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Hello World!

I’ve decided to set aside my hard copy journal in favor of a digital blog. Why? Primarily so I can give advice to fellow travelers regarding places I’ve been. There is a lot of conflicting information out there, and I want to set it straight, at least from my perspective. We spent 7 out of 12 months on the road in 2017, and have been away since November, 2017. It’s a big, wide-world, begging to be explored. Come with me on this grand adventure.

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Food & Drink I want to make when I get back…

While travelling the wide world, I’ve discovered some amazing food that I won’t be able to live without. In no particular order, here is a list of my favourite “ethnic” food or drink.

  1. Egg Coffee. Do you love custard? How about strong black coffee? Then you’ll just love this drink! At the surface, a frothy, eggy flan-like topping, while down below, a tar slurry of a coffee sure to give you a kick midday. Image from https://blog.christinas.vn/vietnamese-egg-coffee-saigon/
  2. Pho. A simple soup that’s so much more. Our friend from Hanoi, Khanh, claims that SO much work goes into the preparation. First, you take a beef shank, then you boil it for hours, until the marrow (& flavour) escapes. Next, add the spices (a secret blend) and then keep on ‘a boilin’. Add vermicelli (rice noodles) and veggies. Serve piping hot and loaded with cilantro and fresh bean sprouts.
  3. List ongoing! What foods have you encountered that you won’t be able to live without upon your return to the “daily grind”?

Life in Thailand

Well, I haven’t blogged since March 25. I have hardly journaled either. It’s amazing how easy it is to do when everyday you’re in a long or short haul bus with nothing else to do. That’s the situation I find myself in now, as I move from Chiang Rai, Thailand, back to San Pa Tong (30 minutes south of Chiang, Mai, Thailand).

Brandon and I have spent nearly two months with our friends, Thomas and Joon, lending them a hand with their Home at Nine Arts Space and cafe startup.

I’m head Gardener while B is jack-of-all-trades. We live in a quiet corner of the world, with mountain views, rice fields next to us, the sounds of birds chirping at the crack of dawn, and an orchard full of delicious mangoes, jackfruits, limes, and longans.

The original plan was to stay for 10 days, then head over to the hilltribe area and volunteer. After perusing the next workaway’s 18-page manual, we cancelled, tails between our legs. How could we go from carefree, no rules barred to regimented, strict, and serious? Our gut instincts told us to stay, and here we still are!

The view from behind of Home at Nine.

Thailand (and Tom & Joon) have been good to us (a complete understatement). We’ve been immersed in local life unlike at any other point in our Southeast Asian odyssey.

Our friends take us to many local restaurants for dinner, authentic Thai markets, and tourist sites so remote and off the beaten track that Thai people just stare at us, oftentimes uncomfortably so.

I’ve also had the pleasure to teach English with Tom and Laure, a lovely French woman who is also staying at Home at Nine (with her partner, Joe).

teaching at a local summer school.

It has been especially nice to get into a daily routine again.

When the roosters crow, at about 6 am, I spring out of bed, make a pot of delicious Thai coffee, and head out into the world for my daily run through town. I stop to stretch, do push-ups and dips, meditate, and do yoga, under the shade of a beautiful tall tree.

All this while cows graze, storks cleaning their hides, red ants feasting on fallen night bugs, brown-furred martens hunt birds, and people on bikes cycle by, puzzled by the farang downward dog posed, bum to the sky, head to the ground. hello mama and baby cow!

I run home, usually through an abandoned village of half-built villas, spooking slithering snakes and red-headed lizards off the path. As I turn the last corner, I’m usually greeted by the Neighborhood stray dogs, who I affectionately call the blonde twins.

In my next post, I will continue detailing my typical day volunteering in San Pa Tong. Bye for now!

Hanoi: a different take

Today is our last day in Vietnam’s capital city, Hanoi.

While you’ve probably already read blogs and Lonely Planet guidebooks to prepare you for the madness (as I did), I decided to write a quick post to help you with useful information.

Here are the topics I will touch on:

  • Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum
  • The Botanical Gardens
  • Saturday’s clothing Night Market
  • My favourite restaurant, Noodle & Roll

The most important thing of all is not to underestimate Vietnam’s love for Uncle Ho (Ho chi Minh). If you are planning on visiting his eternal resting place, don’t go on Sunday. This is most Vietnamese people’s only day off. By 8 am, the line-up was so long it went all the way to the Botanical Gardens.

If you go, which you should, especially if you made the journey from South to North, go Tuesday morning. I’ve heard that’s the best day.

That segues nicely to a must see attraction in Hanoi; The Botanical Gardens. You won’t find them on anybody else’s list of things to see/do, which is a pity.

You know that Hanoi is hectic, and you know it’s smoggy, noisy, cold, etc. So why not escape the hustle & bustle and head here:

You’ll see locals jogging, stretching, listening to calming music, meditating next to the little lake, doing tai chi movements.

It’s all so serene. You can almost NOT hear the noise from the streets for once! As a bonus, there are some gnarly trees to sit under.

Shop til you drop Saturday night. Save your spending for the night market down near the lake. Not only will there be no cars or motorbikes, there will be the cheapest prices you can encounter in the city. Just be prepared to see more people congregated outside of New Year’s Eve!

We bought souvenir t-shirts for 35 k (earlier I spent too long bargaining a lady from 120 k down to 60 k and I was proud of myself). Brandon got some nice kicks for only 150 k, while miraculously, they had my size, 48! That’s a first…

On top of the clothing, there are more souvenir stands than you can shake a stick at, plus street-side eats so good you won’t miss mom’s cooking. The “beer street” is just one street over, so you’ll be able to guzzle back some egg beer (40 k) watching the world go by.

Finally, if you want to eat well, visit Noodle & Roll. It caters to tourists but offers local pricing. B & I ate a big bowl of pho (with tofu, mint leaves, lettuce, pickled carrots and garlic, peanuts, vermicelli) for only 45 k. For the first time in forever, we were full!

So there’s my list of things you won’t read in a guidebook, or in most other blogs. If you have any other not obvious tips, I’d love to hear them!

Things I love about Vietnam

Everybody loves lists! I invite you to share your favourite things about Vietnam.

In no particular order, here goes…

  1. Friendly people. Yes, we came across some absolutely lovely locals, especially in the Mekong Delta region. So many folks stopped to say “Hello!” in Ben Tre and we were in numerous “photoshoots” at night in Can Tho.
  2. Banh my sandwiches for cheap. Sometimes with trung (egg), sometimes with chicken and coleslaw, rarely with pâté, this street food is always guaranteed to cure the hunger pangs without putting a dent in the budget.
  3. Soaring karst mountain clumps rising out of nowhere. We spent a lot of time in Phong Nha and in Ninh Binh, where limestone formations literally just appear on the horizon. Full of caves with temples, there’s never a dull moment and always fresh air.
  4. Cheap night buses. While I’m being a bit facetious here, I really did appreciate the network of transportation that got us from down south up north to Hanoi. Given that Vietnam is LONG (some 33 hours train ride between Saigon and the Capital), it’s amazing how inexpensive it is to travel.
  5. The markets (cho). We love checking the pulse of a city by a visit to the marketplace. There’s always something going on, from watching people pick out a rooster and examining it with a fine-tooth comb before slaughter to tanks of exotic water creatures (turtles, frogs, gold fish, prawn, crabs, catfish!) to dried whoknowswhats piled high. Apart from the food, there’s a plethora of trinkets, wares, clothing, electronics. All brand name of course 😉
  6. Da Lat. This place is the jewel in the crown for us. Named “The city of eternal spring”, we found the air clean, the temperature warm, the mountains in the surroundings stunning, flowers everywhere we looked, the people kind, and the prices ever so affordable.
  7. Adventuring. Where else in the world can you go abseiling for a day down two cliff sides and a waterfall, jump off 12 metre tall heights into a pool, waterslide frontwards and backwards rough and tumble, plus eat a delicious family meal all for $50 USD? For $60 USD we had a morning in Southeast Asia’s longest and most beautiful cave, “Paradise”, and an afternoon playing in mud, on zip lines, and venturing deep into “Dark Cave”. Brilliant!

Please leave a comment below pertaining to your best moments in ‘Nam. Thanks for reading.

S-21: a Cambodian Khmer Rouge prison from a horror movie, only real

We visited Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh on our 2nd day in “The Pearl of Asia”.

If you’re unfamiliar with Cambodia’s recent history, allow me to enlighten you (slightly).

The Khmer Rouge, a fundamentalist Communist Party swept to power in 1975, and party leaders quickly convinced the populace to abandon their homes and possessions and make for the countryside, to escape imminent bombing by the Yankees.

You see, the American War (invasion, bombing, act of terrorism) in Vietnam was spilling over into Laos and Cambodia. The National Liberation Front (NLA) guerrilla fighters made extensive use of the mountains, jungle, and hand-dug tunnel system running the length of Vietnam, and borders were porous.

So the US aggression turned towards the innocent of Cambodia, and the people were ripe with fear.

Well, the Khmer Rouge, led by the evil Pol Pot and a few other (for now) trusted associates, once everyone had fled the cities, instilled a regime of untold atrocities on “his” people.

They wanted everyone to be peasants, working the land, returning to the earth. Unfortunately for “elites” such as teachers, doctors, other professionals, people wearing glasses, foreigners, basically, anyone educated or appearing to be, you got a one way ticket to Security Prison 21 or some other place from Hell.

This is where I decided to visit one day in late February. The most haunting thing about it was, I think, that S-21 was a former High School. As a teacher, it wasn’t hard to visualize the horrors that happened in a place so sacred (to me).

Not only that, but nearly every torture implement and rusty bed frame with shackles we’re still present. The pictures of prisoners on the wall were haunting. I hadn’t even reached the portrait gallery and I was teary-eyed.

You could see stains on the ground were innocent people were beaten to death. You could look into the eyes of children, whose mugshots showed terror, but occasionally incredible bravery. The thousands of pictures of prisoners in room after room really helped me fathom the scale of killing that happened here.

Where was the world from ’75-’79?

Where is the world now?

Look at Yemen, to name JUST ONE EXAMPLE of crimes against humanity. People there are starving to death; they are inflicted by severe infectious diseases due to a contaminated environment caused by Saudi Arabia and its allies (Any country that supplies arms to them is guilty too).

They say “History Repeats”. This is why we learn from the past. Let’s get woke, people.

Ps. Sorry for the depressing blog post! Here are some equally terrible photos of S-21.

And this is from the Killing Fields, where most of S-21’s prisoners were sent to die:

More on that, if I ever feel up to it…

The Pearl of Asia – first impressions

A first look at Phnom Penh, Cambodia

We landed in capital city Phnom Penh on a mid-February afternoon flight from KL. From the plane above, we were taken aback by the dusty mess below. No offence, but we’d just come from Bali, Indonesia, where it’s rainy season and therefore excessively green and lush.

We left the International airport on a tuk-tuk (remorque), which is a motorcycle hooked to a trailer for passengers and their luggage.

The monkey is not the driver.

Trick of the trade: always leave the airport before getting your transportation. The rates are dramatically lower. Con: the drivers aren’t always as quality.

For example, our old tuk-tuk man didn’t speak a word of English. Normally this isn’t a big deal, thanks to Google Translate, but Cambodia has their OWN ALPHABET! There is no language pack for the app either, which makes life a whole lot trickier!

Forgive my ignorance, but the entire time I was in Cambodia, I couldn’t make sense of the lines and squiggles, plus they have different numbers!

So when I was trying to show the driver (plus a throng of onlookers) the street numbers 304 & 168, I had to use my fingers. He still didn’t get it.

What followed was a wild, 1 hour ride through the dusty, exhaust-filled streets of Phnom Penh.

Our hotel, Borey Bokor put us in the longest room ever. I seriously needed a pair of binoculars to watch the TV!

I’m holding my travel mascot, Rostokid.

History lessons from South Vietnam Part I

That the might of the United States is being used deliberately to create a new “displaced persons” problem on an unprecedented scale is one of the most scandalous aspects of U.S. activities in Vietnam. The systematic breaking up of families is all the more horrifying in a country where family ties, of all things, are held most sacred.

– Wilfred Burchett

https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/02/28/vietnam-will-win-emptying-the-sea/

Can anyone see any parallels to present-day Syria?

My History students frequently asked me WHY they had to learn this subject (It was more like “whyyyyyy!!). I could never quite convince them despite my best efforts. Perhaps accounts like this might inspire my students to not only study the past, but also to affect the future.

As we travel south to the Mekong Delta, I reflect on how this mighty nation of people stood up to the tyranny of a foreign power (“Yankee Bastards”). What they went through first under French rule, then American invasion in the 60s, I can’t even begin to fathom.