Traveling on Two Wheels

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On this trip I’ve travelled by planes, buses, trains, boats, bicycle and foot. The only mode of transportation I hadn’t tried was a motorcycle. In a country of 90 million people and 40 million motorbikes, it seemed like something I should do. But given the traffic situation and the lack of good road maps, I though I’d make a better passenger than driver, so I hired a local English-speaking Vietnamese guide to drive me to some of the sites outside the city of Hue on his “very good” motorbike. Turns out his English was not so good and his motorbike only so-so, but his driving skills were very good.

At 9am, I climbed on the back of Lu’s (my driver’s) motorcycle and headed out of the city. We left the town behind and began climbing the hills. I looked around and realized, “Holy (blank), I’m on the back of a motorcycle in Vietnam with a complete stranger and I have no idea where I’m going.” I had a brief moment of panic and then decided, Lu had done this before, he was recommended by my hotel and sometimes that has to be enough. I took a deep breath and a long look around at the scenery flying by. It was pretty amazing. I’m not sure there was a better way to see it.

I wanted to visit some of the imperial tombs that were located along the river around the city. These were no ordinary burial sites. The emperors began building their tombs almost as soon as they ascended to the throne. In some cases, they would take regular visits to these sites to check on progress. In other cases, they became second cities, and they would govern from the site of their tomb, building residences, and theaters and later the ritual burial site. Some even built residences for their eunuchs and concubines to live in after their death to watch over them and their tomb.

The burial sites are guarded by stone statues representing the emperor’s military and civilian leaders. Several temple buildings lead up to the burial site, and finally, usually at the top of a mountain, a huge circular enclosure with a stone building to house the remains. One emperor had an underground channel built to ferry his remains to the mountain. After his death the channel was destroyed and has remained sealed ever since.

What struck me was that most of these sites were relatively new. The last one was finished in 1924…less than one hundred years ago. I was trying to imagine something as elaborate as these places being built in the U.S. with the sole purpose of honoring and paying on-going tribute to a leader. Maybe the closest we come is a presidential library, but they pale in comparison to these complexes.

Lu and I drove from one tomb to the next, only got stuck in the mud once and had no near misses with on coming cars (even when he was driving on the what I would guess was the wrong side of the road). After five hours and despite my earlier trepidation, he dropped me at my hotel. I guess today (against the advice of my mother) trusting a complete a stranger was the right thing to do.

Seeing What's in Front of Me

“No changing of place at a hundred miles an hour will make us one whit stronger, or happier, or wiser. There was always more in the world than man could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace.” ― John Ruskin

I’ve been traveling now for almost two weeks. I can tell. Packing and unpacking, figuring out what to see, how to get there…I’m not complaining, but as I got to the city of Hue, I decided instead of knowing what I wanted to see, I would let the city decide what I should see. Hue is the former political and cultural capital of Vietnam, located in the center of the country and set along the banks of the Perfume River. The Nguyen emperors united north and south by building the capital here. Before the war I can imagine how beautiful, almost European it might have been.

I headed in the direction of the old citadel across the river from my hotel (leaving my map in my bag). I stopped at a small pagoda complex that was completely deserted except for some monks studying and tending orchids. It was quiet, cool and the infamous horn honking of southeast Asia faded into the background. As I came out of the pagoda, I saw the ancient walls of the citadel. The citadel is surrounded by brick walls on four sides, each almost a mile long and inside the citadel in another walled fortress - the old imperial city - also surrounded by a moat. I wandered through the citadels narrow streets, finally stumbling upon the entrance to the imperial palace late in the afternoon. The sun was lower, the tour busses and crowds were gone. I paid my entry fee and wandered inside. The palace area used to include almost 150 buildings, about 20 remain (the palace was heavily bombed during the war). The street noise once again faded, and a I walked the grounds…the ceremonial palace, the house for the emperors’s mother, the royal theater, the spot where the forbidden city once stood, I saw only a handful of people.

As I was leaving the citadel, I met a Vietnamese man who showed me where the citadel’s walls had been bombed. He explained that his father had fought with the Americans (the first question everyone asks, “Where you from?”). He said that his father was shot by Vietnamese and lost both his legs for his treason. In this small country, everyone was affected by the war.

I made it back to my hotel and in the spirit of not having an agenda, I showered, changed and headed out to find a spot for dinner. I stopped at a cafe that was run by two Italians. I ordered a beer and a pizza marguerite. It was delicious! My American palette (and my Wisconsin dairy-addiction) was craving something other than rice, noodles or spring rolls. An Australian guy sitting next to me had the same idea, as he sheepishly order a pepperoni pizza, saying he needed some “real” food. We talked about where he had been, what I should see in Saigon and his travels around the world.

I’m not sure that I did everything I was “supposed” to do in the citadel of Hue, but I saw what was in front of me and I feel ready for the next leg of the journey. Tomorrow…a motorcycle tour outside the city.

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Through the Mist

“The present changes the past. Looking back you do not find what you left behind.” ― Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss

I spent the last couple of days in the northwest mountains of Vietnam around Sapa. The French once called this area the Tonkinese Alps - it’s home to the highest peak in southeast Asia Fansipan. Sapa town is a strange mix of hippie backpackers (mostly European), outdoor trekking types (lots of pants with zippers) and the native Black H'mong, Flower H'mong and Red Dau people (hill tribes).

While it was supposed to be one of the drier times of the year to visit, mother nature had other ideas. It was pouring when I arrived and a grey fog settled around the mountains. I decided to take my chances and booked a guide for the following day for a 12km trek to three neighboring hill tribe villages. On the morning of the trek (which honestly I hoped meant walking), it was misty and cool, but the rain had ended. I met my guide Ahn and we headed through town, out the main road, past the checkpoint for entry into the hill tribe area and onto the trails. As we hiked up and down the mountain side, through rice fields, mud, more mud, and rocks, she leapt like a mountain goat and I kept hoping I wouldn’t slide several hundred feet down the mountain through the orange mud.

The clouds moved in and out of the valley and I could see endless steep slopes carved into terraces for rice planting, water buffalo grazing, wooden houses perched on the side of the mountain and small villages in the valley below. While it was take-your-breath away beautiful, it also become clear as I talked with Ahn and others over the next two days, it was not an easy life.

The H'mong are a very traditional people, trying to grow enough rice to feed the family through the winter, making most of their own clothes, including spinning hemp fibers, dying cloth and embroidering designs and taking care of their families, young and old. The outlying farms do not have electricity (or heat), just a water-powered generator for a light bulb or two. It can be a two or three hour trek (each way) from the farm to the nearest market or village to sell or trade goods. Education especially among girls has been a problem. Many marriages are arranged based on astrological signs and birth years.

As I visited the villages with Ahn and the next day at a hill tribe market, I began to wonder how many more generations will live like this - both the good (strong families and culture) and the bad (poverty). There is better access to education for the H'mong people and a push to keep children in school longer. There is a greater opportunity to earn money through tourism and some H'mong are moving away from the family farms. H'mong teenagers with cell phones are probably going to start arranging their own dates. I hope they can navigate a future without loosing their past.

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To Bus or Not to Bus

I just finished a 24 hour journey from Cat Ba Island to Sapa, in the mountains of northwest Vietnam. The trip required a bus, a boat, another bus, yet another bus, a taxi, a six-hour layover, a train and a minivan. Despite all this, I have to admit, I love public transportation.

When I’m traveling solo, I rarely feel afraid. With a map, a little common sense and a home base, I’m free to explore, but when moving from one city or place to another, that is the time I feel most vulnerable. I’m out there, stuck between two worlds and have to negotiate systems or bargain with people who don’t speak my language. The possibility of being taken advantage of, or led astray, are my biggest worries. Public transportation is my safety net. I assume the bus (train) driver knows where he’s going, the prices are clearly stated and besides a whole bus load of people are not going to let him go off his route (let’s hope).

Also, because you’re sharing the journey with other strangers, you just might meet someone new. On this last trip, during my extended layover at the Hanoi train station, a little Vietnamese boy ran over to me, waved a toy bird, smiled and ran away. This game continued for several minutes, until his mom came over. She sat down and introduced herself (Ahn) in broken English. She was clearly curious about the lone American, and also, I think, wanting to practice English. We shared our stories (as best we could)…where we were from, where we were going, our families. While talking, I saw some older women (I later learned that this was her mother and other relatives), spread out a piece of plastic on the floor of the train station, I asked what they were doing. She said they were preparing dinner. After a bit she apologized and said she had to join them, but immediately came back and in very proper, but halted English, asked, “Would you like to share a meal with us?”. I couldn’t refuse, so I sat on the floor of the train station, and shared a dinner of rice, vegetables and fruit.

Amid lots of nodding and smiling, she asked questions about the U.S. and places I had gone. I learned her mother had worked teaching sewing in Hong Kong when she was young and this is where she had learned English. She talked about places she wished she could go…if things were different.

After dinner, she, her son and I walked around the night market pointing out fruits and vegetables in English and Vietnamese. I could see she wanted her son to learn English, to see, and maybe do the things she couldn’t. Afterwards we sat on the step of the train station, and paged through my Vietnam guidebook, her trying to read the English, and genuinely curious about what was said about her country. As her departure time got closer (and the grandmothers had enough of chasing her son), she went back inside the station and boarded her train.

I don’t know her last name, I will never see her or her family again, but I’m grateful for the kindness, the meal shared and the conversation…and for public transportation.

Water and a Way of Life

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“They spoke less and less between them until at last they were silent altogether as is often the way with travelers approaching the end of a journey.” - Cormac McCarthy

I left Hanoi on Thursday, and one taxi, three buses and a boat later, I arrived on Cat Ba Island in northeastern Vietnam. Cat Ba sits on the edge of Halong Bay - a UNESCO World Heritage site, significant for its beauty and culture.

Halong Bay and neighboring Lan Ha were one of those bucket list places for me. The rocks and karst formations rising out of the sea are the stuff of National Geographic photos. Also as a solo traveler, it was time for some sort of group trip…didn’t want to start talking to myself. So I signed on for a day long boat cruise/kayak/beach trip around the bays. A perfect antidote to recovering from the frenzy of Hanoi (and I am on vacation). The small group was made up of mostly Europeans, and a Russian.

We headed to the dock and boarded a wooden junk boat. As we pulled out of the harbor, we traveled past a floating village of fish farms. These fish farmers spend their entire life on the water…floating houses, dogs and kids running between the fish fish containment areas, generators, and even a floating grocery store. Water taxis ferry children to the island for school and goods back to the fishermen.

We moved past the fish farms into open waters, we cruised around Halong Bay past amazing rock formations…the remnants, according to legend, of a dragon that hit the water. I sat on a chair on the deck and reminded myself how lucky I am to be able to see this…most people will never see this in person. Also, the group of people I was with were smart, funny travelers, who had great stories to tell from places they had been around the world. They were not the backpacker set, but mostly working people like me who had taken a few weeks to escape the real world.

We anchored and kayaked through caves and lagoons, ate a seafood lunch, prepared by the guys on the boat, swam, drank a beer…I could have gotten used to this life. As we were heading back at sunset, our guide, a 10th generation Cat Ba Island native, began to talk to a few of us about the state of the bay.

We motored past oyster farms and more fish farms, he pointed out boats specially designed to catch small fish to feed to the larger farmed fish. There are no regulations to control the over fishing of these small fish and the larger native fish are become scarcer and scarcer. Once, the people of the island would trade produce to the fisherman for these native fish, but the cost has skyrocketed and they can’t afford to eat the fish from the bay any longer. The majority of this fish is consumed by wealthy Vietnamese tourists in the summer months. China controls the South China Sea and Halong Bay is the bread basket of seafood for Vietnam, if this ecosystem is destroyed, so will go the culture and economy of the region. You could hear in his voice the concern and sadness for the future of this place.

We quietly rode in the harbor in the pink light of sunset, grateful for an opportunity to see this beautiful place…for as long as it exists.

Seeing History in a Mirror

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“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
― Marcel Proust

When I left for this trip, more than one person asked me “Why Vietnam?” Honestly, I don’t think I had a very good answer. Culturally, I like this part of the world; had heard it was a great (and safe) travel destination and, it was really affordable, but I was/am no great student of Vietnam. I could give some highlights, early religious dynasties, colonial occupation, the rise of communism, war with U.S, and that every other item of clothing sold in the US has “made in Vietnam” label on it.

After a day of being the passive observer (and trying not to get run over) in the Old Quarter, I decided to go a little further…hoping to gain a bit more understanding of the people and place. I was struck by the profound visible signs of loss in this historic capital, but also pride, resilience and sense of sameness.

I learned that they revere learning. The Temple of Literature, founded in 1070, is one of the few remaining examples of Vietnamese architecture still standing. The temple was built to honor Confucius and scholarly learning. The names of great Vietnamese scholars are etched in stone tablets on the edges of the temple. It is still regarded as a place of learning…today there were a group of Vietnamese high school kids in a graduation ceremony on the grounds.

I learned that the Vietnamese are proud of who they are and their country (even if we don’t agree with their politics); and they honor their forefathers. After the Temple, I walked to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum complex. Like Lenin, “Uncle Ho” is honored with a huge monolithic stone mausoleum, where thousands come to pay tribute each year. Adjacent to this is a museum dedicated to his life and work and surrounding this is is huge botanical garden.

I learned that they value art and creativity, but have lost much of their heritage. A trip to the National Museum of Fine Art, begins with the phrase, “what you see here are examples or remnants of early works, most have been lost by wars.” The Vietnamese were great sculptors in bronze and stone, wood carvers, print makers, silk painters and a lacquer artists.

As I moved to the more modern section of museum, I saw works in these same traditional medium, but about the war with the U.S. I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. While I don’t know many people personally who served in the war with Vietnam, I know the impact it is has had on us culturally. I have visited the war memorial in D.C. and been awed by the enormous losses suffered and the residual pain. Yet, these works showed the same costs of war….widows, children, loss, resolve, sorrow, poverty, pain. It was like seeing history in a mirror.

I know there are unresolved political issues between my country and theirs and there are many Americans who lost too much, but it seems to me, that going forward only happens when you are able to look beyond what is different and see what is the same.

Stepping off the Curb

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Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore….Dorothy, The Wizard of Oz

I woke up this morning on the other side of the world. After 22 hours of travel, I arrived in Hanoi late at night and rode to my hotel in the back of a dark, air-conditioned mini-van, so my first glimpse of Vietnam came as stepped outside the doors of my hotel this morning.

Living in a tourist destination, I think of myself as prepared for cars stopping randomly, people stepping out into traffic, and generally slow going. Nothing could have prepared me for Hanoi…a seething mass of motor bikes, goods for sale, people, and the ever-present honking. Crossing the street, while a necessity, seemed part dance and part blind faith that some unfathomable system was at work.

I had the inevitable moment of “What have I gotten myself into?” and “Can I do this?”, but I stepped off the curb, dodged several motorbikes and started to wander the streets of the Old Quarter.

This central area of Hanoi, is a one of the oldest parts of a city that was named the capital in 1010AD. There are no Walmarts or big box stores in the Old Quarter. Each alley or street is dedicated to a particular type of good being sold or merchant…tin boxes, blacksmiths, toys, gravestones, herbs, altars, shoes, rope, straw mats, silk, jewelry…every street has a purpose.

While this ancient grid of streets is the foundation, everywhere the new is pushing up against the old - crumbling clay tile roofs and brick alley ways surrounded by soviet-era block buildings, women carrying baskets with produce and a motorbike loaded with knock-off Beats headphones; traditional straw hats and young Vietnamese in fedoras; handmade wooden toys and plastic Hello Kitty dolls, faded communist party posters and pirated DVDs.

I wandered this maze of alley ways for several hours finally coming out on the other side at Hoan Kiem Lake. A brief moment of quiet at the temple on the edge of the lake and then I took a deep breath and threaded my way back through the streets to my hotel. While I didn’t travel far today, I did learn to cross the street…

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Taking the Long Way Home

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A journey, after all, neither begins in the instant we set out, nor ends when we have reached our door step once again. It starts much earlier and is really never over, because the film of memory continues running on inside of us long after we have come to a physical standstill. Indeed, there exists something like a contagion of travel, and the disease is essentially incurable. ― Ryszard Kapuściński, Travels with Herodotus

I’m struggling a bit for words with this post - what is likely my last post from this journey. (Whether I keep writing, we’ll see, but I have enjoyed the process more that I ever expected.) I started planning this trip in January, but I know that it will shape the way I see and do things for much longer. It has been many things - adventure, challenge, inspiration, frustration, relaxation, an education and full of many, many serendipitous surprises.

I was reminded that true travel can be hard. The kind of travel where you are ignorant of everything, the spoken and written language, how the most basic things work - even crossing the street seemed daunting at first. Every step was a guess (some more educated than others). Sometimes it was just a hope…”I hope this works…I hope this driver knows where he’s going…I hope I read the map right…I hope I didn’t offend him/her.”

I have some amazing memories, some (I think) have been worth sharing and some were my own challenges, mistakes and achievements. I got to stand in, but still outside another culture. I was witness to other people’s days and lives. I have been awed by the devotion and austerity of the religious monks. I have watched people “make merit” and provide food for the monks. I have also seen these same monks stroll the markets, talk on their cell phones, and sit have a smoke. I have seen poverty. Shacks with corrugated metal roofs and old street banners for walls, but also families sitting in the shade of these metal roofs sharing a meal together in a society where family matters. I have stood at the base of temples and city walls that are over 1000 years old; and stood a top peaks that take your breath away. I have been blessed with nothing but the kindness of strangers. Those who took the time to share with me a story or a meal, point me in the right direction, or were just fair when I was negotiating for ride. I have eaten some incredible food prepared in the most unlikely of circumstances.

I learned to listen to that inner voice that told me when to keep going and when to ask for help, or in some cases, call it day. I loved the challenge, the guess work, the opportunity each day held. I asked myself in the first post “Am I still a traveller?” The answer is a resounding “yes.” But it is time to put away my passport and backpack (for a while). Because each and everyday I was on this journey, something reminded me of home and those things that had seemed painstakingly familiar are the ones I missed the most. So on that note…

All journeys eventually end in the same place, home. ― Chris Geiger

Getting From Here to There

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Since being in Thailand, I have ridden on a bus, a train, a tuktuk (a three-wheeled moped taxi), an actual taxi, a boat, a songthaew (a pick up with passenger seating on the bed of the truck), a mini van, the back of a motorbike, and my own two feet, but I haven’t driven myself anywhere in almost three weeks.

I decided that was going to change. I would never have have considered it in Bangkok or Chiang Mai - the traffic is insane, the drivers potentially more so, and the kicker, they drive on the left side of the road. Yesterday I rented a “motorbike,” looked like a moped to me, but it was my ticket to freedom, all for $8 a day - less than a songthaew one way.

I started the motorbike, tried to adjust in my mind what a right and left hand turn might look like, and set out for the beaches on the eastern side of the island. I have to admit to being a little scared with the trucks, tons of other motorbikes, and my demonstrated lack of direction, but I made it. The beach, Chaweng, was a beautiful stretch of white sand. The crowds…less beautiful. Music pumped out onto the beach, euro-partiers everywhere…it was a quite a show and in a way, fun to observe on the sidelines.

I brought the motorbike home before dark. I decided I wasn’t brave enough to drive at night. This morning, after a quiet breakfast in my little fishing village, I thought maybe I could venture even further. I set our for the waterfalls in the center of the island.

After 40 minutes, I turned on the road towards the waterfall. There were some very touristy options, including a 4-wheeler ride to the base of the falls. I turned it down and started hiking up a dirt road, then over a bamboo bridge and once again followed a rope trail up the rocks. I’ve decided ropes lead to good places. The upper falls were deserted. It was quiet and cool. I sat in pool under the falls, until I was ready to try the beach again.

I drove to Lamai Beach on the southeast coast, and paid for a day pass to a resort on a secluded stretch of beach. Lounge chairs, pools, quiet, drinks delivered… a huge contrast to the life I have been lucky enough to have had the last few weeks, but it was the perfect end to my stay on the island.

When I got back to Bophut, I turned in the keys to my motorbike and tomorrow I head back to Bangkok (minivan, ferry, bus, train….).

To Tour or Not to Tour

I was looking back at my first post from this trip and had asked myself the question “Would I like traveling alone?” First, I think I would rephrase the question to “Do I like traveling solo?” I have learned that solo does not mean alone, and the answer is “mostly yes.”

I think when you are traveling solo, there are lots of obvious perks, like getting to do what you want, when you want; seeking solitude when you want it, but also, it’s relatively easy to make connections with people when you want.

When you are traveling solo, especially as a solo female traveler, you are approachable to other like-minded travelers and locals. Local people want to know your story and are willing to share theirs. Other travelers tend to gravitate to people doing the same things. You also are forced to ask directions (a lot) which naturally starts a conversation.

Northern Thailand was definitely a place for travelers - not necessarily a tourist destination. There were many more like-minded travelers and we were easy to spot. As I have spent the last couple of days in Koh Samui - which is beautiful, I have learned it is definitely more a tourist destination. People (mostly Europeans) come in groups (friends, couples, families) and the solo traveler is more of anomaly.

I realized I would have to work harder if I wanted to meet people (and not start talking to myself). I signed up for boat tour today to Angthrong National Marine Park. As I’ve said before, I’m usually not much for organized tours, but it was the best decision I could have made, not only was it an amazing experience, but I met some great people.

We left the main dock on the island at 8am, and headed 1.5 hours out into the gulf of Thailand, until we reached the park - an archipelago of 40+ small islands. I had my first sea kayaking experience and it was ton of fun seeing the island and caves from the water - despite having to stand in line for a kayak and say twice, “yes, single.” I should also note, it appeared much easier when there were two people paddling the kayak.

We paddled to a small beach, and then hiked up to a beautiful salt water lagoon. We paddled back to the boat and had lunch, while we cruised to another island. We took a long boat ashore, and I opted to make the hike to 500m peak, up a steep and rocky trail for what they promised was a view of the entire chain of islands. Steep and rocky does not begin to describe this climb in the middle of a 100+ degree day - mountain goats would have been challenged. I hung onto a rope and at some points literally pulled myself from rock to rock. But as promised, the view was inspiring - the climb down, not so much.

On the way back, some of my fellow climbers and I rode on the top sun deck and watched the sun begin to set over the islands as we headed back home.

So while I tend to shy away from an organized tour, it was definitely what I needed today.

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Changing Gears

I left Chiang Dao yesterday around noon after a last hike along a mountain side trail, then began the long trip south. First a pickup truck/taxi, then a bus, then a tuktuk from the bus station to the airport, then a plane to Bangkok, another plane to the island of Koh Samui and then finally a minivan to my hotel. It only took 10.5 hours, but my backpack and I finally made it.

I woke up this morning, stood out on my balcony and looked out over the Gulf of Thailand. I wasn’t in Kansas anymore or northern Thailand for that matter. I walked out on to the main street in Bo Phut - my first look in the daylight. Cafes and restaurants lined the streets - no shouting in Thai, but lots of French and German. I felt a little culture shock if that is possible.

I wandered in search of coffee. There are few if any street vendors, sandwich boards in front of restaurants had menus in English, French and some Thai. I found my coffee, settled in and watched the town come to life.

I knew I wanted to end this trip with some time at the beach, but in a strange way, I was already missing the challenge of the previous days. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself, no list of sights to see, no travel plans to figure out - just drink my coffee and go to the beach. It was harder than I thought to change gears.

Eventually, I packed a bag and headed towards Mae Nam on the north end of the island. I had heard it was quiet and more remote than the eastern side of the island. It was. I rented a chair on the beach, and tried to sit still. I got up, walked the beach, came back, read my guidebook (there must be something I should be doing), but slowly I started to relax. I went for swim, read and ate pineapple from a beach vendor. By 3pm, I thought, “I could get used to this.”

But in reality, my time in Thailand is running out, so tomorrow I will go in search of waterfalls on the interior of the island and have booked a sea kayaking/snorkeling trip. I’ll still fit in some beach time though.

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Chiang Dao From Top to Bottom

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The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see. ― G.K. Chesterton

Each day I have woken up planning, thinking, and scheduling my time to get done the things I want to do, or least get to the places I want to get to. More often than not, it has required some serious map reading (sometimes more successfully than others) and depending on other people or modes of transportation to get me from here to there. Not today. Today was just a photocopy of a hand-drawn map of the area, given to me by the woman who owns the place I’m staying (a few marked roads and sights), and a bike.

I got on the bike and headed uphill to a small temple perched on the side of the mountain. Once at the entrance, it was “only” 510 steps to the top. At places like this there are often signs, both in English and Thai with Buddhist sayings. Now it may sound new agey or even kitschy, but after 400 steps, they have worn you down and you start to really take these things more seriously. At about step number 412 (to be exact) there was a sign that said, “Do not grumble, just persevere.” Ok, point taken.

I persevered and made it to the top. On my ascent, I saw only two other people, besides the resident monks. The temple was quiet and cool. The view from the chedi on the mountain was one of “those moments.” I felt small as looked out across the valley, a bit alone - not in a bad way; and fortunate - I realize not many people get to do what I am doing. I was not thinking about the climb down and what was next, I was here.

I biked down the mountain a ways, turned down a dirt road and headed past a monastery. There was nothing special about this place from the outside, no well-known statues of the Buddha or other landmarks, just small huts along the mountain side for the monks and the monk’s laundry - the orange robes they wear - strung between the buildings, but it was beautiful - the view and the absolute stillness of the place.

Finally Myrtle (at this point I had named my bike - she was a bit old and decrepit) and I made it down to the Chiang Dao cave, where Buddhist hermits once lived. There is a temple complex at the entrance, along with sellers of medicinal herbs, and few food stalls. Everywhere I looked there were monks, coming and going, and few tourists. Ignoring my own claustrophobia - and the bats, I climbed down into the cave. There are several miles of tunnels created by the water flowing under the mountain. With the help of a local guide, you can see a small portion. While, I appreciate the solitude that living in a cave underground may provide, I think I will choose the hut with a view.

Myrtle and I eventually biked back up the mountain road to my own bamboo hut and sat on the porch, listening to the birds sing, watching the sun set behind the mountain and trying hard not to think about what’s next.

First There Was Plan A...

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Today was my last day in Chiang Mai. I spent the morning at the oldest market in town, the Warrot market, getting lost and wandering the stalls. I took a break in the shade - it was over 100 degrees in town - at a beautiful old temple and then it was time to head out of the city to the town of Chiang Dao near the largest mountain in Thailand, appropriately named, Chiang Dao Mountain.

I consulted my guidebook and decided a bus would get me where I was going. The guidebook also said, the “town” wasn’t much more than an intersection of two roads, with dusty buildings on either side, but I could get a ride/taxi from the bus stop to where I was staying, 9-10 miles up to the base of the mountain. So there was Plan A.

I took a took a tuktuk (three-wheeled moped taxi) to the bus station outside the north city gate and boarded the bus, which given the fact that I was the only non-Thai, seems to be a rarity for foreigners. I had about 6 inches on the edge of a bench seat with two other people, my backpack between my legs as we drove - in a very hot bus - the hour and half up the winding roads to Chiang Dao. I got out at my stop and the guidebook was correct, not much there. Also not there, any type of taxi or other vehicle for hire. So much for Plan A.

I looked around and saw across the street a (relatively) busy open air restaurant that advertised coffee. Hoping someone would speak English, I took a chance and went inside. No English speakers. I tried to sign that I was looking for a ride, but no luck. As long as I was there, I ordered an iced coffee, and tried to figure out Plan B.

I was looking around to see if I could see a pay phone and maybe call the place I was staying, when a Thai woman came in with a backpack. She smiled and I immediately asked, “English?” She responded “a little.” A little was all I needed. I explained I wanted a ride up the mountain, but didn’t have a phone to call anyone. She stood up, picked up my backpack and said, “ok, for motorbike.” I wasn’t sure what this meant, but she got on her phone, dialed a magic number, and turned and said, “motor bike here in 10 minutes, 60 bhat ($2)”. We waited together, drinking coffee. She had been in the area for one week and was heading back to Bangkok on a bus. When the motorbike hadn’t arrived, she called again and I think, told them in no uncertain terms I was still waiting for a ride. Eventually, the motorbike arrived.

I put on my backpack, the driver took my smaller bag in his lap and I climbed on the back. The next thing I knew we were on our way up the mountain. Every once in while he would point at something he thought I should see as we wove our way up the narrow road. I have to say Plan B was a lot more interesting than Plan A.

We arrived at my hotel - that may not be the right word for the series of bamboo huts that face the mountain - but so far it was definitely worth the ride.

The Dark Side of Tourism

Today I took a bus with about 12 other people to visit the Elephant Nature Preserve about an hour and a half outside of Chiang Mai. I’m not usually much of a “tour” person, but this is the only way to visit this special place.

When I first began planning my trip, I thought about going to one of the many tourist elephant camps advertised, but the more I read and the more I learned, the more I realized that these places, in general are not about the animals, but about the tourists. The Elephant Nature Preserve is different.

In Thailand, there are two kinds of elephants, wild elephants and domestic (not domesticated). The domestic elephants have been broken to work for people. Until the late 1980’s they were used in the logging industry, but when logging was banned these elephants were either abandoned, because the owners couldn’t afford to feed them, or put to work in the tourist industry (rides, circuses, etc) or even used to panhandle in the streets of Bangkok.

The elephants at the Elephant Nature Preserve have been rescued from many horrific situations, many were abused, hit by cars in Bankkok, some stepped on land mines on the Thai border with Myanmar, and other stories too sad to tell. At the preserve, they are rehabilitated, paired with a Mahout (handler) who is with them all day, every day. They are incredibly docile, smart and sweet creatures.

At the preserve, I was able to feed, walk with them, bath them and be with them in the closest many of them will ever know to a natural environment.

The money used from visitors like me is used to provide food, shelter and medical care. In 1900 there were 100,000 elephants in Thailand, today there are fewer than 3,000. It was a sobering, gratifying and amazing day.

More information at savetheelephants.org.

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The Language of Food

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I lurched away from the table after a few hours feeling like Elvis in Vegas - fat, drugged, and completely out of it. ― Anthony Bourdain, Chef

Chiang Mai is nothing if not the food capital of Thailand, especially street food - from every type of meat or sausage on a stick, to noodles to something that resembles a fried doughnut with black sesame seeds. Everywhere you look, there is someone cooking something. By all accounts, everyone here should weigh 600lbs. They are eating or taking away noodles and soup in plastic bags to eat later, popping dumplings like candy and frying up everything in sight. And I am right there with them, at least that is what it felt like today.

I took a full day cooking class today, with a well-known Thai chef. We got an introduction to Thai ingredients, watched the chef prepare seven different dishes and then we replicated (as best we could) our versions of them. Of course, we had to sample and eat our way through the day too.

I thought I knew something about Thai food, but the complexity of the food and the list of ingredients was amazing. They have 10, count ‘em 10, different soy sauces, 4 types of basil, I don’t know how many types of chilies and list goes on. I took notes like I was in school again and left with a recipe book, so we’ll see what I can do when I get home.

When I got back to my hotel, I fell into a deep food coma. When I came to, I thought I only have a two more nights here and there were places I still wanted to try, so I put on my walking shoes (no tuktuks or taxi tonight) and headed out of town, through the old city gate (1400 years old to be exact) and across the river to a restaurant that I had heard about. It is situated overlooking the Ping river. There was a guy playing crazy good jazz guitar (who knew?) and a mix of locals and expats all trying to get in. There was a wait for a table so I sat at the bar. An Australian, now living in Thailand, and his Thai wife sat down next to me. We started talking and when their table came up they asked me to join them. Initially I refused, because I didn’t want to intrude, but eventually I agreed.

We sat down and the woman started reading the menu and asking the waitress, in Thai of course, which dishes were local and where the ingredients came from. I asked her to order for me too. It was one of the best meals I have had - green mango salad, fresh fish with chili and vegetables, rice…

We talked, ate and drank. I forgot all about trying to figure out how they made the food or what was in my food, and just enjoyed it. So while, I’m glad for the opportunity to have learned what I learned today, I’m more grateful for good company and the prospect of sharing a meal with friends when I get home.

The Art of Conversation

To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world. – Freya Stark

Last night I left Bangkok on an overnight train to Chiang Mai. Honestly, I was looking forward to leaving the insanity of Bangkok behind - the traffic, smog, street vendors, the noise…it was a lot for my jet lagged brain to absorb, not to mention my small town sensibilities.

The central train station in Bangkok is a rather dismal place - overrun with feral cats, stray dogs, some unpleasant bathrooms and the requisite homeless outside. Needless to say, I wasn’t holding out much hope for the actual train.

I was booked in second class cabin with four sleeping berths. Somewhat to my surprise, it was clean, the porter was making up the beds and there were no animals in sight. I looked around and realized that trains seem to be the preferred mode of transportation for the 20-something backpacker set and native Thai. My cabin mates were no different, a french couple, barely 20, on a three month trip through Southeast Asia and Australia.

As they climbed into their upper bunks, talking together, it made me think about how different it is to travel alone. When you travel with someone or a group, the experience binds you together, but when you travel alone, it is a little like “when a tree falls in the woods…” You are the keeper of that experience and the only person it can or might change is you.

By nature, I’m a talker and tend to process what is happening by talking about it (and sometimes to) the people I am with. I think that is why I started writing - to have some place to put my thoughts, even when I didn’t have someone to say them out loud to.

When I woke up on the train and pulled back the curtain in my bunk, the landscape had completely changed. I was in rural Thailand - cows, rice fields, dirt roads, mountains…I looked across from me and somewhere in the middle of the night, a middle aged Thai woman had gotten on board and was now in the bunk across from me. She gave me a huge smile. She looked out the window with the same awe on her face I’m sure I had on mine. When our breakfast arrived, she cleared the small table and pointed at me to put my plate on the table with hers. We sat across from each other, alternating nodding at one another and staring out the window. A while later we arrived in Chiang Mai, as she left the cabin, she turned, put her hands together and bowed. I did the same.

I know we never said a word, but I think it was one of the nicest breakfast conversations I have ever had.

Lost in Bangkok

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“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

If only that were true…Today was my last day in Bangkok, so I packed my luggage and left it at the hotel desk for the day. What I didn’t realize until I got to the river taxi dock, was that I had packed my map of Bangkok. I knew I wanted to go to China Town and the Indian Market, and knew where to jump off the taxi, but beyond that, I had no idea where I was actually going.

I got off at the dock and asked where to get a map. I was directed to a board with about three streets marked and the general location of the sights. I thought, “how hard can this be?” Well, let’s just say it was harder than I thought. There are hundreds of side streets, alleyways covered in tarps with stalls selling everything from knock-off barbies, to whole octopus, to air conditioners and no real street signs.

I started walking in the direction of the Indian Market, a promise of scarves, fabric and curry waiting for me. I walked, and walked some more. Suddenly it occurred to me that I had not seen another European or other foreigner for quite a while and I had wandered VERY far off the beaten path. I stopped at a shop and a sweet little old Chinese grandmother got her grandson, who in broken English directed me to the street I thought the Indian market was on. So I walked and walked some more, when I stumbled on a flower market - blocks of of the most beautiful cut flowers I had ever seen. I forgot about the scarves and the curry and just wandered the aisles. As I came out of an alley, I walked right into the Indian Market. Sometimes, when you get lost, you end up right where you are supposed to be!

Next stop China Town. I got where I was going once, surely I could do it again. I walked and walked some more (apparently the theme of the day). I found myself in the middle of a giant wholesale food market, piles of cabbage in baskets, nuts, fish, and hundreds of things I had never seen (or smelled) before - and not another tourist in sight. I emerged on a main road and headed towards the direction of the river (or so I thought). I realized after an hour that I had been up and down so many alleys, but crossed the same corner on this main road three times, so really, not actually getting anywhere.

Then it happened, the moment I thought, “I’m in over my head, I should hail a taxi (if I can find one) and just go back to the hotel.” I took a deep breath and realized I had spent the last four hours seeing things I would never have seen if I stuck to my map; that I could, at anytime, get a taxi, but really I wanted to see what was beyond that corner. So, I took a good hard look around me, and started walking. I passed the same corner for the fourth time and just kept going.

Eventually I made it back to river taxi dock. My day was nothing like I planned when I left the hotel this morning, but maybe that was the point - to trust myself to know when I’m in over my head, but also, to not let the voices in my head stop me from experiencing what is around the corner.

Am I Still A Traveller?

“Make voyages. Attempt them. There’s nothing else.”
― Tennessee Williams, Camino Real

I had always considered myself a “traveller.” I had a valid passport, could pack in 20 minutes and seemingly my bucket list of places to visit was never ending. But in truth, it has been a long time since I truly travelled. I went on vacation, visited friends, went back often to familiar cities, and enjoyed the requisite beach, books and booze trips. I hadn’t pushed myself out of my comfort zone, gone someplace where I didn’t speak a word of the language, or didn’t know a soul for years.

I decided in January to get back on the horse, so to speak. When I told my friends and family that I had booked a plane ticket to Thailand alone, it was met with mixed emotions. I heard, “don’t you have anyone to travel with?, “why?”, or “are you sure?” These comments were generally followed by “be safe” or a horror story of a lone female traveller who met with disaster. I was excited about the trip, so I put on a brave face and said I was fine, looking forward to it, I knew what I was doing, etc…

Honestly though over the next two months, I started to hear those voices in my head. I had doubts. Could I still travel alone? Did I still want to? Was this really who I was? Am I a traveller?

Then of course there is that pesky age thing. It’s ok in your 20’s to disconnect, to take risks, and besides there are always lots of 20 somethings with a bad case of wanderlust roaming the world’s “must see” destinations, but what about in your 40’s. Most of my friends are raising families, so the idea of setting off alone for three weeks, isn’t possible. Travel for most, seems to go from backpacks, to disneyland vacations, to tour busses. I’m not sure what solo travel in my 40’s looks like.

So with a very light backpack, a healthy dose of doubt and trepidation, I set off for Thailand.

I arrived late last night. When I awoke this morning in a hotel in Bangkok. It hit me. I’m really doing this. Over breakfast, I poured over my guidebooks, maps and travel blogs one last time. I knew eventually I had to step outside the front door of the hotel.

Was this first day everything I had imagined. Yes and no. I leaped off a moving river taxi onto a rickety pier, I got lost in old Bangkok trying to find a noodle stand I had read about (never did find it and ended up eating a granola bar for lunch), was befriended by a monk and got an impromptu guided tour of the Buddhist university, saw the Grand Palace and the Emerald Buddha, forgot to drink enough water (its 95 degrees) and had to give myself a timeout in the only shade I could find under a scraggly tree on a street corner, wandered the amulet market, and took myself out to dinner.

I’m hoping as the days go by, I will find the answers to my questions, but in the meantime, I’m going to enjoy the adventure of getting up each day in unfamiliar territory.

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