a blog about seeing the world

Archive for April, 2011

Our happiness: a line graph

Our days here in El Nido seem to revolve around eating mangoes on the beach, gazing out at the islands in Bacuit Bay.

This lifestyle inadvertently allows for a substantial amount of time to reflect back on our travels in Southeast Asia. We thought of the good times and remembered the bad. And there seemed to be a lot of both.

One day we were loving it, and the next would bring uncomfortable levels of frustration and physical anguish. In the name of science, we decided to break out some long-dormant Microsoft Excel skills to bring you this graphical representation of our happiness during 11 weeks in Southeast Asia.

While the graph for our five weeks in Japan would be a gently undulating plateau on the upper end of the happiness spectrum, you’ll notice Southeast Asia looks more like the heart rate of a preteen at a Justin Bieber concert.

Click to see our Excel wizardry in detail.

Not coincidentally, deep chasms of misery often occur during a day of train or bus travel, or a night of vomiting, etc. in a Bangkok bathroom. But we now look back on these moments with a rueful smile, and it’s often the not-so-good stuff that makes the best stories.

We are preparing for a flight to a new continent with— surprise— mixed feelings. It will certainly be nice to take in the conveniences of the familiar modern world, but we’ll miss the sense of adventure that comes with travel here. There are countless things from every corner of Southeast Asia that we’ll miss… enough to fill another post.

A haiku dedication

Before we update you on our time here in the tropical perfection of the Philippines, we present a haiku poem dedicated to one of the most delicious things money can buy:

Here in Vietnam
I spy an orange bag of chips
Crunchy snack from home

Assorted varieties of Kettle Chips have surprised us several times in the most unlikely locations, and they are always a friendly reminder of home.  These guys turned up in Sapa, Vietnam.

Living the high life in Ha Long Bay

According to local legend, the two thousand mountainous islands that rise out of the dark teal waters of Ha Long Bay began as pearls thrown to earth from the mouth of a dragon. An island sprang up where each one fell, blocking the enemy ships that threatened the native people and giving the area its name, which means “Descending Dragon.”

As the only package tour we booked and with the price doubling our average daily budget, three days exploring Ha Long Bay with Handspan was clearly going to be a step up from the last ten weeks. We didn’t expect it to be downright luxurious.

After a van ride from Hanoi, our group of eight plus our guide boarded the Victory Star, and we immediately knew this tour was a good idea. A four-story wood-paneled ship with an elaborate dining room, cabins with private balconies, and spacious sundeck, the Victory Star was incredible. The room was one of the nicest we’ve ever slept in, not even including the bonus points it garners for being on a boat. (more…)

Southeast Asia Through Five Eyes : Part 1

After five weeks in Japan, we traded snow for spice and street food. Here are our first 40 days in Southeast Asia! Turn HD and fullscreen on if your bandwidth allows, thanks for watching!


This is the second installment in our webisode series, episode one can be seen here.

Vietnam from south to north

Ho Chi Minh City, still known to many as Saigon, is packed with life. City parks are full of people power walking, playing badminton, and even doing after-work aerobics classes. Thousands of motorbikes sweep through the city streets, spilling onto sidewalks. People sip beer and slurp pho at outdoor restaurants, and vendors call out to passersby.

Though we’re by no means city people, we rather liked it.

Just an hour or so south of Saigon, the Mekong River splits into nine massive branches, each with a complex network of tiny canals, tributaries, and streams.  We were excited to see what the river we crossed into Laos three weeks ago had become.

Our destination, Ben Tre, turned out the be a nondescript city sprawled out along polluted water — far from the small riverside community we were picturing. Luckily, a man on a motorbike pulled up as we stood dejectedly on the sidewalk and flashed a brochure for his guesthouse, 13 kilometers out of town. Set in a sweet-smelling orchard with small ponds and plenty of hammocks, it was just what we were looking for.

We borrowed two rickety bikes and set off down the street, past tiny towns and orchards and over small bridges spanning canals. On the return journey, school let out, and the narrow street was suddenly filled with schoolchildren in their uniforms, two or three to a bike. It was an ideal way to spend an afternoon.

The following day we took our friendly innkeeper up on a boat tour around the area, which led us down narrow canals fringed with overhanging water coconut branches, and out onto the main river. Wide and muddy as the Mississippi, it’s hard to believe there are eight more branches flowing into the South China Sea.

Back in Saigon, we stuffed our stomachs and bags with French pastries in preparation for a 40-hour train journey to northern Vietnam. Yes, a plane would certainly be quicker, more comfortable, perhaps even cheaper, but there’s something in the ability to trace the curved coastline of Indochina on a map and remember covering every inch of it on the ground.

On a line dubbed the Reunification Express, trains cover 1,079 miles of track between Saigon and Hanoi. We shared a four-berth sleeper cabin with a quiet Vietnamese couple for the first 644 of them, and were quite enchanted with the whole thing.  We passed the time reading, watching movies, and being pulled in and out of sleep by the rumbling of the train.

A peek inside our cabin.

When the sun rose, it revealed miles and miles of vibrant green rice fields rolling by. Farmers in conical hats stooped to tend the rice and steered plows pulled by water buffalo. White cranes burst out of the greenery and flew alongside the train on its journey north. After passing Danang, the train tracks veered to the curving edge of the ocean. Peering down from our bunks, we watched waves crashing on the rough rocky shore, dotted with wide, honey-colored beaches. (more…)

The Art of the ‘No Thank You’

During the course of our seven weeks in Southeast Asia, we have accumulated various levels of proficiency at numerous essential travel skills. These include the stuffing of belongings into an oversize backpack (unpaid professionals), shrewd bargaining (hopeless novices), fortitude during laughably horrendous bus rides (advanced intermediates), and street crossing in motorbike-infested cities (newly minted experts). But one thing we have truly excelled at in the last few weeks is the Art of the No Thank You, and we are here to share our vast wisdom.  Here is an example scenario:

It is 11:30 p.m. in Saigon, and you (the no-thank-you-er) are attempting to get drunk off tasteless 5 percent beer at a streetside table. A woman (the no-thank-you-ee) approaches with plastic bags full of small, speckled eggs, and looks expectantly in your direction. It appears they are for sale, and you feel obliged to decline.

First, pause, squint your eyes, and give a tilt of the head which says, “I have duly considered your offer of small speckled eggs and all of the possible joys and detriments they may afford, and am now fully qualified to make a decision that will bring me, the unsuspecting customer, the most satisfaction.” A moment of eye contact follows and goes a long way in solidifying each other’s understanding of the situation. A slight smile is, of course, polite, and always appreciated.

Then comes the big moment. The “no, thank you” must be firm, but also convey kindness and a slight tinge of regret, as if to say:  “These small, speckled eggs are a fine commodity, but alas, I must decline. The hour is late, and they may not mix cordially with the four or five beers currently residing in my stomach should I choose to consume them. Of utmost concern is their manner of cooking preparation, and for this reason I am unable to move forward with the procurement of these eggs. But do not be discouraged. There is undoubtedly someone else nearby with a taste for such things.” Of course, during the delivery a left to right shaking of the head helps bridge language barriers, and, again, a smile helps to keep the tone genial in nature.

This method may be used for any number of offered goods, including, but not limited to: shoe shines, assorted fresh fruit varieties, dinnertime massages, cigarettes, live, cooked, and uncooked poultry, rides via two, three, and four wheeled vehicles, unidentifiable foodstuffs, endless knickknacks, dried cephalopods, dinner solicitations, soft drinks of ranging temperatures, all manner of meat of sticks, etc., etc…

Be warned, though, after several days of constant no-thank-you-ing, you may find yourself automatically turning down services and goods that you are actually in desperate need of!

Temples, temples, temples

The temples of Angkor—the last remnants of the ancient Khmer capital— draw millions of visitors per year, and we felt we couldn’t complete a circuit through Southeast Asia without joining them. After realizing that the overland journey down from northern Laos would mean more than 40 hours of bus time, we purchased two plane tickets and showed up at the airport on March 29th eager to participate in the wonders of air travel.

Two hours, a visa stamp, and laughably relaxed customs check (there was none) later, we arrived in Cambodia, pleased to discover ATMs dispensing notes bearing the familiar faces of our dead presidents.

Despite being warned by desperate tuk-tuk drivers that the bike ride from Siem Reap was “very far, very hot,” we rented two single speed bikes for $1.50 and peddled the 7km to Angkor and back on our first day. Yes, it was hot and tiring, but the terrain was Kansas flat and we enjoyed the freedom that your own set of wheels provides. We peddled around the crumbling city of Angkor Thom, through ancient gates, and down dirt paths lining old moats.

Our favorite temples were the ones with criss-crossing corridors and countless stone doorways, sunlight streaming into open rooms and others cast into stony darkness. Hallways often ended in empty courtyards or small chambers full of carvings of dancing apsaras, where it was easy to imagine being there 1,000 years ago.

Aloof stone faces stare down from many corners of Angkor, but no more so than at Bayon, where King Jayavarman VII erected a temple bearing more than 200 massive stone faces in his likeness. They pop out from behind every corner, and encircle the upper platform.


Seven reasons to love Laos

Immediately after purchasing our plane ticket out of Laos, we felt a surge of regret. We suddenly felt like idiots for leaving a country we loved so soon. Here are seven things we will miss most.

The overall atmosphere

Immediately after setting foot in Laos, you notice a change, and breathe a sigh of relief. Everything is a bit calmer, slower, more laid back. Tuk-tuk drivers wait for you to come to them, people pause to say hello to you on the street, and foreigners are not the center of attention. Tourism hasn’t seemed to change Laos as much as its neighboring countries— or maybe it’s just the way Lao people are. It’s hard to put a finger on it exactly, but there’s just a feeling here that makes you want to stay.

Sticky rice (and new Lao dishes)

After eating it with every meal during a trek through Nam Ha, we were hooked on sticky rice. Chewy and flavorful, a perfect finger food for dipping into anything else on your plate, it is the standard accompaniment for Lao cuisine. And though dishes here are not as boldly flavored or expansive as the more familiar Thai food, they do include delicious flavor combinations we had never tasted before. A particular favorite is chicken laap—minced chicken bursting with flavors of lime, mint and ginger. The fried spring rolls in Laos also seemed unusually tasty.

Lazy days in Nong Khiaw

Some of our favorite memories from Laos will be of the times we did nothing at all. Our shady deck had a commanding view over the Nam Ou river valley, and the constant activity on the opposite bank made long-term lounging an entertaining pastime.

Hammock time.

Beerlao Dark

After a steady stream of tasteless, colorless beer in the rest of Southeast Asia, Beerlao Dark is a shining ray of hope in a gloomy tunnel of beverage despair. It’s an impressive 6.8 percent and it actually tastes like something. Something good.

Bike riding

Biking is an excellent way to explore a new place, and it was especially nice in Laos, where drivers are a bit less maniacal and tons of locals also ride bikes. It’s slow enough that you can appreciate the details in passing scenery, respond to hellos and palms outstretched for high-fives, yet fast enough to cover a lot of ground. Plus, you can feel like you’ve earned those spring rolls.

On a bike, we found places and moments we otherwise would have missed, like this fisherman searching for dinner.