Friday, October 31, 2008

First Days in Malaysia

The Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur

Merdeka Square

Hour of Prayer


Malaysia has been a completely new and exciting experience. We arrived at the airport and boarded a taxi for the 73 km drive into the city of Kuala Lumpur. Driving on the left side of the crisp highly developed multi-lane highways was quite a culture shock from the kamakazi style driving and narrow pot-holed construction roads we had just done our motorbike trip on in North Vietnam. We settled into a hostel in Chinatown whose accommodations were not unlike that of a prison cell then headed out to gather information for adventures to come.

Kuala Lumpur is a city of dynamic structures from the very contemporary high rise towers to timeless mosques with their enigmatic domes and passageways. The people are a blend of colorful fabrics, striking eyes, varieties of dress, religions, and cultures. Walking the street you are bombarded with smatterings of aromas; the spices of Indian cuisine, the smoky street barbecues firing up skewers of satay, and here and there rancid odors you couldn't imagine what! Markets abound and Merdeka Square proudly displays the Malaysian flag first raised here in 1957 as a demonstration of their independence from the British union. Do I sound like a tourism brochure or what!?
Island Ferry

Kecil Island Pier

lonely boat

abandoned beach days before the islands close for monsoons

We had a run in with an ATM machine in KL and had to spend an extra night. Changing our bus tickets and pulling ourselves together we chose to treat ourselves to a nice hotel complete with pool deck, buffet breakfast, and the luxury of crisp white sheets. We never did get Julia's debit card returned, but we couldn't stay in the city forever. .. paradise awaits!

The overnight bus let us out at 5am in the small fishing village of Kuala Besut. We listened to the echoes of morning prayers from the mosque next door while we waited to board the ferry to the small Perhentian island of Kecil. We checked in to the Lily Chalet and promptly joined a snorkeling group heading out for a day in the sun. Such an amazing little excursion, our trip included swimming with enourmous sea turtles, black tipped reef sharks, countless fish, giant clams, and what remained of the dying coral reef. Despite attempts to lube up with sunblock Julia and I both came home backs burnt to a crisp without a lick of sun on our fronts!

unforeseen events

feeble efforts

no one was hurt, but some lost everything

Due to unforeseen events we spent the following night at Moonlight Chalet with some new friends we made in the days excitement, then headed back to shore to see what else Malaysia had to offer. A day's break in Kota Bharu before another night bus led us to a corner cafe where we were met by the overwhelming kindness and hospitality of local Malays. The gentlemen running the cafe fed us well and shared stories about life and family, and the kind regulars let us use their computer buying us a meal and spending the afternoon deep in conversation before giving us a ride to our evening bus.

We are now in Penang in the northwest of penninsular Malaysia. There is much to see here, but today we will relax since the wild bus ride resulted in a sleepless night!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Motorbike days

Motorcycle GangSmiles on a bridge
Water buffalo and rice harvest.
Taking a break from the work of the day
Chinese Checkers

Red Zou women

My rear end is relieved to be back in the city! As for the rest of me? Well the 6 day journey through mountainous terrain was by far the highlight of this trip. We exited the overnight train into the cool misty morning of Lau Cai just a stone's throw from the Chinese border. After filling our tanks and our stomachs we headed straight to a local Red Zou village surprised to find the young women running to greet us. Denis and Gordon were here to deliver donated reading glasses to the older women so they could continue the delicate work of their handicrafts.

Dressed in deep blue garments with bands of detailed embroidery the women were eager to answer our questions and guide us in their town in hopes of selling some of their treasures. Of all the urban locations where we had run into language difficulties time and again it was quite a shock to find the teenage girls of this remote hill tribe answering every one of our questions in well versed English. I was adopted by four young girls one by the name of May Trang who pulled up the green leaves of the indigo plant and showed me how balling it up and rubbing it in the palm of your hand created the blue color predominant in the clothing of many of the hill tribe people. She described some of her experiences as we walked the dirt roads past wooden homes and terraces of rice. All young girls begin embroidery at the age of 8 and spend any spare time working in the craft when they are not in school. May hopes to someday continue her education through college and travel her home country before venturing into the rest of the world. No boyfriend yet at the age of 15 as the marrying age continues to increase and most women now marry between 18 and 25.

Back at our bikes "you buy from me," and "you buy from me next?" echoed through the crowd that had followed us through the town. Sad to leave these beautiful women I picked out a little bag made by May Trang and headed back on the road to Sapa.

We settled into our hostel and lunched on pho in a market filled with women of the Black Hmong tribe. Everywhere in town we saw representations of various hill tribes, most only identifiable by their traditional dress. We ventured through the town running various errands preparing for the longer days ahead and finished our night with a fantastic feast. With our beret topped host we learned to play chinese checkers and repeatedly made toasts with his homemade rice wine before stumbling into a small karaoke cafe where we humiliated ourselves (and by we I mean me) with painful renditions of ABBA and Flashdance!

Everyday we woke early and traveled long and far with new and more beautiful experiences around every turn. Vendors on the side of the road offered fruits and skewered snacks. The dwindling village of Old Lau Chau will soon be under water with the building of a new dam. The bizarre relocation projects strangely echo western suburban developments filling construction sites with a smattering of fairly traditional looking stilt houses.

We played copycat with children in the street and repeated "hellos" back to every person that recognized our foreign appearance. Rice workers in the fields invited us out to help with the harvest, people came out to meet us when we stopped near their path, and our last night was a home stay with a White Tai family in their beautiful stilt home. For the most part the road was paved and fairly easy, but large stretches of construction, dirt road, rains, mud, gravel, drastic changes in altitude, and finally big city traffic have all taken their toll, and it is very good to be back on my feet again. Tonight we will have one last traditional Vietnamese dinner with Huong's family before heading to Malaysia tomorrow. Kuala Lumpur awaits!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Hanoi and Halong Bay

Tour boats crowd a bay harbor.
Floating villages hide in among the thousands of limestone rocks.
Israel, Spain, Sweden, Englad, America, Canada have all made it to the top!
The dead animals fermenting in the wine are supposed to strengthen the libido.
Dragon Kiln steps.
Hoan Kiem Lake at night.
Herbs and noodles.

Hoi An turned out to be our Sin City as we indulged in the tailor shops before departing in shame with our overstuffed packs. Meandering alleyways dotted with oversized trees and ancient buildings in the Old Quarter surround our home in the city of Hanoi. Though overwhelmed with tourist agencies and souvenier shops we have found many charming hideaways for coffee and delicious dining experiences. Rice and rice noodles have taken a back seat to the varieties of world cuisine offered near where we stay.

We joined a 3 day tour to Halong Bay where we met a smattering of travelers from around the world all looking to enjoy the tranquil beauty of the limestone mammoths that rise straight up out of the north China Sea. We visited a cave, took a hike to the top of Cat Ba Island, played beach volleyball, and searched in vain for a karaoke bar.

Again back in Hanoi we are enjoying the comforts of Air Conditioned rooms, larger meals, and all the sights there are to see. Julia has even reconnected with a college roommate who calls Hanoi home. Huong has been a gracious host introducing us to a spread of local foods and a coffee shop hideaway where we enjoyed egg coffee on a rooftop overlooking the city!

Tomorrow we leave by overnight train to Sapa. We'll be motorbiking it all the way back to Hanoi visiting minority villages along the way!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Vietnam's Central Coastline

The ruins at My Son (pronounced ME Sun).
Stone wheels.
Julia and me with Charlie.
My Marble Mountain Guide.

We met two German couples on their way to Hoi An from the airport in Buon Me Thuot. A quick flight and taxi ride later we were sitting in an alleyway cafe enjoying the local Cau Lau dish only available here in the city of tailors and beach side resorts. Renting our own motorbike has been quite a treat. With the freedom to roam and the cooling effects of speed we made our way south to My Son archeological site where misty mountain tops loomed over ancient Cham structures oozing with mosses and detailed brick carvings. Only a few structures remain after U.S. bombs reduced many of the once magnificent shrines and palaces to piles of rubble while Viet Cong were based in the complex.

Just north of Hoi An we visited Marble Moutain, a small town teaming with scores of marble workers and their shops. Our stop in a very unassuming corner cafe turned out to be one of our most affecting encoutners. Charlie Hattling an American Vietnam War veteran joined us and honored us with his compelling story captivating us for hours on the details of his experience. Stationed not far from Marble Mountain he had returned to Vietnam multiple times to help put this part of his past behind him; befriending once Viet Cong locals and memorializing the images of his friends that had passed in the fighting in marble. Just this visit he was reunited with a girl he had once given 20 cents to buy clothes with. The last survivor in his mess of photographs from that time she remembered him promising to return and always thought of him as her boyfriend because of his rare kindness. His knowledge and experience has injected an added color and life into our experience of this country and I couldn't be more grateful for the opportunity to meet and call him friend.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Central Highlands

river woman

silk patterns

big bus and bridge

great elephant hunter's family

"you can xem voi here" (see elephants)



Buon Me Thuot Kick

suspension bridge

drying bamboo Separating the silk from the silk worms

Silk weaver


Duy Viet

Dalat was quite a treat situated near the highest altitudes in Vietnam we enjoyed cool temperatures and significantly less humidity. Our motorbike ride was mostly a success calculating traffic and traveling over 20km along narrow tightly winding roads. Rows of greenhouses filled with gerber daisies and roses were scattered nearly the entire way along our journey to the 30ft tall laughing buddha keeping watch over Elephant Falls set in front of lush mountains (very feng shui). We met a woman half French half Vietnamese weaving scarves and blankets made from silk acquired from the nearby factory. There you are able to see the whole process of creating the fabric from the worms to the machines that pour out patterns calculated through a primitive computer system reminiscent of the scrolls used in player pianos.

By recommendation from other travelers we made our way to the meandering alleyway of the Stop 'n' Go Cafe. Duy Viet, local poet, sculptor, caligrapher, and our host treated us to his homemade cherry tea, crowned us with flowers from his garden, and treated us to his musical talents while we enjoyed the hideaway reading his poems and quoted texts that he sells from his longtime home in the mountains. Being on the other side of the planet it was impressive to find postcards of Taos, NM artist Erin Currier's work hanging in his home complete with well wishes from the artist herself! It is a small world after all, isn't it?

I was sad to leave Dalat, but we have so much more to see so we hopped on the tourist bus to Buon Me Thuot farther north to visit the hill tribes. The tourist bus was worse than the public maybe because our driver on the single lane, badly maintained, and crazy winding roads drove like a bat out of hell nearly missing head on collisions at every turn. When we stopped in a completely dirt road town halfway through we thought it was all over. If the roads were dirt the rest of the way we surely would not have been able to hold our lunch! The stop was for restrooms and eating, but a local woman decided she wanted my bandanna and proceeded to buy me a fabric face mask that we see many of the locals wearing about to avoid fumes, dust, and maybe even smells. We made the trade and a brief but charming friendship before we left the town relieved to find the roads were once again paved just past the village.

Buon Me Thuot's bus station was quite a trek from the main town, but we made it 4km in the beating sun turning down moto and cab rides after our nauseating drive on the bus. Feeling the pressures of time we purchased flights to Danang for Monday and inquired about options for our two night stay here. We wanted to go to the village of Buon Don and visit the stilt house tribes in the area but all the guided tours were pretty far out of our price range. Unsure of how we would make it we took an easy morning with pastries and yogurt in the park nearby. Having observed many early morning groups of people in every town performing aerobic exercises we joined a small group of women in their routine clapping after every 10 count. Some of the movements were awkward and confusing, but all in all we moved our bodies in just about every way possible.

Desperate to avoid the bus experience from the previous day we saw a large orange bus filling with passengers and Julia decided to stop and inquire where they were going. The town of Buon Don! She simply asked if we could come along and within minutes we were seated in a comfortable bus full of Vietnamese business people touring the same route quoted to us by the tour companies the day before. Though we didn't understand the language of the tour translations were offered where possible by friends we met on the bus. Highlights include climbing a ladder where you held onto carved breasts, indigenous musical performances, wandering along a questionable suspended bridge, and visiting the home of a deceased elephant hunter whose secret wine recipe has been passed to his family members and made available for guests. The potent potion is said to have the strength and significance of "Viagra" according to our hosts translations. All in all a full day topped off by a haircut and highlights from Ty Anh hair salon whose small crowd of stylists would giggle and greet us in our native "hello" each time we pass.

Eager to help despite the language barrier and particularly generous outside of the most dense foreign tourist destinations, the people of this country have truly captured our hearts.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Traveling North

Mask Exchange

Crocodile Lake

Our first attempt at public transportation introduced us to the squat toilets you read so much about in the Lonely Planet. If that wasn't adventure enough for one day, we hopped on a public bus and buried ourselves in with people and their wares en route to Cat Tien National Park. After a tire change, car wash, and many stops to let people on and off, we were finally the last ones to be dropped at a rickety fruit stand at the edge of the Dong Nai River.

Co, our ferry driver, led us to the water where some local teenagers jumped at the chance to take pictures with us (well mostly of Julia, she's a bit of an attraction out here with her fair skin and yellow hair). The wooden ferry boat seats only 4 and takes you across the muddy flowing waters to a small encampment of cabins and canteens. Uncertain how to arrange a guide and select one of the many tours we took the opportunity to tag along with a family of Aussies on an overnight trek to crocodile lake. The 4km hike through dense forest and 100% humidity was uncomfortable but well worth the journey giving us an intimate look into the smaller creatures of the jungle before wandering onto a small network of boardwalks and stilted cabins. A crocodile looked on as we ate our dinner, but the highlight of our excursion was canoeing across the misty waters the following morning to investigate the jungle soundtrack and discover a wide range of exotic birds.

Early mornings and lots of questions have helped us cover ground via public transport. We met Co again on the way out of the park and were directed to a bus station in the town down the road. Meeting school children on the way eager to practice their English we found our stop without a hitch and three buses later, including the live chickens, the uncertain odors, and the piles of people, we poured out onto the cool streets of the mountain city of Dalat. I love it here.

Duc (sounds like 'Took'), our server at "My Town" Cafe, delivered a meal fit for kings and shared a touching story about his recent disappointments. Though he had been working seven days a week while his boss is out of town and recently breaking up with his girlfriend he said today he woke up washed all his clothes, cleaned up his house, and came to work and was so happy to meet us he thought "life is still good." Corny I know, but touching just the same. We expect to return this evening for another delicious meal. We want to give Duc a small gift from home in appreciation for the experience and privilage of that small glimpse into himself.

Today we take a motorbike to explore the city. Wish us luck!