Cruising the Mekong

As Shelley mentioned in our last post, after a few days in Luang Prabang, we hopped aboard a boat on the Mekong river, the Mekong Sun, bound for Chiang Sien, Thailand.  The boat cruise worked great for us, because its endpoint in Chiang Sien put us in good position to drive to Chiang Rai and eventually hop a plane to India, where we would be meeting up with Shelley’s family.  We would also see very remote areas of Laos, which was an exciting prospect for us, too.

When we booked the boat several weeks prior, we had no idea who would be on the boat with us.  We were quite surprised to find out that we would be tagging along with a tour group of about 15 or so Norwegians.  We were by far the youngest folks on the boat, but everybody on board was very friendly and had lots of questions about our recent travel adventures.  And, everyone spoke impeccable English.

It took us 7 days to cruise up the Mekong river into Thailand.  All of the river cruising was done during the day, with the boat captain navigating by sight accompanied by years of experience on the river — nothing fancy here.

We spent our days cruising up the river and viewing the beautiful scenery.  It was incredibly remote, yet we saw thatched roofed huts protruding from the jungle, people tending crops in the silt left by the Mekong during the rainy season, and cattle grazing right along the banks of the river, seemingly belonging to nobody.  It was amazing to see people actually living out in this wilderness.


Sometimes we’d see these makeshift speedboats.  We’d read about them in our guidebooks, and most said to never ride in one because of how dangerous they are.  After seeing them, now I know why.  They’re basically narrow boats with crazy paint jobs that have modified car engines on the back of them (instead of turning a drive shaft, you’re turning a propeller).  Most people we saw riding in them were wearing helmets, and for good reason I think.  The water on the Mekong was very unpredictable, with whirlpools and large rocks hiding just below the surface.

We also got to taste the local rocket fuel, Lao Lao – a liquor distilled from a fermented rice mash.  It tastes just like you think it would, with quite a kick…


At night, the boat would be tied up along the banks of the Mekong, often on sandy banks where we could hop off the boat for some free time before dinner.  One night, when the boat was parked on a nice sandy spot, the crew invited me out for a game of Sepak Takraw.  I had wanted to see this game played while we were in Thailand, but didn’t get the chance.  So, I was really excited to try it.  Takraw is a popular game in SE Asia that’s similar to volleyball and played with a small rattan ball.  The difference, though, is that you play the game (hitting the ball back and forth over the net, scoring points like you do in volleyball) without using your hands.  You have to kick, knee, and head the ball over the net.  Shelley had fun taking pictures of all my wiffs and misses (I was able to curate the photos below…).  But, I did hit the ball over the net a couple of times, and it was a ton of fun.



By the way, the guys (and gals?) that get really good at this game are like ninjas.  They’re super flexible and perform these incredible bicycle kick spikes.  Check it out, it’s pretty amazing.

We eventually made it to the Golden Triangle, where Laos, Thailand and Myanmar come together at the confluence of the Rauk and Mekong rivers.  From this viewpoint in Thailand, we could see all three countries simultaneously.  This is as close as we would get to Myanmar, a country that we’ll have to save for another adventure.


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Lazy Days in Luang Prabang

We spent five great days in Luang Prabang, Laos’s second city and definitely one of the most beautiful city stops on our trip.  The whole place has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so buildings both new and old are constructed in the traditional Lao wooden style, and it’s packed with striking, gilded Buddhist temples.

On our first three lazy days, we relaxed at Le Café Ban Wat Sene, where we drank coffee and ate delicious French food, thanks to the colonial legacy that was left behind.  We did get out on one of those days, though, for a really fun visit with the uncle of my good friend Alicyn from Austin. Last February, when I mentioned to Alicyn that John and I were planning to visit Laos, she responded, “My uncle lives there!”  I was surprised—in name and appearance, Alicyn is clearly of European descent, so I didn’t expect she’d have family living in Southeast Asia.  As it turns out, following his retirement, her Uncle Kenny headed to Luang Prabang to study Buddhism and ended up settling there for the last few years, where he now has a workshop in a large gallery space with a number of other artists.  At his workshop, Uncle Kenny spends his days creating and refurbishing spirit houses.  Laos is a predominantly Buddhist country, but from Uncle Kenny and others that we talked to, we learned that Buddhism there is not “pure,” in the sense that Laotians incorporate traditional animistic beliefs into their Buddhist practice.  One of these traditional beliefs involves spirit houses, which are little wooden dollhouse-like boxes.  The spirit houses provide a home for spirits that can create mischief if they’re not given a nice place to live.  Spirit houses are everywhere in Laos—on street corners and outside restaurants, hotels, and family homes—and the Laotians leave offerings inside of them—usually some sticky rice, incense, flowers, and fruit, and sometimes even cigarettes.  We met up with Uncle Kenny at a café along the Nam Khan—a river that feeds into the Mekong—for a leisurely breakfast followed by a visit to his workshop.  It was a beautiful twenty-minute tuk-tuk ride out to his gallery space, although sadly it was just in a regular tuk-tuk and not this great rainbow one that I saw—I especially love the driver on his pink cellphone.

Uncle Kenny showed us around the gallery and explained his work to us and afterwards chatted with us over coffee about U.S. politics and life in Laos.  It was a lovely morning!  John took a couple of pictures of me with Uncle Kenny, and I got a few of Uncle Kenny’s spirit houses and his workshop.



On our last two days in Luang Prabang, after we boarded the Mekong Sun (more on that to come in the next post), we visited several of the Buddhist temples that have made Luang Prabang so famous, including Wat Xieng Thong and Wat Wisunarat, plus the Royal Palace Museum and Mount Phousi for great views of the city.



We also drove out to the Kuangsi waterfall, where we had the chance to take a COLD swim in one of the waterfall’s pools.  After only half submerging myself in the freezing water, I watched while John climbed a tree to take a jump off a rope swing into the pool.  He emerged with a smile and goose bumps.


At dawn on our last morning, before the Mekong Sun began cruising upriver, we went to watch what Luang Prabang is most famous for—the daily religious ritual called Tak Bat.  Every day at sunrise, the hundreds of Buddhist monks that live in the city process down the main street with metal bowls to collect food offerings from Luang Prabang’s residents, who make merit by providing food for the monks.  It was really fascinating to watch, but trying to be respectful we hung back and just snapped a quick picture from a distance.

Last but not least, we visited Luang Prabang’s morning food market.  Just for my brother-in-law John B., who wondered if you can truly buy doughnuts everywhere in the world, we filmed this little video showing what the market has to offer.

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Five Months on the Road

It’s been five months since we started this epic trip, and at the risk of sounding ungrateful, I’ll go ahead and say it–I’m pooped. I’m really looking forward to getting back home in a few weeks and settling back into life in Austin.

I love to travel, but I’m also a real homebody. I remember many years ago, when I was maybe around ten years old, as my family was heading off on a road trip to visit relatives in Indiana or Kentucky, that just as we got underway, I said something to my mom about how it was fun to go out of town, but I always looked forward to getting back home again. I told her how much I loved being at home. I remember sharing that moment with my mom as she listened, looking back at me in the rear view mirror.

I’ve struggled a bit over the last month with more homesickness than I’ve experienced so far on our trip, and it’s surprised me because we’ve entered a stage where the travel is really easy–it’s hard to beat Australia and New Zealand–and traveling here feels a lot like being in the US. John’s theory is that that’s precisely what’s making me feel more homesick–that it feels so much like home already that it makes me think about home more and just want to be there. John, on the other hand, is on the up and up after getting some medication in Australia for his stomach bugs, and he’s loving all of the outdoorsy adventures we’ve been having the last few weeks. As we headed out of Australia and on to New Zealand, John declared not only that he wasn’t ready to leave Sydney, but also that it was the only place we’ve visited on our trip where he can really see himself living. What a beautiful place Sydney is!

For the last five months, we’ve had lots of good fortune–great weather, no lost bags, no canceled flights, no emergencies of any sort, and in general a pretty easy time of finding our way. So I think the homesickness is really just a true yearning for home rather than frustrations with traveling. At my next monthly update, I’ll be writing a wrap-up from home sweet home. In the meantime, we’ll enjoy our final hurrah with one more week of camper-vanning in New Zealand and a holiday-time safari in Namibia and Botswana. We wish everyone a very Merry Christmas and a happy start to 2013, and we’ll see you all soon!

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The Money Trail – Vietnam

The local currency of Vietnam is the dong.  The visage of Ho Chi Minh is prominently displayed on each bill.


1 USD ~= 20,000 Vietnamese Dong

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Scooter Dodging in Hanoi

After our slowdown in Hoi An, we were a little taken aback when we arrived in Hanoi.  Hanoi was like the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City taken to the next level.  I would say turned up to 11, but Shelley and I have been to India since and know better.  More on that to come…

The most memorable thing about Hanoi for us, I think, was crossing the street.  Sounds crazy, but in a city of more than 6.5 million people and seemingly just as many motorbikes that never stop moving due to the lack of traffic signals, crossing streets can be daunting to say the least.  Our travels up to this point prepared us well for just diving into the traffic and miraculously emerging on the other side of the street unscathed.  Also, when we were in Ho Chi Minh City experiencing similar traffic and street crossings, we were helped by an elderly Vietnamese woman, who, with grandmotherly guidance, practically grabbed us by the hand and showed us the ropes.  She must have been in her 70s and was just super sweet, calming our obvious deer-in-the-headlights street corner paralysis.  Still, it felt like a little miracle each time we made it across.

It’s hard to describe in words, so I took a video of us crossing the street one night while we were in Hanoi.  This was fairly light traffic, since it was later at night, but it still gives you a good idea of the constant flow of traffic and what crossing the street is like.  You just have to charge into the street, walk confidently, don’t stop, and somehow you’ll make it across.

Be sure to look for the scooter that darts in front of us right before we get to the other side of the street–the one going the wrong way on a one way street!


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A Cloudy Day in Halong Bay

I’d read and heard from a number of friends that a cruise in Halong Bay was a must-do during our stay in Vietnam.  Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the few such sites that we’re visiting on our trip that’s a natural site rather than historical or cultural.  The bay has thousands of little islands, most of which are limestone and that rise sharply out of the water.  When the sun is shining and the sky is clear, the brilliantly blue water should beautifully contrast against all of the little jungley-clad islands.

So we were pretty excited for our day trip out to the bay, even with it involving eight hours of driving time for only four hours on the water.  When we woke up to gray skies in Hanoi, we hoped that things would clear up by the time we actually made it out to the bay.  Unfortunately, the rain ended up lasting all day.  The bay was still beautiful, but in an eerie, gray, mist-shrouded sort of way.  On the plus side, we had the boat all to ourselves, including a huge feast of a lunch, and the cruise was fun and romantic even if it didn’t turn out quite as we expected.


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Slowing Things Down in Hoi An

After a few days in HCMC, Shelley and I were ready to slow down a bit.  There’s a lot of motorbike traffic in HCMC and it’s a city very much on the go.  So, when we arrived in the sleepy little town of Hoi An, located in central Vietnam just south of Da Nang, the beauty and slower pace of the place was very welcome.

Although slow and peaceful now, Hoi An used to be a bustling, international trading port from the 15th to 19th centuries.  The silting of its harbor and the rise of Da Nang and other coastal trading ports in Vietnam ultimately caused the trading there to stop.  However, the town itself has been preserved just as it was, garnering UNESCO World Heritage Site status.  Today Hoi An is a quaint little town of small alleyways lined with homes, shops and temples that sits right along the Thu Bon river.  And it couldn’t be a more beautiful place.


Most of the alleys in Hoi An are closed to motor traffic, which is great for biking around the town.  The little hotel we stayed in had bikes you could borrow right out front and we took advantage of them almost every day we were there.


One day we even rode the bikes to the beach, just a 20 minute ride away.  It was by far the most pristine beach we’d been to thus far, perfect for swimming and lounging.  Some local hawkers had set up shop – and some comfy, red chairs for folks to sit on – under the palm trees with cold drinks and lots of their trinkets for sale.

We bought some chop sticks from one of the hawkers on the beach.  What a bargain!  Actually, we got taken for a ride.  But, she was very friendly and we really enjoyed her approach and sales style.  We hope to use these when we get back and start making more Vietnamese food at home.

Speaking of Vietnamese food, the food here has been the best food we’ve had on the trip.  Especially in Hoi An.  Everything we tasted here was delicious – fresh, herby and wonderful.

When we first arrived in Hoi An, Shelley and I took another play out of the Anthony Bourdain playbook and found the little Bahn Mi shop that he visited when he was in Hoi An on his show.


The woman who owns the place makes a really mean sandwich and we chatted with her for a minute about how we found her shop and how she makes her food.  She prepares everything at home and brings it to the shop to be put together.  I wish I had gotten a video of her making the sandwiches.  She was so fast!   And she had to be; there was a line out front day and night.


The article I had found online that pointed out her shop was posted on the glass of her deli cart, but after speaking with her I don’t think she realizes how famous Anthony  Bourdain is and how many people have seen her Bahn Mi sandwiches on TV.  Pretty amazing.

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Ho Chi Minh City with Scott and Cesar

We flew just an hour from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), but it felt like a time warp. Phnom Penh reminded me of African cities I’ve been to, with lots of large, dusty SUVs transporting NGO workers around the city. To help with the recovery from the genocide, Cambodia, like Rwanda, has received, and continues to receive, a lot of foreign aid. HCMC, on the other hand, is a booming, thriving metropolis with a million motorbikes, and it glows with the bright lights of the many skyscrapers going up.

We focused our sightseeing in HCMC on visits to Vietnamese memorials that commemorate what they call the American War. We just had two days in the city, so we spent most of our time visiting the Reunification Palace, where the South Vietnamese conceded defeat to the Viet Cong in 1975, the War Remnants Museum, with many terrifying photos from the war, especially of the damage caused by napalm and Agent Orange, and the Cuchi Tunnels, a hand-dug network of about 75 miles of tunnels where the Viet Cong hid out and from which they also launched attacks. Neither of us learned very much in school about the Vietnam War, and it was really interesting, and saddening, to learn about it from the Vietnamese perspective, and right where much of the fighting actually took place.

The highlight of our visit to HCMC, though, was a big night out with our friends Scott and Cesar. Scott and I went to college together, and although we haven’t really kept in touch, I knew from Facebook that he and his soon-to-be husband Cesar were living in HCMC. It was amazing and so fun to walk through the door of their beautiful home and hug Scott after more than 11 years since we’d last seen each other, and it was wonderful to meet Cesar, too. We had fun swapping travel stories, but best of all, as locals they showed us a side of HCMC we never would have found on our own. We had dinner out in a lovely old renovated home with plate after plate of yummy Vietnamese food–fish in passion fruit sauce, beef cooked in a clay pot, crunchy fried tofu, and stir-fried greens with garlic, among others. Out of all of the places we’re traveling to, I was most looking forward to the food in Vietnam, and our dinner out with Scott and Cesar did not disappoint.

After dinner they took us out for drinks at Chill Skybar, a swanky outdoor place at the top of one of HCMC’s new high rises. Scott pointed out all of the new buildings added to the skyline since he and Cesar first moved to HCMC several years ago, and Cesar snapped a picture of Scott, John and me with the skyline in the background. From our smiles you can see that we were having a great night!

One of the most perplexing things we learned from Scott and Cesar that night is that Vietnam is a Footloose kind of place. Except for a few bars and clubs that have the necessary permits, in most public places dancing is prohibited. Scott pointed out that many people still “table dance,” which is definitely not dancing on top of a table but rather people standing around their cocktail tables individually bopping in a white man’s overbite from When Harry Met Sally sort of way. I wish we’d gotten a picture or video of it.

It was a great night out!  Next up, Hoi An…

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Thanks, Australia

The cruel irony.  I made it through four months in Asia without a hint of an upset stomach, including two weeks in India without so much as a tummy rumble, but here we are now in beautiful clean Australia, with hygiene rules posted in the restaurants, and I’ve been taken down by food poisoning.  I’m not sure which component of our lunchtime seafood platter I should blame, but I’m guessing it was the dozen raw oysters.  I think I’ll be off seafood for a while now.

So as we keep saying, we are horribly behind on our blog posts.  A week from now we’ll be renting a camper van to spend a couple of weeks driving around New Zealand, and we’re guessing we won’t have any internet access during that time.  So between now and then, we’re hoping to backtrack with posts about our final month in Asia and our three weeks here in Australia.  We’ve assigned each of ourselves a list of blog topics and we’ll start tackling them ASAP.  More to come!


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Four Months on the Road

We’ve been traveling for four months as of today, and aside from us both being a little sick, we really feel like we’ve gotten into the groove of things. If it wasn’t for the cold I’ve picked up since we’ve been in India, I’d probably sound a little peppier while I’m writing this. Meanwhile John is excitedly anticipating his doctor’s appointment in Australia next week, where he hopes they can identify and eliminate whatever little bugger has been upsetting his stomach and fatiguing him over the last several months.

Other than the illnesses, at this point we really feel like we’ve adapted to our nomadic lifestyle. Packing up our bags, moving locations every few days, sleeping in hotels, and figuring out how to get around in a new place generally seem pretty normal these days. We’re starting to wonder if it will feel weird to be back in Austin in a couple of months, living at home, driving our cars to get around, and cooking our own food. I think we’re both looking forward to that but also feeling a little sad as we near the end of our big adventure.

In between now and then, we’re getting excited for a change of pace as we head off to the land down under. We’ll arrive into Melbourne on Saturday night, where we’re eager for some R&R with our friends Jenny and Craig, including turkey time next Thursday when we celebrate Thanksgiving Australian-style.

We’ll also be continuing our effort to try to catch up on our blog, but at least now we’re only three countries behind! We’ll be writing about our time in Vietnam, Laos, and India. Thanks so much for staying tuned!

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