronto during the winter months, its relatively mild climate owing to the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. (Source: my inflight Icelandair magazine, January 2012.) OK, so it’s hardly Honolulu, but what do you want?
Second, some of the Icelandic scenery is truly breathtaking, and its beauty is only heightened during the winter months. On our first full day in Iceland, we set off at sunrise (not that impressive since sunrise starts at about 10:30 a.m. in January) to complete the Golden Circle, featuring the dramatic Gullfoss Waterfall and the Geysir hot springs (fiercer and more regular than Old Faithful in Yellowstone). The two major sights were certainly impressive, but what I will remember the most from that day is the drive—the mountains; the Icelandic horses; the pinks and blues of the sky; the snow extending for miles in every direction; and the green-blue water of Lake Thingvellir.
At one point, a flock of sheep hopped out from a snow-covered field and onto the road directly in front of our car, flouncing happily down the two-lane highway, and skidding a little in the snow. It was almost too much: like a parody of some sort of winter utopia, Narnia without the menace of the White Witch and her army.
Third, Icelanders know how to party and the party seems to go all winter. (You probably don’t feel the need to be all that productive when you only get about five hours of daylight.) The Christmas season starts on the night of December 12th, when the thirteen Christmas Trolls (“Yule Lads”) show up and place small presents in good children’s shoes; bad children get potatoes. The Christmas season was still going strong when we visited in early January, and came to its dramatic conclusion with a massive fireworks show on our last night in the country, on January 6th. Fireworks were let off every night that we were in Iceland—and we use “night” loosely, since pitch-black is achieved by 4:00 p.m. or so. In fact, Icelanders let off more than six tons of fireworks on New Year’s Eve alone, fairly impressive for a country with a population of 300,000.
While Americans have the three-day weekend commemorating Dr. King’s birthday to look forward to in late January, Icelanders have the Feast of Thorrablot: a four-week affair, extending into February, traditionally celebrated with copious amounts of Icelandic schnapps—the schnapps presumably helps them forget about the traditional food they are expected to consume: rotten shark, ram’s testicles, sour whale, and sheep heads (believe me, I couldn’t make this stuff up).
Walking around Reykjavik is also a treat. The wood-paneled houses line up neatly in rows extending off the main commercial drags—Laugavegur and Skolavordustigur—each with narrow chimneys puffing smoke into the frigid, and usually dark, air. There is also a vibrant café and art scene, with many kaffihús and art galleries in the downtown area. The harbor area is charming, and active; not surprising since fishing continues to be a major part of the Icelandic economy.
Though prices are lower now than they were during the banking bubble (I visited once before, close to the peak, in July 2006), food is still expensive, especially as many ingredients have to be imported, and we ate at home all nights but one. For our one dinner out, we ate at the unoriginally-named “Tapas,” a tapas bar featuring Spanish-Icelandic fusion. We would highly recommend it: Bliss raved about her puffin-with-blueberry tapa as well as her whale-steak-with-cranberry-malt-sauce tapa. Jude danced in his seat to the loud-ish salsa music, and kept busy working on his potato omelet. If you’re so inclined to drink any sangria, keep in mind the 25.5% liquor tax. We understand that Iceland is still trying to dig itself out of the hole created by its cavalier early-twenty-first-century bankers, but that tax exceeds all levels of decency.
Some notes for prospective visitors:
-Get a rental car if you can. Prices, at least in January, were cheaper than in the States. Although Reykjavik is great, and it’s possible to see it all on foot, there’s just not that much of it to see. For us, one of the major highlights of our trip was driving around the countryside, and I would have hated to have been beholden to a tour company and its scheduling (especially when traveling with a kid).
-Of course, don’t miss the Blue Lagoon. Because it is close to the airport, we decided to stop there en route to catch our flight. How can you not love soaking in milky blue water in the middle of a lava field with snow banks on either side, and steam coming out of several small geysers? Jude loved it, and enjoyed painting his face (and ours) with the silica lining the thermal pool. It is somewhat disconcerting to see a geo-thermal power plant immediately adjacent, but inspiring when considered that Iceland derives the majority of its heating and hot-water from its hot springs and much of its electricity as well—the lack of dirty power plants and any real industry helps explains the pristine air quality.
-Also check out Arbaer. This is a locals’ thermal bath in the suburbs, and the price is right: about $2 a head. We got to soak in outdoor pools of various temperatures, from the lukewarm to the very hot, surrounded by Icelanders of different girths and many with serious ink. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Jude twice bravely descended a small (but quick) elephant-shaped slide into the coolest pool of water we tried—he would have gone for thirds (and probably more) but his parents preferred to spend their time in warmer pools. Mom and dad also took a couple trips down a more grown-up water slide; the walk up the steps, about 30 feet through the slush and snow, was fairly treacherous, but well worth it for the adrenaline rush it yielded.
-I would skip the Saga Museum located at “Perlan,” basically a glass dome on a hill just to the south-east of downtown. It’s recommended in the guidebooks and online, but I’m not sure why. I’ve long been interested in the Icelandic sagas (OK, since the last time I visited in 2006, and haven’t really thought about them that much since) but this museum doesn’t provide much in terms of substantive information—it’s basically a Madame Tussauds for the early Viking settlers, showing them in various poses, often bloody, around a maybe 3,000-square-foot exhibit. More than that, it scared the bejesus out of Jude, who covered his eyes and blocked out the scary plaster Vikings, and we hurried through to the how-the-plaster-people-were-made video at the end of the exhibit. This possibly confused Jude, as he seemed to then think that real people lived inside in the plaster models. (It should be noted that the views from Perlan are fantastic, and that alone is well worth the short drive out of town.)
ALL PICTURES FROM ICELAND: here
Stopping by a night market or food stand on a street corner serving piping hot chicken satay (Thailand), or banh mi sandwiches (Vietnam), or hot coconut-milk desserts (Laos) can be a great way to meet the locals and to learn more about their cuisine. Most of the things that we tried were served hot off the grill so there was little risk of getting sick, and we never did. Most important of all is that it’s usually delicious, and so it was in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s ethnically diverse and increasingly funky capital.
Jalan Alor, in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown, is a street jammed with food stalls and seating on both sides of the street. There are so many people milling about that it’s nearly impossible to fathom that the street is still open to cars—but it is—so you have to watch out. There are many foods for sale, but most include meat.
We began with a thin square piece of meat, cut off with scissors by the woman making it. I have no idea what it was, but it tasted like sweet jerky of some sort, and was quite delectable (we had to prevent ourselves from ordering a second round in order to save room for further street-food treats; there were many).
Next we made our way to a cart with a sign that read “Fat Brother Satay,” where two men stood and offered to grill us meat or seafood, which they had laid out on skewers over ice in an organized fashion, along with an assortment of sauces. We had two pork skewers which they pulled off their display and cooked in front of us, then handed over with a napkin, recommending a dipping sauce. They didn’t let us leave the immediate vicinity of the stall until they confirmed we thought their food was good. They need not have worried; we wolfed it down and were off to the next. And so we continued—Patrick ate chicken wings with a small plastic bag of hot sauce, grilled by a man cooling the flames with a bamboo fan, of the kind normally appearing out of a woman’s purse on a hot day.
Eventually we stopped eating standing up, and plopped down on brightly-colored plastic stools at a busy seafood place. (They stacked three stools on top of each other so Jude could reach the table before re-appearing with a “baby seat” of sorts for Jude.) We ordered a whole fish for dinner, but deliberated over what to drink. The man taking our order suggested their homemade sugar cane juice for Jude. Against our better judgment, we agreed.
What appeared next was a large, open plastic bottle full of a liquid that looked an awful lot like yellow Gatorade. Unsurprisingly , Jude loved it, and perked back to life. Around this time, we heard a very good voice, singing, through what sounded like an ancient set of speakers, and rising above the nosiness of our immediate environment. Eventually we saw the source—a middle-aged disabled man being pushed slowly down the street in a cart, by a woman who appeared to be his mom, and carrying a microphone attached to a boom box. He leaned over and serenaded various people who appeared appreciatively with tips, as he sung karaoke in time with the muzak backing him, belting out of the boom box. It was a moving sight, and sound.
After devouring a delicious whole fish which arrived in a fish-shaped cast iron dish set over a flame, we retired for the evening.
The next morning, we went to the famed Central Market to poke around. It was here that the melting pot that is Malaysia became most obvious. Kuala Lumpur has the feel of China meets Turkey meets India—many of the people are Chinese ethnically, others are Muslim, and there are a fair number of Indians as well. At Central Market, women wearing bright and beautiful head scarves were shopping, with a mix of vendors selling everything from Indian textiles to the fabric with the flowered print so ubiquitous in Malaysia, to cheap plastic toys and electronics.
In the evening, we took a walk to Petronas Towers, the tallest buildings in the world when they were built in 1998 (88 stories). Now the Malaysian Tourism Bureau boasts in a magazine we were given that they are the tallest twin buildings in the world (connected on the 41st and 42nd floors). Lit up at night, Petronas Towers are truly magnificent, and as you walk closer and closer, they become more and more commanding. (Depending on the direction you are coming from, I do not recommend walking to them. Take a taxi, or better yet, the easily navigable subway system, instead. Kuala Lumpur is not pedestrian friendly, but we like to walk, so we did—on a sidewalk next to a highway where there were no other pedestrians.) Night is the time to visit, but learn a lesson from us—the Towers are closed to tourists who want to go to the top for the view on Monday nights (our last night there). Being at the bottom and looking up was awe-inspiring, but dizzying as well.
ALL PICTURES FROM KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA: here
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Cambodians (actually, people from all of the countries we visited in South-East Asia) love children. “Hi, baby!” and “Hi, boy!” were near constant refrains during our stay. One night, when we ate dinner at a do-it-yourself barbecue place on the street in Siem Reap, a waitress took Jude out of his chair and brought him dancing (in our full view) across the street to a French funk band that was playing on a small stage next to a giant gaudy Christmas tree and a tank full of those ubiquitous massage fish. He loved it. “More dancing,” he told us for the rest of the night.
The people were charming and you certainly feel for them, considering everything they’ve gone through in the last 40-odd years. Reminders of the Khmer Rouge’s terrible reign are everywhere, from amputee beggars, to signs noticing the recent clearing of landmines.
Now, the biggest threat to Cambodians isn’t ultra-violent communists in black pajamas, but severe annual flooding. The architectural response to this is as ingenious as it is simple: put all of the houses on stilts. And people do. All manner of houses, from shanties to middle-class homes that wouldn’t look out of place in Larchmont, sit on fairly tall stilts (10-20 feet in some cases).
One of the more disturbing things we saw all over Asia, and especially in Cambodia, was the prevalence of skin-whitening products and procedures. Cosmetic products (for both men and women) claim to whiten users’ skin—from lotions, to soaps, to deodorants (are white pits really necessary?) to bath salts. We saw a number of plastic surgeons’ offices offering whitening procedures, a trend that is apparently on the rise.
As someone who admittedly has used self-tanner in the past (full disclosure, it has been close to ten years), I find this trend very hard to fathom. Why do Europeans and Americans think that tan skin is beautiful and Asians think that white skin is beautiful? Part of the explanation surely comes from people’s desire to look different, especially when that look is unobtainable or at least hard to obtain. I think there is a socio-economic explanation as well: in Asia, if you’re white, you haven’t been working in the rice fields; in the States, if you’ve got a nice tan, you may have just come back from a long weekend in Barbados.
In any event, the results, in some cases, look ridiculous. We saw a transvestite boat captain in Laos who had gone to serious lengths to whiten his face (think Jack Nicholson’s Joker in the Tim Burton Batman movie), but had left the rest of his body a natural tan. In most cases, the efforts hardly seem to produce the desired Miss-Saigon look, and instead just make the wearer look like they had some kind of accident while baking a cake.
We would be remiss not to address the most famous part of Cambodia of all: Angkor Wat. The first thing to know about Angkor Wat is that when people say “Angkor Wat” they don’t—usually—mean Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is just one place, although a pretty cool one: it’s the world’s largest religious structure, a temple complex; the crown jewel of the Khmer Empire; and it appears on the Cambodian flag. Instead, they mean the temples—and palaces, citadels, and other ancient structures associated with the Khmer Empire—in the Angkor region in Cambodia. For instance, when someone says, “I’m going to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat[,]” they probably mean that they’re going to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat, and lots of other great places as well. And there are lots of great places: we gave ourselves a generous nine days in Siem Reap (the launching pad town for Angkor) and just about saw all of the temples that we wanted to, just about… I use “temples” to refer to all of these structures, as the locals and other tourists do.
Five Tips for Temple Viewing in Angkor:
1. Don’t Become Blasé: One of the big risks about visiting the temples is becoming blasé. Standing alone, many of the individual temples, at least 10-20 or so, could draw in visitors from all over the world. The effect of having so many of these impressive buildings so close together can be overwhelming and also potentially desensitizing. The visitor can see so many of them in such a short period of time, that it would be fairly easy to fail to register each one’s full import.
I was aware of this eventuality and did my best to guard against it. Luckily, on our first day of sight-seeing, we were visited by my old friend Matt and his friend Xuân Mai, who both now live and work in Phnom Penh, and who had visited Angkor before. Good news. This meant they did not want to repeat the most famous temples, and were happy to visit some of the lessor-known ones with us during the couple of days they were in town. After they left, we could then go on to see the most commonly visited temples—like Angkor Wat or Bayon (the one with the big heads)—and be wowed anew with each successively more impressive temple (of course, some of our favorites turned out to be less-visited ones we saw first like Banteay Srei—looks like a smaller Angkor War with fantastic carvings but is more remote).
2. Consider Paying a Local to Show you Around: Don’t be afraid to hire one of the local “guides” who hang around at the various temples (I use the term loosely because the ones that offer their services on site are typically unlicensed). So many locals hassle visitors—beggars and vendors mostly—that it is tempting to just ignore them all. The few times we engaged locals to show us around, though, it was well worth it.
One morning when Bliss and Jude slept in, I went to watch the sunrise at Srah Srang, a man-made lake with an east-facing, 10th-century platform, perfect for watching a colorful sunrise. After taking in one of the best sunrises of my life and polishing off my flask of coffee, I made my way across the street to Banteay Kdei, a 12th-century temple, which I had to myself at that hour.
A few minutes after I entered the front gate, a smiling local man, about my age, emerged out of nowhere and agreed to show me around for $2 USD. Did he speak much English? Hardly. But he was able to show me the very best vantage points for temple viewing. As an added bonus, he pointed out where some of the scenes from Tomb Raider (that Angelina Jolie gem from about 10 years back) had been shot. I had to admit that I did remember the scene where she lifted the boulder (papier-mâché, he told me) above her head and ran down a stone corridor. (I still want the two hours of my life I spent watching that movie back.)
On the morning of our last day in Siem Reap, Jude hung out at the hotel with a terrific babysitter and some of the hotel staff he had become friendly with, and Bliss and I took the 40-KM tuk-tuk ride to Beng Mealea, possibly the coolest temple that we saw. Unlike most of the temples that have been restored somewhat, Beng Mealea is pretty much in the same chaotic state it was when “discovered” in the 19th century.
This means rubble everywhere, walls in a state of collapse and semi-collapse, and silk-cotton tree roots running amok, and uprooting the stone. One guidebook calls it “the ultimate Indiana Jones experience.” It is a perfect place for scrambling, for those adventurous enough. We were, but would not dare to tread on any of the precariously balanced stones without some kind of assurance that the stones would not crumble under our feet. That’s where the gang of three or four local boys aged 10 or so came into play. “You like climbing, mister?” one asked me. About 45 minutes later, we panted happily, having enjoyed a great scramble across parts of the large structure where most of the tourists did not venture. Again, going with local “guides” had been a great move.
One more example came at the Kbal Spean waterfall—a great daytrip out of Siem Reap, featuring a riverbed with hundreds of carvings of unknown vintage, but possibly dating back to the 11th or 12th centuries. The carvings are incredible, but some are hard to locate. The guide’s nominal fee was easily justified by his pointing out some of the more out-of-the-way carvings, and also by his having taken some family photos for us (we sometimes have a hard time getting photos of all three of us).
3. Buy Ancient Angkor and Learn Something About the Temples: I recommend buying the Ancient Angkor book, widely sold at almost all of the temples, as soon as you get the chance. With haggling, the price falls to six or seven dollars. It provides much greater depth of information, historical and architectural, than do any of the standard backpacker guides, such as Lonely Planet. I spent a couple of hours with it and got much more out of temple viewing from that point on. It’s fun being able to identify the mythological characters and creatures that appear again and again—oh, that multi-headed snake? That’s a naga. Those dancing women? They’re apsaras, etc, etc.
4. Time Your Visit to Avoid the Crowds: As magical as most of the temples are, they are distinctly less so when descended upon by a busload or two of tourists. Among other reasons that it’s better to go when fewer people are around is for the photo opportunities—it’s hard to shoot that famous apsara statue (or the like) when two topless Australian guys are planking in front of it (unless of course you want planking topless Australian guys in your apsara photo).
We were somewhat handicapped by Jude’s napping schedule, which basically takes 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. off the table (the temples close at 5:30 p.m., anyway). The best luck we had was early morning, say 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., after which people start showing up in droves at the popular temples.
One morning we dragged ourselves out of bed at 4:15 a.m. to watch the sun rise over the north reflecting pool in front of Angkor Wat. It was somewhat of a letdown, as clouds covered up the sun for the most part, and hundreds of people crowded around the pool, all hoping to see the famous wat’s reflection. (Jostling for space with strangers in the mud is tough at that hour.) Still, the experience was absolutely worthwhile, as after the sunrise, most people left to go have breakfast, and we had Angkor Wat largely to ourselves for two or so glorious hours. (We had brought a picnic breakfast, which we quickly devoured to get back to sight-seeing.) By the time we left at 9:30 a.m., Angkor Wat was mobbed.
Another one of our favorite temples was Ta Prohm, which like Beng Mealea, is largely unrestored, though more so than BM. Ta Prohm is hugely popular though (for one reason, it’s right next to Angkor Wat), possessing a truly enchanting quality, complete with enormous silk-cotton trees (which, to me, look like brontosauruses) and stunning design. Another of the reasons for its popularity is that it features heavily in Tomb Raider. (I would make even more fun of that movie, but we were heartened to see that Angelina Jolie had opened a beautiful school just outside of Siem Reap.)
We went to Ta Prohm directly from Angkor Wat, at 9:45 a.m. or so, and several tour groups had already taken the place over. It was a bummer, but we were still glad to have seen it, its beauty absolutely breathtaking. Because I liked it so much, I decided to go back the next day, at 7 a.m., when Bliss and Jude were still in bed, and was very happy to have had the chance to see it again, sans-tour groups.
5. Don’t Lose Your Cool: We learned this very important lesson from a visiting Asian tourist. We hiked up the famous Phnom Bakheng (phnom means hill) to take in the sunset with Matt on one of our first nights (Xuân Mai had gone home). After waiting in a long line to get to summit (cordoned off to prevent overcrowding), and getting very close to the front, we were dismayed when the guards shut up shop, and decided not to let anyone else in.
While we were irritated, one man in his early thirties was apoplectic. He cursed and shouted at the guards; his face turning red, he started to insult Cambodia, and said he would tell all of his friends to stay away. The guards just stood there, poker faced, while this guy blew his top. Finally, and after 10 minutes (legitimately: 10 minutes) of yelling, he descended the hill with his girlfriend, defeated. After he was out of sight, the guards immediately let everyone else who had been waiting in line in. Some of the people who entered with us at that point were in the angry guy’s tour group (we think), so word would have got back to him. Ouch.
In all seriousness, this lesson extends to many features of a temple visit. At a temple’s entrance, throngs of vendors and street children typically hang out trying to sell you things (mostly cold drinks, Ancient Angkor, scarves, and these little wooden flutes). Some of the people are nice, but others are pushy and rude. There’s no point getting irritated (some tourists we saw did); if you do, you’re going to be annoyed a lot, because people trying to sell you things are everywhere.
Similarly, some other tourists are rude, loud, or insensitive when it comes to getting in the way of a photo you want to take—say, for instance, your kid is finally smiling and the light is hitting that wall just right, but a tour group has decided suddenly to stop in front of you to cover, in detail, the Khmers’ 12th-century transition from Hinduism to Buddhism and all of its physical ramifications on the temple you are looking at. Again, there’s no reason to get mad, because it’s all part and parcel of the experience.
ALL PICTURES FROM CAMBODIA: here
Ducking low-hanging baskets and dodging rushing men pushing carts overflowing with wholesale goods, a multitude of smells and stenches came at us from every direction; merchants barked sale orders over SIM-card fuelled cellphones; and the bright colors of a wide array of products for sale leaped out from their dimly-lit stalls.
We were in Binh Tay Market, the largest market in Ho Chi Minh City (“HCMC”). It’s a busy time of year at the market, but we put Jude in the backpack and braved the crowds to take a look. Binh Tay is in the heart of the city’s Chinatown, known as Cholon, literally meaning: “big markets,” a huge commercial center for the Vietnamese and the Chinese (of which there are roughly half a million) in HCMC.
Binh Tay Market sells mainly wholesale goods, and contains approximately 1,800 stalls. Each stall is fairly specialized – some sold only doormats (mostly prickly and plastic). Others sell exclusively pottery, or shoes, or pickled vegetables, or plastic-y fabric (like the kind picnic tablecloths are made of), in all different designs.
One stall was selling dried seahorses (apparently used for “energy drinks”) along with other varieties of dried fish. Peeled water chestnuts sat out on large blocks of ice, next to crates of root vegetables, dried mushrooms and dried beans. One stall specialized in pottery for ancestor veneration. With this collection of goods for sale, there were unsurprisingly not many tourists around (we saw only one inside). Most of the market was indoors, and very crowded.
There are other specialized markets and clusters of shops just outside the perimeter of Binh Tay, which we didn’t have the chance to visit on this trip, including those for traditional medicine (pharmacies), cloth (textiles), and the rice and bean market. The chicken and duck market moved further afield as an Avian Bird Flu precautionary measure.
Navigating through the market provided people watching at its best. Without being too intrusive, I took a few pictures:
Christmas is big in Vietnam.
Religion doesn’t play a major role. The country’s main religion is Buddhism (there is a Catholic minority of 8-10%, a legacy of the French colonial period), but Vietnam has embraced the commercial aspect of the holiday with a zeal beyond anything either of us has ever seen in the West.
Enthusiastic displays of Christmas spirit are everywhere—think large plastic snowmen, lit from the inside; fake snow blowers; and “sexy santas” hanging out in department stores. In a major victory for Fox News, we saw only one “Happy Holidays” sign, which adorned a large international chain hotel, the Intercontinental. Every store, restaurant and hotel rocks to up-tempo Christmas carols.
The first hint of the Vietnamese obsession with Christmas that we saw came on the Sunday after Thanksgiving when, in true American commercial spirit, our hotel in Hanoi put up a huge fake tree, lots of fake presents, and enough tinsel to make Liberace blush. (One example of the secular nature of the Vietnamese conception of Christmas is that all of the trees we saw were topped with a star and not an angel—a star being perfect for Vietnam, as the emblem of the country’s flag, and a nod to its communist past.) The hotel employees, we think, were contractually obligated to wish us a merry Christmas every time they saw us from when the tree went up until we checked out. We would say that Ho Chi Minh is turning in his grave, but we saw his grave, and he was at a standstill.
Although the French religious influence in Vietnamese is waning, we are glad to report that the French culinary imprint is alive and well. Good quality baguettes are widely available, and red wine is more popular and more affordable than anywhere else we have been so far in Asia. Vietnamese-made wine, produced in Dalat, is increasingly popular, and a bottle of the Dalat vintage goes for about half the price of a French one. All of our hotel breakfasts contained a selection of cheeses and pate, not to mention delicious and exquisitely presented pastries.
Vietnamese coffee is also a major positive. Two of our guides took us to their local favorite cafes, one in Hanoi and one in Dalat. The coffee we enjoyed in both places was extremely strong, rich, and slightly salty, in a pleasing way (each cup costing well under a dollar). The country’s best coffee, we understand, comes from beans extracted from weasel dung. The theory goes that the weasels identify the choicest beans and that the enzymes from their digestive systems improve the flavor. We reserve judgment, as we did not have the opportunity to sample any on this visit (that coffee costs $6,600.00 per pound!).
After Hanoi, we flew into Hue (pronounced alternatively “way” and “hoo-ay” by various people we met), the ancient capital. Hue marked the beginning of a relatively cold and rainy stretch of our trip that lasted for the better part of a week, until we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (“HCMC”), located in the country’s south (monsoon season lasted an unusually long time this year). Hue, and its environs, hosts some fairly impressive tombs of the Vietnamese emperors who reigned over the country before the Communist takeover in the mid-20th Century.
Our favorite was the tomb of Khai Dinh, who was the country’s penultimate emperor, a tiny man, and flamboyantly gay. Bao Dai, his “son”—we heard from different people that Bao Dai’s true father was either one of Khai Dinh’s servants or one of Khai’s brothers—was the country’s last emperor. Bao Dai was a massive man (making the claim that he was Khai Dinh’s son a running joke among the Vietnamese). Bao Dai’s influence was largely muted by the French, and at the first sign of trouble with the communist insurgents, he absconded to France where he spent the rest of his life with his many concubines, playing golf and bridge and sailing his yacht.
The best meals we had in Hue were at Nina’s Cafe—we liked it so much that we went twice. Nina is a twenty-year-old, tiny and very perky Vietnamese woman who told us she had opened the restaurant when she was seventeen. How a seventeen-year-old had the wherewithal and means to open a restaurant we can’t be certain (her parents were around, doing paperwork and preparing food, and the smart money is on their having decided to make their daughter the face of the business). What we can be certain of was the quality of the food—delicious and fresh vegetables like morning glory (water spinach) sautéed with copious amount of garlic and rice-paper pancakes with shrimp and beansprouts, a regional specialty. Jude especially enjoyed the banana pancakes and one very tasty mango shake.
The restaurant itself is semi-exposed to the adjacent alleyway. Neighbors and neighborhood animals seem to come and go at their leisure. The restaurant is decorated the way you would expect a restaurant opened by a teenage girl to be decorated—lots of pinks and hearts, and many pictures of her with friends making peace signs.
From Hue we drove south with our guide, Anh, to Hoi An, his hometown. (Anh is a great guide with a thick Australian accent, gleaned from the mainly Australian tourists he shows around. He also has a large repertoire of American idioms and slang, picked up from American tourists of different generations, which he was eager to use on us. Before taking our photo, he would say, “OK, guys, time for a Kodak moment.”)
Hoi An is a charming old city, which had its heyday in the 16th and 17th Centuries, when it was a massive trading port for Japanese and European merchants. Nowadays, the entire Old City (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is full of little streets, old merchant homes, and lots of lanterns. The Thu Bon River runs through the heart of town, traversed by a historical Japanese covered bridge. We enjoyed our time there, eating cheap street food, including a number of bahn mi sandwiches (fantastic!), and socializing with the very outgoing locals.
One highlight was eating dinner at Ahn’s house. Anh’s son, Phuc (introduced to us as Peter), is Jude’s age, and the two of them played nicely together, while we scarfed down some seriously good local cuisine prepared by Anh’s mother-in-law.
On the drive to Hoi An, we stopped briefly in Danang, a beach resort, which was a major R&R spot for GI’s during the War. They hung out on China Beach (now named “R&R Beach,” as, according to Anh, the Vietnamese are adverse to all things Chinese—2,000 years of off-and-on war will do that to a society). Danang is littered with golf courses and very exclusive-looking resorts. Anh told us that the condo prices would make our heads spin. More interesting was the Cham Museum, containing an impressive collection of Cham statues and pottery (the Cham style reflects elements of Buddhism and Hinduism; there were a lot of Ganeshes and a lot of Buddhas as well).
It was at the Cham Museum, though, that I noticed something wrong with my right lower eyelid; it had swollen up to the size of a ping-pong ball (not really, but it was huge and pretty gross). Anh’s diagnosis? “I think it was the squid you ate last night. I don’t think you need to see a doctor.” Hmm. I needed a second opinion. I told the receptionist at our hotel in Hoi An that I wanted to see a doctor. Although it was a Saturday, she had a doctor from the local hospital on the phone with me in under a minute. I told him what was going on, and within about 15 minutes he had showed up at our hotel room with one of those old-school black doctors’ bags. He took a look, and prescribed some eye drops, an anti-inflammatory, and a penicillin-based antibiotic, which he pulled out of his bag and gave to me on the spot. He told me that the infection had been caused by the pollution in Vietnam, and cautioned me to wear sunglasses in the future. The total cost was a fraction of what my co-pay would have been at home, and the entire cost should be covered by our travel insurance in any event. The medicine worked and the infection went down, though it took several days. The experience was much cheaper, quicker, and more efficient than any doctor’s visit I have ever had in the US.
Next up was Dalat. Dalat was first established by the French in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, designed as a health resort/retreat. The French picked the location for its sweeping mountain views and cool year-round climate. Today, like a Swiss resort town, Dalat is home to wide boulevards and a number of attractive chalets, making it a one-of-a-kind cultural mélange. It is a popular honeymoon destination for Vietnamese couples (we saw many of them), and Ahn took his there. We did not spend long in Dalat, but two of our favorite sights were the Crazy House (designed by a female Vietnamese architect, who still lives there, and has obviously taken in a lot of Gaudi) and Bao Dai’s summer palace—it is clear that this man knew how to live it up.
Our final stop in Vietnam was HCMC. The first word that comes to mind to describe the city formerly known as Saigon is “bustle.” This is a boomtown and people are on the move in a way that is jarring to the senses of travelers, like us, arriving from sleepy Dalat. The roar of a million mopeds accompanies you wherever you go. (For some reason, everyone wears helmets, unlike in some other parts of the country; we didn’t have a chance to talk to anyone about why this is, but were glad to see this emphasis on safety.)
HCMC is definitely a much more modern city than Hanoi. There are many more Western chains, bright lights, cafes, restaurants, people wearing suits, and construction cranes. Comparisons to Hong Kong would not be off the mark. And much as we enjoyed Hong Kong, we enjoyed HCMC as well; there is something charming about these modern gleaming Asian financial capitals. The tropical heat was a welcome relief after the mountain chill of Dalat. The city is also more walkable than most others we encountered in Vietnam, owing largely to the fact that people use sidewalks for walking (so sidewalks are not always occupied by parked mopeds and restaurant seating), and to the fact that people obey traffic lights.
One of our favorite experiences in HCMC was visiting the War Remnants Museum. Like the war museum in Hanoi, there are many vehicles on display on the grounds. Unlike the museum in Hanoi, the vehicles’ doors in the War Remnants Museum are bolted shut, meaning no climbing aboard by two-year-olds. It was still a great museum. Some of the displays, such as an exhibit on the effects of Agent Orange on the Vietnamese people, were far too graphic to show Jude, and we had to skip them.
Another great sight was the Reunification Palace. This palace played home to the South Vietnamese presidents during the War, which came to a dramatic conclusion on April 30, 1975 when communist tanks came crashing through the front gate. Somewhat anticlimactically, the first tank ran out of fuel while driving from the gate to the palace’s front door, but a second tank came along and finished the job (replicas of both tanks are on display on the grounds; nobody knows where the original tanks are).
ALL PICTURES FROM HANOI & HALONG BAY, VIETNAM: here
ALL PICTURES FROM HUE, DANANG & HOI AN, VIETNAM: here
ALL PICTURES FROM DALAT & HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM: here
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One of the many pleasures of Hanoi is waking up at 5 a.m., walking (or running) to Hoan Kiem Lake, and seeing the city come alive—with hundreds of people of all ages, but more in the 60-80 year-old range, exercising together. (The average age seems to drop later in the morning, with more people in their 20s and 30s exercising by 6:30 or so.) Seeing so many people come together before dawn to move around and stay healthy and limber is an incredible and inspiring sight.
Patrick and I each picked a morning to get up early (way before Jude gets up) and witness firsthand—what must be— the world’s largest collective lakeside workout session. On my morning, I jumped out of bed at 5 a.m., threw on workout clothes, and walked past the hotel employees sleeping in the lobby and into the still-dark Hanoi street.
Our hotel was a couple of blocks from the lake, and other exercisers were also making their way over to the lake in the near pitch black. (Best part of walking around at that hour? The traffic hasn’t yet become too insane and it’s possible to cross the street without feeling as if you are putting your life on the line. More on the traffic below.)
Arriving at the lake, it was startling to see so many people up and active at that hour. I walked around the lake twice, the first time in the dark with only the light of colorful lanterns reflecting on the water and a few lit buildings in the distance.
Hundreds of people of all ages were performing calisthenics, aerobics, running, and simple stretching. Barbells and free weights appeared out of seemingly nowhere (and later disappeared just as fast after sunrise), and people used them, sitting on park benches, in groups and alone.
I heard the first large-scale aerobics class before I saw it. Loud upbeat techno blared as a workout instructor barked instructions through a megaphone. Getting closer I saw that the class (of mostly women) took up a park square across the street from the lake, and even more people who could not fit in the square were participating across the street, next to the lake.
I was also struck by the lack of self-consciousness of all of the exercisers that I saw. In the aerobics classes, elderly woman thrust their hips rhythmically to the techno, seemingly not caring who saw and what they thought. More than that, people with all different levels of fitness were out exercising, from the very buff to the chubby, and they were doing it in whatever clothes they felt like (or maybe had access to), Western-style gym outfits in some cases, but more often loose-fitting casual pants and button-up shirts.
It turns out, though, that walking for exercise in Hanoi is a lot more fun that walking for transportation. Hanoi is a city of mopeds, and the traffic comes fast and furious. There are traffic lights, but they generally do not slow traffic enough that you can get across without dodging mopeds. As a friend described, it’s a “big free for all.” There must be a body of literature about crossing the street in Hanoi—it is a known danger. The consensus strategy is to walk slowly with no sudden movements; give moped drivers time to see and go around you; once you commit and are in the middle of the road, do not turn back; the moped traffic will never let up so do not bother waiting for a break—you’ll be waiting all day; and never walk in front of a bus or car.
My strategy for extra-crowded streets was to wait for a Vietnamese person to show up, and walk across the street next to them. (When I saw a woman carrying a massive amount of tall plywood trying to cross the street, I jumped at the opportunity to walk next to her—That’s my woman! No one will want to hit her!) A tip for parents—no strollers—a backpack is an absolute must if you plan to leave your hotel room.
On a sad note, en route to Halong Bay, we drove by a young woman dead on the side of the highway, who had been riding her moped in fast traffic. She had just been hit and had not yet been cleared off the road. The haunting image stuck with us, and has colored the way we view the risky driving we see so often in the developing world. It is hard not to wince when you see a toddler, Jude’s age, standing up unprotected on a moped between two parents, while speedy drivers whiz around him talking on cellphones. Several people have also told us that drunk driving is a problem in Vietnam. Large red banners adorn roadsides, admonishing drivers to drink juice, not alcohol. (Interesting aside, other tourists we met in Halong Bay also saw the dead moped rider, slightly after we had; their tour guide threw several bills out of the car window, and the tourists saw a pile of cash by the side of the road. This mirrors the Lao funeral we saw in Ban Xang Hai. Men and women played cards for money at different tables. The winners of both sexes’ games split their takes with the family of the deceased.)
Our guide in Hue and Hoi An told us that, on average, over 30 people a day die in motorbike/moped accidents in Vietnam. Helmets are required, but often look more like plastic baseball hats than the sturdy type required at home. Patrick checked some helmets out for sale in Hue, and the average price was just $1.70.
On our first morning in Hanoi, we headed to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum—the leader’s final resting place. We learned in Moscow while visiting Lenin’s Mausoleum that two-year-olds and communist icons’ mausoleums do not mix. Since the Vietnamese military guards looking over Ho Chi Minh’s body carry guns, and silence is absolutely mandatory, we took no chances. Patrick went in to see Ho Chi Minh’s preserved body, and Jude and I played in the square outside. Patrick reports that the experience was almost identical in layout and feel to that of visiting Lenin. (According to our guide, Ho Chi Minh is shipped to Russia every year for two months for preservation maintenance.)
Together we visited the place where Ho Chi Minh lived for many years, a basic house on stilts. (He did not have ostentatious taste and lived simply.) Here our guide pointed out to us a group of North Vietnamese Army veterans from the countryside, who, according to our guide, are provided a government-paid trip to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, available to veterans a few times a year.
The veterans took a special interest in Jude. When several of them got their hands on him and Jude appeared terrified, our guide joked that Jude had been captured by the enemy. Patrick had just said this to me moments before. What a difference 35 years can make, on both sides, in the healing process.
Although the Vietnam War weighs heavy on the American psyche, Vietnamese appear to consider America just another in a long line of intruders. Of course there were the French, who were here for nearly 100 years, and many others before them including the Chinese. People we met in Hanoi referred to the Vietnam War as the “American War.” (Now we are in Central Vietnam, scene of heavy fighting during the War, and our guide refers to the Vietnam War as the “Civil War.”)
The War Museum in Hanoi was of special interest, and contained a lot of American military vehicles. Most were captured during or at the end of the Vietnam War, and appear to look exactly as they did when they were last used. Jude enjoyed playing in an American CH-47 Chinook Helicopter which had been deployed to South Vietnam in 1965, and pretended to take it out for a spin. When I entered the cockpit I noticed a bullet hole in the cracked windshield—a frightening reminder of the horrors of war.
Other vehicles such as American tanks were on display on the museum’s ground, and open for anyone to climb on or inspect in detail without supervision. In addition there were American bombs, including those designed to kill Vietcong on the Ho Chi Minh Trail; a Vietnamese torpedo launcher used in the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964; a Soviet-built missile launcher which shot down a US B-52 bomber over Hanoi in 1972; and many other relics. There was also an interpretive sculpture of sorts on display: an amalgamation of several French and US aircrafts shot down by Vietnamese anti-aircraft gunmen. Exploring these pieces (the intact and destroyed) behind the museum, primarily by ourselves, in what felt like someone’s back garden, was a bit surreal—but very interesting.
Later in the day we visited the “Hanoi Hilton” (real name: Hỏa Lò Prison) where John McCain was a POW, and saw the flight-suit, shoes, and other items, including parachute, he had on him when he was captured in October 1967.
We happened to be in Hanoi for Thanksgiving, and wondered what we would do to celebrate. With a little research, we ended up at Don’s—a great restaurant overlooking West Lake. Don had turkeys sent to Vietnam from his native Canada, and prepared a full, traditional American Thanksgiving meal for all ex-pats and visitors who joined him. When we arrived, there was a room full of American children playing with toys and eating pizza. Jude jumped into the fun, and Patrick and I headed upstairs to the roof for turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes and other familiar dishes. It was a delicious meal. I will never forget eating a traditional Thanksgiving dinner in a t-shirt on a roof deck in Hanoi.
If you come to Hanoi with a child, or even without a child, the “Water Puppets” are a must. This tradition dates back to the 11th century, when villagers would use this form of puppetry to entertain themselves when the rice fields were flooded. The Water Puppets were beautiful and made of lacquered wood. They rose out of the watery stage, or came in from the side, then danced, played, worked, and performed feats such a jumping through a ring of (real) fire, all above the water (which was at the level of the stage). The puppets were manipulated by bamboo poles and performed to the backdrop of live Vietnamese music called chèo, which sounds like a hybrid of folk music and opera. We thought the 45-minute show was great—but Jude was an even bigger fan, carrying around the Water Puppets brochure like a toy for days afterwards.
After Hanoi, we headed to Halong Bay City to take an overnight boat tour around the famous karsts. Halong Bay is in the Northeast part of Vietnam, in the Gulf of Tonkin and South China Sea. Several thousand large limestone karsts stick out of the beautiful blue-green waters. It is a special place, and a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. We hiked to and through a cave on an island, and Patrick jumped in a kayak and paddled around karsts at sunset while Jude and I played in the sand. The next morning, we were rowed in a small boat through a “floating village” by a very strong local with a winning grin who appeared to be in his 70s.
After Halong Bay, we returned to Hanoi, and had another great meal at a place recommended by our Brooklyn foodie good friend, Audrey. It was a small hole-in-the-wall-type place, with wooden stools and the kitchen outside, just off the sidewalk. There is no menu—you just sit, and point to the drink you want from the refrigerator (if you don’t speak Vietnamese). They make only one item, which gets plopped down in front of you on arrival: a thin pancake/crepe/dumpling, made with rice flour and a little bit of edible alabaster, and is called banh cuon. Inside is typically minced pork, fried onion, and mushrooms. On top is more fried onion, shredded shrimp, and fragrant cilantro. You dip it in a sweet-and-sour dipping sauce which has a bit of kick.
The other diners (except friends from our Halong Bay boat tour) were all Vietnamese, always a good sign, and the banh cuon was fantastic. While in Vietnam we learned that this particular place was visited by Anthony Bourdain on one of his visits to Hanoi for his show No Reservations, yet there was no mention of it anywhere in the restaurant. Banh cuon is a specialty of Hanoi, and for $2.50, you can’t go wrong—yummy!!
A few notes:
If you visit Halong Bay: We took the largest boat from a well-respected company (good safety record, environmental footprint, etc.), thinking it would be best for Jude to have more room to move around. I recommend taking the largest boat possible for anyone else making this trip with a child. (There were 19 people and 11 cabins on our boat.) We also loved the opportunity to meet a lot of people. Others may prefer a smaller boat for a more intimate experience.
A note on spelling: I have used the most common Western spelling of Vietnamese place names. In Vietnamese, which uses the Roman alphabet (with accents), Hanoi is actually, “Hà Nội,” Halong Bay is actually “Ha Long (Bay),” and Vietnam is actually “Việt Nam.”
ALL PICTURES FROM HANOI AND HALONG BAY, VIETNAM: here
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On one of our first days in LP, Bliss and I happened to comment to each other that we had not made any friends we planned on keeping in touch with on this trip, nor had we even added anyone to our Facebook friends’ lists yet. After a couple of days in LP, that all changed. We met lots of friends, during our activities, eating breakfast at the hotel, and simply hanging out around town. It is easy to meet people when everyone is smiling and excited about the country they are exploring.
One couple we met towards the beginning of our stay, Austrian-Australians (that must get confusing), proved to be extremely valuable contacts. We met them at breakfast, and the woman was an instant hit with Jude. Despite her energetic play with Jude, she told us that she was suffering from a bad head cold. We decided to give her the last of our dissolvable vitamin-C tablets to help her out. She was very thankful, and we didn’t think much more about them, as they checked out of our hotel and moved to another guesthouse down the street (because they decided to extend their stay in LP).
Later, when Bliss took her cooking class, I looked after Jude for the day.
We spent the morning walking around town, checking out little temples and running some errands. Something felt wrong as we left the café where we had had our lunch. Then it hit me: where was Mickey Mouse? (Followers of our blog will know that we’ve had some problems keeping hold of Jude’s stuffed animals already during this trip.) Bliss is going to be really ticked; Jude is going to be inconsolable, once he notices; and I’m not even going to be able to blog about this—it’s too embarrassing. These were the thoughts that were going through my head as I retraced all of our steps in an unsuccessful effort to locate Mickey.
Despairing, I hardly thought twice about it when I ran into the Austrian-Australian couple, who could sense my panic (very out of place in laidback LP). I hurriedly told them Mickey was MIA, and was practically walking away when the woman thanked me again for the dissolvable vitamin-C tablets. Yeah yeah, I thought, I need to go find Mickey.
Despite walking all over town and asking everyone I saw (discretely, so Jude wouldn’t hear), I couldn’t find Mickey. By the time I got back to the hotel, Jude had noticed, and Bliss was back from her class. I came clean with everyone. We told Jude that Mickey was on a date with Minnie, and that he would be back soon (we were banking that Disney’s popularity in Asia would mean that we could find a replacement, and soon).
While Jude napped (it took some time for him to go down because he was missing his friend; I sung about 50 rounds of “Happy Birthday,” his current favorite), I hopped a tuk-tuk and made a beeline for the nearest toy store. No Mickey. The best I could do was Winnie the Pooh, a relative unknown to Jude. Returning to the hotel with Jude still asleep, I downloaded the new Winnie the Pooh movie—my thought was to build up excitement about the character with the movie before presenting the new friend.
Then: a major stroke of luck. As we were loading up to go out to dinner, we heard a knock on the door. The Austrian-Australians! They had Mickey! Crisis averted! They spotted him being held by a waiter at a restaurant where Jude and I had not been. Obviously, Jude had thrown him out of his stroller (as is his wont, from time to time) and I had not noticed. Hey, being a single parent (even temporarily) is hard work.
After Bliss’ fun day of cooking school, I did a combination biking/kayaking trip to Tat Se Waterfall (actually several waterfalls in the middle of a jungle that all fall into turquoise pools of water). This basically consisted of: a two-hour bike ride to the falls; tasty buffalo soup for lunch; zip-lining for an hour or so through the jungle, with some extremely intrepid Lao guides; and then kayaking back to LP, downstream on the Nam Khan. A memorable day, rounded off with some great Lao food back in LP that night (Tamarind Restaurant’s Friday Night Lao Celebration Feast).
I told Bliss about Tat Se, and she wanted to see it for herself, so on our last day in LP, we got a babysitter (a woman who worked at the hotel and who had taken a special interest in Jude) and went for it. Both of us zip-lined, and then I had the unforgettable experience of “elephant bathing” (as the $10 experience was advertised on a chalkboard, with no additional explanation).
What this meant in practice was climbing on top of an elephant’s neck from on top of a platform about six feet off the ground. I wasn’t given any instruction, overview of what was going to happen, or an English-speaking elephant minder, for that matter. I just got on, and the elephant started to go. He wasn’t going where the minder wanted, so he got yelled at, and eventually whacked with a leather strap with a metal spike at the end. (Good thing he was thick skinned, figuratively and literally.)
Where he was supposed to go was into the pool of water to bathe with me on his back. Where he wanted to go was over to a pagoda where a Lao school trip was enjoying lunch (along with Beer Lao; my high school wasn’t nearly that cool). He managed to get his trunk into the pagoda and started poking around for food while the school girls screamed. A teacher yelled at the elephant, and that combined with the minder’s strap was enough to convince him finally to make his way over to the pool.
The elephant walked in and stood around for a moment. This evidently wasn’t what the minder wanted him to do, because he kept up his yelling at the elephant, and threatened another lashing. After a little while, the elephant lowered himself into the water. This momentarily terrified me. I didn’t know how deep the water was, so I didn’t know whether I would be fully submerged along with the elephant. I had visions of jumping off the elephant’s back underwater, and swimming around blindly trying to avoid being trampled, strangled by his trunk, or at the very least, bumping into some of the coconut-sized turds that were floating in the water next to us. Fortunately, the water was the exact right depth for him to get fully under while I remained largely above the surface. Eventually, I was able to relax and enjoy the experience at least a little bit. I’m glad to have done it, but would not jump at the opportunity to do it again, especially after seeing the questionable handling of the elephant.
We would be remiss not to mention some of the recent history involving Laos, impossible not to think of when visiting the country. Laos is the most bombed country per capita in the history of the world. (Vietnam is the most bombed country. The US, of course, has the dubious distinction of having been responsible for setting both of these records.) During the course of the US’s “secret war” with Laos, we dropped more bombs on it than were dropped on all of Europe during WWII.
With these facts as background, the experience of visiting Laos as an American is the polar opposite of visiting Berlin as an American, and the former involves a lot of crow eating. Seeing the remnants of the Third Reich in Berlin, patriotism abounds. Hitler’s Germany set out to conquer the free world and perpetrated the holocaust; we stood up to the menace, achieved victory, and did ourselves proud.
Visiting Laos? This tiny landlocked developing nation with the sweetest and most good natured people in the world? We bombed them into oblivion in what—certainly with the benefit of historical hindsight—appears to have been an ill-advised and wholly unnecessary war.
Although many of the bombs remain unexploded and the clean-up efforts are ongoing, Laos appeared to have done a remarkably good job of moving on. We did not visit any of the areas most affected by US bombing (such as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, or the Plain of Jars). However, we never met anyone who outwardly bore any grudge against Americans. On the contrary, everyone welcomed us with open arms and seemed genuinely curious about the US.
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If there is a more photogenic city in the world than Luang Prabang, Laos, I’d like to see it.
I’ll be the first to admit that I had never heard of Luang Prabang (“LP”) when we started planning this trip. Looking at photos online and in guidebooks, I was struck by what I saw—saffron-robed monks strolling by crumbling French colonial buildings and majestic temples and monasteries, palm trees swaying in the breeze.
Seeing the place in person, I was duly impressed. Tucked away in a green, semi-tropical valley, LP hugs the banks of the Khan and Mekong Rivers, and is within striking distance of several dramatic waterfalls. LP is Laos’s ancient capital and doesn’t look as if it has changed much in the last several hundred years, being pleasantly devoid of chain restaurants and neon lights—thank Laos’s communist government and the city’s UNESCO World Heritage Site status for keeping out the gaudiness.
There is a slow pace of life here. LP is almost unnervingly quiet; no trucks or buses pass through downtown, another condition of UNESCO World Heritage Status. Things get off to an early start at 6 a.m. when the monks from the various monasteries spill out into the streets to collect alms (sticky rice mostly) under the watchful eyes of a number of locals and just about every tourist in town. Bedtime, for the whole city, is early—there is an 11 p.m. curfew (strictly enforced). Visitors hoping for nightlife will be sorely disappointed; for us, traveling with Jude, it was perfect.
Even the weather cooperates in giving this place its fairy-tale charm (at least in November, when we were there). Each day starts with an atmospheric valley fog. Then, at 10 or 11 a.m., the fog lifts and gives way to pleasant sunshine, with highs generally reaching the mid to low 80s. When the sun starts to set, at 6ish, it hangs around like a giant pink orb over the Mekong for a little while, before descending in full and turning the sky into a smorgasbord of oranges and pinks.
One big highlight of any trip to Laos is the people themselves. Walking around town, Luang Prabangers (OK, that’s probably not a real word) would call us into their homes or shops to talk to us. “Where are you from?” was almost always the first question. “How you like Lao?” and: “How many days you stay here?” would usually follow.
One night, coming back to the hotel from dinner, several members of the staff who were drinking in the courtyard called me over to share a fried duck and some Beer Lao with them (they drink it with ice!). I ended up spending over an hour with them, learning about their lives and country.
It was fascinating. The receptionist’s boyfriend, who was talking with us, but spoke limited English (better than my Lao; I could only say “hi,” thank you,” and had just learned “cheers”), was a former disciple monk, a “novice” as the Laos call them. (Many Lao men are monks at one time or another in their lives. Most novices spend several years in a monastery, before moving on and doing something else. The night watchman at the hotel told me that he had been a novice for all of three days, which was supposedly enough for his family to “earn merit.” He had also been in the army for two weeks. The receptionist told me that this guy had “commitment issues.” I was beginning to see that.)
Speaking about his three years as a novice, the receptionist’s boyfriend told me that he had had to give up alcohol and touching women; he explained that novices were forbidden from talking with women at all beyond answering basic questions, lest any lascivious intent be mistakenly imputed (maybe not in those exact words). He also told me that he was only allowed to eat between dawn and noon. Like all novices, he had had to shave his head and eyebrows, but now sported a Justin-Bieber fringe.
While walking by our hotel collecting his alms, he had noticed the receptionist and thought her pretty. Once he left the brotherhood, he made his move. He went to see her in her village and asked her to go to a waterfall with him. For her part, she claims not to have noticed him (“there are like 250 novices; they all look the same”). She was also frustrated by his lack of life skills—“he doesn’t know how to ride a moped and I have to show him everything.” Apparently, his spiritual development had come at a cost.
I asked every former novice I met about the alms procession—were they annoyed by all of the tourists? Did they feel like animals in a zoo? The answers varied. They uniformly found flash photography irritating. One mentioned that Chinese and Japanese tourists were by far the worst, going as far as getting in the monks’ way, asking them to stop for photos, and generally being obtrusive. Another mentioned that Western women often were not sufficiently standoffish, and sometimes even touched the monks, which made them feel uncomfortable. (I asked the same former novice [now a mountain-biking guide] if bringing the sometimes loquacious Jude to the deadly-silent alms procession would be a problem. No, he said. Little boys are OK, but little girls are not; novices don’t appreciate having them around as they sometimes touch their robes. When we did bring Jude, on our last day, he was perfectly behaved. He watched us hand out sticky rice, and one of the novices threw him a Halls cough drop. We don’t know why.)
One guest at our hotel, a late-middle-aged American woman, receives the prize for most inappropriate monk-related behavior. Climbing Phousi Hill (the large hill in the middle of town, which houses an impressive temple and several monasteries) on one of our first days in LP, we saw this woman asking a monk for directions. She seemed to be standing very close to him, we thought, and while they talked, she touched his arm several times (we tried not to stare, but it was hard to resist looking at the first conversation we had seen between a monk and a Westerner).
When we returned to our hotel, Bliss was in the lobby using the Internet when the woman returned, the monk following just behind. The woman thanked him profusely for showing her back, then asked the hotel staff if she could bring the monk up “to talk” in her room. The monk did not say anything himself, remaining impassive (he never showed any interest from what we could tell, and seemed fairly confused by what was going on). “I think the garden is better,” the staff member politely replied. (Not only are monks prohibited from touching women, but a Lao law, on display in the hotel, prohibits foreigners from entertaining Lao members of the opposite sex in their hotel rooms.) The woman nodded in agreement, and proceeded to the garden with the monk. After they left, several moments of awkward silence followed. Subsequently, the staff exchanged a couple of words in Lao, and burst out laughing, seemingly unsure of how to react to the awkward interaction they had just witnessed.
Walking around the beautiful palm tree-lined streets of LP, or sitting in one of the French-owned bakeries, enjoying a baguette or cup of coffee, it is easy to forget how desperately poor this country is. But the numbers don’t lie. The Lao male life expectancy is 59 (it’s 63 for women); the average annual income is $2,500.
The poverty is of course there for all to see, but it’s not the constant that it is India, where the tourist is hard pressed to forget about it, even for an instant. Vendors don’t harass or harangue like in other poor countries, and instead politely ask for your business. (It was highly effective. I kept buying little trinkets and odds and ends. Jude loved them, and the cost was next to nothing.)
One afternoon when I went kayaking and biking, Bliss took on Jude by herself as a thank you for my doing the same during her cooking class. The two of them paid a visit to Big Brother Mouse, a Luang Prabang charity, to help interested locals practice their English. It was a rewarding experience for all involved, even if Jude isn’t yet the best teacher out there. We also donated Jude’s Mrs. Potato Head doll (a present from his cousin Zoe) to a local orphanage. Again, the people in LP are so nice, it’s almost impossible not to want to help them in some way.
Medical care in Laos is, unsurprisingly, fairly dire. As one travel brochure for Laos (given to us by some hotel guests we met from Brooklyn) provided, “Medical facilities and services in Laos are limited and do not meet Western standards.” Or, as our hotel owner, an Australian, succinctly put it, “self-medicate or fly to Bangkok.” He suggested that in the event we ran into any problems that we just go to a pharmacy and pick up any prescription drugs we felt we needed—they are sold without question or judgment to all takers.
Fortunately, we did not run into any health problems—not even any stomach ones. (As back up, we have travel insurance that includes air-lift/evacuation coverage; we might be adventurous, but we’re not crazy.) We felt safer eating in local restaurants knowing that Laos have a reputation for cleanliness; the norm being twice-daily bathing. The kitchens we saw in LP (including the ones we saw on the side of the road) looked cleaner than some of the kitchens we’ve seen in New York.
ALL PICTURES FROM LUANG PRABANG, LAOS: here