Posts Tagged ‘travelogue’

This travelogue documents my return through the north-eastern regions of Thailand (collectively known as Isaan – I worked my way through Bangkok, Chiang Mai and the like earlier and that travel tome remains to be posted) and then up the length of Vietnam…

Merhaba! Xin chao!

Another great travel phase – post-Malaysia and pre-Philippines. More unexpecteds, more surprises, and more confirmation that the best strategy when traveling is to let a country reveal itself to you. It is all too often counter-productive to arrive with too many preconceptions, and far better to allow yourself to absorb new surroundings slowly, quietly, gently.

What a time. What places, what culture, what feelings… and of course, what history. An exciting, rewarding opportunity to put names with places with events, to relegate the history books to the shelf and discover, experience, and come to “know” these areas first-hand and of my own accord. Especially in Vietnam, to scratch varied and deeper levels of society, to get to know the people and understand the pulse, rhythm, energy and spirit of the country at quite an intimate level.

But first, backtrack to Thailand and what seems now like a world away. I returned from Laos via the less-touristed, more off-the-beaten-track route through northeastern Thailand. My goal of flinging myself as far as possible into the more remote and lesser known regions was successful, and I was reminded once again that (and why) I prefer small provincial capitals to bigger cities and other “hot spots”. Though the markets were among the dirtiest and smelliest of any in existence (I saw enough swarms of flies to last a lifetime) and the total lack of English script was genuinely problematic at times, nevertheless the lessons in body language communication and what it feels like to be uncomfortably foreign were entirely worth it.

Just across the Mekong River border from Vientiane (the capital of Laos) is the small, quiet, pleasant town of Nong Khai, Thailand. A college friend of mine had spent three years in the Peace Corps in this province, so after sending and receiving many postcards and letters with this destination I had to visit – if nothing else out of simple curiosity. What I found far exceeded my expectations. The site for which Nong Khai is best known is the Sala Kaew Ku, a park of gigantic concrete (!) sculptures. Constructed by the eccentric Lao artist-monk Boun Leua Sourirat in the aftermath of 1975 events (when he fled his home country), the park is an amalgam of 10-20 meter high Hindu and Buddhist deities, nine-armed medusas with five-cobra heads, elephants and packs of wild concrete dogs, and the collection’s centerpiece, The Wheel of Life. This series leads you figuratively through a “cycle of life in concrete” by entering the garden in an embryonic form and circling clockwise through sculptural representations of the other phases of life. I can’t say that my life perspective was changed by the visit, though it did provide ample reason to pause for thought…

My visit to the Village Weaver Handicrafts Self-Help Project was also thought-provoking. I went here with the hope of purchasing a hand-woven and hand-dyed indigo sarong and in left with a great deal of inspiration and hope as well. This grass-roots project was spearheaded by a group of Good Shepherd Sisters in 1981 and (without getting into a debate about the Sisters themselves – a topic for another time) with the goal of encouraging young rural women to remain locally and to resist the temptation to head to bigger cities, where the vast majority quickly end up in dead-end, dangerous prostitution. By teaching them valuable skills and a solid work ethic, the project has made significant contributions both to artisanal craft traditions and to the maintenance of local social harmony. The program itself can proudly boast a 95% artist-participant retention rate.

From Nong Khai I headed to the province of Chaiyaphum, precisely because it was touted as “the least visited province in all of Thailand” and the Lonely Planet guidebook gave very little information about it. Sounds perfect to me! Besides taking a personal morning tour with the owner of the guesthouse where I stayed (she took me under her wing, shocked that I was travelling alone – once again, what others saw as strange and potentially dangerous I considered to be a great advantage) to some small silk villages in the area, there was not much to do. The silk-making process is fascinating and we were able to see it in its entirety, from feeding the worms all the way to loading the spools of thread on the loom. Did you know that they boil the worms to extract the soft filaments? That is quite a sight to observe. Far more memorable for me however was being grabbed suddenly by the arm and having a tiny, grey-haired woman shout loudly in my face, “You! You! #1! Beautiful! You!” and then just as suddenly letting me go. Or the process of ordering food from non-English speakers at the open-air night market. The four gestures to know are: (1) point to the ingredients that you would like to have cooked, (2) hold up one index finger (to indicate one serving), (3) smile in hopes that they will then begin to cook it and (4) the favorite thumbs-up motion to indicate “it is delicious – thank you!”

Ah, the simple things in life.

The next travel segment was not so simple, however. Even though I opted not to visit Cambodia (and hence bypass Angkor Wat) on this trip, I still wanted to see some Khmer ruins. The best ones in Thailand are at Phanom Rung, which is located about six hours from Chaiyaphum and one hour from the Cambodian border. I am glad I made the effort to get out there, but the day nearly did me in. There is no public transport, so I had to rent a clackety derelict moped for the day. Nor are there any public facilities such as cafés or the like en route, so once the searing heat of midday set in I was toast. It did feel distinctly adventurous and the setting was spookily spectacular. All I could think of was The Killing Fields movie, and indeed the landscape was barren, shrubby, dry, and dotted intermittently with small, smoky fires. A wasteland. The ruins were singularly incredible, to be sure, and I never realized the artistic elements and style unique to the Khmer Empire (roughly from the 11th to the 13th century) until that day. Lots of birds, snakes, lotus leaves, phallic pillars and prangs (towers) to worship, that now are pervaded by a crumbly, rosy, weedy, decadent ambience.

Finally I made it back to Bangkok and was ready for my flight to Saigon. ‘The land of smiles’ was still smiling at me – and I at it – upon departure, just as it had when I arrived. However (Phanom Rung aside) it was not a particularly challenging country to visit, nor did it engage my senses or force me to stretch to the degree that I like (don’t ask my why I crave that!). In retrospect I would say that my two biggest challenges were the humidity and the fiery-hot chillies – so not exactly tops on my list of all-time travel ardors, but nonetheless plenty of fond memories of Thailand shall remain.

And so… on to Viet Nam. Arrival in Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City), and within 10 minutes I could sense a new, different energy and dynamism in the air and knew already that I would like the place. ‘Like’ is an understatement! My quickest-on-record easy transit through the airport was an omen of good things to come. Oh where to begin? Saigon is an ideal place to start any journey in Viet Nam, as its sites, people and atmosphere enable visitors to get a sense of overall history and contemporary society, and especially to put the past 50 years in clearer perspective. The first significant difference I noticed was that of the Orient. Gone were forks and out came chopsticks. Alongside the Latin-script-based Quoc Ngu (literally ‘national writing system,’ created in the 17th century by the French Jesuit missionary Alexandre de Rhodes) were Chinese ‘nom’ characters. And many people were preoccupied with feng shui. This last fact I learned when I went into a shop, tried on a shirt, but was informed that no mirror was available for me to look at because the shop’s door was facing the wrong direction. I can’t help but think that approach is not always good for business!

Further observations on Viet Nam and its history were made and insight gained by visits to the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum. The former is where North Vietnamese troops tanks stormed and raised their flag on 30 April 1975, and the latter is where Viet Nam-at-large tells its version of the wars with France and the United States, on its own turf and in its own words. Not surprisingly it was not an easy visit; the pictures are graphic (as are the severely deformed – thanks to agent orange and chemical warfare – fetuses kept in jars of formaldehyde) and the captions blatantly anti-West and openly hostile. However, I would not have missed it and think it is absolutely critical that such an exhibit exist and that the Vietnamese may consider it fully ‘theirs.’ Furthermore, not once during my visit did I detect or was I the recipient of any sort of animosity towards this end. In fact, the people were SO friendly, pleasantly ‘in-your-face’ and seemingly almost ‘forgetful’ of the recent past that I found it almost disconcerting. (More on this below…)

The single greatest shock to my system was that of Vietnamese transport and traffic. I thought that Delhi was dirty and Bangkok chaotic, but Saigon wins the prize hands-down for both. That said however, I LOVED being a part of the mayhem! Forms of transport include the following:

  • Bicycles. I am convinced that Viet Nam is second only to China in terms of the sheer number of foot-powered two-wheeled vehicles. Have you ever seen 10 rows of bikes going at warp speed down a 2-lane street with close intersections and no stop signs or lights? I have now! I also came to the definitive conclusion that there is no relation between bike size and rider size in Viet Nam; never have I seen so many small people riding bikes far too large for them, nor the corresponding opposite. Yet very few accidents… hmmm.
  • Boring metered taxicabs and cars. There are almost as many motorcycles as bikes, including the occasional vintage model and the well-known ‘Honda Om’ (which in fact can be of any make– the only difference is that it’s available for hire). You simply walk up to any man loafing about near a motorcycle on the street, state your destination, negotiate a price, climb on the back, hold on for dear life, and they whisk you off.
  • And finally, my favorite… the cyclo. This last mode is virtually an institution in itself, and certainly may be considered a national symbol. Basically it is a high bicycle with a large padded seat protruding from the front. The difference is that the passenger sits in -front- of the driver, and hence sees and experiences all the action-chaos-and-near-collisions first! I thought that the cyclos were great and the drivers most cordial (interestingly, many of them are former doctors, businessmen and intellectuals who fell out of favor when the North was victorious and hence lost their jobs post-1975). However, I quickly had to develop a stomach and nerves of steel.

Bicycles, bicycles everywhere. Everyone rides them – men going to work, kids going to school, women going all sorts of places. While I found the Vietnamese people collectively to be very elegant, handsome, and exceptionally cultured compared to some other places in Southeast Asia, the expressions of female beauty were all too often simply astounding. In contrast to the ‘bowl’-style haircut favored by 99% of Thai women, in Viet Nam hair is worn long, straight, and neatly pulled back. But physique is only one factor contributing to such grace and beauty; in my opinion, equally important is fashion. The traditional Vietnamese ‘ao dai’ dress is stunning; usually made of fine silk, it consists of a long, flowing, collared tunic that splits just above the waist on the sides and is worn over long, loose, wide-legged silk trousers. Although initially discouraged by the government in Hanoi, they are now making a comeback and are by far the most common form of attire for women. Another fact I found neat (to say nothing of satisfying on a personal level, given how much SPF 80 I’ve had to account for in life) is that fair skin is considered to be a mark of great beauty by Vietnamese women, who will go to great lengths to stay pale. Their efforts include always wearing a hat (the conical bamboo ones being the most photogenic), walking under an umbrella and – my favorite – sporting arm-length silk gloves around town. The gloves reminded me exactly of ‘the olden days’ in the US, except that in Viet Nam they are wearing jeans and riding a motorcycle at the same time! Needless to say, they found my uber-fair skin to be remarkable, and unlike the villagers in Laos were not taken aback by my freckles. Perhaps my complexion has found a sister home halfway around the world?

From Ho Chi Minh City I began my gradual trek northward. My first stop was 6 hours inland and northeast, in the mountain hamlet and former French hill station of Dalat. (more…)

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