Robert Stanelle

 

 Travels with Robert: A Southeast Asia Odyssey


Day 1

A Tuesday in late September. Well I am about to get on a long plane ride and a journey that will begin in Bangkok, Thailand. As usual I am asking myself what the heck I am doing – but then I always ask that and always have a great time – so here goes!!!!!


Day 2 – Thursday – Bangkok, Thailand

We landed in Thailand at 2:00 AM Bangkok time this morning. Went straight to the hotel and went to sleep. I always book my hotel for the first two nights in advance when traveling to a large city and especially when arriving at night. I like to know I am secure for the first two nights at least. I can always change hotels after that if I choose – and often do. In wandering the city on this first day I am a bit overwhelmed. The traffic is incredible. Cars and motor scooters everywhere creating noise and air pollution. Traffic moves slowly but crossing streets as a pedestrian is a big challenge. You dodge motor scooters at every step. Other reactions? My hotel is fine but boy, is it hot here!


Day 4 – Saturday, October in Bangkok 

Dang, this place is hot. Like Phoenix with the humidity of New Orleans. The crazy part is it is currently their cool rainy season! Thankfully the hotel is AC. Saw the magnificent Marble Temple and the Vimanek Mansion (King's house). Then saw the more beautiful Wat Arun. Then the more beautiful still Wat Pho and then the incredibly beautiful Wat Phra Kaeo and Kings Palace!!!! Unbelievable beauty and gold everywhere (plus a few thousand school kids). Three days and I have shot 250 pictures already! Thank God for these little computer disks that hold 128 to 256 photos each. I Have already had to buy more disks. Have taken off my shoes and prayed to Buddha many times also. Interesting.


I am finding Bangkok much prettier and manageable that my first day impressions when I was a bit overwhelmed. About 6 million people, sort of like Houston in terms of U.S. comparison. I have always heard good things about the Thai women but none have approached me yet. Darn the luck! I guess I am just getting too old.


Day 6 – Bangkok

I have found out it is about 95-100 here every day with near same humidity. Doesn't drop at night to under 80. Surprisingly one can go back to the hotel, shower and sleep well with the AC running. Interesting they all eat HOT foods and HOT soup. I guess it sterilizes everything and they are used to it. BK has become a comfortable place to me in terms of getting around and most folks are quite friendly and helpful. Big difference between rich and poor of course. For my democratic friends, I got me a Bush - war terrorist and some other anti-war tee shirts. Clinton is much admired over here and Bush is, of course, hated. I love it!


All the taxis here come in colors from orange, blue, bronze, and even hot pink. Color denotes company. The second biggest company is red & blue taxis, good for the U of Arizona fan I am. The biggest company though is green and gold taxis. So even though the year is rough so far, it is great to know that PACKER fans are everywhere! No cheese here though. In general, the Asians do not eat cheese. McDonalds serves a "samurai teriyaki pork burger" though. Did I say it is HOT? And now it is POURING rain. 


Day 8 – Bangkok

Driving here (or riding) is interesting. The roads are buckled a lot outside of the main city: heat, materials, soft earth or combination of all. Makes it a little roller coaster at times, but mostly the traffic is so heavy we go so slow so doesn't matter. The temples (Wats) are everywhere and so brilliant in color. Our churches in America and Europe are so dark and almost tomblike at times. Imagine if every church in town had a brilliant red roof with gold, bright blue, green, or bright white trim everywhere. Well, that is what it is like here. They make you feel like celebration versus our "shhhh, you are in church." They are still quiet and respectful in the temples here (shoes off always) but the color does something to your heart.


The food is fantastic and the use of spices incredible. I have tasted 16 different fruits grown here, 2 I did not like, one was okay, and 13 were very good. Between fruits, all the fresh vegetables and the spices this place is a vegetarian delight. I have had only a little fish since I have been here and a few pieces of chicken in a soup. I have seen chains only of McDonalds, Burger King, 7-11's and a rare KFC. In the last few days I have gone to the floating markets, watched an elephant show, fed the elephants, watched a Thai cultural and dance show, visited the old capitol of Ayutthaya and cruised the main river, Chao Praha.


Tomorrow I am off north to Chiang Mai for 4-5 days and then in to Laos. Other travelers have told me I have had it easy so far, that the other countries are harder to travel in and that Vietnam is really hot and travel difficult - nothing to fear, just logistically difficult. Photos? I have over 350 photos so far! Have I told you all it is really hot here?


Day 10 – Chiang Mai, Thailand

Well, I have come north out of flat Bangkok and into the hills of northern Thailand. It has been a continued blast. This morning I rode an elephant through the forest for an hour. He was a little ornery and stopped to push over several trees because he was hungry. I think he is always hungry! Not a smooth ride but fun. They get dirt all over you and they really sway a lot! We then hiked into the forest to a waterfall on the Meukoung River (a tributary of the famous Mekong). Only four of our group of 10 had the nerve to go swimming in the river at the foot of the falls: me, two Belgium girls and a German man. Quite refreshing.


We then hiked through the jungle for an hour and got very hot and sweaty. THEN - and this was really cool - We rode bamboo rafts down the river for an hour. Bamboo doesn't fully float but goes along several inches under the water. We are sitting on these rafts - three to a raft, front, middle and rear. They are maybe 3 foot wide and 10 feet long. If you have not figured it out by now, we are sitting in the water. And we rode these things through rapids where we got and stayed very wet. Really cool experience.


Last night went to a Thai cultural place where had a traditional 10 course (plus drink and dessert) Thai dinner. We sat on mats and ate at low tables while enjoying beautiful music and dancing. Very nicely done. Yesterday met a young woman from Spain who had visited Wisconsin, knows what cheese heads are, and HAS A PACKER POSTER IN HER APARTMENT. I asked her to marry me! To my farm cousins back in Wisconsin - Pigs, chickens and corn here all really different. Egg shells are mostly brown or pink.


Day 12 – Chiang Mai

I was thinking more about riding an elephant the other day. It is hard to describe the feeling of sitting on top of a 2000 pound animal and how you can feel every muscle as he lumbers along, especially up or down a hill. The strength is incredible and you are but a fly on his back. The dinner was also really special. The Thai tradition is to serve each item (food, sauce, etc) in a separate dish and you choose and mix as you please. It is like each item is not supposed to touch the other unless you choose it to. Sort of like growing up with my brother who never let his peas touch his mashed potatoes or he wouldn't eat them. Those of you who have kids know what I mean!


Yesterday I traveled to the far north of Thailand and the "golden triangle" border with Myanmar (Burma) and Laos. You stand in Thailand looking up the mighty Mekong River with Burma on the left and Laos on the right. Was in the frontier border town of Mae Sai where you cross into Burma. It's a crazy system. Americans can cross into Burma at this border only between 6 AM and 6 PM and then are only allowed only on the one street about 600 yards going into Burma. Both sides of the street are lined with shops. Basically they want you to come into Burma, spend some money on cheap souvenir stuff and get out! Very weird. It was interesting to me to see the Mekong for the first time. You can boat north on it all the way to China.


We stopped at a hillside tribal village down some dirt roads where I met people from several traditionally nomadic people: the Akca, the Palong, the red-eared (long-eared) Karen, and the long-necked Karen (giraffe women). These are the ones that wear the heavy rings around their necks. They begin wearing them about age 5 or so and soon add a ring each year. Really interesting. The rings are very heavy and I took many photos.


The breakfast's here are something quite different than in the U.S. I have a spicy soup, steamed rice covered with vegetables (and chicken, pork or fish if you choose - whatever the cook made that day), small pancakes or waffles, a variety of fresh fruit and fruit juices, a Thai omelet, and coffee, tea, or Ovaltine! A complete salad is also available as is some strange kind of bologna looking meat and sausages I have chosen not to eat. It is a big meal and spicy to boot. I usually have this about 6:30 - 7 AM. For an American it is like eating a huge dinner meal at a Thai restaurant in the States. Funny thing is I have gotten to like it! I eat little lunch and small dinners and have been losing some weight! It's all very healthy and I eat little meat.


I had to also make adjustments on my money. I always wore a money belt and other money holder stuff under my clothes and close to my body, but I sweat so much here I was finding that my money was all getting soaked!!!! I have had to put stuff in plastic bags for protection. Today was another unbelievable day as I went whitewater rafting in the jungle. We drove down miles of a really narrow dirt road just to get to where we were going to enter the river. The road was an oxcart path for centuries and then used by the Japanese in WWII to move military equipment. They forced the Thais to slave labor to expand the old oxcart path. Our driver had a grandfather who had been one of those Thai slaves. There was an oxcart on the road as we traveled and a group of elephants our driver called "local traffic."


We got to this camp by the river out in the jungle with all stick houses along the river. We were served a fabulous lunch here and then put into the Mae Taeng River around Sop Kai and rafted for several hours down to Moung Khut. I have rafted in many countries but these were clearly the biggest rapids I have been on. I was the only American with 2 English, 2 Belgium and an Aussie plus our Thai guide. We all got soaked and when the guide yelled "get down," meaning crouch low in the boat and hang one - we listened! Then at quiet parts we just swam alongside the boat before getting back in for more rapids. At one point we were told to hang on good because if we fell out there we would have to float through the rapids on our own for up to 2 kilometers before we could get picked up!!! I have to admit to a few nerves acting up at the start but quickly got settled in and held on. During the quiet parts we saw elephants along the river and had three of them trumpet to us. Really cool and Tarzan like!


And the jungle here is a thousand shades of green. I have visited Parana, Argentina, where the towns slogan is "todo las verdes, meaning "all the greens" because it is a very green area. I like Parana very much but its greens are nothing compared to the Thailand jungle. All the greens truly applies to this place. GREAT fun. Tomorrow I am spending the day with the elephants and learning how to be a "mahout," or elephant trainer. I will feed the elephants by hand, bath with them in the river and ride my elephant on my own!


Day 13 – Chiang Mai

Last night I went to the Sunday Market. I have found most places around the world have a special market day. It could be any day but often it is a Saturday or Sunday. Here in Chiang Mai it is Sunday. I love markets. You learn much about how the people live by the food and products you find at their market. Last night I bought something for my son and ate dinner at the market. I had pad Thai noodles, corn soup and a wonderful banana waffle and spent just under one dollar. Nice dinner.


Today I went to an elephant conservation center that rescues and saves mistreated and abused elephants. You can find it at www.elephantnaturepark.org and they are doing wonderful work. They currently had 23 elephants (plus 34 dogs and 11 cats), 4 adult males, 17 females (one just 8 months) and 2 baby boys. Their are 21 mahouts as each elephant has their own mahout. The two babies do not yet have one. These elephants have been bullied, beaten, burned, stabbed, shot and had bones broken. National Geographic has done stories about them. Elephants live about 60-80 years and the oldest here is Mae Tong Bai, 85. Her face is sunken, she moves very slow and you can hear her bones creak. The babies were 2 months and 5 weeks. They also had the biggest elephant in Thailand, Max, who is just over 15 feet. A typical Asian elephant is about 12 1/2 tall and also 12 1/2 feet long. They eat about 5-600 pounds of food a day and drink160-180 gallons of water per day.


They are very social animals. They cry, they laugh, they show sorrow and pain for themselves and each other. They bond closely in small groups and fall in love. A herd in the wild will have a matriarch, an older female, who leads them. The males hang around but are a bit more solitary. The males come into "musk" once a year and then wish to mate and get very ornery during that time. They get stains down their face from eye leakage and stains down their back legs from urine leakage also. They say it is very cruel to keep a lone female as they need each other and talk to each other like crazy. Watching them play and talk to each other was an unbelievable experience. I played with the 2 month old baby for 15-20 minutes in like "ring around the rosie" around a pole in one of their shade areas. His social group includes "mum" Mae Jobahn and "auntie" Mae Takeaw. One elephant, Jokia, is completely blind through mistreatment. She has bonded with Mae Perm and always stays near her side for eating, bathing, everything. Mae Perm watches out for her. Even when an amorous male, Kham Min, tried to mate with her, Mae Perm stayed between them and would not allow it.


We started the morning (seven of us - 2 Danes, 4 Brits and me) by stopping at the banana market and filling an entire pickup with bananas. This is done twice a day as a "snack" for them. About 500 pounds each time. We then hand fed them the bananas and got to know them and their personalities. Later when they went down to the river to bathe, we walked with them and went into the water with them. We threw water on them and scrubbed them with a brush. Sometimes they threw water on us! The little 5 week old boy decided to play with me in the water and was pushing me around and nearly knocked me off my feet! Very strong little guy. I then rode Mae Perm by myself for about 500 yards! It was really quite an experience sitting on her neck with my knees up high behind her head and her ears flapping back on my lower legs just like a mahout. I know who was in charge though and it wasn't me!


As usual, we had a delicious lunch on site and then learned more about the elephants and the elephant situation in Thailand. We then contented ourselves with wandering among the elephants and taking photos before a second trip to the river. After that trip we completed our day and returned to our hotels.


I did meet "Lek," the wonderful tiny Thai woman who started this place. She is an outcast to many in her own country for the work she does in trying to change the way elephants are treated and for them to be trained with love and not beatings. All the mahouts at the park train only with love, no hooks or beatings. The animals respond to hand signals and verbal commands done with love. Because they are such social creatures they respond well to this. I also found out there is an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee! It is run by a woman named Carol Buckley to rescue old zoo and circus animals. They told us a story about how she rescued two old circus animals who had been separated for 25 years and that they immediately recognized each other when brought back together and talked all night long! Amazing animals.


Day 15 – Luang Phabang, Laos

Let me say this about bananas - ours in the U.S. are terrible. In this area of the world they are only about 3-5" long, chubby, and wonderfully delicious. They ripen naturally and are so sweet and flavorful. You have not lived until you have had a steaming hot bowl of banana soup for dessert. Magnificent.


Yesterday I flew into the "international" airport here. One runway, one other plane and a small terminal. This whole country only has 6 million people but geographically it is stunningly beautiful. Mountains, rivers and streams everywhere with "all the greens" and in such brilliant colors. Still hot but cooler here and definitely cooler at night. Still t-shirt weather though - not Wisconsin cool by any measure. I checked in to my Guest House (small hotel) and then went to the most revered and important Buddhist temple in Laos. It was very beautiful plus, as an added bonus, the River Festival is held at the full moon every October to celebrate the end of the rainy season. I will not be here then but the people are building their "float" boats to light up for the festival. I got to watch the monks at several temples building their colorful boats and got some great photos.


This morning I took a long slow boat ride on the Mekong to see some famous caves by the riverside where old Buddha statures are stored, about 4000 of them stored in lower and upper caves. The lower caves require about 40 steps up, the upper about 400 steps up. Needless to say my butt was dragging when I got back to the boat. We also stopped at a small riverside village where I watched a guy making rice wine (Laos moonshine) and had a small glass. Not bad. They bottle this stuff with a different snake, scorpion, centipede or something else strange, one in each bottle. The people drink this stuff! Some kind of sexual macho thing I think but not sure. I passed.


I have seen two incredibly beautiful waterfalls in my life. One is Iguazu Falls in Argentina and the other was this afternoon outside of Louang Phabang. It took about 25 miles of rough dirt road but definitely worth it. This thing cascades down hundreds of meters over many rocks and several pools in a beautiful sight. I went across rocks up near the falls (Kouang Si Falls) and then swimming in one of the pools just downstream. Cool and refreshing. A great afternoon. Just a pure joy swimming there.


On the way back we also stopped at a Hmong hill people village where I got some good children shots. I try to get "faces" in my photos whenever I can. Also saw a bunch of water buffalo today for the first time. Very impressive beasts. Tomorrow I am going to walk the streets of this city and see what more I can. Now it is a banana or two, a shower and to bed. Each night I am very tired but it is a good tired and I am off again the next morning.


Day 16 - Luang Phabang

It is very hot in the afternoons and none of the shops or restaurants have AC. They are all simply open air with a roof and some walls around them. Lots of fans always going. I have found out there are several ways to spell the name of this city but Luang Phabang is the most common. It is named after the Great Buddha Pha Bang who can be seen at the Royal Palace Museum. It is the most important Buddha image in the country just as Wat Xiang Thong is the most important temple. It's the place I visited earlier and watched the boat building going on.


Money issues? In Thailand it was 40 baht to the dollar and fairly easy to calculate. It is fairly easy here also but a lot more zeros. When I exchanged $100 U.S. at the airport I got back just over 1,000,000 kip! So I am a millionaire in Laos. It is about 10,000 kip to the dollar. Yesterday my 7 bananas cost 1000 kip, roughly 10 cents. Money may not grow on trees but bananas do. I have been drinking a whole lot of fruit shakes because they are good, cold, healthy and cheap. My favorite is coconut but I have had banana, pineapple and mango so far. They run 30 to 50 cents each. No milk but juice, chopped ice and whipped to a froth. I love them. That and water will take you a long way. Water is only 20 - 30 cents a bottle. Good with coconut cookies.


I have learned that the tall green rice fields are sticky rice and the short green fields are jasmine rice. Sticky is preferred more in the northern parts of Thailand and Laos and jasmine in the south. Jasmine is like the rice we get in the U.S. I, of course, like sticky rice best. Also had a red bean and green tea cake in Thailand that was really good - and I am not normally a cake eater.


Some other interesting things I have learned about elephants. They have weak spines that are right at the surface and a chair should never be placed on their back. It actually hurts the animal but that is how they give tourist rides. The head and neck are the strongest parts of the elephant body and that is why the mahout rides high up on the neck directly behind the head. Ivory tusks are a status symbol to the male elephant and represent his "maleness." When cut off by poachers they become depressed and often will not mate or may commit suicide. They do this by standing on their trunks which then collapse under them.


The name of the waterfall I told you about is Kouang Si Waterfall for any of you who wish to look it up. It is a 60 meter multi-level beauty. The "moonshine" village is actually Ban Xang Hai but is called "whiskey village" by many. The Buddha caves are the Pak Ou caves. This morning I started at 8 AM by climbing the 328 steps of Phou Si, the Holy Hill. Hell of a way to start the day! Soaked with sweat by 8:15. Great views all around of the city though. After the smooth downhill journey I visited the Royal Palace and museum. I have now seen the thrones for both kings of Thailand and Laos. The chairs looked just my size but they would not let me sit in them. Darn.


Then to Wat That where I had a 45 minute chat with a 23 year old monk. He told me about himself and why he had become a monk. He said he was happy with his life and studies. Many monks, such as he, come from poor families and it is a way out for them. They can study Buddhism and have a better life in their mind. Interesting young man. Then went to lunch at a riverside restaurant on the Mekong. Outdoors of course but they are all in shade or use umbrellas for shade. Bright sunlight out but you see umbrellas everywhere, especially for women. They will steer their bike or motor scooter with one hand and hold their umbrella in the other.


The food here is fabulous. I have been eating rice or noodles with vegetables. As I mentioned, there are two kinds of rice and many kinds of noodles. They know how to use spices though and the stuff is really good. Yesterday out by the waterfall I had lunch in an open thatched roof place and got a huge plate of rice and vegetables for 90 cents. Today a nice lunch of noodles and vegetables for $1.20 (plus my 30 cent coconut shake).


The toilets are, of course, quite different. Take our toilet bowl and cut it in half (to be half as tall), then stand on the sides and stoop down and - well, you get the idea! You will find western toilets in better hotels and some expensive restaurants but not in the regular Thai or Lao community. They may be 6 inches or so off the ground or concreted in at ground level, but either way "stooping" is the rule. They are flushed by scooping water into them from a large barrel, pail or whatever of water standing next to them. Interesting. Tonight I shall look around the markets and tomorrow morning travel down to Vang Viang for a few days. 


Day 17 – Vang Viang, Laos 

First, last night in Louang Prabang. I could not resist it. I again walked the 328 steps to the top of the Holy Hill just to watch the sunset with about 50 other "farang" (foreigners). Took about a hundred photos hoping for just one to be a wall hanger. Then walked down the hill to the night market and ate dinner and strolled for awhile. Lovely evening but the heat had returned. I thought it was cooler here based on my first night but if it is, it is not much. The night was just teasing me.


Today was unbelievable. Left on a minivan this morning at 9 AM to travel 168 kilometers (about 107 miles) to Vang Viang. Arrived 6.5 hours later. We were coming down Hwy 13, the main highway and BEST road in the country. Do not be deceived by that. It was an incredible ride of perhaps unparalleled beauty. The road wound up, down and around mountains and valleys but never through - no tunnels. I called it the "linguini" highway as it was not wide enough to be spaghetti. Perhaps it should be called "angel hair" as you hoped angels were watching on many of the turns. The beauty is such though that if you were to sit in one spot for a thousand minutes and take a thousand pictures no two photos would be the same. The constant movement of mist, clouds, sun and shadow upon the mountains keeps it all ever changing.


I had always thought New Zealand was the most beautiful country in the world but Laos is right up there. New Zealand has an ocean and an infrastructure though. Laos has only its magnificent natural beauty of mountains and rivers. This is not a "first world" country though. It is not the "third world" either, but more of a "second world" in most ways. They have poor roads, questionable sanitary conditions, lots of poverty and lack any strong infrastructure, but have cell phones, internet cafes and satellite TV. It is like every village has one satellite dish everyone in the village hooks up to. It reminds me a lot of my time in Paraguay, another second world country.


During the drive, villages were everywhere alongside the road with the doors of many homes just a few feet off the road and the back going down the mountainside. No sidewalks of course, so everyone and everything walks in the road. We were CONSTANTLY dodging cattle of all types, ducks, geese, many goats, chickens, "Vietnamese" pigs, plus many children and adults not to mention other cars, trucks and buses. In addition, it was now the end of the rainy season during which there were many landslides on and over the road, leaving even narrower lanes, huge and numerous potholes, and a whole lot of rocks and debris. The two Filipinos, 7 Europeans and me in the van were often holding our breath!


The driver is constantly blowing his horn. Every curve he comes to (about a thousand) he blows his horn to say he is coming and if no one blows back he pays no attention to our concept of lanes and assumes no one is coming at us. The "rules" of the road. There are no lane markings of course. When we go through any village (maybe 30 or so) he leans on his horn which I think means, "I am coming so get out of the way or I will kill you." Human or animal gets the same horn. It is amazing we missed everything, particularly some small herds of cattle and goats.


By the way, nothing is in a cage here. All the livestock freely roam the roads and fields at will. I guess they all just know where they live and who owns them! The cattle have been mostly Brahman but today I saw a lot of what looked like Guernsey or Brown Swiss plus something that looked like a cross with a water buffalo (and maybe was). We also stopped twice to eat and I had noodle soup in a small town roadside restaurant where we used some really questionable (by our western standards) toilets. One time he stopped and said it was a "pee stop" and got out of the van, walked a few feet away and did so. Anyway, we arrived in Vang Viang safely!


I decided to splurge and am paying $15 a night for a riverside room with AC and shower. The town is supposed to be a tourist center for caves and the river. Well, the main street is a hole-filled semi-paved at best road. Definitely off the beaten path so to speak. Surrounded by incredible natural beauty but not much of a town otherwise. The place needs "work" as they say. Every place is very safe though. The Lao people are very gentle and soft spoken people who are always helpful and kind. Tomorrow I shall see some caves and I think maybe I am going tubing in a cave? 


Day 18 – Vang Viang 

Today I was off to see the caves of Vang Viang. I have seen many caves so no big deal I think. Ha! Not like cave tours in America with nice easy trail walk. First we walk about a mile through jungle and then I am spelunking! Crawling up and down, in and out among rocks and crevices in damp, muddy, pitch dark except for my guide, Mong Ke (yes, he said he is called monkey) and the small lanterns on our heads attached to small batteries on our bodies. My decrepit old body had its work cut out. Went about a hundred yards in and then turned off lanterns. The most pitch black I have ever seen. I was absolutely covered with mud. After that we went into another nearby cave but only about 50 yards this time. There was also a large Buddha statue in that cave. We then came out and had lunch out in a little hut in the middle of rice fields, banana trees and jungle. The guide cooked very well. We had fresh bread, fried rice and "all kinds of good stuff on a stick." Definite spice to the peppers but excellent.


After lunch we again go caving off a branch of the Nam Song river here. We swim in the pool outside the cave then enter the cave on inner tubes, on our backs, going through small entrance, again with only small lamps on our heads and batteries on our bodies. Tubed maybe a hundred yards into the cave, pulling ourselves by rope, before dead ending where a strong stream comes out of the darkness. Here we waded for a moment and then tubed back out with the current. Lying on your back in darkness in such an environment is a very strange experience. Did not need the lights on our head to get out naturally but needed them to keep our heads and bodies from hitting hard the top or sides of the cave. We were able to steer a bit and push off walls with feet and hands this way. Probably nothing to experienced spelunkers, but to me it was cool (including the water)! Washed off most of the mud also.


Then hiked back about a mile through rice fields, jungle and incredible views everywhere before being met by a tuk-tuk to take us back to the town. Even got to see some rice being harvested, boys fishing in stream, and many small children jumping in the stream, mostly naked. That is the way here with small children and you see them naked everywhere. It is natural for they are not potty trained and I have yet to see a diaper anywhere in Asia so far. Last night I had a "peanut shake." Absolutely delicious. A British girl told me she had a peanut butter and banana shake and it was "lovely." I think I will go have another one now. Then I showered and had dinner where I had breakfast, on the patio overlooking the river.


Day 19 – Vientiene, Laos 

I finished my last night in Vang Viang with a banana pancake and a peanut shake and a banana shake. Walked back after dark and it is dark! No street lights and only few lighted signs of restaurants and guest houses. Perfectly safe though. As I mentioned, the Lao people are very gentle and hospitable. Morning breakfast of rice noodle soup with vegetables before heading down the mountain. 


I made it down the mountains to the relative river flat land around Vientiene and this part of the Mekong. Again I was the only American in a shared minivan. The drive was still green and scenic but seemed very tame after the mountain drive of several days. This time we covered about the same distance in half the time. For the first time I ran into a fly in the ointment. I had to go to three hotels before finding a room and then booked a flight to Hanoi for a few days later. I had decided it was too long a distance to bus. Bus to Hanoi was a 24 hour ride.


The River Festival and boat races are this weekend so this town was bustling with activity. You can tell you were in the city again. Loud music, traffic, people, etc. We are right across the Mekong from Nong Khai, Thailand. I cannot go there though because of my visa. Must fly to Hanoi from here. This is a very busy place compared to the quiet of Vang Viang.  I had pigeon eggs for a snack boiled in a natural hot springs. They tasted like, well, eggs!


Most of this part of the world has day and night markets. There may be one or more day markets throughout the city that are open from early morn until about 5 PM. The night market (usually one) then sets up from about 5 in the evening until about 1-2 AM or later in Bangkok. Different people, different shops, but same type products except for special "night" stuff. The showers here are like much of the world. You have a nozzle coming out of the wall, no curtain anywhere, and when you shower everything gets wet: sink, toilet bowl, floor, whatever. There is always a drain in the floor, sometimes the center, sometimes a corner, and floor slightly slanted that way. Dries pretty fast though.


Some worry about health and diseases here. Asian bird flu is an issue here but only if you are out on the farms handling birds, which I don't do, or interact with already sick people, which I also try not to do. Other than that, there is always a small risk of something your body is not immune to but if you are careful eating, drinking and such, the risk is minimal. I try not to do anything stupid and hope not to get unlucky in any way. 


Day 20 - Vientiene, Laos 

The River Boat Fall Festival of the Full Moon was going on for the last two days and culminates tomorrow with ceremonies at the temples and boat race in evening on the river. So by the luck of timing, I geo to see festival. I went to the most important Buddhist temple in the country today and got many excellent people photos of women and monks preparing for the festival. I will go back tomorrow morning and observe more festival doings. 


My hotel is only thirty yards from the main river street and is thus very convenient but also very noisy at night. Fortunately I always carry earplugs when I travel so no problem sleeping. Also today I saw a large monument, Presidential Palace and private temple of past kings. Otherwise just enjoyed the atmosphere by the river. They have rides for children, carnival games and food stands galore. This town has only 600,000 people but that is 10% of the country. Festival is like small version of Milwaukee's Summerfest. Anyway, it's enjoyable to observe the cultural similarities and differences.


Day 22 - Last Day in Vientiene

Yesterday I spent almost the entire day with the monks at That Louang, the most revered Buddhist Wat (Temple) in this country. The "Golden Stuppa" is at the center point of the complex. Originally the complex had four temples, N, S, E, and W. Now the north temple and south temple are the focal points. The west temple still stands but is smaller and a bit farther away from the Stupa. The east temple was destroyed in long ago wars and was never rebuilt. I arrived shortly before lunch and watched as worshippers delivered gifts and food to the monks that they had spent days preparing.


The old monks sat on the floor (mats) in the traditional style and in a row along one side of the south temple and ate from their multi-bowled meals which sat on small round bamboo tables. After they had completed their meals the rest of the food was distributed among those in attendance and they ate in a similar manner but in more social circles around the same style tables. Many recognized me from the day before when I had take photos of many of them and showed them the photos. They offered me food and invited me to join them. They are very friendly and kind to all and I developed great respect for them.


About 1:30 at the north temple, the largest and most beautiful one, all the monks from the entire city of Vientiene began to arrive, primarily in tuks-tuks. It seems this is the ONE day of the entire year they all come to this temple and I got to witness it. About 2:00 they all gathered in the temple and began their joint prayer service which lasted about an hour. I understood little of course. It was led by one older monk on the floor in the front using a portable microphone. At times there was bowing, turning and the entire group speaking together such as Christians will do on the lord's prayer or apostles creed. Several of the monks speak some English and befriended me. One is the English teacher to the other monks and two others were novices (monks in training). I was allowed to participate (as much as I could) in everything, sitting at the back of the temple for the above services. Photos were possible at some points but not all out of simple respect. After the above service the monks not of That Louang got back into tuk-tuks and returned to their respective temples.


Now we had an opportunity to talk about many things and they are a very open and honest people. We discussed the great "philosophers" of time (Buddha, Lao-tzu, Jesus, Confucius, etc.). We discussed politics from the French colonialism in Laos to Vietnam to today. I was even asked questions about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War! Monks spend much of their day studying and they love to learn and, as the English teacher told me, "expand our minds." They told me how wonderful they thought it was for me to travel and to expand my mind and learn more about the peoples of the world. They said Americans should do that more for "to know only your own country and your own people is to know very little." They asked me to send them copies of the photos I took and maybe some English history or philosophy books and I will do so upon my return to America. One novice said, "I like to ask you questions. You remind me of my father. He is also old, wise and fat." As I said, they are open and honest people!!!!!!


I also watched them building their decorative bamboo boat for part of the evening ceremonies. I was invited to help and I placed a few of the small flower decorations on the boat. They told me that the evening ceremonies would be there at That Louang, whereas many of the Wats close to the river would take their parts to the river and float them. All were at the same time so I had to choose and chose to stay at That Louang. At 8:00 that evening the gong is rung and the procession of monks and other local worshippers, including many teenagers, began their procession three times around the north temple. We carried lotus flowers, candles and several sticks of incense. It was a time of spiritual meaning but also great joy and playfulness, even among the monks! Among the teenagers, one would yell something (like a cheerleader might) and the others would all "cheer" in some way. You are supposed to make your one special wish for the coming year during the procession and, if you are a good person, it will be granted.


After the three trips around the temple we all went to the front of the temple and lit the candles/flares that had been placed on the boat. We then went (only thirty feet or so) to a group of Buddha statues under a 100+ year old tree from India (Nepal is Buddha birthplace) and place our flowers and incense by one of the Buddha images. There is a Buddha for each of the seven days of the week and you should place by the day of the week you were born (if you know it). I did not know what day of the week I was born but placed mine by Thursday because it is where my novice friend placed his. All in all, it was a wonderful cultural and religious experience.


After this experience I took a tuk-tuk back to my hotel and the celebration along the Mekong River street and shore. If this city has 600,000 people I think all of them were there. Unbelievable packed street it which everyone was hanging on to their friend and family simply to not loose them for you could loose them in an instant. Unique and sweaty experience. Sort of like the Wisconsin State Fair on an 80 degree weekend day packed with 100,000 people, multiplied by four in numbers, and reduced in space by four! I have never seen anything like it. Nothing but color, sound, music and smiles everywhere.


More about my observations, thoughts and ramblings with the monks. First, the Lao are a beautiful and gentle people. As friendly and gentle as anywhere I have ever been. And tiny people! I am a giant in this land. I tried to find a pair of sandals in a size 10 and was told everywhere that that BIG size is not available here. So how did these beautiful and gentle people gain their independence? Many people over the years have tried to dominate the Lao and steal the various treasures of their country. The British and primarily the French were the colonialists who tried to dominate Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in the early-middle part of the 1900's. In fact, it was an ex-Akha monk who led the Lao forces to fight back against the French (and later also American forces).


The Lao were also assisted by Ho Chi Minh - BEGINNING IN 1945 - to drive out the imperialist/colonialists who tried to dominate Lao and most of SE Asia for their own greed. They finally defeated the French at Bien Dien Phu. The Pathet Lao (whom we called Communists) were simply Lao freedom fighters. The Lao compare these people to George Washington and our colonial troops who fought for freedom from England. This is all what carried over to Vietnam. Very few Americans know that the French colonialists dominated Vietnam in the above period and Ho Chi Minh began his fight to unite Vietnam against the French. This continued for many years.


In the late-50's the French, under Charles DeGaulle, asked the Americans for help. At that time our President was Eisenhower, DeGaulle's buddy from WWII, so we began to send in military "advisers." Well, we all know how it expanded from there under several Presidents before we were finally forced to flee the area. 


I had a good friend in graduate school at Tennessee. His name was Mohammed and he was from Iran. Once I asked him his thoughts about such things and I have never forgotten his reply. I think it was very wise. He asked, "You and I are friends, yes?" "Yes," I said. He answered, "People are people. Governments are governments." Such wise words which have been reaffirmed over and over in my travels. I have been many places and, as a teacher, was often told how Bush was hated and asked how our people could elect a man as bad as Bush, a terrorist to much of the world. I always explained that I did not agree with Bush and that about one half of our country did not agree with Bush, but that in our system we follow the person who receives the most votes, even if it is only one more vote than the other person.


Wars are NEVER about philosophies (communism, socialism, democracy, etc.), for the educated political analyst knows we are all (including us) socialist countries. We are all a mix of government rules and individual freedoms. It is just the percentages that differ. It meant NOTHING to the lives of the American people on the street to stop communism from spreading in Vietnam. They were no threat to America. Just has it meant NOTHING to the American people on the street to depose Saddam. He had no effect on us as a people.


It amazes me how few Americans seem to understand that not a single one of the 9/11 terrorist group had any ties to Iraq. They did have ties to Saudi Arabia though - a country of oil and great friends of the Bush and Cheney oil families. Governments can lie as they find convenient, but wars are ALWAYS fought for economic reasons, for human greed. And old men with money send young men to die. If old men with money (or their children) had to go to war themselves, no war would ever be fought. 


Remember, even our own Revolutionary War was originally fought over taxes (economic), the Civil War over free labor for the south (economic) and on we go in history. Even WWII was Hitler's greed for land and subsequent economic power. The French in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam sought economic power and dragged us into it until we were caught in a quagmire we could not control. The British in India and Africa sought economic power in their attempt at "empire" building. And so many of our American young men have died for economic reasons - for big business and oil. Our government, like all governments, lives for business and economic interests and the rich get fatter.


I also believe it is very foolish to enter another people's country and attempt to defeat them for you can NEVER win. The Lao, the Cambodians, the Vietnamese are tiny people - REAL TINY people. But people will fight forever if you enter their land - just as the Lao and the Vietnamese did. As I said, Ho Chi Minh is looked on as their George Washington. The French and the Polish freedom fighters would never give in to Hitler. India and Africa found ways to drive out the British, however long it took. We can NEVER dictate to other countries yet we continue to try: the Shah of Iran, our support of Bin Laden against the Soviets, our farcical behavior in Chile, Nicaragua, Panama and Cuba. Venezuela and Brazil have elected leaders our government does not like, for we only like democratically elected leaders when they agree with us. People are people. We all wish only peace, to feed our families, to have a roof over our head and a good place to sleep. Governments are governments.


Tomorrow I will fly to Hanoi, Vietnam. I am both exited and frightened. Frightened because of my young years in the 60's and 70's and the wounding, death and horrid experiences of so many whom I knew in some way. So many who will never talk about such things because of the horror. Excited because many of those same people have told me it is an incredibly beautiful country if you can get past the never-ending heat and the war. Now we are past the war and I get to travel in peace to a place I would have once been frightened to go. I remember well the anthems, "1, 2, 3, 4, I don't want your God damn war" and "We got to get out of this place, if it's the last thing we ever do." Now I go in peace.


I will see and experience the Vietnam of today. I will observe the beauty of the country and  see and how I am treated by the people. I will conquer my own fears in the process. 


Day 24 – Hanoi, Vietnam

I am in a place that I once thought I would never be but it is fine and I have already begun to feel comfortable as possible. Sinuses are killing me though. The air pollution in Hanoi is up there with downtown LA or worse and it's a struggle to breathe. Many people here (and Bangkok) wear a scarf around their nose and mouth all day if they need to be out in traffic. I bought one today and am doing the same.


Outside of that, this place is a land of incredible contrasts. It is an ocean of motorbikes and humanity filled with seas of peace and tranquility. The newer homes and architecture are really beautiful but may sit next to a 500 year old building. The streets are choked with scooters and exhaust, yet the temples, parks and in town lakes are calm and peaceful. Crossing the street here you just go and walk right through the traffic. They dodge you and you dodge them. It is expected and simply is the way. Only the very busiest intersections have any lights. I am becoming quite adept at it.


I am staying in the Old Quarter where the streets and buildings have been here for 500 years and still have their old names, unfortunately for me a different name for every block. Some of the stores have been in the same family for 500 years selling an evolution of items. Just figuring out where you are and where you are trying to go is a real struggle but the place is fascinating. Everyone is trying to sell you something. They seem to know mainly the American word "hello" and to point at their motorbike, bicycle rickshaw, or whatever the product is they are trying to sell. You may get frustrated but never bored. I finally broke down today and hired a bicycle "rickshaw" guy to stay with me and take me where I wanted to go. It was well worth it and I saw a lot.


Ho Chi Minh is everywhere. I have been in his offices, his meeting rooms, his homes, his museum and to his mausoleum - which is the number one visited site in this country. You can see in the eyes of the locals who are there how this little tiny man was and is worshipped. I have been to the Museum of the Revolution and seen American uniforms, parts of American bombs and photos of Eisenhower and Nixon visiting here in the 50's. No major thoughts about it all. Just interesting to see it from the other sides historical perspective. Interestingly enough, not one person has asked me about the war though I am clearly the age of one you might ask. My guess is that it is simply history, they won and there is nothing else to say.


Culturally this place is quite different than Thailand or Laos. There is a strong Chinese influence this close to China. You see it in the dress and in the temples. I have been to a temple where they say Confucius read and taught and lent his knowledge to 10,000 generations. Amazing. They worship their ancestors here and the older I get, the more I like that!


Now I am going to see the Water Puppet Show which is the HOT ticket here. Sells out every day so you have to buy a day or two ahead. Apparently the puppeteers are waist deep in water and the puppets move upon the water. Should be interesting. Tomorrow I will take a side trip to Ha Long Bay. The infrastructure here is not strong and I have already learned that some of the places I want to go are not so easy to get to. Such is life. We will figure it out as we go.


Day 25 – Ha Noi

First of all Ha Noi is two words. Why we always had it has one is beyond me. The water puppet show was wonderful. It seems this is a craft developed in the 11th century and only practiced in Vietnam. It's incredible. Saw snakes, chickens, ducks, water buffalo, dragons breathing fire and all kinds of people playing and dancing in the water. Even had puppets doing the backstroke! These are manipulated using long poles under the water that you don't see. Neither do you see the puppeteers who are waist deep in water behind a screen. They do some fabulous things with the puppets.


Today I took a side trip to Ha Long Bay. It was a beautiful place but a long drive there and back. We cruised around the Bay on a "junk" and had lunch on board. I believe I ate seaweed, squid that is different than in America, cucumbers sliced like french fries and very spicy plus some other good stuff. The Bay consists of over 3000 islands of various shapes and sizes but most are essentially huge tall rocks rising out of the water. We explored several caves and went through a low passage in a small boat that was like a secret lagoon. Completely enclosed by tall rock except the little way we came in. Apparently you cannot reach it at high tide. You wouldn't believe the little boat I floated around the ocean on. Me, who swims like a rock.


We had a very good guide, Toa (pronounced like toe). He told us many stories about caves and how they had been in use for thousands of years by the Vietnamese to fight off "foreign aggressors." He only used the word enemy once or twice, generally called all outsiders foreign aggressors and perhaps that term better fits. He also referred to Ho Chi Minh as "like George Washington in America." The more you look around this place the more you see and understand the analogy. When the French were getting their butt kicked and finally got out after a hundred years of trying to beat down these people, Eisenhower and Nixon came to visit the French leaders and then the South Vietnam puppet government installed in Saigon. Didn't anyone tell E & N about the caves? Did the French say nothing? Did the South Vietnamese say nothing? From what I have seen these people could not have been defeated in a thousand years. You cannot defeat someone who will not be defeated.


I can only imagine the frustration for U.S. soldiers who saw these people attack and then disappear. To be found only when they wished to be found. And to carry 40-50 lbs on their back and have to put up with this oppressive heat that U.S. bodies are not used to or made for. I have more respect than ever for them in what they had to face but less respect than ever for our government for either outright lying to us or being so stupid has to place our soldiers here for an impossible task. I often wonder what might have happened differently had JFK lived. I like to think he would not be as stupid as E, N and LBJ turned out to be. Oh well. It is history.


Today I am wearing a medical mask all day because the air quality is so bad on my sinuses. I am not out of place as many people here wear them. Tomorrow I am going to some rice fields and caves back in the countryside away from the ocean. The air is much better in the country. 


Day 26 – Ha Noi 

Yesterday was a bit of a quiet one for me compared to most. Today I made many observations again that I have been giving thought too. To the casual observer, Ha Noi is a chaotic place. The constant horns beeping, the motor scooters everywhere, the dancing and dodging to cross the street, and the air pollution from all the vehicles. Yet to the studious observer there is great order here. Though they drive all over the road (and I do mean all over the road) everyone seems to understand the "rules" of the road. Though I have seen many things that were too close for me, they seem to bother no one here and I saw no one ever hit anyone. Motor scooters are critical to the way of life. They are fast, cheap and can be parked! We may laugh, but in 2010 Ha Noi will celebrate its 1000 birthday. Cities founded so long ago did not foresee automobiles and parking on any street is extremely rare.


Even the shopping has order. It seems to work by sections. There are 3, 4 or 5 blocks that are all shoes. Then there are several blocks that is the flower market, than then there is the produce section, then 3, 4 or 5 blocks that are fabrics, than Chinese and Buddha stuff. The whole center of town is a mall primarily divided into product sections. quite interesting. The architecture has a touch of French / Chinese and Vietnamese. Simple countryside structures are built of bamboo, everything else is built of concrete. They use concrete blocks, concrete bricks or red clay bricks as a base and then plaster it over for a (somewhat) smooth finish. There are no basements of course as water is everywhere, as often as not including your "yard." The best way to describe these houses are "shotgun" houses. If you know the term from the old south of the U.S., it means only one room wide but 3-4 rooms back to back with doors down the center. You must go through one room to enter another. Now imagine that same principle 2, 3, 4, or even 5 stories high! The taxes in old days here were based on road frontage so they developed an architecture that had limited road frontage but often went very deep and, if you could afford it, very high also. You see some really tall and thin looking homes.


Another strange thing here is that though it is hot, I have not been wearing my sunglasses. It always seems to be cloudy or misty (or pollution?) to cut the suns rays. Also the food here is not as good to me as Thailand or Laos. There I was not afraid to eat in the street stall and routinely did so, here I am more hesitant. Things did not look as clean to me. I did see a lot of water buffalo today including several up to their ears in water and two running! I guess they don't normally run. Interesting sight. They are pretty docile it seems and I got my photo with one as they have always fascinated me.


It seems the people here have lived for over 2000 years off primarily four things: water, bamboo, strong backs and strong minds. The many ways I have seen water used and channeled are remarkable as is their use of bamboo from shelters to furniture to brooms to "carrying sticks". In observing them, they have incredible strength for a tiny people and I have seen them move and lift things that clearly weigh more than them - especially the women! Their strong minds we already learned about the hard way. Rice is now being harvested in one of their two annual harvests. It is very labor intensive and I have seen hundreds of people in conical bamboo hats working in the fields. Being out in the country today was quite educational. Rice is separated all over the road and you often drive over it, though I must say the road we were on today we would not call roads in the U.S. - wide rough paths.


The physical geography of this place is very beautiful. We saw several more kinds of temples this morning and then more caves in the afternoon. I rode a bicycle older than me about a mile to a place where our little group of five took thee small boats, each rowed by two Vietnamese women, none of whom weighed 100 pounds, and they rowed and pushed us down miles of canals and waterways and into more hidden caves where we actually had to lie down in the boat to protect our heads. It was all very beautiful and serene. The only uncomfortable part for me was when we stopped at a Buddha back in a hidden grotto and they asked each of us where we were from. Again I was the only American and I almost felt embarrassed to say where I was from, as if I should apologize. They six women said nothing but just nodded. I wondered how the two French in our group felt?


They also grow quite a bit of corn here, which surprised me, lots of fruit of course, peanuts and vegetables of all types. They just don't seem to use spices as well as the Thai's do. Our lunch today, as yesterday, was family style with bowls of different stuff around the table and you figure it out from there. I did not go hungry.


Looking around this place it got me thinking about what is freedom? In some ways, perhaps more, these people are as free as we are. They are free to be entrepreneurial, free to grow things, free to build where and what they wish. We have multiple layers of licenses from pets to business to construction, we have "zoning" laws that say what you can do with your property, we have laws as to what you may say or do (hate speech or discrimination). The more I see of the world, the more I see of how man is alike and how little differences there are among us.


This does not account for religious extremists in any form though. I go back to something the monks told me in Laos. They said Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, all religions have rules and they are similar rules, such as do not kill, do not steal and basically to be a "good" person. They said the problem is not what religion you are, but that some people simply do not follow the "rules." If everyone would follow the rules of any religion we would have no problems. I thought these monks were very wise. 


Day 29 – Hue, Vietnam 

I had lots of scattered thoughts today but first some final thoughts on Hanoi. I had gotten to like Hanoi if one could dỉsregard the air quality. I probably should have spent some more days there to see some things I feel I missed. Outside of the old quarter, Hanoi has done a good job of having tree-lined streets. This made for some nice looking areas and probably helped the air. This may have come from the previous French influence on the city. The traffic though is scary. What we would call a 4-way stop, they would call a 4-way go. Crazy to watch for an American. They are also very clean in many ways. The sidewalks and curbs in front of every shop were swept and cleaned every morning by the owner of that shop. We depend on government to do that for us.


I have learned to eat fairly well with chopsticks and have used them for most of my meals. You sort of shovel things in to your mouth. It works for me as I am a bit of a slob anyway. When I ordered a bowl of soup at the airport, I basically got "ramen" noodles with chopsticks. It is also so hot and humid here. The humidity just never goes away. I can only imagine the hell of those who served here as our western bodies were not tuned to these kind of conditions. The Vietnamese bodies are. I go out in the morning and am soaking wet in my clothes in 15 minutes. They also serve all food here scalding hot as it is the way to be safe and kill any germs or unwanted organisms. A bowl of soup has sweat rolling down my face in 2 spoonfuls. Yet the locals NEVER seem to sweat and always look very cool. I am certain that was also a major factor in past fighting.


I later flew to Hue, the old imperial capital. It was raining upon my arrival and the river had flooded over several streets so I mainly had a nice dinner and relaxed in my hotel. I took a city tour the next day. It is so cheap here ($7 for the day including lunch) that it beat walking all over the city by yourself. There was another American in the group for a change, a lone woman from San Francisco. We went to three very old tombs of emperors I found very interesting and then to the Citadel or Imperial City that had been built by one of the emperors, the one with 500 wives and 142 children.


The Imperial City once had 128 buildings inside the walls but now only about a half dozen remain. They were working to restore the place though. It was very impressive to me. Once you learn that all 128 buildings were built with the same grandeur of the few you do see, you understand that this place must have been dazzling during its time as the capitol. Very interesting to see. Ho Chi Minh is less mentioned here and was only named once by our tour guide but again named as "the father of our country."


Finally we went to see a very special Pagoda. It was the Buddhist monastery that was made so famous in 1963 when a monk from this monastery drove to Saigon, sat down in the Lotus position, poured gasoline over himself, and burned himself to death. It was, of course, on the news all over the world and I am sure many of you remember. He did it to protest the repressive policies of the U.S. backed South Vietnam regime. At this monastery there was also on display the auto he drove to Saigon and a picture of him burning. He is revered here as a great monk. One of the current monks asked me where I am from and when I answered America he repeated loudly "America!," folding has arms and staring at me. It was the only time I had gotten that reaction. I hesitated before saying, "Sir, I am not proud of what happened between us." He just nodded and I walked away.


Today it is raining again and I am just wandering the city at will. I could have taken a tour to the former DMZ but it was a 6AM to 6PM trip and others have told me all you do is sit on a bus as they drive by a field and say "here stood ...." or "here the battle of ........ was fought" and it was just looking at a field. They all said to go only if it was a "personal pilgrimage" for you. I decided just to be in Vietnam is my personal pilgrimage.


Tomorrow I will take a bus down past Da Nang to Hoi An. Some more impressions so far? These are a much different people and country than the Thais or Laos. They touch you a lot here - on the hand, the arm or elsewhere. They don't do that in T or L. That can be a bit irritating and frustrating. You just keep saying No No No and keep walking. They are "aggressive" in marketing ýhatevẻ they have to sell. I think, pérsonally, that the natủre òf thése people may have bêen ruined by too much outside influence: British, French, American, Russian and Chinese. The long coastline of this country has led to such influence and subsequent wars.


Day 30 – Hoi An, Vietnam 

My last night in Hue I had dinner at a nice restaurant, some banana flower soup and a banana served flaming in local wine. I also bought a painting on rice paper of the citadel because the place fascinated me. I thought more about Ho Chi Minh at dinner and made this analogy in my mind. We all generally love to cheer for the underdog. The movie "Hoosiers," for example was loved because the little guy beat the big guy. Now imagine little HCM and little Vietnam knocking off TWO big guys - first France and then the U.S. Imagine that and you can understand why this man is loved and worshipped here. His picture is everywhere including all the money (at about 15,900 Dong to the dollar).


Today was spent traveling to Hoi An and another day filled with thoughts. It is hard not to think about the war when you are always seeing, stopping or visiting another name you know from the period. Today I saw Phu Bai, Truoi, Phu Loc and Lang Co before coming to Da Nang and the famous China Beach. Along the Gulf of Tonkin / South China Sea it looks like they are trying to turn Da Nang into a beach resort. I then traveled another 25 km to Hoi An which is a historic old town with the Cua Dai Beach and resorts just 3 km away. Another thing of note driving down is again the geographic beauty of this place. Bays, ocean, water on one side and mountains rising on the other. Somehow the beauty seems ruined though by the many poor dwellings, poor construction or general trash you see. This country has much to offer but whether they can develop well over time remains a question. Hotels are quite nice but travel infrastructure still needs work. They seem to be attracting investors though. The constant "hello," touching and grabbing by the locals is also not comfortable for westerners.


I am now near the area of the famous My Lai massacre of civilians by US troops. It is not a tourist sight. You have to hire a car and travel 114 km to get there where a memorial to those killed stands. I have chosen not to do so.  I have never felt  any anger to or from anyone but today did see several older folks with limbs missing and that made me think also. I am an American by birth and, though none of this was my doing, I feel guilty for my country. I wonder how many vets come back and what they feel when they do? I am sure their thoughts run the gamut. Tomorrow I shall see more of this historic area from that viewpoint - history.


Day 31 – Hoi An

Hello from very wet Hoi An: We are wet now, yesterday, today and they say tomorrow. It is the beginning of the rainy system here and it is almost like overnight we have gone from hot and wet/humid to a bit chilly and wet. My cousin warned me about this from his lovely holiday here back in the 60's. The river here is flooded and water is in to the first row of river houses. Many people have this problem here I am told and they simply move everything they own upstairs as the river rises and back down as it recedes. Happens once or more every year they tell me. I guess that is to be expected in a land that seems to be run on water. Everywhere there is rice on water, or water on rice, or both.


Despite the rain, went out this morning (45K) to visit My Son, the site of the former Cham people and Champa culture. These people reigned over this area of Central Vietnam from the 7th to the 13th century. This is an archeological dig and reconstruction in progress and it was fascinating to walk in the footsteps of those who lived over a thousand years ago. It's way back from any roads or city and very "jungle ruins" like. Whether you descended from Adam and Eve, Harry the Hairy Ape, Dracula or Wolfman it emphasizes to me how a family tree is important and is never completed nor can be. Don't know how my photos will come out though due to the constant rain. The Champa culture was a matriarchal society and the women ruled and passed their reign down to the eldest daughter. When they wanted to marry, they went to the family of the man they selected and paid a dowry to get him. Very interesting. Had I lived then I might never have been selected! Depressing thought.


The guide consistently pointed out how this site originally contained about 70 buildings but now only 18 due to the destruction by heavy American bombing of the site in 1969. So nice to hear. Apparently the Champa area was then a Viet Cong stronghold. In any case, between the two sides, it is terrible to see an ancient site like this destroyed due to politicians wars. We were told not to stray from the main paths due to unexploded land mines in the area. I didn't.


On a more cheerful note, Asians all seem to love Karaoke. It is advertised on bar signs all over the place and is a big thing over here. Another different thing - the concrete block houses are sometimes painted in brilliant colors and look absolutely beautiful. Then sometimes they are not painted at all and look really depressing. Then sometimes only the front is painted, or the front and one side, or - well you get the picture. Very different. Seen a lot of cool birds I have not seen before. Especially liked one this morning that looked like a cross between and egret and a woodpecker and was the color of a robins breast all over. Cool!


Our drivers all continue wild. I have calculated that each driver blows his horn at least once in an average of under 10 seconds. They seem to love blowing their horns at each other. I think if they had to choose between sex or the horn they would choose their horn! Between all the motorbikes, all the exhaust fumes and all the horns it keeps the streets interesting and the pedestrian looking both ways constantly.


Tomorrow is my birthday. I had planned to spend it on the beach at Cua Bai but now it is likely not going to happen - unless I wish to lay in the rain. Will take a bus to my next stop, Nha Trang and hopefully better beaches at Mui Ne. 


Day 33 – Nha Trang, Vietnam

Well, I spent my birthday in a bus traveling down from north to south. I spent my birthday on a bus trip from, if not hell, some very bad place. The bus was old, the seats falling apart, some recline, some don't. Some only recline and bounce up and down with the bus. Very uncomfortable. I have ridden many buses all over the world and can say this was the worse. We had only seven passengers, one Vietnamese man, 5 Brits (3 men, 2 women) and me. We leave Hoi An at 6:30AM and drive through more recognizable places such as Tam Key and Chu Lai. We get to Quang Ngai about 9:15 and the bus pulls into a service station with engine trouble. You are not going to believe this, but the name of the station was "Phuc Vu" service! I could not make that up!


In addition, we are only about five miles from the site of the My Lai massacre and this area was not exactly pro-American. We stood there for over two hours until the bus was again ready about 11:30. While waiting I tried to keep quiet but had to reply with something several times when asked by the curious locals. It was clear to me that feelings were not warm despite my attempts at smiles. This area contained a lot of pro-Viet Cong sentiment and anti-American from what I have read. After repairs we had time to make up so the bus driver goes like crazy through mountain and city, blowing his horn and roaring down the highway. We stop briefly (30 minutes) for a lunch about 12:45. We then do not stop again until we reach Nha Trang at 8:00 - 90 minutes late - except about 6:30 he pulls over to the side of the road, says "toilet," and gets out and goes by the side of the road. The rest of us men quickly go also (plus one brave British girl) and get right back on the bus and off we roar.


Driving with these drivers is not a relaxing experience and after dark it is really scary. We travel through places like Mo Duc, Duc Phu, Tam Quan, Phu Cat and Binh Dinh, where the turn is to go up into the mountains to Pleiku. We continue on to Quy Nhon (see more Cham towers on hilltop), Binh Tranh, Song Cau, Tuy An and down to Toy Hoa. It is now dark and we see little as we roar down to Ninh Hoa and on to Nha Trang. Once here I just got a hotel, showered and slept.


It is a shame how quickly we sped through places because again I say this country is very geographically beautiful. And I do love water buffalo, though I have discovered they are basically just fat cows with very cool horns. I am surprised we have not introduced any to America? I wonder why? I have seen huge rice. I have seen people working in water and mud up to their knees and waist and living just barely above this same water and mud. I have seen people fish everywhere and anywhere from all kinds of boats and other places including their own front yard. I would not be surprised to find that some of these people had gills and could live underwater - and many do live on the water.


They have very thin legs but incredibly strong leg muscles developed from a very young age. They do things with their bodies NONE of us westerners could do no matter how thin we may be. Put one foot on a concrete wall (or chair) maybe 18 inches off the ground, now lift yourself up on to it using NOTHING ELSE, no arms, no other leg, just lift up and stand! They have incredible leg strength.


This morning I walked 200 yards to the ocean and beach.  I plan to do get a little rest and in a few days go on to Ho Chi Minh City (old Saigon) for awhile and then on to Cambodia. But now all these positives about the beauty of this country being said, I have many other things to say about my time in Vietnam. I say again Thailand and Laos were wonderful and I highly recommend them to all of you: the geography, the people, the culture. However, Vietnam is not Thailand or Laos. It is an entirely different experience. Vietnam is work. There is no relaxation here. A traveler cannot find simple peace. Somehow this country has been ruined by ugliness in buildings, in trash and in a miserable infrastructure. In my opinion, this is a second world country with an attitude that will make it difficult to ever become first world.


Why you may ask? Perhaps it was tainted by war for some say the French and Americans turned this "into a nation of maids, pimps, whores and hustlers." Perhaps that is true. Perhaps it is a highly structured socialist regime which seems to move very slowly in modernizing and adjusting to the world of today. You see this in construction, in infrastructure and in the media. Television in these countries consists basically of people sitting in meetings looking very bored with the proceedings. Perhaps it is 2000 years of trading and fighting with the Chinese, the Japanese and others. A coastal nation was shaped by the coast and the sea commerce that moved along it.


Simply put, the Vietnamese will lie to you as a matter of course. The Thailand people and the Lao people were ALWAYS polite, helpful and pleasant. They were there to assist as needed but not to attack. The Vietnamese attack. They are a swarm of angry bees, a colony of fire ants, to the Thailand and Laos birds and butterflies. Every hotel I have been to here as lied to me. They try to sell you something and you say "no thanks" I am going to ........ And they will say you can not go there for it is closed today (not true) or that is a bad tour, this one is better (not true). I do not believe they even see this as lying but as simply "business." They attack you on the street. Hello, hello, hello, ............. You buy something from me mister - over and over and over. When you say "NO" they pretend they do not understand. When you buy nothing they make a face at you and literally growl at you. They say things in their native language that it is clear are not complimentary. They leave you looking over your shoulder. I wonder if this is how our American soldiers were treated?


I have been to over 30 countries and this is the first place I could say had been more work than pleasure. And they tell me HCM is the worst of all! I have spoken with many other travelers, predominantly British, German, French and other Europeans. They have all felt the same way and several have cut their time here short just to, as one Brit told me, "get out of this country." And this was a guy who currently lives and teaches in Burma! I must also say the north is better than the south. Hanoi is not a laid back place, but it is much more laid back than the south of Vietnam. In Hanoi they do not take your passport at the hotels. In the south they take your passport at EVERY hotel to register your stay with the local police. They do not make you feel welcome in any way. Does this have to do with the war? I don't know. Again, why are they like this? My guess it is probably a combination of all the reasons above but, whatever the reasons, this is a hot, humid, hard and tiring place to travel.


I am glad I came though. For I understand so much matter what so many of my friends and family faced. It is something I needed to do. I remain strongly anti-war but to those who served here may I say I hope you all go to heaven for you have served your time in a hell on this earth.


Day 34 – Nha Trang

Good morning again from Vietnam: Wanted to add a few comments to my thoughts of yesterday. First of all, I stand by my earlier comments that people all over the world are more alike than different. However, let me explain that further. We are all alike in terms of our very basic needs and desires such as we are taught in Freshman Psychology. We all seek to feed ourselves and our families. We all seek to have a safe and secure place to live for ourselves and our families. We all seek ways to worship whatever we believe and we all seek ways to bring some joy and happiness to our lives. I believe these are similar all over the world.


However, there are a thousand different ways to accomplish these things or, as Ishmael says, "there are many ways to live." This is what travel and learning culture is all about. How and what do we feed ourselves and our families? How, where and under what conditions do we live safely? How do we choose to worship and what do we believe? What morals, ethics and "rules" do we live by? How do we find our joy and happiness - the music, dance and laughter of our lives? These are the things I seek to find in my travels. That being said, I say again I have enjoyed everyplace I have seen. I simply put Vietnam at the bottom of the list because I find their weather, their conditions and, most of all, their ethics and "rules" to be the hardest to deal with compared to anyplace I have been.


I also say these are very hardworking people and the women perhaps the strongest workers I have ever seen. And I have experienced many warm and cordial people but primarily in the smaller villages. The cities, even medium sized ones, can be very difficult. Last night I got lucky at my hotel as a wedding reception was held there for the marriage of Trahn Tung and Mong Vy. There were hundreds of guests, virtually all arriving on motorbikes or public transportation. I saw no autos though there might have been some for the bride and groom or their parents. The bride was dressed in white as we would see in America. The groom was dressed in a white suit, blue shirt and grey tie. The two sets of parents were dressed in business suits and nice dresses. Out of the hundreds of guests I saw only one other with a tie. It was a very casual crowd from button shirts to tee shirts and simple tops and skirts to some dresses. I would guess that is a concession to weather conditions here but do not really know.


The reception was under a roof but open to the elements. There were 6 attendants: 1 lead male, 1 lead female, and 4 other females. I believe they were a "professional" group hired for the occasion as immediately after their part they changed clothes and left. They were dressed all in white pants and traditional kimono like tops, red with gold sparkle design. The bride and groom stood at the entrance, with the "party" across from them, and greeted guests from 5-6 PM. The guests were taken in to assigned seating. It appeared to be by family groupings as the tables were of many different sizes and the meal was served family style with everyone reaching across with their chopsticks to take what they wish. There was an emcee - my guess is some kind of wedding coordinator. Shortly after 6 PM the attendant group entered the area and proceeded to the stage where, I believe, a traditional wedding dance was performed, first by the lead two who also carried blue fans in each hand, and then by the other four who carried yellow fans in each hand.


They then went to the back of the room and the bride and groom entered each carrying a sparkling roman candle as other popper fireworks and streamers went off. There was also huge applause to greet them. They were followed closely by the two main attendants who held colorful flat umbrellas over them. The other four attendants followed. After they reached the stage the attendant turned and proceeded out. I observed them go into a room, change clothes and leave. The emcee introduced them and then introduced both sets of parents who joined them on stage. The groom spoke briefly and then so did the father of the groom. No one else spoke. The bride and groom then poured wine and drank to each other. The entire room then toasted the bride and groom with glasses of beer. They all then left the stage and went out among the guests. It was all very beautiful and I was touched by it.


A violinist and guitarist then took over the stage as the entertainment playing mainly classical love songs. They played for about an hour and then recorded music was played, still classical love songs. It was a heavy smoking and very boisterous crowd with many spontaneous toasts, chants or cheers by different table groupings. Then, about 8:30, it was over and everyone left on their motor scooters. That was that!


This morning I went down to breakfast and the music playing over the PA system was Elvis singing "Now or Never." Interesting. Lastly, the bananas here are longer than in Thailand or Laos and served completely green on the outside, though they are sweet and soft inside. Crazy things, bananas! 


Day 36 – Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

I have been mostly riding buses with a few interesting stops along the way but it has been okay. I was on a good bus with comfortable seats and with AC that worked so all went well. I have to say again how geographically beautiful this country is. The combination of mountains and water can be very soothing and at times stunning. It is certainly the most beautiful "tropical" place I have been of any size. I do not feel you can really compare a small island (Hawaii or similar) to this country. On pure geography I rate New Zealand one, Vietnam two and perhaps France as three. The drive down from Nha Trang was lovely. I did get a good look at the war famous Cam Rahn Bay and many other sights.


The bus also made a strange toilet stop. Usually when you stop it is at a place where someone is selling some kind of food or snacks. This stop the guy sold only wine. So I guess we were all supposed to get drunk at 10 AM! When we made our lunch stop it was at the famous Moi Ne beach. This was a real pleasure. Mui Ne is miles of sandy beach with very few people. Coconut palm trees all over. Plus an area of fiery red sand dunes Mui Ne is known for. I am not a "beach" person, but if I were Mui Ne would be a great place. Many younger travelers were staying for a few days.


Arrived in HCMC last night. Today I have been wandering the town stopping at the Reunification Palace, the HCM War Museum, the Ben Trahn market and several other interesting places. At the war museum I saw an anti-aircraft gun that supposedly shot down several U.S. planes. I wonder if that is true and, if so, it is the one that shot down my high school friend. I do think everyone who "grew up" during the war period should have a chance to come here. I also wonder what they would think or feel? It is a very different country now I am sure. It is of course very hot and humid again. Whereas the rainy season is starting on the coast, it is ending this month inland. The rest of my trip should be mostly dry I think, though I am never real sure here. 


I am taking several organized tours the next several days. This is a city of about 6 million, making it very difficult to get anywhere fast by yourself. It is so much easier (and actually cheaper) to take a group tour. It also helps avoid the constant "You buy mister" every few minutes. Tomorrow I am going south a bit into the Mekong Delta for the day. Later I will likely do a city tour and then have several other choices I am thinking about. 


Day 37 – HCM City 

Today was a wonderful day. Today I began to really like Vietnam. Today I think I saw the real Vietnamese people and they were friendly, kind and gracious. How you ask was my mind changed? Today I was down in the Mekong Delta on the river of nine dragons (The Mekong) and several islands. The Mekong is HUGE. I estimated at least a half mile wide at one point. The islands were tropical and beautiful and we had lunch at a delightful place, visited a coconut candy factory, enjoyed warm but not too hot weather with a nice breeze. But best of all, after our boat docked I had several hours to walk around the town of My Tho by myself and meet with people. I was the only American anywhere in sight or in town as far as I know. The locals were friendly and warm. I took many photos and some even wanted their photo taken with me! One man older than me stopped and shook my hand and said "Thank you." Obviously he has good memories of Americans from the war. It was a really nice day.


I talked with the van driver a bit about this on our way back to HCMC. He said that Hue, Hoi An and Nha Trang are a terrible impression of his country. They are primary stops on the tourist track and that is why you are attacked by people selling. Hanoi and Saigon (they all still call it Saigon) are not so bad because tourists are more spread out in the big city. In the three cities above everyone is at the same places and everyone is pushy selling. I think he is correct. My cousin had said he remembers good about the people of Hue, but of course it was not a tourist site in the war. Interesting. I am glad for this information and feel much better about this country now. As I have said earlier, it is geographically beautiful.


Day 38 - HCM City

Today was another very interesting and somewhat emotional day. First of all, I learned that the population of this county is 82 million with just over 8 million now living here in HCMC. It is called HCMC by all of the young people and it is only the older folks that still call it Saigon. In order to prevent further population growth the government has suggested couples should have no more than two children. However, they still allow immigration from China, Japan or Korea if you have money to come and invest. Sounds like that immigration policy is the same worldwide. You got money, you get in where you wish.


Visited several interesting temples built in 1744 and 1769. That's older than the US as a country. Also visited the War Remnants Museum and here (and after on the bus) is where things got interesting and emotional. The people on the bus were from Japan, Korea, and Malaysia Chinese plus one couple from France. The museum contained captured U.S. planes, tanks and other equipment. It contained many photos of French and U.S. war "atrocities" and pictures of Americans who were killed with their names on the comments beneath the photo, in Vietnamese, French and English. It was a very emotional experience and left me angrier than ever at our government who sent 58,000 young Americans to their death for nothing.


I also saw a Vietnamese man there who had lost both arms and one leg to a land mine (after the war was over). I tried to give him some money but he refused saying, "I will take nothing. I choose to earn my own way." He was selling books about the war but they were a bit costly and I apologized for not having enough money with me to buy one. The discussion on the bus was mostly about how the French and the U.S. had no business being in this country and should be ashamed of their actions. I could not defend the U.S. because I agreed with them. I told them that both the U.S. and France should be ashamed for what they did to these people. The couple from France were the only people on the bus who never spoke! Several of the other folks on the bus, particularly a group from Malaysia, were very vocal about our "criminal Bush" and how we did not belong in Iraq and why we started another war. One older gentlemen said, "It is old men who said young men to die and for what? Nothing." Another gentlemen said, "It is crazy. People all get along but politics kills people." The first man said, "Bush was all about money and big business. He cared nothing about people."


Those know me also know that I could only agree with them for these are also my beliefs and what I have learned in my many years on this earth . Old men send young men to die for no reason but dollars - because "domino theory" or other such political crap is just that, it all comes back to big business and dollars. I also noted driving around today that most of the biggest buildings in this city are of international corporations, mostly America. Prudential was the biggest building I saw. The Vietnamese guide said little but when asked his thoughts he said, "We are not angry at anyone. It is part of our history but we try to forget it. No one likes war but we are one country now and we hope we will never have to fight again." I thought it was a good attitude and a very good thing to say.


Later we toured the Temple of Thien Hau. This is dedicated to a wealthy lady who used her wealth to help the people. She would give money to the poor to help them build a business and they would pay her back interest free. This allowed many people to escape from poverty. It is something I have believed in for years and it is what I think the World Bank should do and that American corporations and wealthy individuals should do. Interest kills the poor and sees to it that the rich get richer and the poor remain poor.


By the way, I have seen only McDonalds among American restaurant chains in Thailand, no chains in Laos, and only two KFC's (called Ga Ran Kentucky) here in Saigon. I have noticed no chains in the rest of Vietnam but, as I have said, many big corporations. Even the bottled water in each country has often been a product of Pepsi or Coca-Cola. I have also been eating a lot of what I thought were cucumbers as you are given a few slices with most every meal. Turns out it is Winter Melon. I had a can of Winter Melon Tea last night. Tasted a lot like cucumber juice to me!


They also have a cute expression here. When you ask them for example, "Is this temple like the other?" The answer is always, "Same Same, but Different." This expression is so common here they sell many tee-shirts to tourists that say "Same Same" on the front and "But Different" on the back. It is really quite cute and makes you smile. I continue to be impressed by the warmth of the people. It is a shame I was at too many big tourist sights first before learning this - but I am very glad I did so. 


Day 40 – HCM City

Yesterday, and actually all of Vietnam, has turned out to be another incredible learning experience. Let me ramble a bit. First of all our guide informed us that HCMC has 8 million people and 4 million licensed motorbikes! One for virtually every adult. Cars/buses are outnumbered at least 10 to 1 or more. Most other folks have bicycles, cycles or walk. Our guide said they come from China ($400) or from Japan or Korea ($800-1000) and as elsewhere in the world "No money, no honey" or in Vietnam, "No motorbike, no girlfriend." You are supposed to be 18 to operate one but that is very obviously ignored by all. There are also supposed to be no more than 2 persons on a motorbike and that is also obviously ignored by all. Someone asked him where the traffic police were and he replied, "In the coffee shop." Three persons on a motorbike (or even sometimes a bicycle) is common and I have seen 4 often and even five a few times. Sometimes you can tell it is three or four family generations on the motorbike. They ride them well as they seem to start as infants with many infants sitting up front in the drivers seat!


In the morning we went out to a Cao Dai temple, in fact the Holy See (about 220 acres)of the Cao Dai religion. Vietnam is about 70% Buddhist (56 million), 10% Roman Catholic (8 million), and then many other religions. Cao Dai is the third largest at about 2 million. It was started here in Vietnam in 1924. It is a combination of Taoism, Confucism, Buddhism and Christianity. As our guide said, "They worship everybody."


There are nine levels in their religion and nine levels of seating in their church as it takes nine steps to reach Nirvana. Each level is about 6" higher and closer to the front then the previous. The problem is it takes ten years at each level to move up a step so you need to start very young and live to very old. I saw no one at levels 6-9 and only two worshippers at level five. They have high morals and ethics. You do not kill, you do not lie and you do not live in luxury. Interesting how the bible says it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to reach heaven. Yet the people of America mainly seek riches and the government supports the rich - but we call ourselves a "Christian Nation." Something there does not seem right to me?


The Cao Dai believe in only one God but believe he has come to earth three times: the first as Buddha, the second as Confucius and the third as Jesus. Their symbol is a Holy Eye and it appears everywhere to let you know that God is watching you. They are also vegetarians and have a church vocabulary. Vietnamese words but some different vocabulary. You know -Same Same but Different. No shoes in the temple of course and also no tee shirts. The temple, built from 1933-41, is done in blue, yellow, red and white and is extremely beautiful. The colors are dazzling. Worshippers are in white but go to one of the other colors as they move up or become more revered. Only two holidays, TET (Lunar New Year) and Mid-Autumn Moon. Very interesting to learn about.


Now the afternoon was even more interesting but also emotional. Our guide was a former member of the South Vietnam Army. His father fought alongside American troops and our guide was trained to fight but says he spent his time as an interpreter. He speaks excellent English and, in fact, spent 24 years as an English teacher. He has been running his tour agency for 8 years. He said he has only good memories of the American troops, that they always treated him well and gave him his nickname of Slim Jim. His name is Thong but he said he got the name because he is very thin, smokes very heavy and the Americans told him he smelled like a "Slim Jim." So he is Slim Jim.


The afternoon was spent visiting the Cu Chi tunnels. Cu Chi was the site of the largest American base in the war and also the site of major Viet Cong resistance. Cu Chi is only 32 km from Saigon. The American base lie only 2 km outside Cu Chi. The tunnels lie 4 km on the opposite side of Cu Chi. Right near Cu Chi stands Black Lady Mountain (8 km) which is the southern end of the HCM Trail. In summary, this entire area was one of very heavy fighting during the war. These tunnels were where the VC disappeared in the day only to come out at night and attack. Slim Jim said in his opinion they lost the war because the NVA and VC had constant support from China and Russia and the South Vietnam Army did not have constant support from the Americans. I would disagree with him only because after seeing this country, the tunnel, the caves, the Mekong delta, do not believe we could have ever defeated the VC. All the conditions favored them in every way.


The tour to me was very eerie and sad. We were first shown a 30 minute obvious propaganda film about the tunnels and the "heroic" VC Cu Chi fighters. It made the Americans look very foolish. We then entered the forest and began the real tour. We were first shown the many types of booby traps used by the VC against the Americans and demonstrations of how they worked. They were both ingenious and so viciously painful you could hardly bear to look or think about them - yet some tourists laughed at the demonstrations. To me there was nothing of humor. To me it was if you could hear the screams of Americans. Our guide demonstrated everything and told stories that seemed very passionate in support of the VC. This was a bit confusing to me as he and his father had been with the Americans?


We were shown a tank destroyed by a anti-tank bomb right there on that spot and were told that five Americans leaped out to run and were all killed right there. It was very sad for me to think about young boys who gave their life for nothing. I was bothered by the many tourists from different countries who were having their pictures taken with the tank and smiling. I could not smile. Most of these people were young and I do not believe they understood any of the horror of what they were seeing. It seemed a game to them. We were then taken to a shooting range where you could fire an American M-16 for 19,000 Dong per bullet. Many would do so. I could not. The noise of one bullet would make you leap with fear and to think about thousands of these going off in minutes was frightening. Yet many of the shooters would fire and laugh, some of them Americans. This saddened me. I wonder how these Americans would laugh were they in the Vietnam War or later sent to fight somewhere in the Middle East?


We then were allowed to go through a 30 meter section of the tunnels "widened to double for western bodies." We were told you had to duck walk very low or crawl through. I get claustrophobic and there were so many people going through nose to butt with little air that I looked down but chose not to. When we returned to our van we were told the tunnels average over 1000 visitors a day year round (at about$5 US per person + concessions) and that all the money went to support the Vietnam Army. On a final tunnel note - it was raining the entire time of our tour as we went through the forest. Cold and damp and eerie. One could only imagine the fear and horror of American troops and of the individual and collective strength it took to face such an ordeal.


On the way back to HCMC in the van, several interesting comments were made by our guide. First someone said something about Iraq and anti-Bush. Our guide said, "I supported Bush." This seemed to stun everyone and in contrast with the tour. Someone asked him, "Why?" He responded, "I support all American Presidents because they are elected by the people and I like democracy." It seemed it does not matter who the president is, just so it is a democracy. Yet he spoke so passionately about the fighters of Cu Chi and the VC. Very interesting and perhaps a bit confusing.


Soon the rain let up and he said, "Rain stops. Good for dog." People laughed and someone asked him what he means. He told us, "Vietnamese are hungry people. We eat anything that moves: Snakes, eels, dog, cat, rat, crickets, scorpions, worms, anything. Coconut worms are very tasty. When it is cold and wet we eat dog. Dogs have a lot of protein." When asked about pets he said they didn't eat pets, they bought dog meat at the market. How serious he was or where that meat came from no one asked!


Today I am resting a bit. Every once in a while I need to rest a bit for travel can get tiring at times.


Day 41 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia 

I finished Vietnam in grand style I thought. first let me comment on something I did not mention about the Cu Chi tunnel tour. At the end we stopped for a bit at a cooking bunker and we ate what supposedly the Cu chi fighters ate. It was Vietnamese tea with slices of tapioca to dip in peanut sauce. Now it is not tapioca as we know it, but the roots of a plant they grow there. It looked and tasted like a cold undercooked baked potato in French fry size slices. Edible but not exciting.


Lastly I went to the Weekend Bazaar to finish my time in Vietnam. One of the things I love about cities worldwide is the way they come alive in the evening. I mean alive in terms of outdoor markets, bazaars and things that are family oriented. You see entire families out enjoying them selves in a safe atmosphere. This I feel is a weakness of the U.S. where are cities essentially close down at night (except sports). Anyway, the bazaar was filled with games and dance and I spent my last hours playing a Vietnam dance game with a wonderful young woman college student and had a great time. I promised to send her the photos.


This morning I left HCMC on the "express" bus to Phnom Penh. Border formalities were slow and hot. The road to the border in VN was good and then fairly decent on National Route 6 (the major east-west road in the country) for about an hour. Then you come to the river and the road stops! You have to take a ferry boat across the river (about one quarter mile) while sitting in the bus. Then this "main" road stays only about 1 and 1/2 vehicles wide all the way to PP though it is two way traffic. This is a third world country and, in fact, is one of the poorest countries in the world. The poverty is very obvious and hits your eyes and nose as soon as you enter the country. There are so many begging and hungry children.


When waiting to board the ferry a boy came on the bus begging. He was very thin and dirty. I was eating some coconut candy out of a bagful. I just gave it to him. I have never seen anyone’s eyes light up like that. You would have think I had given him a steak dinner. I gave another bag of candy to a girl also. There sheer excitement at this was incredible as they stood outside the bus sharing with other children. I have seen much poverty before in places like Paraguay, Brazil and Ukraine but this is the poorest place I have been.


Anyway, I am now in PP and finding it expensive. There is a different price here for foreigners and my $35 hotel room is the first time I have paid over $22 I think. I will see a little of the city for a few days and then bus to Siem Reap. This is a smelly, dirty, polluted city, yet it is the capital and supposed best part of the country. They say Siem Reap is better because of tourist dollars for Angkor Wat. We shall see. 


Day 42 – Phnom Pehn

Well, I have seen all there is to see in this capitol city which, in truth, is not much. I went to the Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda, a few monuments, two Wats, the National Museum and the Central Market. The museum held some interesting artifacts from as far back as the 6th century. The Royal Palace was quite simple when compared to Bangkok’s but then this is a poor country. Most of all though it is dirty place. Right next to each of these places above there are children living and playing in filth and often begging for food. Even the markets are so filthy compared to other countries I cannot bring myself to eat there. I bought some fruit at the market as this is the safe bet - buy fruit that peels and the inside is thus good. But I only had one dragon fruit and one banana and gave the rest to street children. There were so many photos I wanted to take but did not for fear of embarrassing anyone.


There was garbage everywhere. Now I have seen that in many cities but not like this. I have also noticed smells in some areas of some cities, but not like this. Smells are almost everywhere and children play surrounded by them and apparently unnoticed by them as for them it is just life. A couple from Sweden commented to me that it is so sad. You can't give money to everyone for there are so many. On the plus side, the auto exhaust pollution is not as bad here simply because there are fewer vehicles on the road. This city is a flat one. There is only one small hill in the city and a Wat sits on top of it. I went up to the temple on top and there two monkeys, one in a tree and one sitting by the temple steps. The one sitting by the temple steps was masturbating himself!!!! So I took my first x-rated photo of the trip (or maybe ever?). As I have said, this is a very different place. You never know what you will see!


Tomorrow I take a bus to Siem Reap and the famous temples of Angkor Wat, which are the prime reason I came to Cambodia. I will not miss Phnom Penh.


Day 43 – Siem Reap, Cambodia

Another interesting day. Yesterday in Phnom Penh I actually missed a site I had planned to see. I was planning to go to S21 Prison and possibly even the killing fields. Some of you may remember the movie "The Killing Fields." That was about Cambodia and the atrocities committed against their own people by the Khmer Rouge in the 70's before the Vietnamese drove them from power. They had tortured thousands in this prison and killed over 10,000 in a particular field simply for being "intellectuals" or wearing eyeglasses (readers) or any reason at all. However, both sights were outside and it began to RAIN and really Rain through half the night.


This morning I had an 8 AM bus to Siem Reap. For the first time on a bus I had an aisle seat so I was not able to take pictures. I was in the first row behind the driver though so I could still see quite a lot. I saw mostly a very poor people. Their huts are bamboo or thin palm wood. Seldom do you see any home of clay bricks. Most are either built right by the road or you have to go through water to get to them. In some places there are beautiful rice fields interspersed with coconut palms or other trees. In other places it just looks like swamp. There are people, mostly men and boys, swimming in water everywhere. Sometimes you would just see 5-6 heads sticking up. These look like small swampy ponds but there they are. Even the cows here, mostly Brahmas, are skinny as you see their ribs sticking out. The road, a "major" highway, is dirt some of the way and dirt through several towns. Otherwise it is mostly paved. It is full of potholes and the bus averages 30-35 miles an hour.


People use their vehicles in a myriad of ways. I have seen motor scooters with more than a dozen pigs on the back, or 30 chickens, or 5 people. I have seen pickup trucks with more than 40 people in and on them. People clinging to the roof and back as he bounces down the road. The people who own scooters, cyclos or tuk-tuks make their living giving rides and they take ALL they can. In the cities everyone walks in the streets beside and between vehicles because you have to. The sidewalks are full of parked motor scooters. It is a scramble wherever you go. I have seen a motor scooter hit a car in Thailand, a motor scooter hit a motor scooter in My Tho, Vietnam, a motor scooter hit a tuk-tuk in Phomn Penh and today our bus hit a young cow that sprinted across the road in front of us. I am sure he is being cooked and eaten now as nothing goes to waste here that can be eaten. Our driver looked at the bus for damage (dented bumper) and then drove on.


Everywhere you see poor children. Often you see children carrying children. A child about 5 or 6 may have their younger sibling, 1 or 2, or baby on their hip. These children have no childhood. They have no time to be children. This is a "new" country in that the Khmer Rouge so raped this land that what you see now as only existed for a few decades. The KR had taken the capitol, Phnom Penh, down to 15,000 people and sent everyone to grow rice in the countryside. The city was barren but now, two decades later, is back to over a million, most struggling.


Arriving in Siem Reap at the bus station was an unbelievable experience. Dozens of people shouting at you to use their guesthouse or to ride their tuk tuk. They follow you and shout at you and it can be frightening if you let it. I saw one young man holding up a sign that said, "Please ride with me. I am very polite and will not hassle you." I walked over to him and said I will hire you. I have hired him for my entire stay in the city. He would be my guide for the temples and be with me all the time. He was a polite young man. He took me to three hotels before finding a room. I am in a 3rd floor walkup. It is the first time I have been stuck above the 2nd but this is a busy town. It has been a long day so I am off to dinner, then a shower and bed. 


Day 46 – Siem Reap, Cambodia 

I have so much to say now that I can only ramble away as words can never fully describe what I have seen. The Khmer, native people of Cambodia, are wonderful. Everyone is so polite and courteous and pleasant to be with. My tuk tuk driver treats me like his grandfather and worries about me because I am "very old" (older than his grandfather). He always is asking if I am okay! This country is without doubt the flattest place I have ever seen and maybe in the world. I have seen only four hills (they call them mountains) of which you can walk to the top in 10 - 30 minutes. At the top of one last night to watch the sunset it was flat as far as the eye could see.


On the negative side this place is all flat and swamp like in many places with standing water. Thus when the night comes the skies are filled with a million little insects. They seem to like my repellant and feed on it! The infrastructure here is terrible. Roads are like being on a ride at the State Fair. The TV often goes out. The electricity goes off and they switch to generator (which means no air conditioner). So it is a bit primitive - but still packed with tourists!


On the plus side the Temples of Angkor is the most incredible place I have ever been and it is perhaps the most incredible man-made place in the world. Everyone should visit here. To walk in the footsteps of kings who lived over a thousand years ago and to wonder at the giant structures they build THAT ARE STILL STANDING is an unbelievable experience. These places are from as early as the 7th century! The scientist say there was a thriving civilization here of a million people. Angkor Wat is the largest structure in the world built solely for religious purposes. It is surely a wonder of the world if not THE wonder. Bayon and its giant heads are almost as awesome. Many of the other temples (and there are many spread over about 20 km) would be awesome by themselves if they did not pale in comparison to Angkor Wat. I am so glad I came here for it is truly awesome. I felt like the last two days were truly God given delights. It is like the GB Packers winning three Super Bowls in a row. Just unbelievable.


I have previously mentioned how hot and humid it is here. Everyday it is 90+/90+ and it is Fall!!!!!!!! I sweat gallons each day and have clearly lost weight. My 2" thick Southeast Asia guidebook was soaked with sweat and it was inside my good leather backpack. I soak through my shirt, through my pack and through the book! I have never been so hot for six weeks straight with more to come.


My last day in Cambodia I visited three more temples in the morning than went to Tonlie Lake for a boat ride. The lake takes overflow from the Mekong and because it is now the ending of the rainy season in Cambodia the lake is full - about six times its size in the dry season. It is huge. I saw many homes that are floating villages. They are on land in the dry season and on water now. Very interesting.


I then spent my last night at a dinner and traditional dance show. Enjoyed the show and very much enjoyed some interesting foods. I think I have now tried bananas 1000 ways. Amazing.


Late-November

I decided to fly to Singapore. This was an extra side trip and a bit out of the budget but glad I went. This is a FASCINATING city. I have been to Paris, Vienna, Sydney, and many places I thought were beautiful but now have Singapore #1. This is a beautiful place and without doubt the most beautiful contemporary city in the world. This place makes New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, etc. all look like pig sty’s. It is so clean and the architecture is amazing. Very multicultural with Chinese temples on the same block as Muslim Mosques with Christian churches across the street and a Hindu temple next door. You hear many, many, languages on the street. It is a high energy 24 hour bustling place.


And the food! I had heard this was the finest eating city in the world and I believe it. The great variety of food available all on the same block or in the same food court is amazing. A food court here is sort of a market with a whole variety of little restaurants individually owned. Just wonderful. This is not the cheapest place ($5 an hour Internet) but it is not as costly as NYC, LA or Chicago. I would tell each of you if you ever have the opportunity to go to Singapore or Siem Reap (or most anywhere I have been), DO NOT PASS IT UP. These are must see places.


I will stay here a few days and then bus to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.   For now I will enjoy this fabulous city and its Chinatown, Little India, Arab Quarter, Colonial District, Waterfront, Orchard Road and other great areas. I am only 2 degrees from the equator so it is still plenty hot and humid but because of the water and wind it actually seems a bit cooler here. Lovely.


Day 50 – Singapore

Well, this city is really something special and very, very, unique. First of all, Singapore only became a city/state in 1965. It was quite small until then. Investors, mostly Chinese, decided to take a risk and build this place into a financial capital and they have succeeded overwhelmingly. The place is strictly run. The law allows no spitting, no littering, no smoking except in your home or outdoors, mandatory flushing of public toilets (a great law), etc. All of these are $500 - $2000 fines if broken. Drugs are death penalty. It sounds harsh but has led to a beautifully clean and very good society.


There are no homeless for government housing is provided - and it is neat and clean housing. Because of many people and limited land, 85% of the people live in high rise housing. Only the very wealthy can afford there own homes. Most property belongs to the state and your purchase only gives you a 99 year lease. Cars are very expensive and you must buy (10-20K) a permit from the state before you can own one. ALL housing and autos must be in good repair at all times. If an apartment building or business property looks a little rundown, you get a letter from the government that you better spruce it up. There is less freedom but a much cleaner and safer place to live. Raises a lot of questions and interesting thoughts. The rich still get richer but the poor are subsidized by them enough to live decently. Entrepreneurial with socialism. Interesting.


In any case, I have seen this city from dawn to dusk everyday and really love the place. It has to be the single best eating city in the world. I love rice, noodles, coconut and spices so I am very comfortable here. The other day I had breakfast in the Arab Quarter, lunch in Little India and dinner in Chinatown. In every case I ate something that I had never eaten before! Breakfast was mostly some kinds of sweet coconut, peanut and flam concoctions. In Little India I was given five items plus two sauces (one spicy and one yogurt like) all served on a large banana leaf and eaten all with the fingers of the right hand (considered improper to eat with left). My Nami Laksa soup in Chinatown topped off the day (noodles, vegetables and fish balls in a coconut based soup). Today I had Mee Siam and Nami Bandang. I think I spelled those right.


I have been down Orchard Road both day and night. This might be the most beautiful street architecturally in the world. Tree-lined and magnificent. Because of the mixed cultures and religions they celebrate everything here and the Christmas lights were fabulous. I also caught the last day of the Indian Festival of Light, celebrating the triumph of good over evil. I have been in churches, temples and mosques. I have taken two different city by day tours on an open-top double-decker bus and two different city by night tours on the same kind of bus. Inexpensive package deal and very enjoyable. I have made friends from many countries who have given me their cards or email addresses and invited me to stay in touch and come visit their countries. It has been great.


Today I spent most of it on Sentosa, a small island that is part of Singapore. I stood on the southernmost point of continental Asia, stuck my feet in the South China Sea, and checked out a few Asian beach girls. As they say, "Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here." Exhausted but also excited.


Day 52 – Singapore

I returned to Little India for another delicious lunch on a banana leaf. Different place, different banana leaf, same delicious food. By the way, seldom does a food place here use the word restaurant. They call themselves for example, Lee Fong’s Eating House, Eating Place, Cooking Place, Food Place, Diner or Cafe. A popular dish here is "steamboat." People sit at round tables, often out on the sidewalk, with a round opening in the center of the table. In the opening there is a stove-like burner (propane). they place a huge cooking bowl (aluminum or?) on it and everything (mostly seafood and vegetables) is boiling away in it. So you sit around a table in 95 degrees, 95% humidity, around a boiling pot and eat boiling food!Very popular. They also serve a lot of "fish head" here, one of the delicacies I have passed on.


Chains of course are chains. I had seen a few chains in Bangkok but none in Laos, only a few KFC in Vietnam, and no chains in Cambodia. Here there are many: McDonalds, Burger King, KFC and Swensen’s that I have noticed. That is a little disappointing to me though I did stop in to several to look at the menus and noticed they do serve some different things here - more fish choices and more ice cream choices.


Last night I went to the zoo. At night you say? Yes. I went on a Night Safari. This is a completely bar-less and wall-less zoo set in a tropical rainforest environment. You take an electrical tram through the area that is lit only by non-obtrusive lights. Since most animals are more active at night you see quite a bit. I was face-to-face (maybe 8 inches) with a large Wombat, 10 feet from a Rhino, a few feet from many kinds of deer, a binterong and many species I had never seen before. Only a few hidden moats between you at some places, nothing at other places and some glass only for certain animals (leopards and such). Very interesting.


Day 53 – Singapore

I went to the Chinese Opera last night and found it quite interesting. They gave an explanation beforehand of what the various movements mean that helped a lot. Today I slept late and am just going to take it easy and enjoy the culture and color of this city. Try to take it all in and keep in my memories. I wanted to mention three things that I have noticed and thought of:


(1) Most people here speak three languages - the official language of Malay, the Singlish (Singapore English) that is taught in the schools, and their family cultural language (Chinese, Tamil, etc.), That is amazing to me. Singlish is sort of British English with other words and accents mixed in. It is not always that easy to understand. They also say "lah" like Canadians say"eh." Nice day lah. How are you lah?


(2) The Subway system is among the finest in the world. Fast, cheap, efficient and clean. There are heavy fines for littering and eating or drinking on the subways is against the law. So is gum chewing. Thus everything is wonderfully clean. They say you can't legislate morality or individual responsibility but it seems to work fairly well here. I guess if the fines are big enough AND ENFORCED like here, well then you can!


Finally, (3) there is the ice cream sandwich. Here if you order an ice cream sandwich you get an ice cream sandwich. The vendor takes a piece of bread (colored pink, green and white) out of a loaf (like our loaves), puts several scoops of ice cream in the center, and folds it over. Viola! You have an ice cream sandwich. Cool!


Late November, Day 56 – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

I am in KL, Malaysia, and is it a comedown after Singapore. The complete opposite in so many ways. This is a second world city with pockets of first world and pockets of third world. There are many tall architecturally beautiful scattered buildings and the botanical growth is fantastic but the whole city is inconsistent. It is trying to enter the modern world but struggling to do so.


First of all, this is a Muslim nation. I mean that in that Islam is the state religion and Islam controls the state. There are huge beautiful mosques everywhere and many small ones scattered around. The mosques are generally very clean. The city buildings range from the Twin Towers, once the tallest structures in the world and still the tallest twins, to old decrepit structures still being lived in. You may recognize the Twin Towers and the bridge between them from the movie "Entrapment" with Sean Connery and Katherine Zeta-Jones (I think) and the wild escape from the building scene. I was in that tower and on that bridge today. That was a kick.


On the other hand, I have walked for miles in this city and found only one Internet place and  on the second floor of a building where I would not let my dog live. The stairway walls were covered with puke, urine and who knows what else. Yet they make you remove your shoes to enter the door of the internet place?!!!! This city is filled with trash and odors. My hotel room is almost $30 and it is a very poor place. Most of the furniture is broken and the water barely gets warm. My hotel in Vietnam for $8 a night was way better.


Restaurants? I have gone to the same place for three nights because it is the only place I felt was clean enough. Now I am not in danger and I am enjoying myself. The people are friendly and this is considered a safe city, it is just very unclean by western standards and, truthfully, it is the worse of the cities I have been in over the last two months. Such is life and it's adventures. 


Day 57 – Phuket, Thailand

I am back in Thailand and glad to be here. I generally like Thailand and have achieved a comfort level with the country and the way it operates. Leaving KL I found even the new airport to have filthy toilets. Such a disappointment after Singapore.


I am now in a hotel about three minutes off the Patong Beach, west of Phuket. The beach is fine and the bay/cove is lovely but you have to be on the beach to see it! The beach is public but is a strip only 30-50 feet wide and several hundred yards long. Right up next to that strip it is almost wall-to-wall buildings and, except for the beach access paths, you can't see a thing. That is disappointing. It is not like the beaches in Milwaukee or Chicago along the lake where you can see them for a long way.


In addition, I accidentally stumbled down through a street that is obviously available ladies of the evening (or anytime I guess). The beach here appears to be full of single men around my age, with bellies as big or bigger than mine, desperately seeking a tan and female companionship. You put the two together and I find it very sad. To be so lonely with yourself you must pay for company or to choose to or be forced to sell yourself is, I think, a sad commentary on the state of so much of mankind. Mans inhumanity to man does not occur only in war and death. It is all around us in so many ways.  I took my hotel for three nights but we will see how long I stay here. 


Phuket, Thailand 

I spent yesterday boating around the Andaman Sea. Unfortunately it was not a particularly pleasant day. We left to gray clouds and came back in rain and wind. Visited several little islands, beautiful beaches and snorkeling, but got wet on all of them without even going into the water! In fact, this is supposedly the dry hot season here (November-March) but I have not seen the sun in three days here. Very disappointing weather-wise. 


My trip yesterday was not on a smooth sailboat or cruiser but on an oceangoing speedboat. It held about 24 people including three crew. We spent the day between stops "flying" across the water and "slamming" back down into the water. Three long travel sections of about 75 minutes, 45 minutes and 35 minutes. Worse than any ride at the State Fair and I am not a "ride" person. Bumper cars are about my speed. Fly, Boom, Bounce and Spray. I guarantee it was my first and last ocean speed boat ride. Instead of hot and dry, we returned to the hotel cold and wet. Happy for a hot shower and quiet dinner. 


Day 60, end of November  – Phuket 

Well, the gray skies continue. Last night it rained so hard for over an hour that the streets were flooded over the curbs and I walked back several blocks from dinner with my pants rolled up and water to mid-calf level. I have an afternoon tour today of an island are where the James Bond film "Man with the Golden Gun" was filmed plus some other things. But it is still gray and likely rain. Four days with no sun in this - the dry season! The joys of travel!!!!! On the plus side, the food here is good and hotel is comfortable.


The tour was okay and turned out to be not too wet. We started out visiting some Monkey Temple Cave in rain and wet. From there we headed to the docks for our boat ride throughout Prang Nga Bay. Miracle of miracles it stopped raining and the sky lightened a bit (still all clouds and no sun) and stayed that way for the next several hours including during our visit to the James Bond Island. As a cute trick they showed the Man With the Golden Gun movie on the bus, first half on the ride over and second half on the ride back. We were able to recognize most everything on the island. Smooth marketing technique to "tell your friends."


We also stopped at a Muslim community built entirely out and over the water. They own no dry land at all. They built on concrete foundations and have a thriving community with school, mosque, restaurants and shopping. It was quite ingenious and enjoyable. Finally when we got back to the pier it started raining again as we walked quickly to the bus and then rained all the way back to our hotels. Wonderful timing for us. I then ate at the hotel restaurant (dry there), showered and went to bed.


Early December

It was still gray and drizzly as I had breakfast so decided to fly to Bangkok. Headed to the airport and sure enough, the sun came out just before my flight took off! The island was absolutely beautiful from the sky as all the beaches, different water colors and coral reefs could clearly be seen. Made me want to go back one day.


Now I am back in Bangkok feeling like a veteran of SE Asia and Thailand. The cab ride from the airport was nothing as coming here seemed perfectly normal compared to my nerves of several months ago. I particularly noticed much of the fine architecture of Bangkok on the drive. This is not Singapore, but it is probably the best city architecture between Singapore and Hong Kong, a good distance - and I do love the food here. By eating almost totally vegetarian I have managed to lose weight but have no idea how much until I weigh back in the states.


Day 64 – Bangkok

The folks over here can not pronounce my family name so every hotel or tour guide leader has simply been calling me Mr. Robert. That has worked quite well for both sides. If they do not know my name at all, such as shopkeepers and such, they call me "Papa." I assume that is because of my gray beard and advanced age. I find it sort of amusing. I think they may find me Santa Claus-like.


I have been wandering Bangkok for the last few days and remembering how much I enjoy this city. I do believe I could live in Singapore or Thailand. It is now the COOL season so the temperature is only in the upper 80's each day with similar humidity. Yet it is clearly cooler than a few months ago and the city seems more relaxed. I have walked for miles and am not anywhere near as tired as in early October. I actually had the nerve to walk into the Thailand Minister of Education's office today and describe to them how I could help the educational system here and there goal to increase the knowledge of English for their students. They listened and said they are going to present my ideas to the committee working on the problem and will let me know what they think. Hey, nothing ventured, nothing gained!


Day 66– Bangkok 

It has been more simply wandering days checking out the nooks and crannies of Bangkok and seeing things that I have passed a dozen times and did not know they were there! Now I am sticking my nose in every alley and discovering some interesting things. Learning more about life in Bangkok in the neighborhoods of the city. At lunch today my Thai waiter was wearing a GB Packers T-shirt! So I did the only thing I could do - I took his picture!


This weekend I will go back to the very interesting Chatuchak Market, the worlds largest outdoor market (6000 stalls) one day and then to the Sanam Luang (Royal Field) the other. I got lucky this week as I learned it was the Kings Birthday and there is a big festival in the Sanam Luang all weekend in his honor. He is very popular here and had served almost 60 years, the longest reign of any king in Thai history. The previous longest was only 32. To show how popular he is, I was walking through the Royal Field and asked a young woman in about her early 20's what was going on. She said, "It is MY kings birthday." Not the King - but MY king. Very interesting. Our "rulers" in America can barely stay popular for 60 days - here they get 60 years. 


Day 68 – Bangkok

Several people have called me Santa in the last few days. I did not think my beard was getting that long! Not shaving but did decide to get my haircut. Paid a lovely young lady 100 baht ($2.50) to cut my hair. She did such a good job I gave her 120 baht ($3.00), big tipper that I am! Anyway, I feel lighter now. 


I had a lovely last few days in Bangkok. Yesterday I spent the morning and early afternoon at the Chatuchak Market (the 6000 stall one) and did the last of my holiday shopping. I then took the subway went to Chinatown for an early dinner. I then began to walk back in the direction of my hotel as I wanted to stop at another temple or two. Well, I stopped at one, than another, and another and just kept walking toward my hotel and sightseeing. Before you know it I was only six blocks from my hotel so walked on back. I had walked at least 5-6 and maybe up to 7-8 miles. Sometimes I amaze myself!

Today I went to the Royal Field where the Kings Birthday celebration was being held. I had a great time. Food stalls everywhere and ate and chatted with a lot of very friendly local folk. Had some good spicey coconut soup. Took my usual obscene amount of photos. The afternoon was filled with a short speech by the King (couldn't get close enough to see him but think I saw his car go speeding away) and then a whole bunch of bands on the parade ground. Appeared to be mostly secondary school bands plus a few military groups. It was very nice.


I became chatty with an all girl band. They were from an Indian Secondary School for Girls and were Bagpipes and Drums (I happen to love bagpipes). It was very interesting to see an Indian Hindu people/culture playing Scottish/British music to honor a Thailand Buddhist King. I loved it! Kids were also having a great time all afternoon with balloons, kites and general revelry. A very family oriented celebratory day.


The evening had a rock band on one side of the field and a boxing ring for Thai Boxing on the other. I am not a boxing fan and find the idea of two people trying to beat each other up incredibly stupid. However, I was going to watch a few minutes of Thai boxing just out of curiosity.  I was quickly bored though so I headed back toward the hotel.


Day 71, mid-December - Taipei, Taiwan.

Was up early for a 4:30 AM flight and even earlier taxi. When I left Bangkok I had a little sadness for I had gotten to enjoy Bangkok but it had simply become time to move on. I landed in Taiwan to gray sky and rain. Never-the-less, I trudge on and after checking in to the hotel I was off to see first the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial and then on to Tapei 101.


Let me say that when the Chinese build memorials they do it in a BIG way. All the memorials and major buildings I mention here are HUGE and VERY IMPRESSIVE to see. Taipei 101 is one of the worlds tallest buildings and its basement level holds in my opinion THE FINEST FOOD COURT IN THE WORLD. There are probably fifty restaurants with fabulous choices, very inexpensive and an absolutely delightful place to be - and the crowds proved it! Taipei is the second most densely populated place in the world behind only Bangladesh (according to my guide book).


Fortunately the MRT (subway/train) is wonderful and the people are VERY friendly and VERY polite. No one pushes or shoves but moves politely and courteously in all lines and places. Very nice. The air pollution is of course terrible from all the vehicles and motor scooters, but it had been held down the last few days because it had been nothing but gray mist and cold rain since I arrived. About 52 degrees and here I am wearing the only long sleeve shirt I had with me since I have been tropical this whole trip.


Later I went to a variety of temples. The Confucius Temple was beautiful and a real quiet respite in the middle of the city. The Baoan Temple was beautiful featuring a dazzling display of colors. The City God Temple was small but interesting. It is dedicated to the God who watches over the city and its people. A parade of people seem to come to pray there and it was interesting to watch. The one god has little shoes you can get that guarantees your husband will be a good one and behave himself! Funny! I also drank some magic tea which will supposedly make one more attractive and better able to find a mate! Have not yet changed much in the mirror though and have met no one yet.


I then took the MRT to the Chaing Kai-Shek Memorial (wow) which has 89 steps (his age at death) to the top. It shares an open area (huge also) with (again) the very beautiful National Theater and National Concert Hall (2 separate buildings). I discovered the Russian Ballet is here this weekend so went out of budget and bought a ticket for Saturday night. I am going to see the world famous Russian Ballet in China! How cool is that? I love it.


Over the next day I went to the Shilin Night Market and the Hwashi Tourist Night Market (Snake Alley). I don't know why the word "tourist" is in the name except for the snakes there? All the signs are in Chinese so it isn't much good for tourists except those from China. They serve a lot of strange things to western tastes. Besides the snakes, many live fish (you select and they kill) that I did not recognize and many strange parts of animals. Recognized many penises of various creatures including turtle. Watched one cook butcher a turtle - VERY gross. I did not eat there!


Yesterday I also saw two most incredible places. First, the National Palace Museum. They have the greatest collection of Chinese antiquities in the world. I was viewing various items from as old as the 16th century B.C.!This was amazing to me - particularly as some of the items looked brand new. Absolutely wonderful artistry and items over 3000 years old! Finally I went to the Lungshan Temple, the major large temple of this city. Maybe the most beautiful worship area I have seen. It gets quite crowded in late afternoon and early evening as the people coming home from work stop to worship. I managed to get right into the middle of a Buddhist ceremony of these working people and the chanting, the lights and the reverence were a wonderful experience. Buddhism is much older than Christianity and that gives it a special reverence to me. Really enjoyed it. 


A few more things I want to say about my wanderings. Yesterday my visit included Dihua Street, which is one of these streets where they sell all kinds of strange herbs and "magical" medicines. Lots of dried this and that. I chose not to improve my health or sexual life but did give some thought to trying acupuncture. The signs here are 95% Chinese so this place is a lot more difficult to get around and especially eat. I point a lot. Last night at the Snake Alley night market I had some kind of bread, egg and mint leave dish at a food stall, then had some kind of light purple glop she spooned on the grill and fried, then added egg, mint leaves and chili. It was still purple though so I had my first purple meal. The purple seemed to be some kind of bread dough I think.


Fortunately one of the few places that has English signs is the MRT so I can ride that and find my way around real easy. The National Museum had many signs in English also. That was a very beautiful building but the first time I ever had to climb 92 steps just to get to a museum! I also changed hotels yesterday morning and that was a wise move. I was now only 6 blocks from the MRT instead of 16 and it was $14 a night cheaper. I am quite satisfied as that adds up in my wallet and on my feet over many days and nights.


I am finding this a very pleasant city. The pace seems very relaxed for such a crowded place. I guess that is the famed Taiwan friendliness and politeness. You see little of the "mad rushing" you see in New York or most big cities. Really quite nice to stroll, especially away from the main traffic streets. Today I went to the Presidential Palace first. Quite an imposing building, much more so than the White House I thought. No big lawn though but just small gardens. I then walked to the "Red Pavilion." This building is a Japanese architectural style originally built when Japan was ruling this area. Quite nice. Was once a market but it is now a cafe and theater inside.


I then went back to Longshan Temple because about 11:45 am the SUN came out and stayed out until 3:30. It was quickly about 65-70 degrees and very nice out. So I wanted to see this beautiful temple again and take some photos in the sun. I also had lunch in a little cafe on "Temple Square." There was Christmas music playing nearby and I am listening to "Winter Wonderland!" Very strange in a tropical climate and next to a Buddhist Temple. My lunch included a soup that had what looked like black bread crumbs in it but when they broke apart they seemed more like some kind of veggie cubes. Maybe bean curd as they use bean curd here a lot. Often shape it or soy to look like meat and even taste a bit like it. Interesting.


I then took the MRT to visit the Botanical Gardens. Little color as I guess it is the wrong season here for color, but a nice respite again from the city noise. I have seen a lot of older people doing Tai Chi or some other form of exercise in the parks and by the "grand" buildings of this town. Botanical gardens seemed like a great place for it.


I then went to Ximening Street. This is the major "young folks" hangout and trendy shopping area of Taipei. It was 6:00 on a Friday night and the place was packed. People were arriving off the MRT (right next to it) and coming up the stairs 8 abreast and nose-to-butt. This is the "happening" place and it was ALIVE. I watched the street vendors, wandered the shops, ate and just people watched for a few hours. Had a snack that I thought was a persimmon fruit (orange colored) but tasted nothing like the persimmon I had in Singapore but more like and apple - but it was orange colored with maybe a touch of yellow? Expensive too - a $2 piece of unknown fruit. Later I took the MRT back returning to my hotel. GREAT day and very pleasant experiences.


Day 74 – Taipei

I went first to the War Martyrs Memorial. Very impressive in typical Chinese massive and colorful style. Watched and interesting changing of the guard also. The whole thing was much more impressive than over Tomb of the Unknown Soldier or Vietnam War Memorial - but that is the Chinese way of perhaps overstatement. I then went and visited the Lin Antai House (1765) which is the oldest home in Taipei. Quite interesting. 


I don't know if any of you are into stamps or seals used for letters and documents but I have known people that are. At the National Museum I saw emperor’s seals that were 3000 years old. Fortunately for those of us who love history emperors over the centuries had a habit of collecting the seals of their predecessors and making sure their own was uniquely different. This allowed them to survive historically and tells historians a lot about each emperor as reflected in their seal. Well - I think that is pretty interesting.


The architecture here is okay but not as interesting as Singapore. Being so densely populated there are of course high rises everywhere, but surprisingly few actual skyscrapers though Taipei 101 is one of the worlds tallest buildings. I wonder why that is? Perhaps unstable ground? I went back to Taipei 101 again today just to eat at the worlds greatest food court. It is just a wonderful place and incredibly unique experience. I should mention Taipei is also very clean. Second only to Singapore and not by much based on what I have seen.


I mentioned earlier about most signs being only in Chinese. When you do find an English translation on the menu it would seem a nice surprise, yes? Well maybe not. I have seen English translations that say something like "Kim Chiang Mien," which clears that right up! Others may say things like "Numb Spicy Hot Pot" (I love that one) or "Ice Blended with Green Tea, Red Beans and Jelly" - a refreshing drink I am sure. Anyway, having a blast.


Now it is Saturday night here and I am off to see the Russian Ballet, "The Hamlet - Son of Catherine the Great." Might be interesting as my maternal great grandparents lived on land in Russia they were given by Catherine the Great. Yes, we are all connected in some strange way - the real question may which of us is the strangest? 


Day 75 – Taipei

It is again raining hard. I have been here five days and have seen only three hours of some sun and blue skies. It has been gray and rain all the rest of the time. There are several outdoor parks and areas I wish to go that are remain questionable for the time being. A bit frustrating.


On the bright side though, the Russian ballet group was quite enjoyable and interesting. They do demonstrate the saying "Thin is In." Their leg muscles are very strong and every muscle is obvious due to the tights worn. The men are thin and hard but the women are tall, lean, angular and feather thin and light. Too thin and angular to be called beautiful but attractive in a different sort of way. The skill and athleticism can only be admired by the average person as the feats of pure strength, acrobatics and gymnastics are far beyond what any of us could do.


There were 29 dancers: 5 principals, a dozen male support group and a dozen female support group. The principals were all excellent and particularly the two main leads. I was most impressed by the support groups though. The choreography was incredible. They all moved as one and so light on their feet as to be feathers dancing in the wind. There were moments when you felt as if they never touched the ground but simply floated through the entire performance. That I thought was marvelous. I watched the first act (50 minutes) from back a bit and to the side (all seats were excellent though) and the overall effect was fantastic. I checked for no shows though at intermission (20 minutes) and then quickly grabbed a seat in the first row virtually dead center (3 seats off). I watched the entire second act (another 50 minutes) from a $120 U.S. seat looking dead into the eyes of some of the dancers. It reminded me of when a friend and I saw the musical "Stomp" from first row center seats and felt the sweat flying off the dancers. Very interesting.


Up close though, I found myself concentrating on the moves of the one dancer most directly in front of me and losing a bit of the overall effect. Sitting in two different places you see the performance in two entirely different ways. Interesting to observe and compare. At the end and during the bows and curtain calls I was looking right into the eyes of the lead, Elena Kuzmina, who performed as Catherine the Great. She looked a bit of a thin ice queen. I swear to you she looked right at me as I mouthed "smile" twice and then she did while looking right at me. Maybe it was my active imagination but I darn sure enjoyed it! I almost mouthed "marry me" but then my experience with Russian women is she might - so I had to be careful! As I said earlier, it was out of the budget but worth it and darn glad I did it.


An additional note, I took the MRT there and back - very safe and clean. The theater is part of a complex of Natl. Theater, Natl. Concert Hall and Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial and is very colorful and beautifully lit at night. Really dazzling in every way. There was even an outdoor concert going on the plaza between the buildings even though it was raining. Uncovered - the band played on.


I want to comment briefly on the Chinese language. It is "tonal" in nature. Basically what that means is that, for example, the words, "hong," "hong," "hong," "hong" and "hong" have five distinctly different meanings that are not necessarily even close to one another (such as dog, cat, mouse, horse and cow). The meaning is determined by the "tone" of the word. The best way to explain this I think is to take any common English word such as "long" and say it five ways like we would say "do, re, mi, fa, so" on the musical scales - remembering that each of those five ways (sounds) as an entirely different meaning. The language is thus difficult for westerners because it encompasses an entirely different way of thinking.


In the written language we run into the same different way of thinking. Westerners use combinations of 26 letters to make words and then thousands of words to make sentences. The Chinese use about 2000 words to make sentences also, it is just that each of their "words" is illustrated by a character illustration instead of combinations of letters. "She went to the store," for example, uses 18 letters formed into five words. In Chinese it might be 5 "characters" meaning the same 5 words. That may sound a bit over-simplified but I think is a pretty basic description to help understand the differences. They also read right to left instead of the western left to right but that's a whole different issue! 


It continues to rain. I went to the zoo for awhile with a couple of hundred other damn fools but got so soaked I finally gave it up. It looked like it might have been a nice zoo, open cages, flowers, sculptures, etc., on a good day but not today. Even the animals were in hiding. Rode the MRT out to the far end of one line just to go there and, as it was mostly elevated, got to see a lot of the city. This area is mostly mountainous. The main part of the city lies in a small valley surrounded by the mountains. People live in various high rises built throughout the area. There must be some single family homes here somewhere but I have seen none yet. Space is at a premium. The mountains seem to hold in the mist, fog and rain from the nearby ocean and they tell me winter here is cold, wet and dreary. I believe them!!


However, I had been walking around in just long sleeves over a tee shirt and was a little cool but fine, as it's about 50 degrees. The locals though were wearing several layers plus the kind of jackets we might wear in 32 degrees or so. They wear them here even at 65 degrees. They don't like cold. 70's brings out vests. They like their 8-9 months of heat.


A note on some interesting foods I have had. One woman showed me a huge pile of white and I finally gathered it was "iced milk." Okay, fine. I have eaten that. There were buckets of maybe 20 toppings displayed - only one, pineapple, of which I recognized. I finally figured from her motions that I could select five toppings of my choice to put on the iced milk. Okay, maybe sort of like a banana split I am thinking - so I select five. She then puts them not on a few scoops of iced milk, but on this huge pile of iced milk and puts the whole thing in front of me! Fortunately it was a lot of air and not really so big as it looked. The five toppings were: (1) the pineapple, (2) some kind of multi-colored jellylike pieces, (3) brown beans (yes, like in pork and beans), (4) some kind of black jellied berries, and (5) jellied soft peanuts (I did not know you could do that to peanuts?). I did not care for the multi-colored stuff but the rest of it was pretty good, especially the peanuts and the beans.


At breakfast they serve rice porridge, sort of like rice in hot water. Pretty bland taste but then I noticed the Chinese putting other things on it, particularly a brown sugar looking type stuff - so of course I have to try it and put a whole bunch on my rice and mixed it in like many of them. It turned out to again be beans (like in pork and beans) and was very good!!!! They like their beans here in so many ways. I have had snacks of red bean and tea cake, banana milk and red bean bread, and a variety of drinks with some kind of bean in the name. I am going to have to get creative with my cooking back in the states. I especially like their various flavored milk teas. 


Day 76 – Taipei

Well on the negative side the day has been all gray skies again. On the positive though we only got a few drops of rain. Windy at times and quite cool but as long as one stays dry it is manageable. I headed out this morning to the far end of the MRT line, first to Guandu and then on to Danshui. Guandu has a nature park where I saw a few interesting birds. In fact I have seen many birds on this trip that are not ones I have seen before. Hear many more but most difficult to spot.


The Guandu Temple is another fabulous one. It's built into the hillside and is multi-level and split-level. I counted two to six levels depending on which area you enter from. Was quite beautiful and hope I got some interesting shots despite the gray skies. Most of my shots of Taiwan are probably not going to show very well the bright colors that exist on and in these temples. Continued on out to Danshui, the end of the MRT line and near where the Keelung River empties into the sea. Mainly walked around the markets of Danshui and visited a few very old temples.


The markets were interesting in that certain stalls featured regional food specialties not found in Taipei. I lunched on A-gi, a fist sized hollow pouch of fried tofu filled with thin bean-thread noodles and served in hot broth. Then enjoyed a variety of teas including a wheat tea, a multi-grained tea and a goat milk tea. I purchased a bag of the latter so feel free to come on by for a cup. I have also had papaya milk, mango milk, strawberry tea milk, roasted tea milk and others. They do a whole variety of wonderful things here combining fruits, milk and teas. I plan on experimenting more myself when I can.


Stopped at the Shilin Night Market coming back toward town. It is the biggest night market in Taipei. As I have said before, I like markets. They tell me so much about the people and I enjoy just observing everything. By the way, the big chains here are McDonalds, KFC, Starbucks and 7-11s everywhere, sometimes several on the same block. There is an Asian adaptation though. McDs sells rice burgers, pepper chicken rice burgers and only chocolate cones. Evidently vanilla is not popular among these people. KFC also sells some pepper chicken stuff. There is a food stand at the Shilin Night Market that stands out. Most have only a few people waiting or inline at a time. One stand always has a long line. I asked someone in line who spoke English why always a line? He answered that this man had the best food, a very tasty pepper chicken!


Also today I saw my first single family residences in this area. They were observed far out in the suburbs and seemed mostly small and poor. It seemed like they were just waiting for the city to come and capture that space for more high rises. Still have seen no homes of obvious wealth.


Riding the MRT back I was again struck by the cleanliness and pleasantness of the ride. There is no eating, drinking, smoking or rowdiness of any kind on the MRT. No boom boxes blaring out. Again the people are remarkably friendly and polite. The young people routinely stand or give their seats to the more elderly or pregnant women. I have been given a seat several times. There is a wonderful respect for the aged. For those of you who are my age, it reminds me of how I was brought up in the 50's. There is a politeness and respect that seems to have disappeared in America with the last several generations. The Chinese understand that everything that is good about you or your life you owe to your ancestors. Everything bad is your own fault for your ancestors do not teach you anything bad. I remember my father saying, "Do as I say and not as I do." When you do something bad it dishonors you and your ancestors. The people here live crowded, with three or more generations sharing a small living space, but they have little problem with it because of the respect shown for one another. It is really something America could learn from and needs to get back too.


It makes one wonder about mainland China? If they are as polite, respectful and organized as the people of Taiwan, they are clearly destined in my opinion to be THE world power in a very short time if they are not already. The Chinese have impressed me. I did not particularly expect to be impressed. I had felt that maybe the sheer number of Chinese people would make the cities so bad, so dirty, so difficult to get around that I would not care for the people or this place. I was completely wrong. The people and the city have won me over and especially the people, for it is their industry and attitude that make the city. Visit Taipei. You will be impressed - despite the sometimes gloomy weather! 


Day 77 – Taipei

Well the gray skies remained and in addition a cold front had blown in from the north. No rain today but temperature dropped to mid-forties and windy. Cold for these people. Not normally cold for a born and raised Yankee but it is when you have only light weight summer clothes with you! Had to go buy a windbreaker today. Set me back $5.75 U.S.


I walked a lot today. Decided to walk due various places around the city I wanted to see that were sort of between MRT stations. Well I ended up walking six stations (that's a good way) away from my hotel before I got plum tuckered out. Several times along the way I had my map out and people stopped and asked, "May I help you?" This has happened to me here many times. In some places you have to be careful of tourist predators but not here. These people are so genuinely polite and will do most anything to help you. I have had some go clearly out of their way to do so. Every taxi I have taken as immediately turned on the meter and not a single one has tried to negotiate a "special price for me." They get in line for the escalator on the right and will wait patiently in line even though starting 10-20 feet back from the up/down escalator. The left side is open for those who wish to pass or rush and there are a certain 5-10% who do. Sometimes you even see a rare person running! It helps, of course, that the trains are so efficient coming every 3-6 minutes.


Several times when I am trying to ask a street vendor how much something costs and it is obvious I am having difficulty communicating, another customer will simply answer the question for me in a very polite helpful manner. They even take the time to tell me what something is if I am not sure. One lady outside a bakery tonight told me that was a cream-like corn - so okay I tried one. I guess it was a Chinese version of cornbread - two slices of fresh warm egg-like bread with creamy corn (yes, whole kernels of it) in the middle. A corn sandwich! It was quite good. I washed it down with a carton of Oolong Milk Tea, another new one for me. Tasted like a light chocolate milk. So far the only tea I have not liked was the Green Milk Tea. The color just did not do it for me.


Another habit of the locals I have not mentioned is that one has to be careful before starting to cross the street. There are always several cars that go through the red light each time and motor scooters pay little attention at all. Many of them even drive up on the sidewalks, the one practice I do find a bit irritating when walking. I stopped several places on my walk, several being places I had been previously and wanted to see again. The most interesting new place I visited was the Chinese Handicraft Mart. I spent several hours there admiring a wide variety of work. There were several things I would have liked to purchase but the difficulty of getting them back to the U.S. safely plus my already bursting luggage was just too great.


I finished the day at the dynamic Ximending Pedestrian Zone with some great sidewalk vendor food. Tomorrow is my last full day of this several month adventure. I will to just wander at will and take in all of the atmosphere I can before this all must end for now. 


Day 78 – Taipei

Today was my last full day in Taipei, Taiwan, and the last full day of this adventure. It was not around the world in 80 days but a pretty good piece of Southeast Asia in 79.


Some of my last observations: Bakeries are everywhere in this city. The Chinese love fresh baked everything and the variety of breads, rolls and sweet stuff is wonderful. Again there is a comparison to the U.S. in the 50's when we had neighborhood bakeries that are no longer - but even then we never had the number of bakeries or variety of items that are available here. It is something I really like. Some of my favorite memories growing up are of my Aunt Hattie's baking Apple Kuchen, doughnuts and all kinds of pies. She was the best cook I have ever known. Anyway, fresh bakery is still a joy to savor.


The Chinese also love coffee shops. There is at least one every block here and often more. It is a major business and pleasure pastime for the Chinese. I prefer tea to coffee when I have a choice but both are popular to the Chinese, tea more traditional, coffee more modern. Most coffee shops are individually owned or small several store chains except for Starbucks which are everywhere. They have become the Wal-Mart of coffee and I admit that I do not care for them. I find their coffee terrible to boot. At one intersection here there were big Starbucks katty-korner from each other! They have been the death of small places in the states and thus we are no longer allowed the joy of discovering our own little special shop such as made New Orleans famous.


I saw the only Pizza Hut I have seen here today - in fact the only pizza place. The Chinese generally do not like cheese and that dislike apparently keeps pizza places from being too popular here. As a final observation I have regularly noticed Chinese schoolgirls chattering away in Chinese (of course) on the subway but when one or more get up to leave, they all say "bye bye!" I asked a young woman who spoke English about this and she told me that is was probably the only English the girls know. The word for goodbye in Chinese is longer and schoolgirls just like the sound of "bye bye" so that is what they all say. I thought that was interesting.


Day 79, Mid-December 

Last night I packed everything tightly and shortly after noon headed for the Chiang Kai-Shek International Airport and a long flight to Los Angeles. My flight left here about 4:30 PM local time. However I will cross the international dateline going east and gain back the day I lost coming over here. In effect, I will land in LAX almost exactly the same time I left here. I would then catch a short flight to home. So that was it. It was all over but reviewing the 6000 or so photos. Any writer will tell you that when we write, we write for ourselves - but they will also tell you it is so much more enjoyable when someone is listening. I leave you as a Chinese schoolgirl, with a little wave of my hand, a big BYE BYE, and my own thanks for listening.

 

 Travels with Robert: A Southeast Asia Odyssey


Day 1

A Tuesday in late September. Well I am about to get on a long plane ride and a journey that will begin in Bangkok, Thailand. As usual I am asking myself what the heck I am doing – but then I always ask that and always have a great time – so here goes!


Day 2 – Thursday – Bangkok, Thailand

We landed in Thailand at 2:00 AM Bangkok time this morning. Went straight to the hotel and went to sleep. I always book my hotel for the first two nights in advance when traveling to a large city and especially when arriving at night. I like to know I am secure for the first two nights at least. I can always change hotels after that if I choose – and often do. In wandering the city on this first day I am a bit overwhelmed. The traffic is incredible. Cars and motor scooters everywhere creating noise and air pollution. Traffic moves slowly but crossing streets as a pedestrian is a big challenge. You dodge motor scooters at every step. Other reactions? My hotel is fine but boy, is it hot here!


Day 4 – Saturday, October in Bangkok 

Dang, this place is hot. Like Phoenix with the humidity of New Orleans. The crazy part is it is currently their cool rainy season! Thankfully the hotel is AC. Saw the magnificent Marble Temple and the Vimanek Mansion (King's house). Then saw the more beautiful Wat Arun. Then the more beautiful still Wat Pho and then the incredibly beautiful Wat Phra Kaeo and Kings Palace!!!! Unbelievable beauty and gold everywhere (plus a few thousand school kids). Three days and I have shot 250 pictures already! Thank God for these little computer disks that hold 128 to 256 photos each. I Have already had to buy more disks. Have taken off my shoes and prayed to Buddha many times also. Interesting.


I am finding Bangkok much prettier and manageable that my first day impressions when I was a bit overwhelmed. About 6 million people, sort of like Houston in terms of U.S. comparison. I have always heard good things about the Thai women but none have approached me yet. Darn the luck! I guess I am just getting too old.


Day 6 – Bangkok

I have found out it is about 95-100 here every day with near same humidity. Doesn't drop at night to under 80. Surprisingly one can go back to the hotel, shower and sleep well with the AC running. Interesting they all eat HOT foods and HOT soup. I guess it sterilizes everything and they are used to it. BK has become a comfortable place to me in terms of getting around and most folks are quite friendly and helpful. Big difference between rich and poor of course. For my democratic friends, I got me a Bush - war terrorist and some other anti-war tee shirts. Clinton is much admired over here and Bush is, of course, hated. I love it!


All the taxis here come in colors from orange, blue, bronze, and even hot pink. Color denotes company. The second biggest company is red & blue taxis, good for the U of Arizona fan I am. The biggest company though is green and gold taxis. So even though the year is rough so far, it is great to know that PACKER fans are everywhere! No cheese here though. In general, the Asians do not eat cheese. McDonalds serves a "samurai teriyaki pork burger" though. Did I say it is HOT? And now it is POURING rain. 


Day 8 – Bangkok

Driving here (or riding) is interesting. The roads are buckled a lot outside of the main city: heat, materials, soft earth or combination of all. Makes it a little roller coaster at times, but mostly the traffic is so heavy we go so slow so doesn't matter. The temples (Wats) are everywhere and so brilliant in color. Our churches in America and Europe are so dark and almost tomblike at times. Imagine if every church in town had a brilliant red roof with gold, bright blue, green, or bright white trim everywhere. Well, that is what it is like here. They make you feel like celebration versus our "shhhh, you are in church." They are still quiet and respectful in the temples here (shoes off always) but the color does something to your heart.


The food is fantastic and the use of spices incredible. I have tasted 16 different fruits grown here, 2 I did not like, one was okay, and 13 were very good. Between fruits, all the fresh vegetables and the spices this place is a vegetarian delight. I have had only a little fish since I have been here and a few pieces of chicken in a soup. I have seen chains only of McDonalds, Burger King, 7-11's and a rare KFC. In the last few days I have gone to the floating markets, watched an elephant show, fed the elephants, watched a Thai cultural and dance show, visited the old capitol of Ayutthaya and cruised the main river, Chao Praha.


Tomorrow I am off north to Chiang Mai for 4-5 days and then in to Laos. Other travelers have told me I have had it easy so far, that the other countries are harder to travel in and that Vietnam is really hot and travel difficult - nothing to fear, just logistically difficult. Photos? I have over 350 photos so far! Have I told you all it is really hot here?


Day 10 – Chiang Mai, Thailand

Well, I have come north out of flat Bangkok and into the hills of northern Thailand. It has been a continued blast. This morning I rode an elephant through the forest for an hour. He was a little ornery and stopped to push over several trees because he was hungry. I think he is always hungry! Not a smooth ride but fun. They get dirt all over you and they really sway a lot! We then hiked into the forest to a waterfall on the Meukoung River (a tributary of the famous Mekong). Only four of our group of 10 had the nerve to go swimming in the river at the foot of the falls: me, two Belgium girls and a German man. Quite refreshing.


We then hiked through the jungle for an hour and got very hot and sweaty. THEN - and this was really cool - We rode bamboo rafts down the river for an hour. Bamboo doesn't fully float but goes along several inches under the water. We are sitting on these rafts - three to a raft, front, middle and rear. They are maybe 3 foot wide and 10 feet long. If you have not figured it out by now, we are sitting in the water. And we rode these things through rapids where we got and stayed very wet. Really cool experience.


Last night went to a Thai cultural place where had a traditional 10 course (plus drink and dessert) Thai dinner. We sat on mats and ate at low tables while enjoying beautiful music and dancing. Very nicely done. Yesterday met a young woman from Spain who had visited Wisconsin, knows what cheese heads are, and HAS A PACKER POSTER IN HER APARTMENT. I asked her to marry me! To my farm cousins back in Wisconsin - Pigs, chickens and corn here all really different. Egg shells are mostly brown or pink.


Day 12 – Chiang Mai

I was thinking more about riding an elephant the other day. It is hard to describe the feeling of sitting on top of a 2000 pound animal and how you can feel every muscle as he lumbers along, especially up or down a hill. The strength is incredible and you are but a fly on his back. The dinner was also really special. The Thai tradition is to serve each item (food, sauce, etc) in a separate dish and you choose and mix as you please. It is like each item is not supposed to touch the other unless you choose it to. Sort of like growing up with my brother who never let his peas touch his mashed potatoes or he wouldn't eat them. Those of you who have kids know what I mean!


Yesterday I traveled to the far north of Thailand and the "golden triangle" border with Myanmar (Burma) and Laos. You stand in Thailand looking up the mighty Mekong River with Burma on the left and Laos on the right. Was in the frontier border town of Mae Sai where you cross into Burma. It's a crazy system. Americans can cross into Burma at this border only between 6 AM and 6 PM and then are only allowed only on the one street about 600 yards going into Burma. Both sides of the street are lined with shops. Basically they want you to come into Burma, spend some money on cheap souvenir stuff and get out! Very weird. It was interesting to me to see the Mekong for the first time. You can boat north on it all the way to China.


We stopped at a hillside tribal village down some dirt roads where I met people from several traditionally nomadic people: the Akca, the Palong, the red-eared (long-eared) Karen, and the long-necked Karen (giraffe women). These are the ones that wear the heavy rings around their necks. They begin wearing them about age 5 or so and soon add a ring each year. Really interesting. The rings are very heavy and I took many photos.


The breakfast's here are something quite different than in the U.S. I have a spicy soup, steamed rice covered with vegetables (and chicken, pork or fish if you choose - whatever the cook made that day), small pancakes or waffles, a variety of fresh fruit and fruit juices, a Thai omelet, and coffee, tea, or Ovaltine! A complete salad is also available as is some strange kind of bologna looking meat and sausages I have chosen not to eat. It is a big meal and spicy to boot. I usually have this about 6:30 - 7 AM. For an American it is like eating a huge dinner meal at a Thai restaurant in the States. Funny thing is I have gotten to like it! I eat little lunch and small dinners and have been losing some weight! It's all very healthy and I eat little meat.


I had to also make adjustments on my money. I always wore a money belt and other money holder stuff under my clothes and close to my body, but I sweat so much here I was finding that my money was all getting soaked!!!! I have had to put stuff in plastic bags for protection. Today was another unbelievable day as I went whitewater rafting in the jungle. We drove down miles of a really narrow dirt road just to get to where we were going to enter the river. The road was an oxcart path for centuries and then used by the Japanese in WWII to move military equipment. They forced the Thais to slave labor to expand the old oxcart path. Our driver had a grandfather who had been one of those Thai slaves. There was an oxcart on the road as we traveled and a group of elephants our driver called "local traffic."


We got to this camp by the river out in the jungle with all stick houses along the river. We were served a fabulous lunch here and then put into the Mae Taeng River around Sop Kai and rafted for several hours down to Moung Khut. I have rafted in many countries but these were clearly the biggest rapids I have been on. I was the only American with 2 English, 2 Belgium and an Aussie plus our Thai guide. We all got soaked and when the guide yelled "get down," meaning crouch low in the boat and hang one - we listened! Then at quiet parts we just swam alongside the boat before getting back in for more rapids. At one point we were told to hang on good because if we fell out there we would have to float through the rapids on our own for up to 2 kilometers before we could get picked up!!! I have to admit to a few nerves acting up at the start but quickly got settled in and held on. During the quiet parts we saw elephants along the river and had three of them trumpet to us. Really cool and Tarzan like!


And the jungle here is a thousand shades of green. I have visited Parana, Argentina, where the towns slogan is "todo las verdes, meaning "all the greens" because it is a very green area. I like Parana very much but its greens are nothing compared to the Thailand jungle. All the greens truly applies to this place. GREAT fun. Tomorrow I am spending the day with the elephants and learning how to be a "mahout," or elephant trainer. I will feed the elephants by hand, bath with them in the river and ride my elephant on my own!


Day 13 – Chiang Mai

Last night I went to the Sunday Market. I have found most places around the world have a special market day. It could be any day but often it is a Saturday or Sunday. Here in Chiang Mai it is Sunday. I love markets. You learn much about how the people live by the food and products you find at their market. Last night I bought something for my son and ate dinner at the market. I had pad Thai noodles, corn soup and a wonderful banana waffle and spent just under one dollar. Nice dinner.


Today I went to an elephant conservation center that rescues and saves mistreated and abused elephants. You can find it at www.elephantnaturepark.org and they are doing wonderful work. They currently had 23 elephants (plus 34 dogs and 11 cats), 4 adult males, 17 females (one just 8 months) and 2 baby boys. Their are 21 mahouts as each elephant has their own mahout. The two babies do not yet have one. These elephants have been bullied, beaten, burned, stabbed, shot and had bones broken. National Geographic has done stories about them. Elephants live about 60-80 years and the oldest here is Mae Tong Bai, 85. Her face is sunken, she moves very slow and you can hear her bones creak. The babies were 2 months and 5 weeks. They also had the biggest elephant in Thailand, Max, who is just over 15 feet. A typical Asian elephant is about 12 1/2 tall and also 12 1/2 feet long. They eat about 5-600 pounds of food a day and drink160-180 gallons of water per day.


They are very social animals. They cry, they laugh, they show sorrow and pain for themselves and each other. They bond closely in small groups and fall in love. A herd in the wild will have a matriarch, an older female, who leads them. The males hang around but are a bit more solitary. The males come into "musk" once a year and then wish to mate and get very ornery during that time. They get stains down their face from eye leakage and stains down their back legs from urine leakage also. They say it is very cruel to keep a lone female as they need each other and talk to each other like crazy. Watching them play and talk to each other was an unbelievable experience. I played with the 2 month old baby for 15-20 minutes in like "ring around the rosie" around a pole in one of their shade areas. His social group includes "mum" Mae Jobahn and "auntie" Mae Takeaw. One elephant, Jokia, is completely blind through mistreatment. She has bonded with Mae Perm and always stays near her side for eating, bathing, everything. Mae Perm watches out for her. Even when an amorous male, Kham Min, tried to mate with her, Mae Perm stayed between them and would not allow it.


We started the morning (seven of us - 2 Danes, 4 Brits and me) by stopping at the banana market and filling an entire pickup with bananas. This is done twice a day as a "snack" for them. About 500 pounds each time. We then hand fed them the bananas and got to know them and their personalities. Later when they went down to the river to bathe, we walked with them and went into the water with them. We threw water on them and scrubbed them with a brush. Sometimes they threw water on us! The little 5 week old boy decided to play with me in the water and was pushing me around and nearly knocked me off my feet! Very strong little guy. I then rode Mae Perm by myself for about 500 yards! It was really quite an experience sitting on her neck with my knees up high behind her head and her ears flapping back on my lower legs just like a mahout. I know who was in charge though and it wasn't me!


As usual, we had a delicious lunch on site and then learned more about the elephants and the elephant situation in Thailand. We then contented ourselves with wandering among the elephants and taking photos before a second trip to the river. After that trip we completed our day and returned to our hotels.


I did meet "Lek," the wonderful tiny Thai woman who started this place. She is an outcast to many in her own country for the work she does in trying to change the way elephants are treated and for them to be trained with love and not beatings. All the mahouts at the park train only with love, no hooks or beatings. The animals respond to hand signals and verbal commands done with love. Because they are such social creatures they respond well to this. I also found out there is an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee! It is run by a woman named Carol Buckley to rescue old zoo and circus animals. They told us a story about how she rescued two old circus animals who had been separated for 25 years and that they immediately recognized each other when brought back together and talked all night long! Amazing animals.


Day 15 – Luang Phabang, Laos

Let me say this about bananas - ours in the U.S. are terrible. In this area of the world they are only about 3-5" long, chubby, and wonderfully delicious. They ripen naturally and are so sweet and flavorful. You have not lived until you have had a steaming hot bowl of banana soup for dessert. Magnificent.


Yesterday I flew into the "international" airport here. One runway, one other plane and a small terminal. This whole country only has 6 million people but geographically it is stunningly beautiful. Mountains, rivers and streams everywhere with "all the greens" and in such brilliant colors. Still hot but cooler here and definitely cooler at night. Still t-shirt weather though - not Wisconsin cool by any measure. I checked in to my Guest House (small hotel) and then went to the most revered and important Buddhist temple in Laos. It was very beautiful plus, as an added bonus, the River Festival is held at the full moon every October to celebrate the end of the rainy season. I will not be here then but the people are building their "float" boats to light up for the festival. I got to watch the monks at several temples building their colorful boats and got some great photos.


This morning I took a long slow boat ride on the Mekong to see some famous caves by the riverside where old Buddha statures are stored, about 4000 of them stored in lower and upper caves. The lower caves require about 40 steps up, the upper about 400 steps up. Needless to say my butt was dragging when I got back to the boat. We also stopped at a small riverside village where I watched a guy making rice wine (Laos moonshine) and had a small glass. Not bad. They bottle this stuff with a different snake, scorpion, centipede or something else strange, one in each bottle. The people drink this stuff! Some kind of sexual macho thing I think but not sure. I passed.


I have seen two incredibly beautiful waterfalls in my life. One is Iguazu Falls in Argentina and the other was this afternoon outside of Louang Phabang. It took about 25 miles of rough dirt road but definitely worth it. This thing cascades down hundreds of meters over many rocks and several pools in a beautiful sight. I went across rocks up near the falls (Kouang Si Falls) and then swimming in one of the pools just downstream. Cool and refreshing. A great afternoon. Just a pure joy swimming there.


On the way back we also stopped at a Hmong hill people village where I got some good children shots. I try to get "faces" in my photos whenever I can. Also saw a bunch of water buffalo today for the first time. Very impressive beasts. Tomorrow I am going to walk the streets of this city and see what more I can. Now it is a banana or two, a shower and to bed. Each night I am very tired but it is a good tired and I am off again the next morning.


Day 16 - Luang Phabang

It is very hot in the afternoons and none of the shops or restaurants have AC. They are all simply open air with a roof and some walls around them. Lots of fans always going. I have found out there are several ways to spell the name of this city but Luang Phabang is the most common. It is named after the Great Buddha Pha Bang who can be seen at the Royal Palace Museum. It is the most important Buddha image in the country just as Wat Xiang Thong is the most important temple. It's the place I visited earlier and watched the boat building going on.


Money issues? In Thailand it was 40 baht to the dollar and fairly easy to calculate. It is fairly easy here also but a lot more zeros. When I exchanged $100 U.S. at the airport I got back just over 1,000,000 kip! So I am a millionaire in Laos. It is about 10,000 kip to the dollar. Yesterday my 7 bananas cost 1000 kip, roughly 10 cents. Money may not grow on trees but bananas do. I have been drinking a whole lot of fruit shakes because they are good, cold, healthy and cheap. My favorite is coconut but I have had banana, pineapple and mango so far. They run 30 to 50 cents each. No milk but juice, chopped ice and whipped to a froth. I love them. That and water will take you a long way. Water is only 20 - 30 cents a bottle. Good with coconut cookies.


I have learned that the tall green rice fields are sticky rice and the short green fields are jasmine rice. Sticky is preferred more in the northern parts of Thailand and Laos and jasmine in the south. Jasmine is like the rice we get in the U.S. I, of course, like sticky rice best. Also had a red bean and green tea cake in Thailand that was really good - and I am not normally a cake eater.


Some other interesting things I have learned about elephants. They have weak spines that are right at the surface and a chair should never be placed on their back. It actually hurts the animal but that is how they give tourist rides. The head and neck are the strongest parts of the elephant body and that is why the mahout rides high up on the neck directly behind the head. Ivory tusks are a status symbol to the male elephant and represent his "maleness." When cut off by poachers they become depressed and often will not mate or may commit suicide. They do this by standing on their trunks which then collapse under them.


The name of the waterfall I told you about is Kouang Si Waterfall for any of you who wish to look it up. It is a 60 meter multi-level beauty. The "moonshine" village is actually Ban Xang Hai but is called "whiskey village" by many. The Buddha caves are the Pak Ou caves. This morning I started at 8 AM by climbing the 328 steps of Phou Si, the Holy Hill. Hell of a way to start the day! Soaked with sweat by 8:15. Great views all around of the city though. After the smooth downhill journey I visited the Royal Palace and museum. I have now seen the thrones for both kings of Thailand and Laos. The chairs looked just my size but they would not let me sit in them. Darn.


Then to Wat That where I had a 45 minute chat with a 23 year old monk. He told me about himself and why he had become a monk. He said he was happy with his life and studies. Many monks, such as he, come from poor families and it is a way out for them. They can study Buddhism and have a better life in their mind. Interesting young man. Then went to lunch at a riverside restaurant on the Mekong. Outdoors of course but they are all in shade or use umbrellas for shade. Bright sunlight out but you see umbrellas everywhere, especially for women. They will steer their bike or motor scooter with one hand and hold their umbrella in the other.


The food here is fabulous. I have been eating rice or noodles with vegetables. As I mentioned, there are two kinds of rice and many kinds of noodles. They know how to use spices though and the stuff is really good. Yesterday out by the waterfall I had lunch in an open thatched roof place and got a huge plate of rice and vegetables for 90 cents. Today a nice lunch of noodles and vegetables for $1.20 (plus my 30 cent coconut shake).


The toilets are, of course, quite different. Take our toilet bowl and cut it in half (to be half as tall), then stand on the sides and stoop down and - well, you get the idea! You will find western toilets in better hotels and some expensive restaurants but not in the regular Thai or Lao community. They may be 6 inches or so off the ground or concreted in at ground level, but either way "stooping" is the rule. They are flushed by scooping water into them from a large barrel, pail or whatever of water standing next to them. Interesting. Tonight I shall look around the markets and tomorrow morning travel down to Vang Viang for a few days. 


Day 17 – Vang Viang, Laos 

First, last night in Louang Prabang. I could not resist it. I again walked the 328 steps to the top of the Holy Hill just to watch the sunset with about 50 other "farang" (foreigners). Took about a hundred photos hoping for just one to be a wall hanger. Then walked down the hill to the night market and ate dinner and strolled for awhile. Lovely evening but the heat had returned. I thought it was cooler here based on my first night but if it is, it is not much. The night was just teasing me.


Today was unbelievable. Left on a minivan this morning at 9 AM to travel 168 kilometers (about 107 miles) to Vang Viang. Arrived 6.5 hours later. We were coming down Hwy 13, the main highway and BEST road in the country. Do not be deceived by that. It was an incredible ride of perhaps unparalleled beauty. The road wound up, down and around mountains and valleys but never through - no tunnels. I called it the "linguini" highway as it was not wide enough to be spaghetti. Perhaps it should be called "angel hair" as you hoped angels were watching on many of the turns. The beauty is such though that if you were to sit in one spot for a thousand minutes and take a thousand pictures no two photos would be the same. The constant movement of mist, clouds, sun and shadow upon the mountains keeps it all ever changing.


I had always thought New Zealand was the most beautiful country in the world but Laos is right up there. New Zealand has an ocean and an infrastructure though. Laos has only its magnificent natural beauty of mountains and rivers. This is not a "first world" country though. It is not the "third world" either, but more of a "second world" in most ways. They have poor roads, questionable sanitary conditions, lots of poverty and lack any strong infrastructure, but have cell phones, internet cafes and satellite TV. It is like every village has one satellite dish everyone in the village hooks up to. It reminds me a lot of my time in Paraguay, another second world country.


During the drive, villages were everywhere alongside the road with the doors of many homes just a few feet off the road and the back going down the mountainside. No sidewalks of course, so everyone and everything walks in the road. We were CONSTANTLY dodging cattle of all types, ducks, geese, many goats, chickens, "Vietnamese" pigs, plus many children and adults not to mention other cars, trucks and buses. In addition, it was now the end of the rainy season during which there were many landslides on and over the road, leaving even narrower lanes, huge and numerous potholes, and a whole lot of rocks and debris. The two Filipinos, 7 Europeans and me in the van were often holding our breath!


The driver is constantly blowing his horn. Every curve he comes to (about a thousand) he blows his horn to say he is coming and if no one blows back he pays no attention to our concept of lanes and assumes no one is coming at us. The "rules" of the road. There are no lane markings of course. When we go through any village (maybe 30 or so) he leans on his horn which I think means, "I am coming so get out of the way or I will kill you." Human or animal gets the same horn. It is amazing we missed everything, particularly some small herds of cattle and goats.


By the way, nothing is in a cage here. All the livestock freely roam the roads and fields at will. I guess they all just know where they live and who owns them! The cattle have been mostly Brahman but today I saw a lot of what looked like Guernsey or Brown Swiss plus something that looked like a cross with a water buffalo (and maybe was). We also stopped twice to eat and I had noodle soup in a small town roadside restaurant where we used some really questionable (by our western standards) toilets. One time he stopped and said it was a "pee stop" and got out of the van, walked a few feet away and did so. Anyway, we arrived in Vang Viang safely!


I decided to splurge and am paying $15 a night for a riverside room with AC and shower. The town is supposed to be a tourist center for caves and the river. Well, the main street is a hole-filled semi-paved at best road. Definitely off the beaten path so to speak. Surrounded by incredible natural beauty but not much of a town otherwise. The place needs "work" as they say. Every place is very safe though. The Lao people are very gentle and soft spoken people who are always helpful and kind. Tomorrow I shall see some caves and I think maybe I am going tubing in a cave? 


Day 18 – Vang Viang 

Today I was off to see the caves of Vang Viang. I have seen many caves so no big deal I think. Ha! Not like cave tours in America with nice easy trail walk. First we walk about a mile through jungle and then I am spelunking! Crawling up and down, in and out among rocks and crevices in damp, muddy, pitch dark except for my guide, Mong Ke (yes, he said he is called monkey) and the small lanterns on our heads attached to small batteries on our bodies. My decrepit old body had its work cut out. Went about a hundred yards in and then turned off lanterns. The most pitch black I have ever seen. I was absolutely covered with mud. After that we went into another nearby cave but only about 50 yards this time. There was also a large Buddha statue in that cave. We then came out and had lunch out in a little hut in the middle of rice fields, banana trees and jungle. The guide cooked very well. We had fresh bread, fried rice and "all kinds of good stuff on a stick." Definite spice to the peppers but excellent.


After lunch we again go caving off a branch of the Nam Song river here. We swim in the pool outside the cave then enter the cave on inner tubes, on our backs, going through small entrance, again with only small lamps on our heads and batteries on our bodies. Tubed maybe a hundred yards into the cave, pulling ourselves by rope, before dead ending where a strong stream comes out of the darkness. Here we waded for a moment and then tubed back out with the current. Lying on your back in darkness in such an environment is a very strange experience. Did not need the lights on our head to get out naturally but needed them to keep our heads and bodies from hitting hard the top or sides of the cave. We were able to steer a bit and push off walls with feet and hands this way. Probably nothing to experienced spelunkers, but to me it was cool (including the water)! Washed off most of the mud also.


Then hiked back about a mile through rice fields, jungle and incredible views everywhere before being met by a tuk-tuk to take us back to the town. Even got to see some rice being harvested, boys fishing in stream, and many small children jumping in the stream, mostly naked. That is the way here with small children and you see them naked everywhere. It is natural for they are not potty trained and I have yet to see a diaper anywhere in Asia so far. Last night I had a "peanut shake." Absolutely delicious. A British girl told me she had a peanut butter and banana shake and it was "lovely." I think I will go have another one now. Then I showered and had dinner where I had breakfast, on the patio overlooking the river.


Day 19 – Vientiene, Laos 

I finished my last night in Vang Viang with a banana pancake and a peanut shake and a banana shake. Walked back after dark and it is dark! No street lights and only few lighted signs of restaurants and guest houses. Perfectly safe though. As I mentioned, the Lao people are very gentle and hospitable. Morning breakfast of rice noodle soup with vegetables before heading down the mountain. 


I made it down the mountains to the relative river flat land around Vientiene and this part of the Mekong. Again I was the only American in a shared minivan. The drive was still green and scenic but seemed very tame after the mountain drive of several days. This time we covered about the same distance in half the time. For the first time I ran into a fly in the ointment. I had to go to three hotels before finding a room and then booked a flight to Hanoi for a few days later. I had decided it was too long a distance to bus. Bus to Hanoi was a 24 hour ride.


The River Festival and boat races are this weekend so this town was bustling with activity. You can tell you were in the city again. Loud music, traffic, people, etc. We are right across the Mekong from Nong Khai, Thailand. I cannot go there though because of my visa. Must fly to Hanoi from here. This is a very busy place compared to the quiet of Vang Viang.  I had pigeon eggs for a snack boiled in a natural hot springs. They tasted like, well, eggs!


Most of this part of the world has day and night markets. There may be one or more day markets throughout the city that are open from early morn until about 5 PM. The night market (usually one) then sets up from about 5 in the evening until about 1-2 AM or later in Bangkok. Different people, different shops, but same type products except for special "night" stuff. The showers here are like much of the world. You have a nozzle coming out of the wall, no curtain anywhere, and when you shower everything gets wet: sink, toilet bowl, floor, whatever. There is always a drain in the floor, sometimes the center, sometimes a corner, and floor slightly slanted that way. Dries pretty fast though.


Some worry about health and diseases here. Asian bird flu is an issue here but only if you are out on the farms handling birds, which I don't do, or interact with already sick people, which I also try not to do. Other than that, there is always a small risk of something your body is not immune to but if you are careful eating, drinking and such, the risk is minimal. I try not to do anything stupid and hope not to get unlucky in any way. 


Day 20 - Vientiene, Laos 

The River Boat Fall Festival of the Full Moon was going on for the last two days and culminates tomorrow with ceremonies at the temples and boat race in evening on the river. So by the luck of timing, I geo to see festival. I went to the most important Buddhist temple in the country today and got many excellent people photos of women and monks preparing for the festival. I will go back tomorrow morning and observe more festival doings. 


My hotel is only thirty yards from the main river street and is thus very convenient but also very noisy at night. Fortunately I always carry earplugs when I travel so no problem sleeping. Also today I saw a large monument, Presidential Palace and private temple of past kings. Otherwise just enjoyed the atmosphere by the river. They have rides for children, carnival games and food stands galore. This town has only 600,000 people but that is 10% of the country. Festival is like small version of Milwaukee's Summerfest. Anyway, it's enjoyable to observe the cultural similarities and differences.


Day 22 - Last Day in Vientiene

Yesterday I spent almost the entire day with the monks at That Louang, the most revered Buddhist Wat (Temple) in this country. The "Golden Stuppa" is at the center point of the complex. Originally the complex had four temples, N, S, E, and W. Now the north temple and south temple are the focal points. The west temple still stands but is smaller and a bit farther away from the Stupa. The east temple was destroyed in long ago wars and was never rebuilt. I arrived shortly before lunch and watched as worshippers delivered gifts and food to the monks that they had spent days preparing.


The old monks sat on the floor (mats) in the traditional style and in a row along one side of the south temple and ate from their multi-bowled meals which sat on small round bamboo tables. After they had completed their meals the rest of the food was distributed among those in attendance and they ate in a similar manner but in more social circles around the same style tables. Many recognized me from the day before when I had take photos of many of them and showed them the photos. They offered me food and invited me to join them. They are very friendly and kind to all and I developed great respect for them.


About 1:30 at the north temple, the largest and most beautiful one, all the monks from the entire city of Vientiene began to arrive, primarily in tuks-tuks. It seems this is the ONE day of the entire year they all come to this temple and I got to witness it. About 2:00 they all gathered in the temple and began their joint prayer service which lasted about an hour. I understood little of course. It was led by one older monk on the floor in the front using a portable microphone. At times there was bowing, turning and the entire group speaking together such as Christians will do on the lord's prayer or apostles creed. Several of the monks speak some English and befriended me. One is the English teacher to the other monks and two others were novices (monks in training). I was allowed to participate (as much as I could) in everything, sitting at the back of the temple for the above services. Photos were possible at some points but not all out of simple respect. After the above service the monks not of That Louang got back into tuk-tuks and returned to their respective temples.


Now we had an opportunity to talk about many things and they are a very open and honest people. We discussed the great "philosophers" of time (Buddha, Lao-tzu, Jesus, Confucius, etc.). We discussed politics from the French colonialism in Laos to Vietnam to today. I was even asked questions about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War! Monks spend much of their day studying and they love to learn and, as the English teacher told me, "expand our minds." They told me how wonderful they thought it was for me to travel and to expand my mind and learn more about the peoples of the world. They said Americans should do that more for "to know only your own country and your own people is to know very little." They asked me to send them copies of the photos I took and maybe some English history or philosophy books and I will do so upon my return to America. One novice said, "I like to ask you questions. You remind me of my father. He is also old, wise and fat." As I said, they are open and honest people!!!!!!


I also watched them building their decorative bamboo boat for part of the evening ceremonies. I was invited to help and I placed a few of the small flower decorations on the boat. They told me that the evening ceremonies would be there at That Louang, whereas many of the Wats close to the river would take their parts to the river and float them. All were at the same time so I had to choose and chose to stay at That Louang. At 8:00 that evening the gong is rung and the procession of monks and other local worshippers, including many teenagers, began their procession three times around the north temple. We carried lotus flowers, candles and several sticks of incense. It was a time of spiritual meaning but also great joy and playfulness, even among the monks! Among the teenagers, one would yell something (like a cheerleader might) and the others would all "cheer" in some way. You are supposed to make your one special wish for the coming year during the procession and, if you are a good person, it will be granted.


After the three trips around the temple we all went to the front of the temple and lit the candles/flares that had been placed on the boat. We then went (only thirty feet or so) to a group of Buddha statues under a 100+ year old tree from India (Nepal is Buddha birthplace) and place our flowers and incense by one of the Buddha images. There is a Buddha for each of the seven days of the week and you should place by the day of the week you were born (if you know it). I did not know what day of the week I was born but placed mine by Thursday because it is where my novice friend placed his. All in all, it was a wonderful cultural and religious experience.


After this experience I took a tuk-tuk back to my hotel and the celebration along the Mekong River street and shore. If this city has 600,000 people I think all of them were there. Unbelievable packed street it which everyone was hanging on to their friend and family simply to not loose them for you could loose them in an instant. Unique and sweaty experience. Sort of like the Wisconsin State Fair on an 80 degree weekend day packed with 100,000 people, multiplied by four in numbers, and reduced in space by four! I have never seen anything like it. Nothing but color, sound, music and smiles everywhere.


More about my observations, thoughts and ramblings with the monks. First, the Lao are a beautiful and gentle people. As friendly and gentle as anywhere I have ever been. And tiny people! I am a giant in this land. I tried to find a pair of sandals in a size 10 and was told everywhere that that BIG size is not available here. So how did these beautiful and gentle people gain their independence? Many people over the years have tried to dominate the Lao and steal the various treasures of their country. The British and primarily the French were the colonialists who tried to dominate Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in the early-middle part of the 1900's. In fact, it was an ex-Akha monk who led the Lao forces to fight back against the French (and later also American forces).


The Lao were also assisted by Ho Chi Minh - BEGINNING IN 1945 - to drive out the imperialist/colonialists who tried to dominate Lao and most of SE Asia for their own greed. They finally defeated the French at Bien Dien Phu. The Pathet Lao (whom we called Communists) were simply Lao freedom fighters. The Lao compare these people to George Washington and our colonial troops who fought for freedom from England. This is all what carried over to Vietnam. Very few Americans know that the French colonialists dominated Vietnam in the above period and Ho Chi Minh began his fight to unite Vietnam against the French. This continued for many years.


In the late-50's the French, under Charles DeGaulle, asked the Americans for help. At that time our President was Eisenhower, DeGaulle's buddy from WWII, so we began to send in military "advisers." Well, we all know how it expanded from there under several Presidents before we were finally forced to flee the area. 


I had a good friend in graduate school at Tennessee. His name was Mohammed and he was from Iran. Once I asked him his thoughts about such things and I have never forgotten his reply. I think it was very wise. He asked, "You and I are friends, yes?" "Yes," I said. He answered, "People are people. Governments are governments." Such wise words which have been reaffirmed over and over in my travels. I have been many places and, as a teacher, was often told how Bush was hated and asked how our people could elect a man as bad as Bush, a terrorist to much of the world. I always explained that I did not agree with Bush and that about one half of our country did not agree with Bush, but that in our system we follow the person who receives the most votes, even if it is only one more vote than the other person.


Wars are NEVER about philosophies (communism, socialism, democracy, etc.), for the educated political analyst knows we are all (including us) socialist countries. We are all a mix of government rules and individual freedoms. It is just the percentages that differ. It meant NOTHING to the lives of the American people on the street to stop communism from spreading in Vietnam. They were no threat to America. Just has it meant NOTHING to the American people on the street to depose Saddam. He had no effect on us as a people.


It amazes me how few Americans seem to understand that not a single one of the 9/11 terrorist group had any ties to Iraq. They did have ties to Saudi Arabia though - a country of oil and great friends of the Bush and Cheney oil families. Governments can lie as they find convenient, but wars are ALWAYS fought for economic reasons, for human greed. And old men with money send young men to die. If old men with money (or their children) had to go to war themselves, no war would ever be fought. 


Remember, even our own Revolutionary War was originally fought over taxes (economic), the Civil War over free labor for the south (economic) and on we go in history. Even WWII was Hitler's greed for land and subsequent economic power. The French in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam sought economic power and dragged us into it until we were caught in a quagmire we could not control. The British in India and Africa sought economic power in their attempt at "empire" building. And so many of our American young men have died for economic reasons - for big business and oil. Our government, like all governments, lives for business and economic interests and the rich get fatter.


I also believe it is very foolish to enter another people's country and attempt to defeat them for you can NEVER win. The Lao, the Cambodians, the Vietnamese are tiny people - REAL TINY people. But people will fight forever if you enter their land - just as the Lao and the Vietnamese did. As I said, Ho Chi Minh is looked on as their George Washington. The French and the Polish freedom fighters would never give in to Hitler. India and Africa found ways to drive out the British, however long it took. We can NEVER dictate to other countries yet we continue to try: the Shah of Iran, our support of Bin Laden against the Soviets, our farcical behavior in Chile, Nicaragua, Panama and Cuba. Venezuela and Brazil have elected leaders our government does not like, for we only like democratically elected leaders when they agree with us. People are people. We all wish only peace, to feed our families, to have a roof over our head and a good place to sleep. Governments are governments.


Tomorrow I will fly to Hanoi, Vietnam. I am both exited and frightened. Frightened because of my young years in the 60's and 70's and the wounding, death and horrid experiences of so many whom I knew in some way. So many who will never talk about such things because of the horror. Excited because many of those same people have told me it is an incredibly beautiful country if you can get past the never-ending heat and the war. Now we are past the war and I get to travel in peace to a place I would have once been frightened to go. I remember well the anthems, "1, 2, 3, 4, I don't want your God damn war" and "We got to get out of this place, if it's the last thing we ever do." Now I go in peace.


I will see and experience the Vietnam of today. I will observe the beauty of the country and  see and how I am treated by the people. I will conquer my own fears in the process. 


Day 24 – Hanoi, Vietnam

I am in a place that I once thought I would never be but it is fine and I have already begun to feel comfortable as possible. Sinuses are killing me though. The air pollution in Hanoi is up there with downtown LA or worse and it's a struggle to breathe. Many people here (and Bangkok) wear a scarf around their nose and mouth all day if they need to be out in traffic. I bought one today and am doing the same.


Outside of that, this place is a land of incredible contrasts. It is an ocean of motorbikes and humanity filled with seas of peace and tranquility. The newer homes and architecture are really beautiful but may sit next to a 500 year old building. The streets are choked with scooters and exhaust, yet the temples, parks and in town lakes are calm and peaceful. Crossing the street here you just go and walk right through the traffic. They dodge you and you dodge them. It is expected and simply is the way. Only the very busiest intersections have any lights. I am becoming quite adept at it.


I am staying in the Old Quarter where the streets and buildings have been here for 500 years and still have their old names, unfortunately for me a different name for every block. Some of the stores have been in the same family for 500 years selling an evolution of items. Just figuring out where you are and where you are trying to go is a real struggle but the place is fascinating. Everyone is trying to sell you something. They seem to know mainly the American word "hello" and to point at their motorbike, bicycle rickshaw, or whatever the product is they are trying to sell. You may get frustrated but never bored. I finally broke down today and hired a bicycle "rickshaw" guy to stay with me and take me where I wanted to go. It was well worth it and I saw a lot.


Ho Chi Minh is everywhere. I have been in his offices, his meeting rooms, his homes, his museum and to his mausoleum - which is the number one visited site in this country. You can see in the eyes of the locals who are there how this little tiny man was and is worshipped. I have been to the Museum of the Revolution and seen American uniforms, parts of American bombs and photos of Eisenhower and Nixon visiting here in the 50's. No major thoughts about it all. Just interesting to see it from the other sides historical perspective. Interestingly enough, not one person has asked me about the war though I am clearly the age of one you might ask. My guess is that it is simply history, they won and there is nothing else to say.


Culturally this place is quite different than Thailand or Laos. There is a strong Chinese influence this close to China. You see it in the dress and in the temples. I have been to a temple where they say Confucius read and taught and lent his knowledge to 10,000 generations. Amazing. They worship their ancestors here and the older I get, the more I like that!


Now I am going to see the Water Puppet Show which is the HOT ticket here. Sells out every day so you have to buy a day or two ahead. Apparently the puppeteers are waist deep in water and the puppets move upon the water. Should be interesting. Tomorrow I will take a side trip to Ha Long Bay. The infrastructure here is not strong and I have already learned that some of the places I want to go are not so easy to get to. Such is life. We will figure it out as we go.


Day 25 – Ha Noi

First of all Ha Noi is two words. Why we always had it has one is beyond me. The water puppet show was wonderful. It seems this is a craft developed in the 11th century and only practiced in Vietnam. It's incredible. Saw snakes, chickens, ducks, water buffalo, dragons breathing fire and all kinds of people playing and dancing in the water. Even had puppets doing the backstroke! These are manipulated using long poles under the water that you don't see. Neither do you see the puppeteers who are waist deep in water behind a screen. They do some fabulous things with the puppets.


Today I took a side trip to Ha Long Bay. It was a beautiful place but a long drive there and back. We cruised around the Bay on a "junk" and had lunch on board. I believe I ate seaweed, squid that is different than in America, cucumbers sliced like french fries and very spicy plus some other good stuff. The Bay consists of over 3000 islands of various shapes and sizes but most are essentially huge tall rocks rising out of the water. We explored several caves and went through a low passage in a small boat that was like a secret lagoon. Completely enclosed by tall rock except the little way we came in. Apparently you cannot reach it at high tide. You wouldn't believe the little boat I floated around the ocean on. Me, who swims like a rock.


We had a very good guide, Toa (pronounced like toe). He told us many stories about caves and how they had been in use for thousands of years by the Vietnamese to fight off "foreign aggressors." He only used the word enemy once or twice, generally called all outsiders foreign aggressors and perhaps that term better fits. He also referred to Ho Chi Minh as "like George Washington in America." The more you look around this place the more you see and understand the analogy. When the French were getting their butt kicked and finally got out after a hundred years of trying to beat down these people, Eisenhower and Nixon came to visit the French leaders and then the South Vietnam puppet government installed in Saigon. Didn't anyone tell E & N about the caves? Did the French say nothing? Did the South Vietnamese say nothing? From what I have seen these people could not have been defeated in a thousand years. You cannot defeat someone who will not be defeated.


I can only imagine the frustration for U.S. soldiers who saw these people attack and then disappear. To be found only when they wished to be found. And to carry 40-50 lbs on their back and have to put up with this oppressive heat that U.S. bodies are not used to or made for. I have more respect than ever for them in what they had to face but less respect than ever for our government for either outright lying to us or being so stupid has to place our soldiers here for an impossible task. I often wonder what might have happened differently had JFK lived. I like to think he would not be as stupid as E, N and LBJ turned out to be. Oh well. It is history.


Today I am wearing a medical mask all day because the air quality is so bad on my sinuses. I am not out of place as many people here wear them. Tomorrow I am going to some rice fields and caves back in the countryside away from the ocean. The air is much better in the country. 


Day 26 – Ha Noi 

Yesterday was a bit of a quiet one for me compared to most. Today I made many observations again that I have been giving thought too. To the casual observer, Ha Noi is a chaotic place. The constant horns beeping, the motor scooters everywhere, the dancing and dodging to cross the street, and the air pollution from all the vehicles. Yet to the studious observer there is great order here. Though they drive all over the road (and I do mean all over the road) everyone seems to understand the "rules" of the road. Though I have seen many things that were too close for me, they seem to bother no one here and I saw no one ever hit anyone. Motor scooters are critical to the way of life. They are fast, cheap and can be parked! We may laugh, but in 2010 Ha Noi will celebrate its 1000 birthday. Cities founded so long ago did not foresee automobiles and parking on any street is extremely rare.


Even the shopping has order. It seems to work by sections. There are 3, 4 or 5 blocks that are all shoes. Then there are several blocks that is the flower market, than then there is the produce section, then 3, 4 or 5 blocks that are fabrics, than Chinese and Buddha stuff. The whole center of town is a mall primarily divided into product sections. quite interesting. The architecture has a touch of French / Chinese and Vietnamese. Simple countryside structures are built of bamboo, everything else is built of concrete. They use concrete blocks, concrete bricks or red clay bricks as a base and then plaster it over for a (somewhat) smooth finish. There are no basements of course as water is everywhere, as often as not including your "yard." The best way to describe these houses are "shotgun" houses. If you know the term from the old south of the U.S., it means only one room wide but 3-4 rooms back to back with doors down the center. You must go through one room to enter another. Now imagine that same principle 2, 3, 4, or even 5 stories high! The taxes in old days here were based on road frontage so they developed an architecture that had limited road frontage but often went very deep and, if you could afford it, very high also. You see some really tall and thin looking homes.


Another strange thing here is that though it is hot, I have not been wearing my sunglasses. It always seems to be cloudy or misty (or pollution?) to cut the suns rays. Also the food here is not as good to me as Thailand or Laos. There I was not afraid to eat in the street stall and routinely did so, here I am more hesitant. Things did not look as clean to me. I did see a lot of water buffalo today including several up to their ears in water and two running! I guess they don't normally run. Interesting sight. They are pretty docile it seems and I got my photo with one as they have always fascinated me.


It seems the people here have lived for over 2000 years off primarily four things: water, bamboo, strong backs and strong minds. The many ways I have seen water used and channeled are remarkable as is their use of bamboo from shelters to furniture to brooms to "carrying sticks". In observing them, they have incredible strength for a tiny people and I have seen them move and lift things that clearly weigh more than them - especially the women! Their strong minds we already learned about the hard way. Rice is now being harvested in one of their two annual harvests. It is very labor intensive and I have seen hundreds of people in conical bamboo hats working in the fields. Being out in the country today was quite educational. Rice is separated all over the road and you often drive over it, though I must say the road we were on today we would not call roads in the U.S. - wide rough paths.


The physical geography of this place is very beautiful. We saw several more kinds of temples this morning and then more caves in the afternoon. I rode a bicycle older than me about a mile to a place where our little group of five took thee small boats, each rowed by two Vietnamese women, none of whom weighed 100 pounds, and they rowed and pushed us down miles of canals and waterways and into more hidden caves where we actually had to lie down in the boat to protect our heads. It was all very beautiful and serene. The only uncomfortable part for me was when we stopped at a Buddha back in a hidden grotto and they asked each of us where we were from. Again I was the only American and I almost felt embarrassed to say where I was from, as if I should apologize. They six women said nothing but just nodded. I wondered how the two French in our group felt?


They also grow quite a bit of corn here, which surprised me, lots of fruit of course, peanuts and vegetables of all types. They just don't seem to use spices as well as the Thai's do. Our lunch today, as yesterday, was family style with bowls of different stuff around the table and you figure it out from there. I did not go hungry.


Looking around this place it got me thinking about what is freedom? In some ways, perhaps more, these people are as free as we are. They are free to be entrepreneurial, free to grow things, free to build where and what they wish. We have multiple layers of licenses from pets to business to construction, we have "zoning" laws that say what you can do with your property, we have laws as to what you may say or do (hate speech or discrimination). The more I see of the world, the more I see of how man is alike and how little differences there are among us.


This does not account for religious extremists in any form though. I go back to something the monks told me in Laos. They said Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, all religions have rules and they are similar rules, such as do not kill, do not steal and basically to be a "good" person. They said the problem is not what religion you are, but that some people simply do not follow the "rules." If everyone would follow the rules of any religion we would have no problems. I thought these monks were very wise. 


Day 29 – Hue, Vietnam 

I had lots of scattered thoughts today but first some final thoughts on Hanoi. I had gotten to like Hanoi if one could dỉsregard the air quality. I probably should have spent some more days there to see some things I feel I missed. Outside of the old quarter, Hanoi has done a good job of having tree-lined streets. This made for some nice looking areas and probably helped the air. This may have come from the previous French influence on the city. The traffic though is scary. What we would call a 4-way stop, they would call a 4-way go. Crazy to watch for an American. They are also very clean in many ways. The sidewalks and curbs in front of every shop were swept and cleaned every morning by the owner of that shop. We depend on government to do that for us.


I have learned to eat fairly well with chopsticks and have used them for most of my meals. You sort of shovel things in to your mouth. It works for me as I am a bit of a slob anyway. When I ordered a bowl of soup at the airport, I basically got "ramen" noodles with chopsticks. It is also so hot and humid here. The humidity just never goes away. I can only imagine the hell of those who served here as our western bodies were not tuned to these kind of conditions. The Vietnamese bodies are. I go out in the morning and am soaking wet in my clothes in 15 minutes. They also serve all food here scalding hot as it is the way to be safe and kill any germs or unwanted organisms. A bowl of soup has sweat rolling down my face in 2 spoonfuls. Yet the locals NEVER seem to sweat and always look very cool. I am certain that was also a major factor in past fighting.


I later flew to Hue, the old imperial capital. It was raining upon my arrival and the river had flooded over several streets so I mainly had a nice dinner and relaxed in my hotel. I took a city tour the next day. It is so cheap here ($7 for the day including lunch) that it beat walking all over the city by yourself. There was another American in the group for a change, a lone woman from San Francisco. We went to three very old tombs of emperors I found very interesting and then to the Citadel or Imperial City that had been built by one of the emperors, the one with 500 wives and 142 children.


The Imperial City once had 128 buildings inside the walls but now only about a half dozen remain. They were working to restore the place though. It was very impressive to me. Once you learn that all 128 buildings were built with the same grandeur of the few you do see, you understand that this place must have been dazzling during its time as the capitol. Very interesting to see. Ho Chi Minh is less mentioned here and was only named once by our tour guide but again named as "the father of our country."


Finally we went to see a very special Pagoda. It was the Buddhist monastery that was made so famous in 1963 when a monk from this monastery drove to Saigon, sat down in the Lotus position, poured gasoline over himself, and burned himself to death. It was, of course, on the news all over the world and I am sure many of you remember. He did it to protest the repressive policies of the U.S. backed South Vietnam regime. At this monastery there was also on display the auto he drove to Saigon and a picture of him burning. He is revered here as a great monk. One of the current monks asked me where I am from and when I answered America he repeated loudly "America!," folding has arms and staring at me. It was the only time I had gotten that reaction. I hesitated before saying, "Sir, I am not proud of what happened between us." He just nodded and I walked away.


Today it is raining again and I am just wandering the city at will. I could have taken a tour to the former DMZ but it was a 6AM to 6PM trip and others have told me all you do is sit on a bus as they drive by a field and say "here stood ...." or "here the battle of ........ was fought" and it was just looking at a field. They all said to go only if it was a "personal pilgrimage" for you. I decided just to be in Vietnam is my personal pilgrimage.


Tomorrow I will take a bus down past Da Nang to Hoi An. Some more impressions so far? These are a much different people and country than the Thais or Laos. They touch you a lot here - on the hand, the arm or elsewhere. They don't do that in T or L. That can be a bit irritating and frustrating. You just keep saying No No No and keep walking. They are "aggressive" in marketing ýhatevẻ they have to sell. I think, pérsonally, that the natủre òf thése people may have bêen ruined by too much outside influence: British, French, American, Russian and Chinese. The long coastline of this country has led to such influence and subsequent wars.


Day 30 – Hoi An, Vietnam 

My last night in Hue I had dinner at a nice restaurant, some banana flower soup and a banana served flaming in local wine. I also bought a painting on rice paper of the citadel because the place fascinated me. I thought more about Ho Chi Minh at dinner and made this analogy in my mind. We all generally love to cheer for the underdog. The movie "Hoosiers," for example was loved because the little guy beat the big guy. Now imagine little HCM and little Vietnam knocking off TWO big guys - first France and then the U.S. Imagine that and you can understand why this man is loved and worshipped here. His picture is everywhere including all the money (at about 15,900 Dong to the dollar).


Today was spent traveling to Hoi An and another day filled with thoughts. It is hard not to think about the war when you are always seeing, stopping or visiting another name you know from the period. Today I saw Phu Bai, Truoi, Phu Loc and Lang Co before coming to Da Nang and the famous China Beach. Along the Gulf of Tonkin / South China Sea it looks like they are trying to turn Da Nang into a beach resort. I then traveled another 25 km to Hoi An which is a historic old town with the Cua Dai Beach and resorts just 3 km away. Another thing of note driving down is again the geographic beauty of this place. Bays, ocean, water on one side and mountains rising on the other. Somehow the beauty seems ruined though by the many poor dwellings, poor construction or general trash you see. This country has much to offer but whether they can develop well over time remains a question. Hotels are quite nice but travel infrastructure still needs work. They seem to be attracting investors though. The constant "hello," touching and grabbing by the locals is also not comfortable for westerners.


I am now near the area of the famous My Lai massacre of civilians by US troops. It is not a tourist sight. You have to hire a car and travel 114 km to get there where a memorial to those killed stands. I have chosen not to do so.  I have never felt  any anger to or from anyone but today did see several older folks with limbs missing and that made me think also. I am an American by birth and, though none of this was my doing, I feel guilty for my country. I wonder how many vets come back and what they feel when they do? I am sure their thoughts run the gamut. Tomorrow I shall see more of this historic area from that viewpoint - history.


Day 31 – Hoi An

Hello from very wet Hoi An: We are wet now, yesterday, today and they say tomorrow. It is the beginning of the rainy system here and it is almost like overnight we have gone from hot and wet/humid to a bit chilly and wet. My cousin warned me about this from his lovely holiday here back in the 60's. The river here is flooded and water is in to the first row of river houses. Many people have this problem here I am told and they simply move everything they own upstairs as the river rises and back down as it recedes. Happens once or more every year they tell me. I guess that is to be expected in a land that seems to be run on water. Everywhere there is rice on water, or water on rice, or both.


Despite the rain, went out this morning (45K) to visit My Son, the site of the former Cham people and Champa culture. These people reigned over this area of Central Vietnam from the 7th to the 13th century. This is an archeological dig and reconstruction in progress and it was fascinating to walk in the footsteps of those who lived over a thousand years ago. It's way back from any roads or city and very "jungle ruins" like. Whether you descended from Adam and Eve, Harry the Hairy Ape, Dracula or Wolfman it emphasizes to me how a family tree is important and is never completed nor can be. Don't know how my photos will come out though due to the constant rain. The Champa culture was a matriarchal society and the women ruled and passed their reign down to the eldest daughter. When they wanted to marry, they went to the family of the man they selected and paid a dowry to get him. Very interesting. Had I lived then I might never have been selected! Depressing thought.


The guide consistently pointed out how this site originally contained about 70 buildings but now only 18 due to the destruction by heavy American bombing of the site in 1969. So nice to hear. Apparently the Champa area was then a Viet Cong stronghold. In any case, between the two sides, it is terrible to see an ancient site like this destroyed due to politicians wars. We were told not to stray from the main paths due to unexploded land mines in the area. I didn't.


On a more cheerful note, Asians all seem to love Karaoke. It is advertised on bar signs all over the place and is a big thing over here. Another different thing - the concrete block houses are sometimes painted in brilliant colors and look absolutely beautiful. Then sometimes they are not painted at all and look really depressing. Then sometimes only the front is painted, or the front and one side, or - well you get the picture. Very different. Seen a lot of cool birds I have not seen before. Especially liked one this morning that looked like a cross between and egret and a woodpecker and was the color of a robins breast all over. Cool!


Our drivers all continue wild. I have calculated that each driver blows his horn at least once in an average of under 10 seconds. They seem to love blowing their horns at each other. I think if they had to choose between sex or the horn they would choose their horn! Between all the motorbikes, all the exhaust fumes and all the horns it keeps the streets interesting and the pedestrian looking both ways constantly.


Tomorrow is my birthday. I had planned to spend it on the beach at Cua Bai but now it is likely not going to happen - unless I wish to lay in the rain. Will take a bus to my next stop, Nha Trang and hopefully better beaches at Mui Ne. 


Day 33 – Nha Trang, Vietnam

Well, I spent my birthday in a bus traveling down from north to south. I spent my birthday on a bus trip from, if not hell, some very bad place. The bus was old, the seats falling apart, some recline, some don't. Some only recline and bounce up and down with the bus. Very uncomfortable. I have ridden many buses all over the world and can say this was the worse. We had only seven passengers, one Vietnamese man, 5 Brits (3 men, 2 women) and me. We leave Hoi An at 6:30AM and drive through more recognizable places such as Tam Key and Chu Lai. We get to Quang Ngai about 9:15 and the bus pulls into a service station with engine trouble. You are not going to believe this, but the name of the station was "Phuc Vu" service! I could not make that up!


In addition, we are only about five miles from the site of the My Lai massacre and this area was not exactly pro-American. We stood there for over two hours until the bus was again ready about 11:30. While waiting I tried to keep quiet but had to reply with something several times when asked by the curious locals. It was clear to me that feelings were not warm despite my attempts at smiles. This area contained a lot of pro-Viet Cong sentiment and anti-American from what I have read. After repairs we had time to make up so the bus driver goes like crazy through mountain and city, blowing his horn and roaring down the highway. We stop briefly (30 minutes) for a lunch about 12:45. We then do not stop again until we reach Nha Trang at 8:00 - 90 minutes late - except about 6:30 he pulls over to the side of the road, says "toilet," and gets out and goes by the side of the road. The rest of us men quickly go also (plus one brave British girl) and get right back on the bus and off we roar.


Driving with these drivers is not a relaxing experience and after dark it is really scary. We travel through places like Mo Duc, Duc Phu, Tam Quan, Phu Cat and Binh Dinh, where the turn is to go up into the mountains to Pleiku. We continue on to Quy Nhon (see more Cham towers on hilltop), Binh Tranh, Song Cau, Tuy An and down to Toy Hoa. It is now dark and we see little as we roar down to Ninh Hoa and on to Nha Trang. Once here I just got a hotel, showered and slept.


It is a shame how quickly we sped through places because again I say this country is very geographically beautiful. And I do love water buffalo, though I have discovered they are basically just fat cows with very cool horns. I am surprised we have not introduced any to America? I wonder why? I have seen huge rice. I have seen people working in water and mud up to their knees and waist and living just barely above this same water and mud. I have seen people fish everywhere and anywhere from all kinds of boats and other places including their own front yard. I would not be surprised to find that some of these people had gills and could live underwater - and many do live on the water.


They have very thin legs but incredibly strong leg muscles developed from a very young age. They do things with their bodies NONE of us westerners could do no matter how thin we may be. Put one foot on a concrete wall (or chair) maybe 18 inches off the ground, now lift yourself up on to it using NOTHING ELSE, no arms, no other leg, just lift up and stand! They have incredible leg strength.


This morning I walked 200 yards to the ocean and beach.  I plan to do get a little rest and in a few days go on to Ho Chi Minh City (old Saigon) for awhile and then on to Cambodia. But now all these positives about the beauty of this country being said, I have many other things to say about my time in Vietnam. I say again Thailand and Laos were wonderful and I highly recommend them to all of you: the geography, the people, the culture. However, Vietnam is not Thailand or Laos. It is an entirely different experience. Vietnam is work. There is no relaxation here. A traveler cannot find simple peace. Somehow this country has been ruined by ugliness in buildings, in trash and in a miserable infrastructure. In my opinion, this is a second world country with an attitude that will make it difficult to ever become first world.


Why you may ask? Perhaps it was tainted by war for some say the French and Americans turned this "into a nation of maids, pimps, whores and hustlers." Perhaps that is true. Perhaps it is a highly structured socialist regime which seems to move very slowly in modernizing and adjusting to the world of today. You see this in construction, in infrastructure and in the media. Television in these countries consists basically of people sitting in meetings looking very bored with the proceedings. Perhaps it is 2000 years of trading and fighting with the Chinese, the Japanese and others. A coastal nation was shaped by the coast and the sea commerce that moved along it.


Simply put, the Vietnamese will lie to you as a matter of course. The Thailand people and the Lao people were ALWAYS polite, helpful and pleasant. They were there to assist as needed but not to attack. The Vietnamese attack. They are a swarm of angry bees, a colony of fire ants, to the Thailand and Laos birds and butterflies. Every hotel I have been to here as lied to me. They try to sell you something and you say "no thanks" I am going to ........ And they will say you can not go there for it is closed today (not true) or that is a bad tour, this one is better (not true). I do not believe they even see this as lying but as simply "business." They attack you on the street. Hello, hello, hello, ............. You buy something from me mister - over and over and over. When you say "NO" they pretend they do not understand. When you buy nothing they make a face at you and literally growl at you. They say things in their native language that it is clear are not complimentary. They leave you looking over your shoulder. I wonder if this is how our American soldiers were treated?


I have been to over 30 countries and this is the first place I could say had been more work than pleasure. And they tell me HCM is the worst of all! I have spoken with many other travelers, predominantly British, German, French and other Europeans. They have all felt the same way and several have cut their time here short just to, as one Brit told me, "get out of this country." And this was a guy who currently lives and teaches in Burma! I must also say the north is better than the south. Hanoi is not a laid back place, but it is much more laid back than the south of Vietnam. In Hanoi they do not take your passport at the hotels. In the south they take your passport at EVERY hotel to register your stay with the local police. They do not make you feel welcome in any way. Does this have to do with the war? I don't know. Again, why are they like this? My guess it is probably a combination of all the reasons above but, whatever the reasons, this is a hot, humid, hard and tiring place to travel.


I am glad I came though. For I understand so much matter what so many of my friends and family faced. It is something I needed to do. I remain strongly anti-war but to those who served here may I say I hope you all go to heaven for you have served your time in a hell on this earth.


Day 34 – Nha Trang

Good morning again from Vietnam: Wanted to add a few comments to my thoughts of yesterday. First of all, I stand by my earlier comments that people all over the world are more alike than different. However, let me explain that further. We are all alike in terms of our very basic needs and desires such as we are taught in Freshman Psychology. We all seek to feed ourselves and our families. We all seek to have a safe and secure place to live for ourselves and our families. We all seek ways to worship whatever we believe and we all seek ways to bring some joy and happiness to our lives. I believe these are similar all over the world.


However, there are a thousand different ways to accomplish these things or, as Ishmael says, "there are many ways to live." This is what travel and learning culture is all about. How and what do we feed ourselves and our families? How, where and under what conditions do we live safely? How do we choose to worship and what do we believe? What morals, ethics and "rules" do we live by? How do we find our joy and happiness - the music, dance and laughter of our lives? These are the things I seek to find in my travels. That being said, I say again I have enjoyed everyplace I have seen. I simply put Vietnam at the bottom of the list because I find their weather, their conditions and, most of all, their ethics and "rules" to be the hardest to deal with compared to anyplace I have been.


I also say these are very hardworking people and the women perhaps the strongest workers I have ever seen. And I have experienced many warm and cordial people but primarily in the smaller villages. The cities, even medium sized ones, can be very difficult. Last night I got lucky at my hotel as a wedding reception was held there for the marriage of Trahn Tung and Mong Vy. There were hundreds of guests, virtually all arriving on motorbikes or public transportation. I saw no autos though there might have been some for the bride and groom or their parents. The bride was dressed in white as we would see in America. The groom was dressed in a white suit, blue shirt and grey tie. The two sets of parents were dressed in business suits and nice dresses. Out of the hundreds of guests I saw only one other with a tie. It was a very casual crowd from button shirts to tee shirts and simple tops and skirts to some dresses. I would guess that is a concession to weather conditions here but do not really know.


The reception was under a roof but open to the elements. There were 6 attendants: 1 lead male, 1 lead female, and 4 other females. I believe they were a "professional" group hired for the occasion as immediately after their part they changed clothes and left. They were dressed all in white pants and traditional kimono like tops, red with gold sparkle design. The bride and groom stood at the entrance, with the "party" across from them, and greeted guests from 5-6 PM. The guests were taken in to assigned seating. It appeared to be by family groupings as the tables were of many different sizes and the meal was served family style with everyone reaching across with their chopsticks to take what they wish. There was an emcee - my guess is some kind of wedding coordinator. Shortly after 6 PM the attendant group entered the area and proceeded to the stage where, I believe, a traditional wedding dance was performed, first by the lead two who also carried blue fans in each hand, and then by the other four who carried yellow fans in each hand.


They then went to the back of the room and the bride and groom entered each carrying a sparkling roman candle as other popper fireworks and streamers went off. There was also huge applause to greet them. They were followed closely by the two main attendants who held colorful flat umbrellas over them. The other four attendants followed. After they reached the stage the attendant turned and proceeded out. I observed them go into a room, change clothes and leave. The emcee introduced them and then introduced both sets of parents who joined them on stage. The groom spoke briefly and then so did the father of the groom. No one else spoke. The bride and groom then poured wine and drank to each other. The entire room then toasted the bride and groom with glasses of beer. They all then left the stage and went out among the guests. It was all very beautiful and I was touched by it.


A violinist and guitarist then took over the stage as the entertainment playing mainly classical love songs. They played for about an hour and then recorded music was played, still classical love songs. It was a heavy smoking and very boisterous crowd with many spontaneous toasts, chants or cheers by different table groupings. Then, about 8:30, it was over and everyone left on their motor scooters. That was that!


This morning I went down to breakfast and the music playing over the PA system was Elvis singing "Now or Never." Interesting. Lastly, the bananas here are longer than in Thailand or Laos and served completely green on the outside, though they are sweet and soft inside. Crazy things, bananas! 


Day 36 – Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

I have been mostly riding buses with a few interesting stops along the way but it has been okay. I was on a good bus with comfortable seats and with AC that worked so all went well. I have to say again how geographically beautiful this country is. The combination of mountains and water can be very soothing and at times stunning. It is certainly the most beautiful "tropical" place I have been of any size. I do not feel you can really compare a small island (Hawaii or similar) to this country. On pure geography I rate New Zealand one, Vietnam two and perhaps France as three. The drive down from Nha Trang was lovely. I did get a good look at the war famous Cam Rahn Bay and many other sights.


The bus also made a strange toilet stop. Usually when you stop it is at a place where someone is selling some kind of food or snacks. This stop the guy sold only wine. So I guess we were all supposed to get drunk at 10 AM! When we made our lunch stop it was at the famous Moi Ne beach. This was a real pleasure. Mui Ne is miles of sandy beach with very few people. Coconut palm trees all over. Plus an area of fiery red sand dunes Mui Ne is known for. I am not a "beach" person, but if I were Mui Ne would be a great place. Many younger travelers were staying for a few days.


Arrived in HCMC last night. Today I have been wandering the town stopping at the Reunification Palace, the HCM War Museum, the Ben Trahn market and several other interesting places. At the war museum I saw an anti-aircraft gun that supposedly shot down several U.S. planes. I wonder if that is true and, if so, it is the one that shot down my high school friend. I do think everyone who "grew up" during the war period should have a chance to come here. I also wonder what they would think or feel? It is a very different country now I am sure. It is of course very hot and humid again. Whereas the rainy season is starting on the coast, it is ending this month inland. The rest of my trip should be mostly dry I think, though I am never real sure here. 


I am taking several organized tours the next several days. This is a city of about 6 million, making it very difficult to get anywhere fast by yourself. It is so much easier (and actually cheaper) to take a group tour. It also helps avoid the constant "You buy mister" every few minutes. Tomorrow I am going south a bit into the Mekong Delta for the day. Later I will likely do a city tour and then have several other choices I am thinking about. 


Day 37 – HCM City 

Today was a wonderful day. Today I began to really like Vietnam. Today I think I saw the real Vietnamese people and they were friendly, kind and gracious. How you ask was my mind changed? Today I was down in the Mekong Delta on the river of nine dragons (The Mekong) and several islands. The Mekong is HUGE. I estimated at least a half mile wide at one point. The islands were tropical and beautiful and we had lunch at a delightful place, visited a coconut candy factory, enjoyed warm but not too hot weather with a nice breeze. But best of all, after our boat docked I had several hours to walk around the town of My Tho by myself and meet with people. I was the only American anywhere in sight or in town as far as I know. The locals were friendly and warm. I took many photos and some even wanted their photo taken with me! One man older than me stopped and shook my hand and said "Thank you." Obviously he has good memories of Americans from the war. It was a really nice day.


I talked with the van driver a bit about this on our way back to HCMC. He said that Hue, Hoi An and Nha Trang are a terrible impression of his country. They are primary stops on the tourist track and that is why you are attacked by people selling. Hanoi and Saigon (they all still call it Saigon) are not so bad because tourists are more spread out in the big city. In the three cities above everyone is at the same places and everyone is pushy selling. I think he is correct. My cousin had said he remembers good about the people of Hue, but of course it was not a tourist site in the war. Interesting. I am glad for this information and feel much better about this country now. As I have said earlier, it is geographically beautiful.


Day 38 - HCM City

Today was another very interesting and somewhat emotional day. First of all, I learned that the population of this county is 82 million with just over 8 million now living here in HCMC. It is called HCMC by all of the young people and it is only the older folks that still call it Saigon. In order to prevent further population growth the government has suggested couples should have no more than two children. However, they still allow immigration from China, Japan or Korea if you have money to come and invest. Sounds like that immigration policy is the same worldwide. You got money, you get in where you wish.


Visited several interesting temples built in 1744 and 1769. That's older than the US as a country. Also visited the War Remnants Museum and here (and after on the bus) is where things got interesting and emotional. The people on the bus were from Japan, Korea, and Malaysia Chinese plus one couple from France. The museum contained captured U.S. planes, tanks and other equipment. It contained many photos of French and U.S. war "atrocities" and pictures of Americans who were killed with their names on the comments beneath the photo, in Vietnamese, French and English. It was a very emotional experience and left me angrier than ever at our government who sent 58,000 young Americans to their death for nothing.


I also saw a Vietnamese man there who had lost both arms and one leg to a land mine (after the war was over). I tried to give him some money but he refused saying, "I will take nothing. I choose to earn my own way." He was selling books about the war but they were a bit costly and I apologized for not having enough money with me to buy one. The discussion on the bus was mostly about how the French and the U.S. had no business being in this country and should be ashamed of their actions. I could not defend the U.S. because I agreed with them. I told them that both the U.S. and France should be ashamed for what they did to these people. The couple from France were the only people on the bus who never spoke! Several of the other folks on the bus, particularly a group from Malaysia, were very vocal about our "criminal Bush" and how we did not belong in Iraq and why we started another war. One older gentlemen said, "It is old men who said young men to die and for what? Nothing." Another gentlemen said, "It is crazy. People all get along but politics kills people." The first man said, "Bush was all about money and big business. He cared nothing about people."


Those know me also know that I could only agree with them for these are also my beliefs and what I have learned in my many years on this earth . Old men send young men to die for no reason but dollars - because "domino theory" or other such political crap is just that, it all comes back to big business and dollars. I also noted driving around today that most of the biggest buildings in this city are of international corporations, mostly America. Prudential was the biggest building I saw. The Vietnamese guide said little but when asked his thoughts he said, "We are not angry at anyone. It is part of our history but we try to forget it. No one likes war but we are one country now and we hope we will never have to fight again." I thought it was a good attitude and a very good thing to say.


Later we toured the Temple of Thien Hau. This is dedicated to a wealthy lady who used her wealth to help the people. She would give money to the poor to help them build a business and they would pay her back interest free. This allowed many people to escape from poverty. It is something I have believed in for years and it is what I think the World Bank should do and that American corporations and wealthy individuals should do. Interest kills the poor and sees to it that the rich get richer and the poor remain poor.


By the way, I have seen only McDonalds among American restaurant chains in Thailand, no chains in Laos, and only two KFC's (called Ga Ran Kentucky) here in Saigon. I have noticed no chains in the rest of Vietnam but, as I have said, many big corporations. Even the bottled water in each country has often been a product of Pepsi or Coca-Cola. I have also been eating a lot of what I thought were cucumbers as you are given a few slices with most every meal. Turns out it is Winter Melon. I had a can of Winter Melon Tea last night. Tasted a lot like cucumber juice to me!


They also have a cute expression here. When you ask them for example, "Is this temple like the other?" The answer is always, "Same Same, but Different." This expression is so common here they sell many tee-shirts to tourists that say "Same Same" on the front and "But Different" on the back. It is really quite cute and makes you smile. I continue to be impressed by the warmth of the people. It is a shame I was at too many big tourist sights first before learning this - but I am very glad I did so. 


Day 40 – HCM City

Yesterday, and actually all of Vietnam, has turned out to be another incredible learning experience. Let me ramble a bit. First of all our guide informed us that HCMC has 8 million people and 4 million licensed motorbikes! One for virtually every adult. Cars/buses are outnumbered at least 10 to 1 or more. Most other folks have bicycles, cycles or walk. Our guide said they come from China ($400) or from Japan or Korea ($800-1000) and as elsewhere in the world "No money, no honey" or in Vietnam, "No motorbike, no girlfriend." You are supposed to be 18 to operate one but that is very obviously ignored by all. There are also supposed to be no more than 2 persons on a motorbike and that is also obviously ignored by all. Someone asked him where the traffic police were and he replied, "In the coffee shop." Three persons on a motorbike (or even sometimes a bicycle) is common and I have seen 4 often and even five a few times. Sometimes you can tell it is three or four family generations on the motorbike. They ride them well as they seem to start as infants with many infants sitting up front in the drivers seat!


In the morning we went out to a Cao Dai temple, in fact the Holy See (about 220 acres)of the Cao Dai religion. Vietnam is about 70% Buddhist (56 million), 10% Roman Catholic (8 million), and then many other religions. Cao Dai is the third largest at about 2 million. It was started here in Vietnam in 1924. It is a combination of Taoism, Confucism, Buddhism and Christianity. As our guide said, "They worship everybody."


There are nine levels in their religion and nine levels of seating in their church as it takes nine steps to reach Nirvana. Each level is about 6" higher and closer to the front then the previous. The problem is it takes ten years at each level to move up a step so you need to start very young and live to very old. I saw no one at levels 6-9 and only two worshippers at level five. They have high morals and ethics. You do not kill, you do not lie and you do not live in luxury. Interesting how the bible says it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to reach heaven. Yet the people of America mainly seek riches and the government supports the rich - but we call ourselves a "Christian Nation." Something there does not seem right to me?


The Cao Dai believe in only one God but believe he has come to earth three times: the first as Buddha, the second as Confucius and the third as Jesus. Their symbol is a Holy Eye and it appears everywhere to let you know that God is watching you. They are also vegetarians and have a church vocabulary. Vietnamese words but some different vocabulary. You know -Same Same but Different. No shoes in the temple of course and also no tee shirts. The temple, built from 1933-41, is done in blue, yellow, red and white and is extremely beautiful. The colors are dazzling. Worshippers are in white but go to one of the other colors as they move up or become more revered. Only two holidays, TET (Lunar New Year) and Mid-Autumn Moon. Very interesting to learn about.


Now the afternoon was even more interesting but also emotional. Our guide was a former member of the South Vietnam Army. His father fought alongside American troops and our guide was trained to fight but says he spent his time as an interpreter. He speaks excellent English and, in fact, spent 24 years as an English teacher. He has been running his tour agency for 8 years. He said he has only good memories of the American troops, that they always treated him well and gave him his nickname of Slim Jim. His name is Thong but he said he got the name because he is very thin, smokes very heavy and the Americans told him he smelled like a "Slim Jim." So he is Slim Jim.


The afternoon was spent visiting the Cu Chi tunnels. Cu Chi was the site of the largest American base in the war and also the site of major Viet Cong resistance. Cu Chi is only 32 km from Saigon. The American base lie only 2 km outside Cu Chi. The tunnels lie 4 km on the opposite side of Cu Chi. Right near Cu Chi stands Black Lady Mountain (8 km) which is the southern end of the HCM Trail. In summary, this entire area was one of very heavy fighting during the war. These tunnels were where the VC disappeared in the day only to come out at night and attack. Slim Jim said in his opinion they lost the war because the NVA and VC had constant support from China and Russia and the South Vietnam Army did not have constant support from the Americans. I would disagree with him only because after seeing this country, the tunnel, the caves, the Mekong delta, do not believe we could have ever defeated the VC. All the conditions favored them in every way.


The tour to me was very eerie and sad. We were first shown a 30 minute obvious propaganda film about the tunnels and the "heroic" VC Cu Chi fighters. It made the Americans look very foolish. We then entered the forest and began the real tour. We were first shown the many types of booby traps used by the VC against the Americans and demonstrations of how they worked. They were both ingenious and so viciously painful you could hardly bear to look or think about them - yet some tourists laughed at the demonstrations. To me there was nothing of humor. To me it was if you could hear the screams of Americans. Our guide demonstrated everything and told stories that seemed very passionate in support of the VC. This was a bit confusing to me as he and his father had been with the Americans?


We were shown a tank destroyed by a anti-tank bomb right there on that spot and were told that five Americans leaped out to run and were all killed right there. It was very sad for me to think about young boys who gave their life for nothing. I was bothered by the many tourists from different countries who were having their pictures taken with the tank and smiling. I could not smile. Most of these people were young and I do not believe they understood any of the horror of what they were seeing. It seemed a game to them. We were then taken to a shooting range where you could fire an American M-16 for 19,000 Dong per bullet. Many would do so. I could not. The noise of one bullet would make you leap with fear and to think about thousands of these going off in minutes was frightening. Yet many of the shooters would fire and laugh, some of them Americans. This saddened me. I wonder how these Americans would laugh were they in the Vietnam War or later sent to fight somewhere in the Middle East?


We then were allowed to go through a 30 meter section of the tunnels "widened to double for western bodies." We were told you had to duck walk very low or crawl through. I get claustrophobic and there were so many people going through nose to butt with little air that I looked down but chose not to. When we returned to our van we were told the tunnels average over 1000 visitors a day year round (at about$5 US per person + concessions) and that all the money went to support the Vietnam Army. On a final tunnel note - it was raining the entire time of our tour as we went through the forest. Cold and damp and eerie. One could only imagine the fear and horror of American troops and of the individual and collective strength it took to face such an ordeal.


On the way back to HCMC in the van, several interesting comments were made by our guide. First someone said something about Iraq and anti-Bush. Our guide said, "I supported Bush." This seemed to stun everyone and in contrast with the tour. Someone asked him, "Why?" He responded, "I support all American Presidents because they are elected by the people and I like democracy." It seemed it does not matter who the president is, just so it is a democracy. Yet he spoke so passionately about the fighters of Cu Chi and the VC. Very interesting and perhaps a bit confusing.


Soon the rain let up and he said, "Rain stops. Good for dog." People laughed and someone asked him what he means. He told us, "Vietnamese are hungry people. We eat anything that moves: Snakes, eels, dog, cat, rat, crickets, scorpions, worms, anything. Coconut worms are very tasty. When it is cold and wet we eat dog. Dogs have a lot of protein." When asked about pets he said they didn't eat pets, they bought dog meat at the market. How serious he was or where that meat came from no one asked!


Today I am resting a bit. Every once in a while I need to rest a bit for travel can get tiring at times.


Day 41 - Phnom Penh, Cambodia 

I finished Vietnam in grand style I thought. first let me comment on something I did not mention about the Cu Chi tunnel tour. At the end we stopped for a bit at a cooking bunker and we ate what supposedly the Cu chi fighters ate. It was Vietnamese tea with slices of tapioca to dip in peanut sauce. Now it is not tapioca as we know it, but the roots of a plant they grow there. It looked and tasted like a cold undercooked baked potato in French fry size slices. Edible but not exciting.


Lastly I went to the Weekend Bazaar to finish my time in Vietnam. One of the things I love about cities worldwide is the way they come alive in the evening. I mean alive in terms of outdoor markets, bazaars and things that are family oriented. You see entire families out enjoying them selves in a safe atmosphere. This I feel is a weakness of the U.S. where are cities essentially close down at night (except sports). Anyway, the bazaar was filled with games and dance and I spent my last hours playing a Vietnam dance game with a wonderful young woman college student and had a great time. I promised to send her the photos.


This morning I left HCMC on the "express" bus to Phnom Penh. Border formalities were slow and hot. The road to the border in VN was good and then fairly decent on National Route 6 (the major east-west road in the country) for about an hour. Then you come to the river and the road stops! You have to take a ferry boat across the river (about one quarter mile) while sitting in the bus. Then this "main" road stays only about 1 and 1/2 vehicles wide all the way to PP though it is two way traffic. This is a third world country and, in fact, is one of the poorest countries in the world. The poverty is very obvious and hits your eyes and nose as soon as you enter the country. There are so many begging and hungry children.


When waiting to board the ferry a boy came on the bus begging. He was very thin and dirty. I was eating some coconut candy out of a bagful. I just gave it to him. I have never seen anyone’s eyes light up like that. You would have think I had given him a steak dinner. I gave another bag of candy to a girl also. There sheer excitement at this was incredible as they stood outside the bus sharing with other children. I have seen much poverty before in places like Paraguay, Brazil and Ukraine but this is the poorest place I have been.


Anyway, I am now in PP and finding it expensive. There is a different price here for foreigners and my $35 hotel room is the first time I have paid over $22 I think. I will see a little of the city for a few days and then bus to Siem Reap. This is a smelly, dirty, polluted city, yet it is the capital and supposed best part of the country. They say Siem Reap is better because of tourist dollars for Angkor Wat. We shall see. 


Day 42 – Phnom Pehn

Well, I have seen all there is to see in this capitol city which, in truth, is not much. I went to the Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda, a few monuments, two Wats, the National Museum and the Central Market. The museum held some interesting artifacts from as far back as the 6th century. The Royal Palace was quite simple when compared to Bangkok’s but then this is a poor country. Most of all though it is dirty place. Right next to each of these places above there are children living and playing in filth and often begging for food. Even the markets are so filthy compared to other countries I cannot bring myself to eat there. I bought some fruit at the market as this is the safe bet - buy fruit that peels and the inside is thus good. But I only had one dragon fruit and one banana and gave the rest to street children. There were so many photos I wanted to take but did not for fear of embarrassing anyone.


There was garbage everywhere. Now I have seen that in many cities but not like this. I have also noticed smells in some areas of some cities, but not like this. Smells are almost everywhere and children play surrounded by them and apparently unnoticed by them as for them it is just life. A couple from Sweden commented to me that it is so sad. You can't give money to everyone for there are so many. On the plus side, the auto exhaust pollution is not as bad here simply because there are fewer vehicles on the road. This city is a flat one. There is only one small hill in the city and a Wat sits on top of it. I went up to the temple on top and there two monkeys, one in a tree and one sitting by the temple steps. The one sitting by the temple steps was masturbating himself!!!! So I took my first x-rated photo of the trip (or maybe ever?). As I have said, this is a very different place. You never know what you will see!


Tomorrow I take a bus to Siem Reap and the famous temples of Angkor Wat, which are the prime reason I came to Cambodia. I will not miss Phnom Penh.


Day 43 – Siem Reap, Cambodia

Another interesting day. Yesterday in Phnom Penh I actually missed a site I had planned to see. I was planning to go to S21 Prison and possibly even the killing fields. Some of you may remember the movie "The Killing Fields." That was about Cambodia and the atrocities committed against their own people by the Khmer Rouge in the 70's before the Vietnamese drove them from power. They had tortured thousands in this prison and killed over 10,000 in a particular field simply for being "intellectuals" or wearing eyeglasses (readers) or any reason at all. However, both sights were outside and it began to RAIN and really Rain through half the night.


This morning I had an 8 AM bus to Siem Reap. For the first time on a bus I had an aisle seat so I was not able to take pictures. I was in the first row behind the driver though so I could still see quite a lot. I saw mostly a very poor people. Their huts are bamboo or thin palm wood. Seldom do you see any home of clay bricks. Most are either built right by the road or you have to go through water to get to them. In some places there are beautiful rice fields interspersed with coconut palms or other trees. In other places it just looks like swamp. There are people, mostly men and boys, swimming in water everywhere. Sometimes you would just see 5-6 heads sticking up. These look like small swampy ponds but there they are. Even the cows here, mostly Brahmas, are skinny as you see their ribs sticking out. The road, a "major" highway, is dirt some of the way and dirt through several towns. Otherwise it is mostly paved. It is full of potholes and the bus averages 30-35 miles an hour.


People use their vehicles in a myriad of ways. I have seen motor scooters with more than a dozen pigs on the back, or 30 chickens, or 5 people. I have seen pickup trucks with more than 40 people in and on them. People clinging to the roof and back as he bounces down the road. The people who own scooters, cyclos or tuk-tuks make their living giving rides and they take ALL they can. In the cities everyone walks in the streets beside and between vehicles because you have to. The sidewalks are full of parked motor scooters. It is a scramble wherever you go. I have seen a motor scooter hit a car in Thailand, a motor scooter hit a motor scooter in My Tho, Vietnam, a motor scooter hit a tuk-tuk in Phomn Penh and today our bus hit a young cow that sprinted across the road in front of us. I am sure he is being cooked and eaten now as nothing goes to waste here that can be eaten. Our driver looked at the bus for damage (dented bumper) and then drove on.


Everywhere you see poor children. Often you see children carrying children. A child about 5 or 6 may have their younger sibling, 1 or 2, or baby on their hip. These children have no childhood. They have no time to be children. This is a "new" country in that the Khmer Rouge so raped this land that what you see now as only existed for a few decades. The KR had taken the capitol, Phnom Penh, down to 15,000 people and sent everyone to grow rice in the countryside. The city was barren but now, two decades later, is back to over a million, most struggling.


Arriving in Siem Reap at the bus station was an unbelievable experience. Dozens of people shouting at you to use their guesthouse or to ride their tuk tuk. They follow you and shout at you and it can be frightening if you let it. I saw one young man holding up a sign that said, "Please ride with me. I am very polite and will not hassle you." I walked over to him and said I will hire you. I have hired him for my entire stay in the city. He would be my guide for the temples and be with me all the time. He was a polite young man. He took me to three hotels before finding a room. I am in a 3rd floor walkup. It is the first time I have been stuck above the 2nd but this is a busy town. It has been a long day so I am off to dinner, then a shower and bed. 


Day 46 – Siem Reap, Cambodia 

I have so much to say now that I can only ramble away as words can never fully describe what I have seen. The Khmer, native people of Cambodia, are wonderful. Everyone is so polite and courteous and pleasant to be with. My tuk tuk driver treats me like his grandfather and worries about me because I am "very old" (older than his grandfather). He always is asking if I am okay! This country is without doubt the flattest place I have ever seen and maybe in the world. I have seen only four hills (they call them mountains) of which you can walk to the top in 10 - 30 minutes. At the top of one last night to watch the sunset it was flat as far as the eye could see.


On the negative side this place is all flat and swamp like in many places with standing water. Thus when the night comes the skies are filled with a million little insects. They seem to like my repellant and feed on it! The infrastructure here is terrible. Roads are like being on a ride at the State Fair. The TV often goes out. The electricity goes off and they switch to generator (which means no air conditioner). So it is a bit primitive - but still packed with tourists!


On the plus side the Temples of Angkor is the most incredible place I have ever been and it is perhaps the most incredible man-made place in the world. Everyone should visit here. To walk in the footsteps of kings who lived over a thousand years ago and to wonder at the giant structures they build THAT ARE STILL STANDING is an unbelievable experience. These places are from as early as the 7th century! The scientist say there was a thriving civilization here of a million people. Angkor Wat is the largest structure in the world built solely for religious purposes. It is surely a wonder of the world if not THE wonder. Bayon and its giant heads are almost as awesome. Many of the other temples (and there are many spread over about 20 km) would be awesome by themselves if they did not pale in comparison to Angkor Wat. I am so glad I came here for it is truly awesome. I felt like the last two days were truly God given delights. It is like the GB Packers winning three Super Bowls in a row. Just unbelievable.


I have previously mentioned how hot and humid it is here. Everyday it is 90+/90+ and it is Fall!!!!!!!! I sweat gallons each day and have clearly lost weight. My 2" thick Southeast Asia guidebook was soaked with sweat and it was inside my good leather backpack. I soak through my shirt, through my pack and through the book! I have never been so hot for six weeks straight with more to come.


My last day in Cambodia I visited three more temples in the morning than went to Tonlie Lake for a boat ride. The lake takes overflow from the Mekong and because it is now the ending of the rainy season in Cambodia the lake is full - about six times its size in the dry season. It is huge. I saw many homes that are floating villages. They are on land in the dry season and on water now. Very interesting.


I then spent my last night at a dinner and traditional dance show. Enjoyed the show and very much enjoyed some interesting foods. I think I have now tried bananas 1000 ways. Amazing.


Late-November

I decided to fly to Singapore. This was an extra side trip and a bit out of the budget but glad I went. This is a FASCINATING city. I have been to Paris, Vienna, Sydney, and many places I thought were beautiful but now have Singapore #1. This is a beautiful place and without doubt the most beautiful contemporary city in the world. This place makes New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, etc. all look like pig sty’s. It is so clean and the architecture is amazing. Very multicultural with Chinese temples on the same block as Muslim Mosques with Christian churches across the street and a Hindu temple next door. You hear many, many, languages on the street. It is a high energy 24 hour bustling place.


And the food! I had heard this was the finest eating city in the world and I believe it. The great variety of food available all on the same block or in the same food court is amazing. A food court here is sort of a market with a whole variety of little restaurants individually owned. Just wonderful. This is not the cheapest place ($5 an hour Internet) but it is not as costly as NYC, LA or Chicago. I would tell each of you if you ever have the opportunity to go to Singapore or Siem Reap (or most anywhere I have been), DO NOT PASS IT UP. These are must see places.


I will stay here a few days and then bus to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.   For now I will enjoy this fabulous city and its Chinatown, Little India, Arab Quarter, Colonial District, Waterfront, Orchard Road and other great areas. I am only 2 degrees from the equator so it is still plenty hot and humid but because of the water and wind it actually seems a bit cooler here. Lovely.


Day 50 – Singapore

Well, this city is really something special and very, very, unique. First of all, Singapore only became a city/state in 1965. It was quite small until then. Investors, mostly Chinese, decided to take a risk and build this place into a financial capital and they have succeeded overwhelmingly. The place is strictly run. The law allows no spitting, no littering, no smoking except in your home or outdoors, mandatory flushing of public toilets (a great law), etc. All of these are $500 - $2000 fines if broken. Drugs are death penalty. It sounds harsh but has led to a beautifully clean and very good society.


There are no homeless for government housing is provided - and it is neat and clean housing. Because of many people and limited land, 85% of the people live in high rise housing. Only the very wealthy can afford there own homes. Most property belongs to the state and your purchase only gives you a 99 year lease. Cars are very expensive and you must buy (10-20K) a permit from the state before you can own one. ALL housing and autos must be in good repair at all times. If an apartment building or business property looks a little rundown, you get a letter from the government that you better spruce it up. There is less freedom but a much cleaner and safer place to live. Raises a lot of questions and interesting thoughts. The rich still get richer but the poor are subsidized by them enough to live decently. Entrepreneurial with socialism. Interesting.


In any case, I have seen this city from dawn to dusk everyday and really love the place. It has to be the single best eating city in the world. I love rice, noodles, coconut and spices so I am very comfortable here. The other day I had breakfast in the Arab Quarter, lunch in Little India and dinner in Chinatown. In every case I ate something that I had never eaten before! Breakfast was mostly some kinds of sweet coconut, peanut and flam concoctions. In Little India I was given five items plus two sauces (one spicy and one yogurt like) all served on a large banana leaf and eaten all with the fingers of the right hand (considered improper to eat with left). My Nami Laksa soup in Chinatown topped off the day (noodles, vegetables and fish balls in a coconut based soup). Today I had Mee Siam and Nami Bandang. I think I spelled those right.


I have been down Orchard Road both day and night. This might be the most beautiful street architecturally in the world. Tree-lined and magnificent. Because of the mixed cultures and religions they celebrate everything here and the Christmas lights were fabulous. I also caught the last day of the Indian Festival of Light, celebrating the triumph of good over evil. I have been in churches, temples and mosques. I have taken two different city by day tours on an open-top double-decker bus and two different city by night tours on the same kind of bus. Inexpensive package deal and very enjoyable. I have made friends from many countries who have given me their cards or email addresses and invited me to stay in touch and come visit their countries. It has been great.


Today I spent most of it on Sentosa, a small island that is part of Singapore. I stood on the southernmost point of continental Asia, stuck my feet in the South China Sea, and checked out a few Asian beach girls. As they say, "Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here." Exhausted but also excited.


Day 52 – Singapore

I returned to Little India for another delicious lunch on a banana leaf. Different place, different banana leaf, same delicious food. By the way, seldom does a food place here use the word restaurant. They call themselves for example, Lee Fong’s Eating House, Eating Place, Cooking Place, Food Place, Diner or Cafe. A popular dish here is "steamboat." People sit at round tables, often out on the sidewalk, with a round opening in the center of the table. In the opening there is a stove-like burner (propane). they place a huge cooking bowl (aluminum or?) on it and everything (mostly seafood and vegetables) is boiling away in it. So you sit around a table in 95 degrees, 95% humidity, around a boiling pot and eat boiling food!Very popular. They also serve a lot of "fish head" here, one of the delicacies I have passed on.


Chains of course are chains. I had seen a few chains in Bangkok but none in Laos, only a few KFC in Vietnam, and no chains in Cambodia. Here there are many: McDonalds, Burger King, KFC and Swensen’s that I have noticed. That is a little disappointing to me though I did stop in to several to look at the menus and noticed they do serve some different things here - more fish choices and more ice cream choices.


Last night I went to the zoo. At night you say? Yes. I went on a Night Safari. This is a completely bar-less and wall-less zoo set in a tropical rainforest environment. You take an electrical tram through the area that is lit only by non-obtrusive lights. Since most animals are more active at night you see quite a bit. I was face-to-face (maybe 8 inches) with a large Wombat, 10 feet from a Rhino, a few feet from many kinds of deer, a binterong and many species I had never seen before. Only a few hidden moats between you at some places, nothing at other places and some glass only for certain animals (leopards and such). Very interesting.


Day 53 – Singapore

I went to the Chinese Opera last night and found it quite interesting. They gave an explanation beforehand of what the various movements mean that helped a lot. Today I slept late and am just going to take it easy and enjoy the culture and color of this city. Try to take it all in and keep in my memories. I wanted to mention three things that I have noticed and thought of:


(1) Most people here speak three languages - the official language of Malay, the Singlish (Singapore English) that is taught in the schools, and their family cultural language (Chinese, Tamil, etc.), That is amazing to me. Singlish is sort of British English with other words and accents mixed in. It is not always that easy to understand. They also say "lah" like Canadians say"eh." Nice day lah. How are you lah?


(2) The Subway system is among the finest in the world. Fast, cheap, efficient and clean. There are heavy fines for littering and eating or drinking on the subways is against the law. So is gum chewing. Thus everything is wonderfully clean. They say you can't legislate morality or individual responsibility but it seems to work fairly well here. I guess if the fines are big enough AND ENFORCED like here, well then you can!


Finally, (3) there is the ice cream sandwich. Here if you order an ice cream sandwich you get an ice cream sandwich. The vendor takes a piece of bread (colored pink, green and white) out of a loaf (like our loaves), puts several scoops of ice cream in the center, and folds it over. Viola! You have an ice cream sandwich. Cool!


Late November, Day 56 – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

I am in KL, Malaysia, and is it a comedown after Singapore. The complete opposite in so many ways. This is a second world city with pockets of first world and pockets of third world. There are many tall architecturally beautiful scattered buildings and the botanical growth is fantastic but the whole city is inconsistent. It is trying to enter the modern world but struggling to do so.


First of all, this is a Muslim nation. I mean that in that Islam is the state religion and Islam controls the state. There are huge beautiful mosques everywhere and many small ones scattered around. The mosques are generally very clean. The city buildings range from the Twin Towers, once the tallest structures in the world and still the tallest twins, to old decrepit structures still being lived in. You may recognize the Twin Towers and the bridge between them from the movie "Entrapment" with Sean Connery and Katherine Zeta-Jones (I think) and the wild escape from the building scene. I was in that tower and on that bridge today. That was a kick.


On the other hand, I have walked for miles in this city and found only one Internet place and  on the second floor of a building where I would not let my dog live. The stairway walls were covered with puke, urine and who knows what else. Yet they make you remove your shoes to enter the door of the internet place?!!!! This city is filled with trash and odors. My hotel room is almost $30 and it is a very poor place. Most of the furniture is broken and the water barely gets warm. My hotel in Vietnam for $8 a night was way better.


Restaurants? I have gone to the same place for three nights because it is the only place I felt was clean enough. Now I am not in danger and I am enjoying myself. The people are friendly and this is considered a safe city, it is just very unclean by western standards and, truthfully, it is the worse of the cities I have been in over the last two months. Such is life and it's adventures. 


Day 57 – Phuket, Thailand

I am back in Thailand and glad to be here. I generally like Thailand and have achieved a comfort level with the country and the way it operates. Leaving KL I found even the new airport to have filthy toilets. Such a disappointment after Singapore.


I am now in a hotel about three minutes off the Patong Beach, west of Phuket. The beach is fine and the bay/cove is lovely but you have to be on the beach to see it! The beach is public but is a strip only 30-50 feet wide and several hundred yards long. Right up next to that strip it is almost wall-to-wall buildings and, except for the beach access paths, you can't see a thing. That is disappointing. It is not like the beaches in Milwaukee or Chicago along the lake where you can see them for a long way.


In addition, I accidentally stumbled down through a street that is obviously available ladies of the evening (or anytime I guess). The beach here appears to be full of single men around my age, with bellies as big or bigger than mine, desperately seeking a tan and female companionship. You put the two together and I find it very sad. To be so lonely with yourself you must pay for company or to choose to or be forced to sell yourself is, I think, a sad commentary on the state of so much of mankind. Mans inhumanity to man does not occur only in war and death. It is all around us in so many ways.  I took my hotel for three nights but we will see how long I stay here. 


Day 59 – Phuket 

I spent yesterday boating around the Andaman Sea. Unfortunately it was not a really pleasant day. We left to gray clouds and came back in rain and wind. Visited several little islands, beautiful beaches and snorkeling, but got wet on all of them without even going into the water! In fact, this is the dry hot season here (November-March) but I have not seen the sun in three days here. Very disappointing. 


My trip yesterday was not on a smooth sailboat or cruiser but on an oceangoing speedboat. It held about 24 people including three crew. We spent the day between stops "flying" across the water and "slamming" back down into the water. Three long travel sections of about 75 minutes, 45 minutes and 35 minutes. Worse than any ride at the State Fair and I am not a "ride" person. Bumper cars are about my speed. Fly, Boom, Bounce and Spray. I guarantee it was my first and last ocean speed boat ride. Instead of hot and dry, we returned to the hotel cold and wet. Happy for a hot shower and quiet dinner. 


Day 60 – Phuket

Well, the gray skies continue. Last night it rained so hard for over an hour that the streets were flooded over the curbs and I walked back several blocks from dinner with my pants rolled up and water to mid-calf level. I have an afternoon tour today of an island are where the James Bond film "Man with the Golden Gun" was filmed plus some other things. But it is still gray and likely rain. Four days with no sun in this - the dry season! The joys of travel!!!!! 


The day turned out to be not too wet. We started out visiting some Monkey Temple Cave in rain and wet. From there we headed to the docks for our boat ride throughout Prang Nga Bay. Miracle of miracles it stopped raining and the sky lightened a bit (still all clouds and no sun) and stayed that way for the next several hours including during our visit to the James Bond Island. As a cute trick they showed the Man With the Golden Gun movie on the bus, first half on the ride over and second half on the ride back. We were able to recognize most everything on the island. Smooth marketing technique to "tell your friends."


We also stopped at a Muslim community built entirely out and over the water. They own no dry land at all. They built on concrete foundations and have a thriving community with school, mosque, restaurants and shopping. It was quite ingenious and enjoyable. Finally when we got back to the pier it started raining again as we walked quickly to the bus and then rained all the way back to our hotels. Wonderful timing for us. I then ate at the hotel restaurant (dry there), showered and went to bed.


It was still gray and drizzly as I had breakfast and then headed to the airport the next day to return to Bangkok, but sure enough, the sun came out just before my flight took off! The island was absolutely beautiful from the sky as all the beaches, different water colors and coral reefs could clearly be seen. Made me want to go back one day.


Day 61 - Bangkok

I am back in Bangkok feeling like a veteran of SE Asia and Thailand. The cab ride from the airport was nothing as coming here seemed perfectly normal compared to my nerves of several months ago. I particularly noticed much of the fine architecture of Bangkok on the drive. This is not Singapore, but it is probably the best city architecture between Singapore and Hong Kong, a good distance - and I do love the food here. By eating almost totally vegetarian I have managed to lose weight but have no idea how much until I weigh back in the states. Now I shall just enjoy this city at my leisure. 


Day 64 – Bangkok 

Just some random thoughts at the moment. First, the folks over here can not pronounce my family name so every hotel or tour guide leader has been calling me Mr. Robert. That has worked quite well for both sides. If they do not know my name at all, such as shopkeepers and such, they call me "Papa." I assume that is because of my gray beard and advanced age. I find it sort of amusing. I think they may find me Santa Claus-like. 


I have been wandering Bangkok for the last few days and remembering how much I enjoy this city. I do believe I could live in Singapore or Thailand. It is now the COOL season so the temperature is only in the upper 80's each day with similar humidity. Yet it is clearly cooler than a few months ago and the city seems more relaxed. I have walked for miles and am not anywhere near as tired as in early October. I actually had the nerve to walk into the Thailand Minister of Education's office today and describe to them how I could help the educational system here and there goal to increase the knowledge of English for their students. They listened and said they are going to present my ideas to the committee working on the problem and will let me know what they think. Hey, nothing ventured, nothing gained!


Day 66 – Bangkok

Well it has been a joy simply wandering and checking out the nooks and crannies of Bangkok and seeing things that I have passed a dozen times and did not know they were there! Now I am sticking my nose in every alley and discovering some interesting things. Learning more about life in Bangkok in the neighborhoods of the city. At lunch today my Thai waiter was wearing a GB Packers T-shirt!!!!! So I did the only thing I could do - I took his picture! 


I got learned it is the Kings Birthday in December and there is a big festival in the Sanam Luang all weekend in his honor. He is very popular here and has served almost 60 years, the longest reign of any king in Thai history. The previous longest was only 32. To show how popular he is, I was walking through the Royal Field and asked a young woman in about her early 20's what was going on. She said, "It is MY kings birthday." Not the King - but MY king. Very interesting. Our "rulers" in America can barely stay popular for 60 days - here they get 60 years.


Day 68 – Bangkok 

Several people have called me Santa in the last few days. I did not think my beard was getting that long! Not shaving but did decide to get my haircut. Paid a lovely young lady 100 baht ($2.50) to cut my hair. She did such a good job I gave her 120 baht ($3.00), big tipper that I am! Anyway, I feel lighter now.


I have had a lovely eekend in Bangkok. Yesterday I spent the morning and early afternoon at the Chatuchak Market (the 6000 stall one) and did the last of my holiday shopping. I then took the subway went to Chinatown for an early dinner. I then began to walk back in the direction of my hotel as I wanted to stop at another temple or two. Well, I stopped at one, than another, and another and just kept walking toward my hotel and sightseeing. Before you know it I was only six blocks from my hotel so walked on back. I had walked at least 5-6 and maybe up to 7-8 miles. Sometimes I amaze myself!


Today I went to the Royal Field where the Kings Birthday celebration was being held. I had a great time. Food stalls everywhere and ate and chatted with a lot of very friendly local folk. Had some good spicey coconut soup. Took my usual obscene amount of photos. The afternoon was filled with a short speech by the King (couldn't get close enough to see him but think I saw his car go speeding away) and then a whole bunch of bands on the parade ground. Appeared to be mostly secondary school bands plus a few military groups. It was very nice.


I became chatty with an all girl band. They were from an Indian Secondary School for Girls and were Bagpipes and Drums (I happen to love bagpipes). It was very interesting to see an Indian Hindu people/culture playing Scottish/British music to honor a Thailand Buddhist King. I loved it! Kids were also having a great time all afternoon with balloons, kites and general revelry. A very family oriented celebratory day.


The evening had a rock band on one side of the field and a boxing ring for Thai Boxing on the other. I am not a boxing fan and find the idea of two people trying to beat each other up incredibly stupid. However, I was going to watch a few minutes of Thai boxing just out of curiosity. I quickly found it boring and so I headed back to my hotel.


Day 70

I packed last night as I had a 4:30 AM flight to Taiwan and even earlier taxi. When I left Bangkok I had a little sadness for I had gotten to enjoy Bangkok but it had simply become time to move on. I landed in Taiwan to more gray and rain. Never-the-less, I trudged on and after checking in to the hotel I was off to see first the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial and then on to Taipei 101.


Let me say that when the Chinese build memorials they do it in a BIG way. All the memorials and major buildings I mention here are HUGE and VERY IMPRESSIVE to see. Taipei 101 is one of the worlds tallest buildings and its basement level holds in my opinion THE FINEST FOOD COURT IN THE WORLD. There are probably fifty restaurants with fabulous choices, very inexpensive and an absolutely delightful place to be - and the crowds proved it! Taipei is the second most densely populated place in the world behind only Bangladesh (according to my guide book).


Fortunately the MRT (subway/train) is wonderful and the people are VERY friendly and VERY polite. No one pushes or shoves but moves politely and courteously in all lines and places. Very nice. The air pollution is of course terrible from all the vehicles and motor scooters, but it has been held down the last few days because it has been nothing but gray mist and cold rain since I arrived. About 52 degrees and here I was with only one long sleeve shirt since I had been tropical this whole trip.


Later I went to a variety of temples. The Confucius Temple was beautiful and a real quiet respite in the middle of the city. The Baoan Temple was beautiful featuring a dazzling display of colors. The City God Temple was small but interesting. It is dedicated to the God who watches over the city and its people. A parade of people seem to come to pray there and it was interesting to watch. The one god has little shoes you can get that guarantees your husband will be a good one and behave himself! I also drank some magic tea which will make one more attractive and better able to find a mate! Have not yet changed much in the mirror though and have met no one yet.


I then took the MRT to the Chaing Kai-Shek Memorial (wow) which has 89 steps (his age at death) to the top. It shares an open area (huge also) with (again) the very beautiful National Theater and National Concert Hall (2 separate buildings). I discovered the Russian Ballet is here this weekend so went out of budget and bought a ticket for Saturday night. I am going to see the world famous Russian Ballet in China! How cool is that?? I love it.


Over the next day I went to the Shilin Night Market and the Hwashi Tourist Night Market (Snake Alley). I don't know why the word "tourist" is in the name except for the snakes there? All the signs are in Chinese so it isn't much good for tourists except those from China. They serve a lot of strange things to western tastes. Besides the snakes, many live fish (you select and they kill) that I did not recognize and many strange parts of animals. Recognized many penises of various creatures including turtle. Watched one cook butcher a turtle - VERY gross. I did not eat there!


Yesterday I also saw two most incredible places. First, the National Palace Museum. They have the greatest collection of Chinese antiquities in the world. I was viewing various items from as old as the 16th century B.C.! This was amazing to me - particularly as some of the items looked brand new. Absolutely wonderful artistry and items over 3000 years old! Then I went to the Lungshan Temple, the major large temple of this city. May be the most beautiful worship area I have seen. It gets quite crowded in late afternoon and early evening as the people coming home from work stop to worship. I managed to get right into the middle of a Buddhist ceremony of these working people and the chanting, the lights and the reverence were a wonderful experience. Buddhism is much older than Christianity and that gives it a special reverence to me. Really enjoyed it.


Day 73, Mid-December – Taipei, Taiwan 

Yesterday my visit included Dihua Street, which is one of these streets where they sell all kinds of strange herbs and "magical" medicines. Lots of dried this and that. I chose not to improve my health or sexual life but did give some thought to trying acupuncture.


The signs here are 95% Chinese so this place is a lot more difficult to get around and especially eat. I point a lot. Last night at the Snake Alley night market I had some kind of bread, egg and mint leave dish at a food stall, then had some kind of light purple glop she spooned on the grill and fried, then added egg, mint leaves and chili. It was still purple though so I had my first purple meal. The purple seemed to be some kind of bread dough I think.


Fortunately one of the few places that has English signs is the MRT so I can ride that and find my way around real easy. The National Museum had many signs in English also. That was a very beautiful building but the first time I ever had to climb 92 steps just to get to a museum! I also changed hotels yesterday morning and that was a wise move. I am now only 6 blocks from the MRT instead of 16 and it is $14 a night cheaper. I am quite satisfied as that adds up in my wallet and on my feet over multiple days and nights.


I am finding this a very pleasant city. The pace seems very relaxed for such a crowded place. I guess that is the famed Taiwan friendliness and politeness. You see little of the "mad rushing" you see in New York or most big cities. Really quite nice to stroll, especially away from the main traffic streets. Today I went to the Presidential Palace first. Quite and imposing building, much more so than the White House I thought. No big lawn though but just small gardens. I then walked to the "Red Pavilion." This building is a Japanese architectural style originally built when Japan was ruling this area. Quite nice. Was once a market but it is now a cafe and theater inside.


I then went back to Longshan Temple because about 11:45 as the SUN came out and stayed out until 3:30. It was quickly about 65-70 degrees and very nice out. So I wanted to see this beautiful temple again and take some photos in the sun. I also had lunch in a little cafe on "Temple Square." There was Christmas music playing nearby and I am listening to "Winter Wonderland!" Very strange in a tropical climate and next to a Buddhist Temple. My lunch included a soup that had what looked like black bread crumbs in it but when they broke apart they seemed more like some kind of veggie cubes. Maybe bean curd as they use bean curd here a lot. Often shape it or soy to look like meat and even taste a bit like it. Interesting.


I then took the MRT to visit the Botanical Gardens. Little color as I guess it is the wrong season here for color, but a nice respite again from the city noise. I have seen a lot of older people doing Tai Chi or some other form of  exercise in the parks and by the "grand" buildings of this town. Botanical gardens seemed like a great place for it.


I then went to Ximening Street. This is the major "young folks" hangout and trendy shopping area of Taipei. It was 6:00 on a Friday night and the place was packed. People were arriving off the MRT (right next to it) and coming up the stairs 8 abreast and nose-to-butt. This is the "happening" place and it was ALIVE. I watched the street vendors, wandered the shops, ate and just people watched for a few hours. Had a snack that I thought was a persimmon fruit (orange colored) but tasted nothing like the persimmon I had in Singapore but more like and apple - but it was orange colored with maybe a touch of yellow? Expensive too - a $2 piece of unknown fruit. Later I took the MRT back returning to my hotel. GREAT day and very pleasant experiences. 


Day 74 – Taipei

Today I went first to the War Martyrs Memorial. Very impressive in typical Chinese massive and colorful style. Watched and interesting changing of the guard also. The whole thing was much more impressive than over Tomb of the Unknown Soldier or Vietnam War Memorial - but that is the Chinese way of perhaps overstatement. I then went and visited the Lin Antai House (1765) which is the oldest home in Taipei. Quite interesting. 


I don't know if any of you are into stamps or seals used for letters and documents but I have known people that are. At the National Museum I saw emperor’s seals that were 3000 years old. Fortunately for those of us who love history emperors over the centuries had a habit of collecting the seals of their predecessors and making sure their own was uniquely different. This allowed them to survive historically and tells historians a lot about each emperor as reflected in their seal. Well - I think that is pretty interesting.


The architecture here is okay but not as interesting as Singapore. Being so densely populated there are of course high rises everywhere, but surprisingly few actual skyscrapers though Taipei 101 is currently the worlds tallest building. I wonder why that is? Perhaps unstable ground? I went back to Taipei 101 again today just to eat at the worlds greatest food court. It is just a wonderful place and incredibly unique experience. I should mention Taipei is also very clean. Second only to Singapore and not by much based on what I have seen. I mentioned earlier about most signs being only in Chinese. When you do find an English translation on the menu it would seem a nice surprise, yes? Well maybe not. I have seen English translations that say something like "Kim Chiang Mien," which clears that right up! Others may say things like "Numb Spicy Hot Pot" (I love that one) or "Ice Blended with Green Tea, Red Beans and Jelly" - a refreshing drink I am sure. Anyway, having a blast.


Now it was Saturday night here and I was off to see the Russian Ballet, "The Hamlet - Son of Catherine the Great." Might be interesting as my maternal great grandparents lived on land in Russia they were given by Catherine the Great. Yes, we are all connected in some strange way - the real question is which of us is the strangest? 


Day 75 – Taipei 

It is Sunday morning here and it is again raining hard. I have been here five days and have seen only three hours of some sun and blue skies. It has been gray and rain all the rest of the time. There are several outdoor parks and areas I wish to go that are remain questionable for the time being. A bit frustrating.


On the bright side though, the Russian ballet group was quite enjoyable and interesting. They do demonstrate the saying "Thin is In." Their leg muscles are very strong and every muscle is obvious due to the tights worn. The men are thin and hard but the women are tall, lean, angular and feather thin and light. Too thin and angular to be called beautiful but attractive in a different sort of way. The skill and athleticism can only be admired by the average person as the feats of pure strength, acrobatics and gymnastics are far beyond what any of us could do.


There were 29 dancers: 5 principals, a dozen male support group and a dozen female support group. The principals were all excellent and particularly the two main leads. I was most impressed by the support groups though. The choreography was incredible. They all moved as one and so light on their feet as to be feathers dancing in the wind. There were moments when you felt as if they never touched the ground but simply floated through the entire performance. That I thought was marvelous.


I watched the first act (50 minutes) from back a bit and to the side (all seats were excellent though) and the overall effect was fantastic. I checked for no shows though at intermission (20 minutes) and then quickly grabbed a seat in the first row virtually dead center (3 seats off). I watched the entire second act (another 50 minutes) from a $120 U.S. seat looking dead into the eyes of some of the dancers. It reminded me of when a friend and I saw the musical "Stomp" from first row center seats and felt the sweat flying off the dancers. Very interesting. Up close though, I found myself concentrating on the moves of the one dancer most directly in front of me and losing a bit of the overall effect. Sitting in two different places you see the performance in two entirely different ways. Interesting to observe and compare.


At the end and during the bows and curtain calls I was looking right into the eyes of the lead, Elena Kuzmina, who performed as Catherine the Great. She looked a bit of a thin ice queen. I swear to you she looked right at me as I mouthed "smile" twice and then she did while looking right at me. Maybe it was my active imagination but I darn sure enjoyed it! I almost mouthed "marry me" but then my experience with Russian women is she might - so had to be careful! As I said earlier, it was out of the budget but worth it and darn glad I did it.


As an additional note, I took the MRT there and back - very safe and clean. The theater is part of a complex of Natl. Theater, Natl. Concert Hall and Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial and is very colorful and beautifully lit at night. Really dazzling in every way. There was even an outdoor concert going on the plaza between the buildings even though it was raining. Uncovered - the band played on. 


I want to comment on the Chinese language. It is "tonal" in nature. Basically what that means is that, for example, the words, "hong," "hong," "hong," "hong" and "hong" have five distinctly different meanings that are not necessarily even close to one another (such as dog, cat, mouse, horse and cow). The meaning is determined by the "tone" of the word. The best way to explain this I think is to take any common English word such as "long" and say it five ways like we would say "do, re, mi, fa, so" on the musical scales - remembering that each of those five ways (sounds) as an entirely different meaning. The language is thus difficult for westerners because it encompasses an entirely different way of thinking.


In the written language we run into the same different way of thinking. Westerners use combinations of 26 letters to make words and then thousands of words to make sentences. The Chinese use about 2000 words to make sentences also, it is just that each of their "words" is illustrated by a character illustration instead of combinations of letters. "She went to the store," for example, uses 18 letters formed into five words. In Chinese it might be 5 "characters" meaning the same 5 words. That may sound a bit over-simplified but I think is a pretty basic description to help understand the differences. They also read right to left instead of the western left to right but that's a whole different issue!


Day 76 - Taipei

It continued to be so wet out. I went to the zoo for awhile with a couple of hundred other damn fools but got so soaked I finally gave it up. It looked like it might have been a nice zoo, open cages, flowers, sculptures, etc., on a good day but not today. Even the animals were in hiding.


Rode the MRT out to the far end of one line to go there and, as it was mostly elevated, got to see a lot of the city. This area is mostly mountainous. The main part of the city lies in a small valley surrounded by the mountains. People live in various high rises built throughout the area. There must be some single family homes here somewhere but I have seen none yet. Space is at a premium. The mountains seem to hold in the mist, fog and rain from the nearby ocean and they tell me winter here is cold, wet and dreary. I believe them!!


However, I had been walking around in just long sleeves over a tee shirt and was a little cool but fine, as it's about 50 degrees. The locals though are wearing several layers plus the kind of jackets we might wear in 32 degrees or so. They wear them here even at 65 degrees. They don't like cold. 70's brings out vests. They like their 8-9 months of heat.


A note on some interesting foods I have had. One woman showed me a huge pile of white and I finally gathered it was "iced milk." Okay, fine. I have eaten that. There were buckets of maybe 20 toppings displayed - only one, pineapple, of which I recognized. I finally figured from her motions that I could select five toppings of my choice to put on the iced milk. Okay, maybe sort of like a banana split I am thinking - so I select five. She then puts them not on a few scoops of iced milk, but on this huge pile of iced milk and puts the whole thing in front of me! Fortunately it was a lot of air and not really so big as it looked. The five toppings were: (1) the pineapple, (2) some kind of multi-colored jellylike pieces, (3) brown beans (yes, like in pork and beans), (4) some kind of black jellied berries, and (5) jellied soft peanuts (I did not know you could do that to peanuts?). I did not care for the multi-colored stuff but the rest of it was pretty good, especially the peanuts and the beans.


At breakfast they serve rice porridge, sort of like rice in hot water. Pretty bland taste but then I noticed the Chinese putting other things on it, particularly a brown sugar looking type stuff - so of course I have to try it and put a whole bunch on my rice and mixed it in like many of them. It turned out to again be beans (like in pork and beans) and was very good!!!! They like their beans here in so many ways. I have had snacks of red bean and tea cake, banana milk and red bean bread, and a variety of drinks with some kind of bean in the name. I am going to have to get creative with my cooking back in the states. I especially like their various flavored milk teas. 


Day 76 – Taipei

Well on the negative side the day has been all gray skies again. On the positive though we only got a few drops of rain. Windy at times and quite cool but as long as one stays dry it is manageable. I headed out this morning to the far end of the MRT line, first to Guandu and then on to Danshui. Guandu has a nature park where I saw a few interesting birds. In fact I have seen many birds on this trip that are not ones I have seen before. Hear many more but most difficult to spot.


The Guandu Temple is another fabulous one. It's built into the hillside and is multi-level and split-level. I counted two to six levels depending on which area you enter from. Was quite beautiful and hope I got some interesting shots despite the gray skies. Most of my shots of Taiwan are probably not going to show very well the bright colors that exist on and in these temples. Continued on out to Danshui, the end of the MRT line and near where the Keelung River empties into the sea. Mainly walked around the markets of Danshui and visited a few very old temples. The markets were interesting in that certain stalls featured regional food specialties not found in Taipei.


I lunched on A-gi, a fist sized hollow pouch of fried tofu filled with thin bean-thread noodles and served in hot broth. Then enjoyed a variety of teas including a wheat tea, a multi-grained tea and a goat milk tea. I purchased a bag of the latter so feel free to come on by for a cup. I have also had papaya milk, mango milk, strawberry tea milk, roasted tea milk and others. They do a whole variety of wonderful things here combining fruits, milk and teas. I plan on experimenting more myself when I can.


Stopped at the Shilin Night Market coming back toward town. It is the biggest night market in Taipei. As I have said before, I like markets. They tell me so much about the people and I enjoy just observing everything. By the way, the big

chains here are McDonalds, KFC, Starbucks and 7-11s everywhere, sometimes several on the same block. There is an Asian adaptation though. McDs sells rice burgers, pepper chicken rice burgers and only chocolate cones. Evidently vanilla is not popular among these people. KFC also sells some pepper chicken stuff. There is a food stand at the Shilin Night Market that stands out. Most have only a few people waiting or inline at a time. One stand always has a long line. I asked someone in line who spoke English why always a line? He answered that this man had the best food, a very tasty pepper chicken!


Also today I saw my first single family residences in this area. They were observed far out in the suburbs and seemed mostly small and poor. It seemed like they were just waiting for the city to come and capture that space for more high rises. Still have seen no homes of obvious wealth.


Riding the MRT back I was again struck by the cleanliness and pleasantness of the ride. There is no eating, drinking, smoking or rowdiness of any kind on the MRT. No boom boxes blaring out. Again the people are remarkably friendly and polite. The young people routinely stand or give their seats to the more elderly or pregnant women. I have been given a seat several times. There is a wonderful respect for the aged. For those of you who are my age, it reminds me of how I was brought up in the 50's. There is a politeness and respect that seems to have disappeared in America with the last several generations. The Chinese understand that everything that is good about you or your life you owe to your ancestors. Everything bad is your own fault for your ancestors do not teach you anything bad. I remember my father saying, "Do as I say and not as I do." When you do something bad it dishonors you and your ancestors. The people here live crowded, with three or more generations sharing a small living space, but they have little problem with it because of the respect shown for one another. It is really something America could learn from and needs to get back too.


Let me say that the Chinese have impressed me. I did not particularly expect to be impressed. I had felt that maybe the sheer number of Chinese people would make the cities so bad, so dirty, so difficult to get around that I would not care for the people or this place. I was completely wrong. The people and the city have won me over and especially the people, for it is their industry and attitude that make the city. Visit Taipei. You will be impressed - despite the current gloomy weather!


Day 77 – Taipei

Well the gray skies remained and in addition a cold front had blown in from the north. No rain today but temperature dropped to mid-forties and windy. Cold for these people. Not normally cold for a born and raised Yankee but it is when you have only light weight summer clothes with you! Had to go buy a windbreaker today. Set me back $5.75 U.S.


I walked a lot today. Decided to walk due various places around the city I wanted to see that were sort of between MRT stations. Well I ended up walking six stations (that's a good way) away from my hotel before I got plum tuckered out. Several times along the way I had my map out and people stopped and asked, "May I help you?" This has happened to me here many times. In some places you have to be careful of tourist predators but not here. These people are so genuinely polite and will do most anything to help you. I have had some go clearly out of their way to do so. Every taxi I have taken as immediately turned on the meter and not a single one has tried to negotiate a "special price for me." They get in line for the escalator on the right and will wait patiently in line even though starting 10-20 feet back from the up/down escalator. The left side is open for those who wish to pass or rush and there are a certain 5-10% who do. Sometimes you even see a rare person running! It helps, of course, that the trains are so efficient coming every 3-6 minutes.


Several times when I was trying to ask a street vendor how much something costs and it was obvious I was having difficulty communicating, another customer would simply answer the question for me in a very polite helpful manner. They even take the time to tell me what something is if I am not sure. One lady outside a bakery tonight told me that was a cream-like corn - so okay I tried one. I guess it was a Chinese version of cornbread - two slices of fresh warm egg-like bread with creamy corn (yes, whole kernels of it) in the middle. A corn sandwich! It was quite good. I washed it down with a carton of Oolong Milk Tea, another new one for me. Tasted like a light chocolate milk. So far the only tea I have not liked was the Green Milk Tea. The color just did not do it for me.


Another habit of the locals I have not mentioned is that one has to be careful before starting to cross the street. There are always several cars that go through the red light each time and motor scooters pay little attention at all. Many of them even drive up on the sidewalks, the one practice I do find a bit irritating when walking.


I stopped several places on my walk, some being places I had been previously and wanted to see again. The most interesting new place I visited was the Chinese Handicraft Mart. I spent several hours there admiring a wide variety of work. There were several things I would have liked to purchase but the difficulty of getting them back to the U.S. safely plus my already bursting luggage was just too great. I finished the day at the dynamic Ximending Pedestrian Zone with some great sidewalk vendor food.


Day 78 – Taipei

This was my last full day in Taipei, Taiwan, and the last full day of this adventure. It was not around the world in 80 days but a pretty good piece of Southeast Asia in 79.


Some of my last observations: Bakeries are everywhere in this city. The Chinese love fresh baked everything and the variety of breads, rolls and sweet stuff is wonderful. Again there is a comparison to the U.S. in the 50's when we had neighborhood bakeries that are no longer - but even then we never had the number of bakeries or variety of items that are available here. It is something I really like. Some of my favorite memories growing up are of my Aunt Hattie's baking Apple Kuchen, doughnuts and all kinds of pies. She was the best cook I have ever known. Anyway, fresh bakery is still a joy to savor.


The Chinese also love coffee shops. There is at least one every block here and often more. It is a major business and pleasure pastime for the Chinese. I prefer tea to coffee when I have a choice but both are popular to the Chinese, tea more traditional, coffee more modern. Most coffee shops are individually owned or small several store chains except for Starbucks which are everywhere. They have become the Wal-Mart of coffee and I admit that I do not care for them. I find their coffee terrible to boot. At one intersection here there were big Starbucks katty-korner from each other! They have been the death of small places in the states and thus we are no longer allowed the joy of discovering our own little special shop such as made New Orleans famous.


I saw the only Pizza Hut I have seen here today - in fact the only pizza place. The Chinese generally do not like cheese and that dislike apparently keeps pizza places from being too popular here. As a final observation I have regularly noticed Chinese schoolgirls chattering away in Chinese (of course) on the subway but when one or more get up to leave, they all say "bye bye!" I asked a young woman who spoke English about this and she told me that is was probably the only English the girls know. The word for goodbye in Chinese is longer and schoolgirls just like the sound of "bye bye" so that is what they all say. I thought that was interesting anyway.


Mid-December, Day 79

Last night I packed everything tightly and shortly after noon I headed for the Chiang Kai-Shek International Airport and a long flight to Los Angeles. My flight left here about 4:30 PM local time. However I will cross the international dateline going east and gain back the day I lost coming over here. In effect, I will land in LAX almost exactly the same time I left here - about 4:30 PM LAX time. There I will catch a short flight home and begin review of my 60000 or so photos. So that is it. It is all over. I now leave you as a Chinese schoolgirl, with a little wave of my hand plus a big BYE BYE, and my own thanks for listening.