Chilling in Chiang Mai

Mall at One Nimman

Craving warm weather to burn out the remnants of head and chest cold, I flew from Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai.

Back in Thailand after eight weeks of traveling in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, I felt as though I’d come out of an alternate universe and  back into the 21st century. Accorrding to the Bloomberg Misery Index which computes inflation and unemployment numbers, Thailand is “the least miserable country on earth.” Chiang Mai, “The Rose of the North,” is laid-back, easy, modern and clean. The Old City tourist district is encircled by a pretty fountain-filled moat and remnants of ancient, rust-red brick walls and packed with shopping, eating and entertainment options and dozens of opulent temples. Outside the Old City, Chiang Mai sprawls in the foothills of the majestic Shan Hills mountains – right now mostly obscured by smoke from burning rice fields. The main streets are wide and remarkably unpotholed,  blaring horns are a rarity rather than the norm. Literally everywhere you look there are streams of songthaews: small, covered long-bed Isuzu trucks with bench seats in the back. Red ones are for inner city while yellow, blue and green go to various outlying areas. Prices are agreed upon up front and are a bargain. The songthaews stop often to let passengers on or off but are a great way to get around. Tuk-tuks are also readily available at a slightly higher price.  Taxi cabs of the normal variety don’t seem to exist. The streets are calm enough and flat enough that renting motorbikes or bicycles is a viable option,  used by many. The weather this week is warm and dry and tourists in short shorts and halter tops peddle bikes or ride motorbikes comfortably along the wide streets.

Sidewalks, for pedestrian use (!), observed cross-walks and honest-to-gosh traffic police make walking around safe and simple; tasty food options are everywhere; hundreds of spas offer good quality massages; state-of-the-art hospitals are destinations for medical tourism offering gender reassignment surgery (or Gender Affirmation Surgery for the most up to date PC term), face lifts and other body treatments by highly skilled surgeons. The Maya Mall (or Maya Lifestyle Shopping Center), around the corner from my studio apartment in the cool Nimman district, has five floors of high-end Western, European and Asian stores and two huge food courts with well-priced food available in clean, air-conditioned spaces – a great option if you love street food but worry about sanitation. Botox and stem-cell injections and teeth whitening services are offered on a walk-in basis. The public bathrooms in this up-scale mall have Toto Japanese toilets that can wash and dry one’s nether regions at the push of a button (assuming you knew which button to push), and the state-of-the-art cineplex has first-run American movies in English with Thai subtitles. Missing home and my mother tongue, this was an irresistible draw for me and I went there every other evening I was in Chiang Mai, quickly learning to arrive half an hour after the posted start time to avoid the extra loud commercials. Before each show the giant screen fills with an announcement to stand for the Royal Anthem. Everyone in the theater stands up. The King’s static image is projected on the screen in several splendid poses and outfits with a background of various moving pictures of devoted subjects looking adoring up at him while a stirring Royal Anthem is played. A small price to pay for a Hollywood movie. If you pay top dollar ($12.) as I did for the premier of “Black Panther,” you get a separate theater with a fancy bar, the world’s cushiest adjustable seats – widely spaced and staggered – and a stewardess who brings you a large basket of popcorn, a cold drink and a blanket. As you leave any of the theaters you are saluted with a “wai” – the Thai gesture of respect – a slight bow with palms pressed together in prayer-like fashion. As each person  enters or leaves this huge mall they are saluted by a young, Thai man in uniform wearing white gloves. The daily greeting in Thai sounds like “sawatdee,” and you hear it all the time. In Laos the greeting is a musical “sa bai dee” – with eye contact and smiles. I love this part of the SEA culture and feel happy each time I give or receive such a greeting.

Tet Day One, Chiang Mai




Time is flying by. My return flights are all booked and tomorrow I begin Phase One of the long journey home, with a final ten days in northern Vietnam before my March 1 flight to Hong Kong and next day’s long flight from Hong Kong to LAX and then east to Albuquerque. And Home – to family and friends, green chile and big skies, brown earth (NM experiencing the driest winter in recorded history), cracked lips and broken fingernails, familiar and beloved scenery, favorite people and stories and laughter. My spirits are high but my energy is flagging. Traveling in SEA on one’s own is constant work –  challenging and exhilerating, exciting and exhausting.

Alone again after sister time, in need of comfort and love, I decided to do what many visitors to Thailand do: pay for it. Every day here in Chiang Mai I have treated myself to something luxurious. A veteran of street spas in SEA, I decided I’d had enough of that and found a five-star spa, the Oasis in the Old City, and booked a two hour, hot stone, aroma-therapy massage. They sent a car and uniformed driver to pick me up at the hotel. The car had spa music playing softly and smelled faintly of leather and of flowers. In the gorgeous lobby I was served hot tea and scones and “waied” by beautifully dressed Thai young ladies before being ushered into a private (!), sound-proof suite with all the accoutrements of fine spas. The table was soft, the linens immaculate and smelling of lavender. A fountain trickled the soothing sound of falling water, and the massage was everything I’d hoped it would be. Fresh fruit, a tiny petit-four  and a smooth, silent ride “home” left me floating on air. My last “spa” experience, in Luang Prabang, was with Anne. She opted for a foot massage while I had a manicure/pedicure from a sweet young man who had clearly never done one in his life and kept painting pretty much my whole toe and then taking all the polish off, smiling appologetically and starting over. When the young woman who was in charge of nails finally came back from lunch or wherever she had been, she did the most slap-dash job in the history of the world, barely looking while she snipped and filed – then ran off to check out her cell phone. While I was undergoing this treatment I was watching the young woman who was massaging my sister’s feet and calves. She would work on Anne’s feet with one hand and with the other, smash flies against the window, returning that hand to the job after smearing fly juice off on the glass. Oh yeah! This was not at all typical. While street massages are usually pretty bare bones (“private”means a curtain is drawn between you and the customer next to you) – they are strong and good. But this was the last straw for me. Time to pay more. Other self-indulgent luxuries in Chiang Mai included a swim in the roof-top infinity pool of a boutique hotel followed by Happy Hour cocktails while the sun set over the city; a Japanese dinner of world-class sushi; and the afore mentioned movie premier. All of this plus a week in a high-rise apartment building with modern studio apartment and daily maid service – has put me back on my feet feeling relaxed, happy, and ready for more.

When I am still and I close my eyes, a cinematic montage from the last ten weeks unfurls in my mind. Thousands of images, voices, faces and bodies, moments, places, conversations and points of view, colors and sounds – even smells and tastes – vie for attention behind my eyelids, in my mind. I fall asleep at night into dreams  peopled with a whole new world mixed into the stew of the old. My conscious mind is filled with fresh facts plus a thousand questions I’m eager to research when I actually have a computer, good wifi, and time.  Being more of a sensualist than an intellectual I learn more from seeing, hearing, touching, feeling and tasting a reality, than from sitting in a room reading material disconnected from what I’m experiencing. Now I have a backlog of contextual experiences that open doors to rooms full of subjects I’m eager to learn more about. I’m wide open to filling in the enormous gaps in my knowledge and understanding of these fascinating lands and am frustrated by my inability to speak the languages and really talk to the locals. Time seems to be stretching out and snapping back like a rubber band. One day I race around trying to inhale every  sight, scent and nuance I can before I have to leave; the next day I feel as though I’ve been here forever and will never make it back to the familiar.

With two weeks to go I realize that Chiang Mai has been a great place to reboot, but that I want my last two weeks to be in a grittier part of SEA, but tempered by nicer accommodations. I book a flight back to Hanoi. In the Gem Premier Hotel in the old part of the city – a big step up from my usual digs with a glass-walled shower with rain head, makeup mirror and great reading lights by the duvet-covered, soft bed – the young travel agent for the hotel helps me find just the right trip to northern Vietnam – where I will visit Sapa and the northern hill-tribe villages. He arranges a drive there in a mini-van, a stay in a “fancy” hotel in Sapa, and a private Hmong guide to take me trekking in the mountains and hill-towns with Sunday in the tribal markets and a night train back to Hanoi.

“I’m going to be by myself?” I ask him – since usually you go with a group. “You are old,” he explains in a gentle voice, looking directly into my eyes. “We want to take good care of you. This way you can stop hiking whenever you want to and go back to your hotel for a nap!” Swallowing my pride (“old?!?!”) I think about this, decide it is a good idea and sign on.

Love, Loss and Laos

Riverside Lodge, Luang Prabang

I haven’t posted in a while due to (1) total immersion in family (more on this soon) and then (2) getting sick with bronchial infection. Now family and cough are gone and I’m on my own again in Luang Prabang. Internet service is frustratingly slow everywhere I try to use it, so I’m  writing in a notebook and adding to online blog when possible.

This laid-back town in northern Laos was the perfect place to be sick. My sister Anne and I both flew here from Hanoi after parting from sister Helen and partner Doug following a great time together in Hanoi and Ha Long Bay. We settled down in a beautiful room on the second floor of the Riverside Lodge. Glass doors opened onto large, private balcony with views across the Mekong; a comfy king bed, hardwood floors and furniture, coved cedar ceilings,  a perfect tub set up high enough for river views while bathing, plus a sweet staff and good breakfasts made our week pleasant in spite of hacking coughs, intermittent fevers and low energy. LP is the easiest place I’ve been in SEA. Wrap-around rivers hold it tight. Turn a corner and yet another charming neighborhood is revealed with Indochine villas, gilded wats, tiny boutiques, spas, cafes and street markets. Tropical flowers tumble down the hillsides, Buddhist monks in tangerine robes splash color onto the streets, gigantic Staghorn ferns sprout from tree trunks and fruits I don’t know the names of spill from luxuriant limbs. Good food, from fancy French to local Lao, from street stalls to white tablecloth restaurants,  is plentiful and very affordable. Smiling young women at smoothie stands make fresh, tropical fruit concoctions; hot buttery crepes, coconut waffles and crispy baguettes tempt passersby. Mekong whiskey, smooth and mild, costs less than beer. The Night Market sets up at dusk with vendors selling colorful crafts and hand embroidered Lao clothing on woven mats under temporary tents and cheerfully painted tuk-tuks wait nearby to take you wherever you don’t want to walk.

For the first few days, aside from getting up before dawn one day to watch the silent, flame-colored monks receive alms of sticky rice, we only left the room to find food or totter along the riverfront to watch the Mekong slide by. When our coughs finally began to subside we went to Ock Pop Tok – a textile cooperative outside of town. Hillary, a young woman friend of Anne’s son Ezra, lives and works there and she met us for lunch, sharing her knowledge of the town and the culture and also introduced us to a friend of hers who had just recovered from what we were dealing with who kindly gave us a list of helpful drugs, all available nearby from the English-speaking pharmacist.

As we improved, Anne and I ventured further afield, spending an idyllic day with rescued Asian elephants at the Mandalao Elephant Sanctuary (also recommended by Hillary) learning about these thrilling creatures from scientists and mahouts – giving them bucket showers in the Khan River, feeding them bananas and sugar cane, petting them, admiring Baby Kit, and walking with them for several hours along shady forest trails. This excellent company was started by a couple of young men from Colorado a little over a year ago as an antidote to the other businesses that sponser elephant rides and practices that cause pain and suffering to these gentle giants. Who knew that elephant testes are high up in their backs? No dangling participles on these fellows. Riding on elephant chairs damages them. We saw scars, lumps and marks on the backs of these beauties, rescued from tourist and logging businesses, and now set free to live out the rest of their lives in this paradise with all the good food they can eat,  no sticks or hooks used in their care, only food incentives and voice commands from the mahouts who attend them. This conservation center is doing an amazing job of educating the local Lao people, the school children and the farmers about the benefits of having elephants in the ‘hood, as well as compensating the farmers to grow the massive amounts of organic fruits and vegetables used to feed them. Laos, once known as Land of One Million Elephants, is now home to around 1000. Poaching, theft of the babies, ill-treatment and abuse, wars and poverty have taken a terrible toll on the elephant population and it was wonderful to see such a compassionate, positive and progressive place after previously only seeing elephants enslaved and at work.

The following day we were picked up in a new van by Mr. Sai (recommended by our Mahout Guide Keum) and driven over range after range of mountains to Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars. Along the way we stopped in several of the mountain villages to walk through the markets and eat freshly made cream-filled donuts and a tasty, crisp, white-fleshed river fish that had been stuffed with herbs, chilis and salt and grilled over coals. The villages were perched high on the spines of mountains and the day we were there were cocooned in mist. Peopled by a variety of hill tribes, the women wore distinctive, colorful head gear and hand embroidered ethnic skirts. There was an other-worldly feel to this high country, appearing and then disappearing into the fog, and the jewel-toned head gear looked fabulously bright against the dark green mountains. Hmong houses of unpainted boards and steep, coconut palm roofs were strung along the highway wherever there was a piece of flat land to put them on – and small, latice-walled, thatched roofed huts were cantilevered over precipeces with drop-offs to hundreds of feet below. Someday I want to travel to northern Laos and see more of this gorgeous place and these beautiful people, but soon I’m heading back to Thailand to spend my last few weeks where the weather suits my clothes.

These days I am awash in memories of Alec, who was my first Big Trip companion. So much that I see reminds me of places we went together, things we saw, times we shared.

We met in high school when we were fifteen, married at twenty-three and set off in a VW bus (that Alec converted to a custom camper) on a six month trip from Santa Monica down the peninsula of Baja California and around Mexico. This was in the 1960’s and there was no road down Baja then and just one, devilishly confusing map – just sand tracks that led off in all directions or rocky, rutted trails over steep mountains. Traveling with two friends, Ralph and Rick – also in a VW Van – we had the place almost to ourselves. Bahia Concepcion was completely empty. San Ignacio was a village where dates dried in the sun and dogs lay in the middle of the road. We seldom got the vehicles out of first gear, were thrilled when we could “race” along in second. Occasionally a woman in a palm-thatched palapa would sell us a dozen eggs or a newspaper wrapped stack of tortillas, but mostly we ate fish we caught and packaged or canned goods. In Mulege we traded our old scooter for a week of lobster dinners in the kitchen of an enterprising couple. When the new owner asked how to stop the scooter, the brakes were gone, Alec told him, “run into a dog!”

It took us a month to get to La Paz, every day sun drenched and sea soaked, nights made up of stars and bonfires of the lit skeletons of boojum trees and quiet floats in phosphoscent water, mornings spent fishing for corvina in waves tinted by crimson dawns.

We took the ferry from La Paz to Puerta Vallarta ( a sleepy village then) and explored much of Mexico, going as far south as the road would take us – ending in the jungles of Quintana Roo where “chic-leros” were hacking down vines and trees with machetes and setting dynamite charges to continue the road south. Cancun was in the distant future and the road now goes as far as the Darien Gap in Panama where it’s stopped by the still impenetrable jungle.

Traveling north from the Yucatan we got to the US border in Brownsville, Texas six months after we’d left home.

Circumnavigating the southern border of the US we drove to New York where we lived for a year on the lower east side, leaving once to hitchhike to California and across the trans-Canadian highway from west to east. After NY we lived in a little cabin in the redwoods near Occidental, CA, while Alec made silk-screen prints and hawked them in the streets of San Francisco. Leaving there in the spring we met up with Ralph again who had been working with Yvon Chouinard experimenting on making rock climbing gear in his mother’s garage in the San Fernando Valley. In the Tetons, Ralph and Alec worked construction and tried out this new-fangled climbing gear while I served food and drinks at the Cowboy Bar in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. When winter came we took our savings and went to Europe, bicycling from Paris to the south of Spain and camping for a month on the Gold Coast near Almeria before buying a Bultaco motorcycle (I was pregnant with Oban by then) to ride through Morocco.

Alec died two weeks ago. There isn’t a day here in SEA that I don’t think of our time together, of everything I learned from and with him on those magical mystery tours of our youth. To me he seemed completely fearless, incredibly strong and accomplished. He was insatiably curious, could and would talk to anyone, say anything, ask anything, go anywhere. He taught me to be a braver person and our travels instilled in me an enduring trust in the basic goodness of humanity.

One day, in particular, stands out in my memory. It was our second day in Tangiers…..   We were staying deep in the casbah in a two-durham-a-night (.50) hotel room – the Bultaco parked by the bed. The first day we’d been accosted by hustlers all day and were conned into paying for an expensive dinner ($6.) with a couscous feast and a belly dance performance by a dancer of uncertain gender. Regrouping in the room the next afternoon, we talked about leaving Morocco and returning to the ease of Europe. I was experiencing morning sickness and unsure about the rigors of traveling on to Marrakech.  “Let’s get back out there,” Alec said. “There’s so much more to see.” And we did. After wandering the crowded, fascinating warren of lanes for hours, we stopped in a smoky, local shish-ke-bob place deep in the covered confines of the old casbah where we met a young man who befriended us and took us even deeper into that exotic world. We visited rooms of whirling dervishes, rooms with djellaba-wearing men playing music on ouds and rababs and kamenjahs, climbed stairs to visit hashish dens and sipped glasses of sweet mint tea in several cafes. And so much more.  As the sky was beginning to lighten in the east, our young friend led us back to our hotel and hugged us “goodbye.” Alec asked him as we were parting: “Why were we left alone today when yesterday we were hustled?” Our friend said, “We see you. Some people know how to walk and some people don’t. You know.”

Alec knew how to walk.

Morning Market in the Mountains






Hoi An to Hue to Ninh Binh

Lanterns of Hoi An
Old Town, Hoi An


An overnight ride on the Reunification Railway brought me to Ninh Binh from Hue where I’m relaxing in a peaceful inn on a back road in the little village of Tam Coc. The scenery is idyllic and stunning: limestone karsts push high above lush, tropical fruit-filled gardens, while the many lakes, rice paddies and quiet country lanes lined with small, ancient houses, courtyards and coffee houses remind me, for some reason, of southern Italy.

Couple, Hoi An

I’m tired, and happy to be someplace peaceful. The Reunification Railway car where I spent the night could use a scrubbing with lye and boiling hot, soapy water and the “white” sheets on my bunk bed looked better in the dark than they did in the daylight. My First Class VIP ticket gave me a bottom berth in a compartment with four “soft-sleeper” beds. Only the other bottom bed was occupied – by a young man who nodded his head curtly to my “hello” before turning his back and inserting his ear buds.  Doing my best to get comfortable on the narrow, hard mattress I lay awake for hours, unable to sleep, as the train moved slowly north. The sounds of the train were soothing but the motion was jerky and I was tossed and bounced and thrown against the wall repeatedly. Around 2AM, desperate to pee, I got up and went out to find a bathroom.  Between each car there are two cubicles with toilets. The jouncing of the train insures that the seat and floor are well and truely puddled and the tiny space requires one to have the dexterity of a ballet dancer or an acrobat since, to close and/or open the door you have to straddle or climb on top of the commode. All of this while the train lurches and rocks and rolls.

Back in the berth I eventually managed to drift off, waking up briefly at each of the many stops.  Just before dawn my roommate left the train in the company of a dozen other young soldiers – at what was clearly an army base – leaving me by myself in the compartment. Relieved to be alone, I ate three, small tangerines, cleaned up as best I could, and, as the sun rose, watched the rice paddies emerge through the mist – workers in their cone hats already bending over the flooded fields.

Young men pushing carts loaded with hot noodles, snacks, coffee and tea, opened my compartment door, asked what I wanted, and handed me a steaming cup of black coffee. By 10:30, after more than 12 hours on the train, I jumped off in Ninh Binh, found my driver who identified himself by showing me my name on his phone, and was driven to Tam Coc and deposited at the Westlake Mountain Homestay where I was greeted by young, beautiful Mrs. Phuong, given a cup of hot tea and ushered into a large room with the best bed I’ve had in SEA. After purusing the town, having an early dinner at The Orchid Cafe, enjoying a good night’s sleep, breakfast, and a climb up a karst to take in the view and see the lovely Dong Pagoda, I’m revived and ready to think back over my action-packed week.

Basket Boats

Set in a tiny alley near Old Town, the Dream City Hotel in Hoi An is new, modern, clean, comfortable and run by sweet young things who have been well trained in western tastes. Coming in after being out and about I would be met by one beaming face or another saying, “Hi Nan!  How ARE you? I missed you!” It’s completely impossible not to beam back.

When I first arrived in SEA I avoided tourist places. In Vietnam I’m grateful for them. English is spoken, there is understandable signage, restaurants have menus with dishes written in two languages and pictures of the dishes, there are pharmacies of a sort, and mini-marts, and did I mention that English is spoken?! This is the first time I’ve traveled to a part of the world where, with the exception of “Women,” “thank you” and a slowly growing list of food and drink items, I can’t read,  speak or understand word one of the language.  I didn’t realize how much harder that makes traveling. Thai and Cambodian people speak a lot more English than the Vietnamese, so here it’s only in the major tourist areas that I can actually speak and be spoken to and not have to rely heavily on charades – though I’ve gotten pretty good at that.

Three Crones In A Garden

Hoi An sits on the long, wide Thu Bon River which drains into the South China Sea. Since the 15th century, this location as well as the prevailing winds and the abundant treasures of the Orient, made this a premier international port for traders from all over Europe and Asia, and especially from China and Japan.  These Asian merchants built settlements here which still exist and the Old Town is a beautiful collection of ancient buildings stretching back from and along the waterfront. Designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1999, the city has painstakingly preserved more than 800 old buildings, all painted in the traditional French Colonial ochre color, and is carefully restoring more. The common tangles of wires are being buried, flowering trees and vines flourish and hundreds of beautiful, locally made silk lanterns hang over the lanes. At night their lights look like jewels in the sky. Blessedly, the main streets are off-limit to motorized vehicles, making it easy to walk. The down-side of this beauty, of course, is that it attracts tourists by the thousands and has driven the original inhabitants to the outlying parts of the city.

School Children, Hoi An
Children on School Outing

I took two organized tours while I was there: one through Da Nang to the immense Buddha-filled caverns in Marble mountain – and then on to see the great Chinese pagodas, views of the South China Sea and the huge statue of the Lady Buddha on Monkey Mountain – and the next day a seven hour tour on the back of a motor scooter to nearby islands and villages. The scooter tour was a fascinating glimpse of the “real” Hoi An. My driver and guide, Lucy, and her friends Kim and Trung (who drove the couple from L.A. who were also on the tour) were natives of the villages and drove us slowly down the raised, narrow pathways between the bright green rice paddies – weaving around water buffalo and scattering flocks of white egrets – over the many bridges crossing the river and canals and through the twisting lanes of Cam Thanh fishing village, on to Tra Que – an organic farming village – then to Thanh Ha, a pottery-making village, and then to a mat-weaving village and finally through a water coconut plantation. Tea and snacks were offered to us in a home in each village, giving us a chance to meet the artisans, admire their work and learn a bit about their lives. These island villages flood every year, at least once and often a dozen times. The houses are made of plaster-covered brick and are two stories high. When the typhoons rage and the river rises, the water can climb a meter or even two up the walls and everyone retreats to the second floor where they live until the water recedes – using their windows as entrances and exits and their basket boats to get to high ground. When the flood waters go down there is the resultant intense cleanup. And this happens often.

Rainy Market Day, Hoi An
Fifteenth Century Chinese Building

Our last stop was Kim’s home where three generations of her family have made their living making rice noodles for the last fifty years. Her grandmother, now 87, began making rice noodles when she was thirteen. She is an adorable woman, who hugged me and admired my teeth (she has only a few left) and my hair. The old women we met all related to me in the sweetest way, patting my cheeks, holding my hands in theirs, talking non-stop to me. Without one common word we related to each other just fine – though I have never wished more that I could speak the language. I wanted to sit in these tropical gardens with these lovely women for days and hear all their stories.

Kim’s mother, like so many Vietnamese women, works incredibly hard every day of her life. She gets one day off on “Tet Holiday.” The rest of the year she’s up by 2AM to soak, rinse and grind the rice for that day’s product. Restaurant owners start arriving to buy from her at 5AM and families come to shop for their day’s cooking soon after. Trong, a student at Danang University, was the third young man I’ve met to tell me that the women in Vietnam do most of the hard work while the men often sit on the street sipping endless “ca phes” and playing cards. Lucy’s parents are rice farmers and work from before sunrise to sunset, knee-deep in water and mud, bent over from the waist. According to Lucy, the government owns the rice paddies and gives sections to families to farm. How large a section depends upon how many family members there are to work it. The sections are divided by raised mud berms and the fields are criss-crossed with six foot high, packed earth pathways, large and strong enough to support the working water buffalo and the ever-present motorbikes. At harvest time, a percentage of the profit goes to the government. Lucy tells me that she won’t marry – she will stay with her parents and help them rather than moving into her husband’s house to take care of his family. The oldest son in a family is responsible for his parents care and Lucy, her brother, her divorced sister and her 2 year old daughter,  live in a small three room house together: the son has his own room which he will share with his wife when he gets married, Lucy shares a room with her sister and niece and the parents sleep in the living room. Divorce, once not possible, is now more common. When I asked if her sister’s ex-husband pays “child support,” she said that he is supposed to but doesn’t.

Kim’s Grandmother, aged 87.

Young men are all required to serve in the military for two years, unless they have severe health problems or don’t meet the height requirements. This must be quite a low bar as the Vietnamese are generally slight of build and short of stature. I have yet to see an over-weight person in SEA: the hard work and the healthy diet – long on vegetables and short on fats, dairy, sugar or processed foods -make it hard to put on extra pounds. I’ve read, though, that in Thailand where KFC, Krispy Kreme and every other western chain has staked a claim, obesity and diabetes are gaining ground.

Kim in her family home. Sister in the background rinsing rice.

Lucy, Kim and Trong are each the first members of their families to go to university. Learning English, they tell me, is key to success in present-day Vietnam and no matter what the job, if you have passed an English proficiancy exam your chances of being hired are greater than if you haven’t. In the cities students begin learning English in the third grade. In the country, schools begin teaching it in secondary school. The older people may speak French as a second language but the young people are hard at work learning English.

According to USA today, Vietnam has a fast-growing, vibrant economy and hopes and plans to be a “developed” country by 2020. Danny Balo, the young owner of the guest house I stayed in in Can Tho, worries that too much of the “old” Vietnam is being destroyed in it’s furious rush to join the modern world.

Yes, Vietnam is a one-party, authoritarian, officially communist country but it’s founding idealogy appears all but gone from the hearts of the people. “Vietnam, in fact, may actually be one of the most pro-capitalist countries on earth” says Forbes Magazine. Clearly, it is thriving.

The Japanese Covered Bridge, Hoi An

Sleepless in Saigon


Old Post Office Saigon
Ceiling of Post Office designed by Gustave Eiffel

Desperate for a comfortable bed after weeks of sleeping on what felt like sheets over mattress-sized paperback books, I doubled my hotel budget and booked the Saigoneer Hotel, located down a picturesque alley in District 1, in central Saigon. The reviews I read on stressed the comfortable beds here. I think of my dad who often used to say, “It’s all relative.” My sleep patterns have been messed up for a month with at least a couple of hours wide awake time in the middle of each night, but since I’m not on a schedule it doesn’t really matter much. Still, I was hoping for a solid night’s sleep.

A taxi took me from the bus station on the outskirts of the city to the hotel and  I stayed there for five nights, if not sleeping then at least getting some rest, watching TV, having laundry done, shopping, re-organizing my packing, researching the next leg of my trip, doing some writing and photo editing and, of course, exploring.

Saigon (officially named Ho Chi Minh City, but no one calls it that) is a huge city exploding with energy. Rivers of motobikes swarm the streets like fast moving schools of fish. There are sidewalks (unlike Cambodia) but these too are crowded with thousands of parked and moving bikes and scooters as well as large and small cafes and stationary and walking vendors selling food, sunglasses, tours, fruit and nuts, hats – everything you can imagine. And don’t think you are safe from getting run over just because you’re not in the street: bikes come whizzing down the sidewalks, out of alleys and parking garages and up from the street, constantly.  After a few close misses I’m getting better at negotiating this melee using a constantly swiveling head and following closely in the lee of well-practiced natives when I cross the boulevards. Or I’ll pick one of those impossibly tall  Dutch boys to tag along after, doing everything but holding onto their shirttails and hoping they won’t fall on me if they get hit. The  rules are the same as they are in Rome: start out slowly, keep going at a steady pace with  no changes of speed or direction. Don’t run and no sudden moves. The drivers are judging where you will be when they reach you and they are good at it.

Opera House
Crabs in Ben Thanh Market




On Day 2 – after a tasty hotel-provided breakfast of tiny, sweet bananas, strong hot coffee and Vietnamese Pho with all the trimmings – I gathered up my nerve and took to the streets: got lost, got found, got lost, got found, toured the big tourist sites including the huge Ben Thanh open market, the French cathedral of Notre Dame, the stunning French Post Office designed by Gustave Eiffel and built in the late 1800s, the beautifully restored Opera House, the fancy upscale malls and the glitzy boutiques along the big boulevards. The main traffic circle in city center is being completely re-done and is now a maze of fences twenty feet high with vaguely suggested walkways around them. When it’s finished I’m sure it will be an attractive addition to the cityscape but now it’s even harder to navigate than the roadways since you can’t see across, through or around this blue plastic-sheeted monolith.


Saigon Street Market




Street Vendor

In the late afternoon, hot, sweaty and thirsty I wandered in a non-direct way back towards the hotel. Randomly choosing to explore one tiny alley in the warren of teeming streets in District 1, I was shocked to hear my name called out, loudly. Turning around I saw the smiling faces of Brendan and Ray, my buddies from Ha Tien! They were sitting at a table on the street with some friends of theirs (Chris and Lorie), all heading to Phu Quoc island the next day. I spent the evening with these jolly fellows, drinking “bi-a” and trying their favorite street foods, comparing notes on our travel experiences, and laughing a whole lot. All these guys are old SEA hands, having lived here, worked here or visited here for decades. They taught me a few important words in Vietnamese, hand gestures for “I don’t want any,” (hold your right arm out bent at elbow with fingertips up and rotate your hand in circular  motion back and forth), how to convert centigade temperatures to fahreheit (double the number and add 32 and you’ll be close enough), tips for getting a good berth on the sleeping buses (insist politely on what you want and don’t move out of the way until you get it) and other helpful methods of getting your needs met without causing any Vietnamese man to loose face – a big deal here. Confrontations are not a good idea. Since I had a 21 hour bus ride to Danang in a few days, this advice was particularly valuable.

With the boys from Ha Tien

The thing I miss most about traveling alone is being able to laugh.  I love to laugh, and you can’t just walk down the street laughing to yourself – it isn’t done and it isn’t fun. Hence, it was great to get caught up in the laugh department. I was sorry to say “goodbye” at the end of the evening.

Some things I love about traveling alone: I’m more open and available to talking to and meeting strangers, there’s no negotiating what I want to do or how I want to do it or where I want to go or when, no worrying about whether my companion is at ease or distressed or having a good time, etc. Living alone as I do I’m used to and comfortable with my own company and I have been surprised, this trip, to find that I’m mostly too busy and too absorbed in what’s going on around me to be lonely. Not always though. My last couple of days in Saigon weren’t restful but stressful and I confess to feeling adrift – missing friends and family, the comforts of home and the English language.

On my last day in Saigon I went to the War Remnants Museum – until relatively recently called the “American War Crimes Museum.” I knew it was going to be rough but still wasn’t prepared for the room after room of photos of horrors, most of them larger than life-sized and incredibly graphic: American GIs torturing and killing Vietnamese men, women and children; children walking through deforested jungles looking like lost souls on another planet; and dozens of images of diseased and deformed human beings – the result of dioxin in Agent Orange.  I ran out of there past the piles of weapons and ordance set to the sound effects of incoming mortar fire.

War Remnants Museum
War Museum



The bus I’d booked to Danang on line was just where it was supposed to be in spite of the Saigoneer hotel manager expressing doubt when I asked her to print out my ticket for me. She was clearly worried. “You shouldn’t book on line. They might cheat you.” And, “Don’t drink water. They won’t stop for you!”

I was the only non-Asian person on the “Sleeper Bus.” Later I learned that this bus was going all the way to Hanoi with stops in Danang and Hue. This wasn’t the new, cushy tourist night bus I’d ridden on before – but it wasn’t crowded and my seat was on the lower level and right behind the driver so I had a good view of the brilliant green rice paddies and the curving coast line before dark brought down the curtain. The seats on these buses are reclined almost 180 degrees –  flat enough to sleep on and not be uncomfortable – at least for someone my size. An older Vietnamese woman had the center seat/bed  next to me and, lucky for me, she was a kind, care-taking type. When we stopped for dinner she beckoned me over to the table she  was sitting at and made sure I had chopsticks and paper napkins and offered me rice and a bowl and then plates of our communal food (included in the price of the bus ticket). Two other women and one young man sat with us. None of them spoke a word of English. One of the young women looked like she had been crying and ate nothing in spite of being encouraged by my new friend, and the young man tried to talk to me using sign language and gestures and I responded the best I could. The meal consisted of chicken stewed in a yellow sauce, greens cooked in broth, pickled cabbage, grilled sardines and a small, crunchy vegetable I’d never seen before served with a spicy dip. Healthy, simple fare. At the end of the meal my friend passed around a baby food jar full of toothpicks and we all sat there in companionable silence working over our teeth.

Back in the bus we settled down for the night, pulling on socks and sweaters, adjusting our assigned pillows and the fleece blankets decorated with teddy bears, and getting as comfortable as we could manage. I took a nibble of an Ambien, and another nibble at 2AM, and, earpods in and hooked up to an episode of “This American Life” I slept for twelve hours.

In the morning we stopped at the usual open fronted, sheet-metal-covered restaurant to use the squat toilet, wash up and brush our teeth and have an inferior bowl of pho – then got back on the bus for the ride up the east coast of Vietnam . My friend handed  me a small, sweet orange that I peeled and ate, and then she passed me a damp towel for my hands. I smiled at her kind face and said a heartfelt “Cam on” in what I hoped sounded like Vietnamese. She smiled back.

In late morning the bus driver pulled to a stop near what I thought was the main bus terminal in Danang and motioned for me to get off. I was slow in responding, thinking everyone was going to disembark and I’d have plenty of time to gather my belongings, but not so –  it was just me. My friend and other folks seated near me began loudly and urgently to tell me to get off – this was my stop! I struggled into my backpack and shoes (you can’t wear shoes on the buses – you are given a plastic bag to put your shoes in and offered slip-on sandals from a basket), waved “goodbye” and jumped down into the road.

Immediately, a moto driver accosted me, begging me to hire him for the ride to Hoi An. Since I kept walking towards the bus station, he kept lowering his price. Finally, knowing this was a good deal, and preferring not to have to navigate another bus station, (and not realizing how far away Hoi An was) I agreed. The old fellow handed me the usual much-too-big helmut which I fastened loosely under my chin and we were off. After half an hour of riding through Danang and along the coast of the South China Sea, clutching the bike seat with one hand and my floppy helmut with the other, somehow, using his language skills and my iphone with hotel reservation on it plus the good will of several Hoi An shopkeepers, we found the Dream City Hotel – an absolute gem of a place. I may never leave.

Tourist Sleeper Bus





Mekong Delta

Boats on the Mekong Delta



General Store on the Mekong

Danny, the young Vietnamese owner of the Balo Guesthouse in Can Tho, set me up with a tour of the floating markets in the delta just minutes after I arrived from the bus station.  I was to be down in the loby at 4:50AM the next morning. Two other people had already booked and there was a four person max on this tour, so with me and the tour guide we were set. I settled into my room and then took off on foot to explore the neighborhood and find food before dark. Walking the streets of Can Tho I settled on Dao Hoa Dao – a seafood place on a back street where you pick what you want from aerated tanks, they pull it out with a net and take it to the grill guy up front who cooks it quickly over hot charcoal. I chose giant prawns, several of which popped out of the net before he could snatch them. Scrambling after them across the floor, he nabbed the fiesty fellows and asked me how many? I held up four fingers. Done deal. And delicous with garden lettuce and vegetables, a mountain of herbs, fresh lime jucie and salt. And a Saigon Special beer.


I went to bed early, woke up, showered and packed my little feather weight day pack with things I thought I might need for the day: hat, sun screen, Deet, shorts, flipflops, umbrella for sun or rain, money, phone/camera, and water. Since it was chilly on the water before the sun rose I wore long pants and a long sleeved white shirt and tennies. As usual the whole process of getting to the right boat with the right people in a huge, chaotic crowd and in the dark was a bit confusing but, as usual, it all worked out. When I actually caught myself, at Angkor Wat, worrying whether the sun would rise on time, I  knew it was time to let it all go and just trust that, even though things aren’t done in the ways I’ m used to, they work here.

Johanna and Oscar, the Swiss couple from Geneva I was paired with, were the best company I could have hoped for. Our 23 year old guide (“call me Remy, my name is unpronounceable to you”) was super cute, very sweet, fluent in English and French, and turned out to be the greatest guide ever. The four of us talked non-stop for the 7 hour tour, discussing everything from communism to catfish, and I think we all learned a lot about Vietnam, Switzerland, the USA, and the similarities and differences in the way things are done in these three countries. I know I did.

Fabulous guide, Remy
Cai Rang floating market



Our boatman motored us slowly up the wide Mekong (also known as the Nine Dragon River) in the dark, the large moon still hanging in the western sky and reflecting in a wide golden path on the surface of the river. Our goal was the floating market of Cai Rang, the largest in the delta. A swarm of other tourist boats of all sizes cruised in a huge school around us.

Sunrise on the delta

When we got to Cai Rang, straining our eyes to see, the sky began to lighten in the east. A dramatic sunrise, the sky full of mauve and apricot and gold, backlit the traditional wooden cargo boats – unpainted except for a bright red bow ornament with a pair of white and black rimmed eyes “to watch the path” and a painted anchor for a nose and mouth. Our boat was a long-tailed outboard. I’ve copied a bit of  description from a site called which has detailed information of the boats of the Mekong. “In the small boats of Can Tho, the combination of two long oars worked across the body and a long-tailed outboard is the propulsion of choice.” Our boatman used the oars very skillfully in close quarters and turned on  the 5 horse engine when we weren’t mobbed by other boats. In his spare time he wove decorative jewelry and ornaments out of coconut palms for us and handed us plates of local fruits and rice based treats for us to try. Remy had him stop at a banh mi boat for breakfast sandwiches and later, a coffee boat for cups of the local brew. Oscar and I like ours black and strong and hot, rather than the local favorite served with sweetened, condensed milk and ice. This was not a problem. Vietnam is the largest coffee exporter in the world and their coffee is so good! I kept thinking someone had put a splash of Kahlua in my cup or some other flavoring, but no, it’s just so rich and flavorful you think there must be more than just ground beans in there. Coffee (ca phe) is everywhere – from fancy western chains to zillions of tiny shops fronting the streets or a woman carrying coffee, ice and cups on the back of her bicycle – there’s no problem finding the good stuff when you’re in the mood. Draft beer (bia hoi) or bottled beer (bia) made in Vietnam, is likewise plentiful and delicious. Not as strong as what we’re used to, but a refreshing drink in this hot climate.

Banh Mi lady

After cruising the picturesque market and taking picutres of the boats piled high with pineapples or watermelons or cabbages or mangoes and oranges, loaded with fish or wood or flowers or conical hats and scarves, we chugged into one of the thousands of small canals that weave through this enormous delta and stopped at a small settlement where rice noodles were being made. The southern part of Vietnam grows 2/3rds of the rice the country uses and exports, and the local “wet” market stalls sell an enviable selection of different kinds of rice as well as mountains of rice noodles. Who knew rice noodles were made by cooking huge rice crepes on steel disks heated with fires made from the chaff,  drying them in the sun on bamboo racks for several days and then putting them through a machine that cuts them into the familiar noodle strips? I’ll never eat another rice noodle without appreciating what goes into them.

Rice noodle cakes drying before slicing

Later we toured a lush fruit farm irrigated by man made canals of Mekong water, and were introduced to the plants that grow dragon fruit and many other exotic fruits and flowers. The Mekong river starts in the mountains of Tibet and runs down to southern Vietnam where it empties into the South China Sea. The waters are brown with silt dragged from the land, making the soil extremely rich. Pollution is brought along with the soil, and hydroelectric damns are severely curtailing the natural runs of the fish that used to be so plentiful. Dozens more damns and coal plants are planned for the Mekong, many in northern Cambodia financed by the Chinese. All of this, combined with illegal fishing and climate change, are severely impacting the Mekong. The future of this great river and the people who have lived and worked on her fecund waters, is dim.

After a stop for a walk and a snack our boatman took us on to a  smaller floating market. Passing islands of brilliant green, floating water hyacinths, ponds of lotus blossoms, thousands of ducks bobbing in the lee of the boats, the giant trees and vines forming a canopy above  the jungle floor, I had nothing to relate this watery fairy tale landscape to except Disneyland. So beautiful and so surreal.

One of thousands of canals in Mekong Delta

A few things I learned from Remy about Vietnam:

Taxes are very low. “The government does little for the people and “we pay for everything.”

There are pretty much no homeless people in Vietnam. Families take care of each other and communities and religious organizations take up the slack. According to Oscar’s reading there are more people in Switzerland living below the poverty line than there are in Vietnam. Of course the “poverty line,” as defined by each country, is hugely different. But still.

Electronics, like TVs and Mac products, are very expensive and can only be afforded by the rich. The average people buy Chinese phones and laptops and do without TVs. Remy watches mostly Korean and Japanese horror films, on his laptop. Netflix is an impossible luxury. (A TV I bought for $300. last year might go for $1500. here. Or more.) Western brand clothes – also very pricey. “We wear knock-offs. They look the same but aren’t.” Remy had on a pair of Air Jordan look-alike tennies that cost him less than $5.00.

Karaoke is the favorite “blow off smoke” activity in the country.

Yes, the paper masks many people wear are because of pollution, but also because no young person wants to have dark skin. “White is good, brown is bad,” Remy said. Heads, faces and bodies are covered top to bottom, no matter how hot the weather is. Plastic surgery to have a bridge added to the nose and eyes sliced at the outside edges to enlarge and westernize the orbs, is extremely common. Remy’s parents had the bridge of his nose raised and his nose straightened when he was very young. When I told him that, as a teenager, I had wished for straight, black hair, he was truly shocked. “WHY????” Skin products containing bleach and strong, chemical bleaching treatments are common. It’s the norm to see young women’s hair bleached. The beautiful shiny coal black, straight Asian hair is a thing of the past. Johanna says, “We all want what we don’t have.” We look at each other sadly, knowing the cost of being rich westerners and fearing for our Asian friends.

When young people marry, it is still the custom for the bride to quit school or her job and move in with her inlaws and take over caring for that entire family. Remy and his girlfriend are struggling with the choice of following this ancient Chinese and Vietnamese custom or leaving home and being cut off from both families. Their choice for now is to stay single.

On the mighty Mekong



From Cambodia to Vietnam

Old Yellow Bus

The old yellow bus took me on a bumpy five hour ride from Sihanoukville, Cambodia, through the seaside towns of Kampot and Kep to the border and, after going through a relatively simple immigration process, on to the nearby town of Ha Tien, Vietnam.

The terrain got wetter and greener as we headed towards the Mekong Delta: the brahman cattle got fatter and the gunmetal gray backs of the water buffalo, wider. Waterways, the color of black tea with milk, criss-crossed beneath the bridges, and tantalizing glimpses of sampan-style boats popped into view and then disappeared as the bus drove quickly on.

Houses and small businesses along the highway are built on stilts to accommodate the flooding of the huge Tonle Sap Lake during the rainy season,  and myriads of still-water ponds sport floatillas of hot pink water lilies and other, softball-sized peppermint pink and white blossoms on three foot stems, attached to  pads the size and shape of vintage tractor seats. Looking up flowering water plants of SEA later I learned that these beauties are not water lilies at all, but lotus flowers – something I’ve always wanted to see. The lotus flower is one of the most ancient and deepest symbols of our planet, especially valued by Buddhists and Hindus. “The lotus flower grows in muddy water and rises above the surface to bloom with remarkable beauty. Untouched by impurity, lotus symbolizes the purity of heart and mind.”

Water Lilies


Glad to be off the bus I hefted my turquoise Patagonia pack (guaranteed to fit under any airplane seat) and walked towards the river. I used to depend on my fleet of Guardian Angels to help me find my way in foreign towns and they worked amazingly well, leading me to some astonishly perfect destinations over the decades, but I’d gotten lost in Sihanoukville the day before yesterday and walked miles out of my way, rebirthing the blisters on my heels and eventually causing me to give up and accept my very first ride on the back of a “moto” to the beach. The young motorbike driver, perhaps sensing my trepidation, drove like I was a flat of eggs riding behind him.  Now I take motos regularly in places where the traffic isn’t bad.

Lying in the shade of a beach umbrella and sipping milk from a fresh, chilled coconut, I gave in, connected to the ever-present wifi, and tried out Google Maps for the first time in a foreign land. Lo and Behold – it works! There was that familiar fat blue line showing the direct path from Ochheuteal beach back to the Sinan Guesthouse, the streets named in English and Vietnamese and easy step-by-step directions.  Whew. Take a break, Angels. I’ve  got this.

School children picking up trash on beach

The major downside of Cambodia, for me, is the trash. OMG. The high end resorts are clean of course.  Many homes and businesses sweep the area just in front of their establishments, but many just dump any and all paper, plastic, cans and styrofoam out the front door or throw it down wherever they happen to be. Perhaps there’s not much of a pickup service – certainly the city trash cans were full after the holidays and mountains of bags of garbage were piled nearby waiting to be hauled away. Still, pretty much everywhere people are  living there is litter covering the land. In many of the little neighborhood restaurants it’s the norm to throw your empty cans and napkins on the floor under your table. Tropical breezes blow the napkins into the street, birds swoop in and peck up the grains of rice sticking to the floor and geckos ambush the flies that hover there. On the beach in Sihanoukville one afternoon I did see a large group of school children in their black and white uniforms, each pair of children holding the corners of a large trash bag while their free hands plucked litter from the sand to deposit in the bags. The next generation, everywhere, brings hope.

Peace has finally come to the country after several centuries of being invaded, plundered, bombed, defoliated, tortured  and more. The horrors inflicted on them by the Khmer Rouge and the dictator Pol Pot are legion. One out of four Cambodians were killed under that regime and the rest of the country enslaved to work in the rice fields for 12 to 15 hours a day.  Famine ravaged the country after the Vietnamese “liberated” the country in 1979 and peace didn’t really come to the Cambodians until long after the Vietnamese withdrew in 1989 and the Paris Peace Accord was signed in 1991.

What I hear from regular visitors to the country and the expats living there, is that the Cambodian people are working extremely hard to pull themselves out of the crippling poverty and other devastating effects of those horrific years, and they’re very happy to have survived it all.  One can’t spent time in the country without being charmed by the people. They have the most beautiful smiles and the most incredibly upbeat attitudes imaginable.  The foreigners who live among them, at least the ones I met, are committed to trying in some way or another to help. All I could do in my short time in country was to pick up a little trash, contribute a bit to the economy and cheer them on. I leave the country believing in their bright future.

Two things I’m really glad I brought with me: a light-weight tupperware box for sandwiches and restaurant left-overs and a water bottle from REI ($59. – thanks for the push, Mar) that filters any tap water while traveling – or river or stream water if you’re trekking or camping, and takes out 99.99% of all viruses, bacterias, parasites, germs, etc. Not only do I have good tasting, safe water from hotel taps but I don’t have to go out and buy water every day and I don’t have to fret over being part of the problem or deal with the take-away containers and plastic bottles that sometimes seem to be taking over the world.

My room at the Long Chau Hotel on the river front wasn’t ready when I got to Ha Tien so I left my pack in the care of the front desk and walked over to the Oasis Bar. The owner, Andy, is a Brit married to a Vietnamese lady. I’d read about his place on the web. He’s known for being extremely helpful to travelers, for having British and western food in generous quantities for fair prices, and for being a really good guy. And he is. His clientelle seems to be about 50% expats and 50% tourists. The place is small and open air, his wife and little boy are delightful, and everyone talks to each other.  This was really nice for me since, with the exception of asking for food or buses or toilet paper, I hadn’t talked to anyone in days. I was feeling a tad lonely after the holidays and was having a light case of intestinal distress. Andy and two friendly fellows (one from San Antonio, one from Ireland) who come here every year, invited me to share their table and made me feel at home. A cup of Asian mint tea helped settle my stomach. I was given lots of helpful travel advice, had a bowl of vichyssoise and a baguette with sweet butter, and resolved to spend another day taking it easy here in laid back Ha Tien, recovering from the rigors of traveling. Andy changed dollars into dong for me (22,000 dong = $1.) and invited me back to celebrate both the New Year and his wife’s birthday that evening.

Andy and Nyugen, Oasis Bar, Ha Tien

New Year’s Eve, 2017.

My room is on the fourth floor of the Long Chau hotel which overlooks the Dong Ho lake, or inlet, that flows from and into the Gulf of Thailand. My room has what I’ve heard Taos realtors call “a Zen view” of the river, meaning a teeny sliver of a view and a balcony the size of a door mat. It’s the usual Colonial style room I’ve come to expect in these older, budget hotels: high ceilings with ornate plaster work and crown moldings, smooth tile floors and heavy wooden furniture. Everything is old, the beds and pillows are hard and the fixtures show signs of time and wear. They are clean. Things I can’t do without are WiFi, AC, hot water and functioning plumbing, fresh sheets and towels in a private space with ensuite  bath. Usually the bathroom has a shower that is not separated from the bathroom but is just a nozzle in the corner – often hand held – and a drain in the floor. In Ha Tien I’m paying $14. a night for this same type of room though it’s larger than most and has a real shower stall, good cable TV, an elevator and 24 hour front desk service manned (or womaned) by people who speak excellent English. CCTV cameras are installed on every floor above the elevator.

Cooking at Night Market, New Year’s Eve

When I walked out the door in the evening, vendors were setting up hundreds of chairs and tables along half a mile of the riverside promenade. They had installed neon digital signs, loud speakers for music and were stocking large stands with an impressive variety of seafood on ice, waiting to be cooked to one’s specifications on large charcoal grills and served to you at your plastic table with your beverage of choice.  Sadly, I wasn’t feeling well enough to eat anything, so I just walked the length of the promenade enjoying the perfect temperature, the happy, vacationing Vietnamese tourists, the light of the “supermoon” that shown almost full in the night sky over the silver river. According to myth, on such nights fairies dance here. I didn’t see any fairies that New Year’s Eve, but I did have a splendid time chatting it up with patrons of the Oasis Bar, eating a piece of Nyugen’s birthday cake, learning more about SEA and the world in general through the stories of these travelers. There was no way I was going to stay up to see in the New Year but I did my best. Before I left to walk back to the hotel I was sitting at a table with two Danish girls, a really cool woman named Natasha from Rotterdamn, and an entertaining reconteur from the north of England. As I was about to leave he asked us all what our local New Year’s Eve traditions are? We went around the table, ending with Danish girls who told us that in Denmark it is the custom to stand up on your chair and jump off of it at the stroke of midnight. At big parties where there aren’t enough chairs to go around, the celebrants climb onto countertops, beds, anything elevated – and all whoop, hollar and jump as the clock strikes twelve! Picturing this we all cracked up and I giggled all the way to my room.

Happy New Year All!

Ha Tien Morning Market



Happy Birthday To Me! – Part 2

    Cooking with the young chef
Ta Prohm
Angkor Thom
Grooming time at Angkor Wat


Typhoon Tembin pounded the Phillipines this week and is headed for south Vietnam. I am too.  Boats and oil rigs have battened down their hatches and there are evacuations pending. Here, the blue skies and hot weather have changed to cooler temps, gray skies and occasional light rain. If the weather doesn’t change it’s plans, I’ll change mine.

Both Christmas and my 75th birthday are officially over, but I’m still basking in the glow. Spending my gift money wisely, I treated myself to two 60 minute Khmer massages ($15. each), one facial ($20.), a cooking class ($25.) and a tuk-tuk ride to Angkor Wat for the sunrise and “small tour” of the ruins ($22. plus tip) – all at the hotel and their Lemon Grass Garden spa – or booked through them.

I had no idea what a Khmer massage would be like and didn’t know what to think when the therapist handed me a freshly laundered pair of cotton Cambodian pjs and pointed me towards the changing room. The treatment room was quiet and peaceful with soft spa music playing. Big pots of white orchids stood under the windows. The table was high and wide and gently firm. After I was settled face down on the table, the petite Khmer woman hopped up beside me, straddled my legs and, using her body weight and hands began pressing me firmly into the table, and, moving around me, pummeled, rubbed and kneaded my body,  using knuckles, incredibly strong fingers, elbows, forearms and, occasionally feet to work me over.  Occasionally she would ask, “Hurt?” “No.”  “You OK?” and I definitely was. In fact, this was one of the best massages I’ve ever had. By the end of the hour my sore, achey, travel weary body was singing from head to toe. If I could have purred I would have. Instead, I tipped her the lavish sum of $1. and thanked her profusely. In Cambodia  I’m  a player. We exchanged huge smiles and sampeahs: the Cambodian form of a  greeting or goodbye and a gesture of respect or appreciation. In a sampeah the hands are placed palms together (like a lotus flower) and held  with fingertips just below the chin, while slightly bowing the head. For me, they raise the fingertips to the mouth giving me the respect my advanced age deserves. Most of the time I am addressed as “Ma-dame” – occasionally as “Auntie.” The higher the hands, the greater the homage. For parents and teachers the hands are raised to the nose and for monks and kings the fingertips are raised to the forehead and the bow is deeper. It is a mark of disrespect to not return a sampeah, and it’s a beautiful thing.

The next morning hotel Chef Hoy Ha and his young assistant took us (two college age American girls and me) to the outdoor market to shop for ingredients for our lunch. Live fish were literally jumping off the counters into the aisles, jumbo prawns were heaped in glistening piles, fruits, vegetables, herbs, nuts, spices and curry pastes were attractively displayed in riotus abundance. Back at the hotel we first made fresh spring rolls in rice paper with prawns and mint and bean sprouts and a spicy dipping sauce, then we were coached in how to make “boats” out of banana leaves for fish Amok – and cook it. We stir-fried chicken and vegetables for a yellow curry and cooked a delicious dessert using tiny sweet bananas, mangoes, “yellow beans” and a tapioca-like ingredient called sago which I learned is a starch extracted from the spongy center of tropical palm stems. While we were cooking, Chef Ha was teaching us about Cambodian ingredients and cuisine in a way that clearly showed his love and knowledge of his national dishes. We were served our lunch in the shade of a thatched pavillion, finishing just in time for me to go to my facial appointment.

Later, I got hold of an old acquaintance, Joe Brown. We arranged to meet in front of the Lucky Mall on Sivutha St. to have dinner at Kuelen, a Korean/Chinese restaurant and watch a performance of Apsara (heavenly nymphs) dancing.

I had met Joe one time: at the Pentagon Peace March in the fall of 1967 when 100,000 of us “peaceniks” marched against the Vietnam war, chanting “Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” Holding hands and circling the pentagon we concentrated as one and tried to levitate the building with the force of our minds. Needless to say, the pentagon still stands and the war went on until 1975 – but it did help focus the nation’s attention on a war that defoliated and devistated South East Asia, killing well over a million Vietnamese and more than 58,000 American troops in the longest and most controversial war in US history. The after effects are visible every day here in Cambodia in the multitude of amputees – both children and adults – who have been maimed by the landmines left behind by the US and others during the decades of war. The Cambodian Mine Action Centre estimates that there may be as many as 4-6 million mines and other pieces of unexploded orndnance in Cambodia. Tourists are warned not to stray off the beaten path. Outside of Ta Prohm, one of the Buddhist temples at Angkor Wat (most famous these days for being the site of scenes with Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft in the film Tomb Rader) there was a musical group stationed on the path on the way in with all of the musicians having the distinction of being amputees. Cymbals were played by handless men with the cymbals strapped to their wrists, wind instruments by the legless, etc.

Joe Brown is a New Yorker expat living on a fixed income and teaching English to Cambodian children here in Siem Reap.  He was accompanied by his Cambodian wife (whose name I’m sorry to say I can’t pronounce or spell). She is warm and lovely (we walked the streets with arms around each others waists), speaks little English, he speaks little Khmer, but they communicate well nonetheless. We talked non-stop til late at night while eating a lavish dinner, watching the beautiful Apsara dancers, pub crawling and, eventually, singing Christmas carols in the Vagabond bar behind Pub Street with an amazingly good American Santa guitar player and vocalist.  Surrounded by expats from all over the globe, all conversing animatedly, all feeling the Christmas spirit, all enjoying the music and the good Cambodian beer and the company of like spirits – and then bouncing back to the Baby Elephant in a tuk tuk through cool late night streets smelling of charcoal and smoked fish and flowering trees, I felt full of peace and goodwill towards men – and lucky to be here.

Christmas morning at 5:00AM I met Mr. Mab, my tuk tuk driver, in the loby of the hotel. In the dark we motored through the quiet streets to watch the sun rise over the largest religious monument in the world. Mr. Mab let me off outside Angkor Wat telling me to stay, “one hour, two hours, three hours.” He would meet me. But where and when, exactly? This didn’t seem like a workable plan to me since hundreds of people were converging on the same place, but he assured me it would be fine. I went with the flow, crossed the moat – which would hold a dozen Rio Grandes – and stumbled along in the dark towards the grand temple, using my cell phone flash light for guidance. Finding a good perch to sit on, I waited for dawn. Gradually the sky lightened. The sunrise was underwhelming this Christmas day due to cloud cover but Angkor Wat itself was simply hair raising dazzling. I did find Mr. Mab after all and he drove me to Angkor Thom and Bayon and Ta Prohm and waited for me while I climbed and explored and meandered and wondered and took photos.

Back at the hotel the sun was hot and the pool beckoned. I answered. Dinner with a new friend, Ann from Queensland, Australia, downtown, followed by just one more Khmer massage, sent me sliding blissfully into dreamland.

We don't serve rat, cat,dog, monkey, snake or worms
Dinner Menu at Karo Restaurant – “We don’t serve rat, cat, dog, monkey, snake, spider or worm”

Navigating Phnom Penh with reflections ten days in

Before leaving Bangkok I did my best to pack in as much sightseeing in this fabulous city as I could manage. On Saturday I went to the Chatuchak weekend outdoor market. You need a map or an incredible sense of direction for this place: a maze of thousands of stands selling pretty much everything are jammed into blocks of a temporary, canvas roofed shopping complex. My feet are blistered from walking unaccustomed miles every day so I immediately purchased a pair of Thai flipflops and left my hot, heavy, expensive American walking shoes behind.

$3  later, my feet could breathe.

Thai flipflops.

I wished I had come  to SEA bringing nothing at all or had a Sherpa with me to carry my load because the clothes here were beautiful. Little shops selling Thai designers’ cool contemporary clothes were mixed with American labels mixed with French clothes mixed with the ubiquitous cotton drop-crotch elephant design pants and tees and absolutely gorgeous children’s clothes. There were amazing textiles, art and sculptures, soaps and scents, herbs and spices, food and drink – all sold at cheap prices – and they beckoned to me from every direction.

Since I couldn’t shop and I was hot, I went to the river to try out the water taxis. The weather had changed from overcast and steamy to clear, cool and blue, and, on the Chau Doc river, the wind was blowing up small white caps and the temperature was perfect.

Wat Arun – Temple of Dawn, – Bangkok
Temple rules of respect.


Taking the ferries across the river multiple times, I explored several temples and water-side neighborhoods,  finding something new and interesting around every corner. Bathrooms, thankfully, are easy enough to come by and are clean – most with a Thai woman inside doing perpetual cleaning. Unless you’re in one of the many Bangkok malls, you might want to provide your own paper. With luck there will be a table out front with a roll of TP and a basket for you to drop a few coins in to pay for what you took. The more remote ones (off the tourist trail) have squat toilets and “bum guns” – hoses with nosels for, guess what? Your bum. I have yet to experiement with these but they do look efficient and eco friendly.

In the four days I was in Thailand I was never once hassled or hustled by anyone. Offers of tuk-tuks and guides, yes, but easily declined with smiles all around. I was always treated kindly. Saying “goodbye” to Preaw, she asked me what had surprised me about Bangkok? I was embarrased to admit that I hadn’t realized what a cosmopolitan, progressive city it is.

All the while I was traversing and enjoying the pleasures of the city, I was getting little “pings” on my phone with links to articles in US newspapers citing the abandonment of the malls in America. It’s tempting to talk knowingly about our isolationist tendencies, our avarice and arrogance, our blundering “leadership”- all leading to the inevitable decline  of the West and the rise of the East…. but I think I’ll wait until I’ve been here longer than ten days, seen more and learned more, before I pontificate.

Flight to Phnom Phen, the capitol of Cambodia, was delayed and it landed later than expected so my driver (I’d booked a car to take me into the city) had left. The fine print on my ticket said, “Your driver will wait a maximum of five minutes!” A tout offered me what I thought was a car for $10. and, when I said OK, ushered me to a tuk-tuk (a motorbike fitted with passsenger cab on the back, with two short bench seats facing each other and a canvas roof.) It was late and I was too tired to search for another option, so I climbed aboard. My driver, Mathli, tied my pack to the seat with a rope while telling me, “It’s a long way, I hope you tip me good.” I didn’t answer, just held on tight since I had been warned about the traffic in PP and the wild tuk-tuk rides. These stories were all too true. In the 30 minute ride to the city I inhaled a lung full of diesel fumes, got what felt like cinders in my eyes, had cramps in my hands from clinging to the side bars and TMJ from clenching my jaw. But I was wide awake! The streets are chock-a-block full of trucks, buses, cars, tuk tuks, pedicabs, bicycles and motos. Traffic signs and lights are ignored, there are no lanes and kazillions of motorbikes weave through the traffic at dizzing speeds, passing in front, around and behind larger vehicles and even crossing into lanes of on-coming traffic or riding up on the sidewalks to find a small hole in the traffic to whiz through. The tuk-tuks do the same when and where they can and the cars just plow ahead without seeming to care about other vehicles which are just inches away from each other. Horns are coming from every direction. After a while I noticed that I seemed to be the only one inside this crazy dance that was at all nervous. The moto drivers wore flipflops or, in the case of the women, high heels and nylons, helmets or bonnets and they are hella cool. Often an entire family was perched on one bike. The sidewalks were alive with people cooking food or selling things, eating or shopping. The smells, aside from the diesel, were inticing and the noise level was intense.

Eventually I came to have some faith in Mathli who was an older fellow and still alive after presumably driving his vehicle for years. The air temperature was perfect, the night balmy. Arriving at my hotel on the waterfront, thrilled to be in one piece, I handed him a handful of Thai baht notes, all that I had left, and took his phone number and my leave as he beamed at me, holding the notes in his raised hand and begging me to call  him tomorrow for a trip to The Killing Fields or wherever I wanted to go.

The hotel, the Cozyna, is an old dame left over from the French period, heavy on dark wood and fronted with wrought iron balconys. The location is great – right next to the Royal Palace and in the middle of the action. I was escourted to my room which, being one of the cheapest they have, was on the fourth floor (no lift and no help with my pack) and depressingly dismal. Trying to settle in I realized the bed light was dim, the AC wasn’t working and the phone was broken.  I had to walk back down to the desk and then climb the four flights of stairs again with Chai, the front desk guy. He said this was the last room, the hotel was full, they only had more expensive rooms available. I kept my tone light but did insist on what I was promised: a $20. a night room with AC, wifi, hot water, cable TV, a coffee pot and toiletries. Eventually, with only one more hike down to the desk and back, Chai did give me a wonderful room just one flight up. Yay!

I’m leaving Phnom Penh early in the morning in a Cambodian Post VIP Van going to Siem Reap – five hours away. I’ve walked for miles dodging traffic (sidewalks are where the cars park), visited the National Museum, several Wats and the Royal Palace, seen so much that amazed me,  applied for and gotten my Vietnmese visa, eaten some excellent Khmer food, hoisted several pints of Angkor beer in frosted mugs (.50 to .75 cents a pour), had a fine pedicure and wonderful leg and foot massage ($7.) at Friend’s N’Stuff where young girls off the streets are taken in and taught a viable skill. I’ve watched  zumba classes in the park by the Tonle Sap River, and chatted with locals and expats. Cambodia is poor and it shows. My heart hurts and my American guilt cup runneth over when I see the maimed adults and the scrawny children begging for pennies in the streets.

I am vastly impressed by the resiliance and creativity of the Cambodian people who have suffered so much and yet still laugh and smile and go on and I look forward to getting to know them better.

Laksa – curried soup with coconut milk and seafood and hard boiled egg – cooked by street kids/chefs in training
Combodian National Museum, Phnom Penh
Fabulous pedicure and massage by former street kids at “Friends N’Stuff”

Navigating Bangkok


First Class in Royal Jordanian Airlines

For some reason known only to the smiling woman behind the Royal Jordanian Airlines desk at Hong Kong International Airport, I was ushered into First Class on my late night flight to Bangkok, Thailand.  Looking around at my luxurious, private cubicle with a real pillow and blanket, a seat that flattened into a bed and a large TV screen for movies, I could only pinch myself and wonder “WTF?”

Like a genie, my air hostess appeared, offering me a demi-tasse of dark, Arabian coffee. On the screen in front of my cushy seat was footage of Jordan, done so beautifully I wanted to go there – immediately. After takeoff this angel in a red suit brought me French wine and a “snack” of tea sandwiches: unctuous smoked fish with dill and capaers, roast beef and spicy mustard; a fresh salad and a plate of tiny, delicious pastries. I put my seat into full recline after my snack, snuggled into my blanket and fell asleep while wishing this flight could go on and on.

In Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok my First Class status gave me Priorty treatment and I was hustled through customs in a small, private line and was at baggage claim in minutes. This was where the coach turned back into a pumpkin. My pack arrived on the conveyor belt and I helfted it to my shoulders and then braved the steamy heat of the tropical night and the throngs of travelers looking for their transportation. I exchanged $100. for Thai baht, (33 baht to $1.) on the way, found the shuttle to my hotel and arrived, checked in, and lugged my small but densely loaded,  heavy backpack upstairs to my very generic room. By mid-morning I had slept a little and had had two showers and a cup of instant coffee and the obliging shuttle driver had deposited me at the Sky Rail staion near the airport which I would, hopefully,  figure out how to take into the city.

The Bangkok BTS rail system works well. There are change booths where agents give you exact change for the ticket vending machines when you tell them your destination, the maps and signage are in English as well as Thai and there always seems to be someone to ask you, “Where you go?” with a smile. I would try to say the name of the station I was heading for and this or that kind person would point and give me directions, then search my face for signs of intelligence. Not finding any they would try again, in a gentle way. I’m not yet used to the Thai accent but I had printed out a map of the Bangkok Sky Rail system before I left home and would eventually remember to bring it out and point to my station – Ekamai. This brought on a huge smile and illumination on my part as he or she would follow the map with their finger,  pronounce the names of the stations clearly,  and point the way. Escalaters were everywhere which helped with my load, and trains were announced in both languages and were air conditioned and clean. A handsome young man got up to give me his seat and  I was soon speeding towards the Beyond Bangkok Guesthouse in the Sukhumvit section – part of the “new Bangkok.”

Security gates  and guards are part of the picture here too, both in the Sky Rail systems and at entrances to the many large shopping malls. I would invariably set off the alarm passing through the gates with my pack, but would be waved through. One young woman security guard, wearing a purple beret and crimson lipstick, waved me over and indicated that I put my backback on the table and open it. I did and we both stared at the stuffed-to-the-brim contents. This attractive girl looked at the pack and then at me, and said, “Oh Ma-dame!” (pronounced in the French manner). I couldn’t tell if she was admonishing me or pitying me. Then she pointed to the bag and then to her cheek, asking me, “Face?” I said, “Yes, face,” which caused her to smile  and wave me through. Apparently, if my bag was crammed with cosmetics we were good.

Preaw, the young lady who manages the Airbnb guesthouse I’m staying in, had sent me a dozen photographs (using WhatsApp – a great way to call, text and message while traveling since it uses wifi but no cellular or data on your cell phone) of just how to get from the Ekamai BTS station to the guesthouse, complete with detailed views of what I would pass on my way. After a ten minute walk down a boulevard, a lane and an alley, I arrived hot, sweaty and tired. Preaw welcomed me, showed me how the security system works, gave me a plastic key card to activate it, and showed me to my tiny, very clean, $16. a night room on the third floor. She showed me the kitchen and common rooms, told me the breakfast hours, turned on the AC and asked if she could bring me a cup of iced Thai tea. Yes! I had arrived.

Photos of the Siam Paragon Mall – one of four, huge, gorgeous, shopping and eating venues in downtown Bangkok.

Siam Paragon Mall
Siam Paragon Mall
One of hundreds of upscale boutiques in Siam Paragon