Halong Bay, Vietnam

Our ride on the sleeper train came and went, quite literally in the blink of an eye for us all, as once our eyes shut we did not reopen them until the morning as we approached Hanoi. The last few days of adventure in Sapa, coupled with the general gravity of months on the road, took it out of us. If a good nights sleep is what the doctor ordered, we filled that prescription dosing ourselves good and plenty!  Rolling out, feeling like new men, we grab our packs, already repacked and organized from last night, and hop off the train, once again in Hanoi.  From here we do what simply must be done, head off across the street from the station, in the wee hours of the morning where dawn comes in muted tones of indigo, sit down at one of the little sidewalk restaurants for a ca-phe sua da to get this day started right.

The plan is to get to Halong Bay today. Though we are all headed there Daniel (the Australian lad) and I are not sure we want to go with some tour group. In fact, we are pretty sure we do not.  I haven’t done any tour group thing this whole time traveling and I have had no regrets about it at all. I generally prefer to go it alone…figure it out.  Daniel is of a similar persuasion so he and I talk about going it together, DIY style.  Prior to their arrival in Sapa Sergi and Florian purchased spots on a bus to a boat that will be leaving in a few hours time.

We debate on walking to the center of the city or taking a car in.  Last time I came into Hanoi via train I walked but this time I am outvoted as everyone else says it’s too far. We jump in a car and do it like that.  We head over to the hostel they stayed at last time they were here as it has a large lobby with wifi and food…  It’s a good place to drop our gear, catch up on our individual errands, regroup and move forward from.  It’s also close to the tour office where the trip to Halong Bay will originate from for Sergi and Florian and possibly Daniel and I as well.

Daniel and I decide to go with them to the tour office to hear the details, think things over. Daniel called on ahead from Sapa town to see if there were still available space for the tour they are on.  He was told there were two spaces remaining that they’d be willing to hold for us so long as we promise to join.  “Hmmm…meant to be?” we wonder.  We’ve heard stories of doing the bay on your own, both successful and otherwise. From the bit of research I’ve done on doing it DIY, once you get to Halong City you gotta join one boat or another to go out on the bay anyway, especially if you are planning on spending the night on the water.  As it’s a big source of revenue for the country as far as tourism goes, you can imagine the tour companies that are out there have done their best to get a lockdown on the market!  Either way it’s a bus ride to Halong City and a boat you’re gonna have to pay for once you get there.  The idea of having everything laid out, on a nice boat, meals included, with our crew intact is beginning to sound potentially nice.

We get to the tour office and see information on the trip, pictures of the boat… Daniel and I decide to go ahead and join the tour.  After traveling hard and rugged for a long time now I’m a bit game to just relax for a day or two, allowing myself to relinquish control for a minute, just show up, get on the bus, get on the boat…show up when food is served.  Perspective is also something I like to shake up along the way.  A big factor is that we have all been rocking it together over the last few days and we got a nice vibe going.  I resign to shift gears here for the interim and join the tour, keep rolling with my people a bit longer.  They are great guys and a lot of fun so fuck it, lets roll!

Soon we will board our bus to bring us to Halong City where our boat is docked, board it then head out onto the bay. The bus ride is about 4.5 hours in length and unfortunately I am one of the last ones on the bus resulting in me getting the seat with the wheel well protruding up under my feet making it somewhat of a cramped affair. People begin chatting, get acquainted with one another around me. So much of the bus is filled with young people, too young for “my old ass” at this moment (or so I feel). I am hit by a sudden feeling of melancholy.  I retreat into myself and put on my headphones, enjoying my solitude as I watch the landscape go by out the window. Eventually I will reemerge from my shell but for now I am content being inside.

We stop at a roadside cultural center of sorts that also has food and restrooms. The place is really big and full of handmade wares, crafted by people with one physical impairment or another. It is touted as a place that exists to plug these people into larger society as a whole, providing them with a sense of purpose and pride. There are many beautiful things on display here, both large and small, many of which are all hand embroidered “paintings”. The whole operation is exposed to the public as the wares are literally being made right in front of your eyes.20140310-170740.jpg

As many of these works are really quite beautiful I’d like to support the efforts here. The pieces roll up quite easy, allowing them to become compact and durable for travel, making really nice gifts for friends and family back home. As the prices are really expensive compared to other wares I’ve seen throughout Vietnam, I inquire into how much the actual worker/artisan is getting paid for their hard labor. The woman I am speaking with, who’s English was just fine up until this point, now acts as though I am speaking another language entirely, one she no longer understands. She becomes uncomfortable, nervous even. She just pauses and stalls, tries to sway the conversation elsewhere, back on the work on the tables, trying to get me to buy. It becomes quite obvious to me that these people are being exploited. They probably get pennies on the dollar for this stuff. It seems to me to be some type of sweat shop for the impaired.

Not satisfied with the answers, or lack there of, I have received from my sales representative, I decide to ask for the manager. I have shed light upon something here and wish to further illuminate it. The manager comes out to greet me and is all smiles. Of course she has been briefed and you can see it all over her face. Rather than jump right in I decide to take the scenic route, throw her off-balance a bit first, psychological judo if you will. I tell her how beautiful so much of the work is and that I would love to buy some things to take back home as gifts for friends and family. She is all too pleased and points one thing out to me and another. Thinking now is a ripe time to strike I ask her about how the workers/artisans are compensated, if they get a percentage of what sells or if they are paid an hourly wage. She looks at me like a cock eyed dog.  To eliminate her confusion I say, “For example, this piece is selling for $200. How much of the money from the sale goes to the artist who made the piece?”  Again there is a total loss of English comprehension as she becomes animated with nervous energy, shakes her head one way or another, almost bobbing and weaving, doing her best to evade my questions. Silence once again is truly golden and as a result I must conclude that these truths seem to be self-evident. I explain to her that I would gladly buy some things if I knew the artist was getting paid their fair share for their labors, but since that is seemingly not the case, I cannot. I thank her for her time and information. Though she looks all twisted you can see the relief wash over her as I turn to walk away.

I don’t stir up the waters to cause trouble or be a pain in the ass…I do it to make people think, make us engage ourselves in dialogue over important subjects that need be addressed, regardless of ones nationality, citizenry, or societal classification.  I do it because they are human issues that ultimately exploit us all one way or another.  Seems like no matter where in the world you go, or under what system, people are being exploited to the profit of others. I guess the thing that really saddens and upsets me most is this place is touted as a place to reinvigorate the disenfranchised by plugging them back into society, giving them a place of worth and pride. They probably toil away like this for a few dollars a day while these pieces sell to tourists like hot cakes for really high prices.

I stroll on and come to a very large wall full of suspended gongs of various sizes. Things like this always make me happy!  I grab a mallet and lightly tap upon them, moving from one to the next according to size, in order to compose the music that I am now hearing in my head. Now is one of those times where I wish I had the place to myself for a few hours. I’d love to set up the recorder and play this amazing assemblage of an “instrument”!  As I tap away lightly, respecting the space, the instruments, the people around me, Sergi and Florian appear. They grab mallets and start going to town, running around swinging for the fences with the excitement of kids in a candy store.  I immediately put my mallet down and back away to witness this spectacle as it rapidly unfolds.  Though I know what I am watching is straight up wrong, I can’t help but chuckle to myself and then some!  It’s like watching two bulls in the china shop running wild as they thrash through the isles knocking everything in sight.  Within 30 seconds a staff person appears in attempts to disarm the machinery that at this point has the whole place vibrating with an intensely loud cacophony of dissonant tones. I was waiting for some of the glassware to start shattering as it became sonic warfare up in there! The fellas, grinning ear to ear like two mischievous youths caught in some grand act of sporadic, near innocent (but not at all) mayhem, reluctantly relinquish their mallets (weapons of mass destruction as it may be seen in this particular case). I can’t stop laughing as this one was written front to back and played out before it even began. Though I felt bad for the employees, that was some funny shit man!

Back on the bus now, closing the space between us and Halong Bay, I put on my headphones back on and break out my tablet to carry on with my writing that I am perpetually behind on.  Every once in a while you gotta be thankful for the long journeys carrying you from one adventure to the next.  If you don’t want to fall hopelessly behind in the writing of said journeys, you must use this down time to put the proverbial pen to paper and dig in! It’s not a matter of wanting to write or not, it’s simply a mater of necessity, plain and simple. Once we get to into Halong City, we make our way through, straight to the bay.  Once there we unload once again,  stretch our legs…use the facilities and what-have-you.  We will momentarily be boarding our boat to begin our journey out onto the bay.  We grab our packs and head on down to the docking area, following our guide like ducks in a row.  He brings us to a fine-looking boat, one that is apparently to be our home, at least for the next couple days.  We load in our packs and drop them down in one common spot.

As we will be spending the next couple of days together in this contained environment people begin to further get acquainted with one another. After introducing myself around, engaging in the usual question and answer game, “Where you from, how long you been traveling and where…?” While in conversation I notice the jade colored water moving by through the windows as we are now obviously in motion.  I respectfully remove myself from further conversation with anyone, sliding out unnoticed I make my way up onto the upper deck, get my first real glimpse into the magic land I am entering into. I am delighted to find myself alone for this moment, as we wind our way through the majestic limestone spires that jut out from these glowing jade colored waters. The sun is beaming, matching my inner state of being. I have the deck to myself for about 30 minutes before another person gets hip and comes to bear witness.

20140310-171751.jpgHalong Bay is one of those places, as a photographer, where you just kinda look around you at the world abounding, look down at your camera, take some photos…repeat the process a few times before you begrudgingly admit defeat, laughing in humorous frustration as you contemplate chucking your camera overboard without regret (other than polluting this amazing environment) and walk away. Halong Bay is simply just too big and majestic to capture in a photo, period, end of story! One would need a 360 degree, spherical lens of mad quality…and even then, good luck! This place is listed as one of the ten most beautiful places on planet Earth for God’s sake! Good luck capturing that with a point-and-shoot baby!

That said, I did the best I could with it all. Trust me though, this is one place you should come and witness for yourself! Being here makes me wonder what I was possibly thinking when I thought of not coming. As mentioned, the fact of it being a very heavy tourist destination was putting me off. Some places are heavy tourist destinations for good reason though and this is definitely one of them!  Truth is, once you are on your boat with your crew, you’re out on the bay from there on “alone”. Sure you see other boats on the bay…but it’s really not a big crowd spoiler, much to my pleasant surprise and relief.20140707-170005-61205805.jpg

To present an idea of how I see things, check out the sleeping twin babies, joined at the feet:
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When we are called to lunch, we are all pleasantly surprised by the amount of food that is served us. There is a wide variety of options as well which is really nice!  One thing’s for sure, no one will leave the table with an empty stomach.  If by chance you do, you have real issues!  

At the table we enjoy the food and the conversation as our journey together for the next 24 hours is officially on. Rooms are drawn by number out of a jar, interesting approach I guess. People quickly scamper off to check their rooms and get settled in… Daniel and I decided to share a room as Sergi and Florian are ol’ school buds.  I sit and kick it a little longer, in no rush. Eventually I grab my pack and head down to get settled in, check the room. It’s totally pimped the fuck out! A couple of girls peak in and are super jealous, “Oh my god, look at his room!” They disappear.

Daniel comes down and having not seen our room, informs me he just offered to trade rooms with a couple of girls. “Hmmmm,” I think to myself, “could it possibly be the ones just mentioned?” He is holding the key to their room. He was all too happy and willing to exchange keys, being the nice guy…pretty girls and shit. Can’t fault him for that, specially not being aware he was getting hoodwinked and all. I inform him that they were just in our room, all envious. I tell him kindly, “Um…no fucking way!” I grab the key from his hand and go search out those scheming ass motherfuckers. The boat ain’t that big so it only takes a moment before I spot them. Their faces go from smiling, thinking they swindled us out, themselves into our digs, to flat because they could see the writing on the wall as I approached. I hand them their keys back and say, “Nope, nice try!” then simply walk away. Grow the fuck up and deal bitches! I never cease to be amazed by the bullshit of the human being.

Here is our room (pictured after a nights sleep):20140710-214149-78109028.jpg

We have a full day ahead of us of scheduled events that are part of the tour we purchased into. It all sounds exciting though so I’m committed. We have some down time to relax, get settled in, further acquainted as the boat winds its way through the passing maze of limestone spires jutting up out the sea in route to the caves we are scheduled to explore next.  I am told it’s quite a breathtaking experience.  After the caves we are to return to the boat, head back out onto the bay to another place where we are allowed to kayak for a few hours, followed by a swim in the bay for those so inclined. Dinner will conclude the scheduled events for the day, leaving us the evening to kick it amongst ourselves till morning.

Here is a picture of our boat hitched up at the port where we set off upon our ascent to begin cave exploring. It gives you a little bit more of an idea of the sense of scale here.20140710-210133-75693165.jpg

Once docked at the base of these caves, we pile out and promptly begin our ascent up and then into one of these crags. I can’t lie, this is definitely one of the more crowded moments as far as being with people are concerned, we are definitely on a tour. Regardless though, even if you came alone, this is one of those places where it’s impossible not to be in the crowd.  It’s is an enclosed space with only one point of entry and exit with daily hours of operation of course…the people quickly amass. As this place, a UNESCO National Heritage site, is listed as one of the 10 national wonders of the world, people naturally and rightfully show up. Sure we all wish we could have our secret little wonderland all to ourselves, as though we were the first to discover it…but, that’s not the reality. Once you resign to that fact and accept where you are, the whole thing becomes transformational. What an amazing thing that exists on the planet…how fortunate are we to be able to witness it!

If you think these crags look wondrous from the outside you should see ’em from within! Welcome to the inner world of Halong Bay!!!20140710-211126-76286317.jpg

Ok, confession time. If I had to choose one TV miniseries that is my favorite, it would without question be BBC’s Planet Earth! So, being inside these caves right now for me is sheer majesty! It’s one of those things where the whole adds up to so much more than the sum of its parts. You know it’s just time and water that creates this otherworldly landscape of stalactites and stalagmites…but how can it result in it all coming out to look like this? How can rock no longer look like rock? How can the whole thing look like an alien planet, or a world of fantasy carved by the worlds premier sculptor? Once again nature wins, perpetually pointing the way to what the experience can be about, what the experience should be about, what the experience actually is about for those with eyes to see and souls to dare.20140710-212423-77063791.jpg

A few hours later we find ourselves back in the open air, upon our boat, heading back into the emerald waters of this bay. I’m excited to get into a kayak here and paddle off to find some solitude amongst these sandstone beauties. Kayaking in these waters will be another dream come true!

As the kayaks are doubles Daniel and I will be going it together. He is my partner for this trip it seems. It’s great that we have had the few days in Sapa prior to this to bond. When you travel in such a way you live hard and fast. Things happen intensely. It’s one of those things where you could go years without seeing one another again but then link up some place in the world and say one thing, “Poppa Chu” for example (read my previous entry on Sapa to understand this reference) and it’s on, immediately in the cut! I mention this only to say that family can form really intensely and quickly on the road. It’s somewhat analogous to volcanic eruptions where fiery liquid transforms itself into solid earth in a very short period of intense time.

D and I get changed into our swim gear and head off to jump into one of the available kayaks, paddle off. Of course we accept the challenges of a race here and there with Sergi and Florian as well as other rivals. Soon we all kinda head off on our separate ways to explore amongst these magnificent limestone crags, these gentle giants jutting out from sea floor to sky right before our bewildered eyes. We are both just floored by the omnipotent beauty of where we are. We both look at each other, relieved that we made the choice to come along on this trip as we were both on the fence about it, leaning the other way. We laugh at ourselves like, “What could we possibly have been thinking to almost miss out on this?”

We continue to explore cove after cove in this wonderland we are steeped in.  With not another kayak in site, we have the feeling of being fully alone here, aside from the occasional bird of one variety or another that fly over head. As I never heard how much time we were given for our kayaking I default to Daniel. He says we have plenty of time left, a couple of hours worth anyway. Cool, further we go! Soon we come to inhabit the waters with a small boat full of locals seen off in the distance. They are drinking beers and fishing for crab it seems. Daniel yells something to them in Vietnamese, “xin chao.” No, he doesn’t speak Vietnamese but whatever he said seemed to work like a charm as it makes them smile and raise their beers to us, yelling back to us the same phrase. Impressed, I ask him, “Yo Daniel, what the fuck did you just say?”  “Good afternoon.” he replies. We smile back at them and hold our hands in the air as though we are toasting them back. They wave us over to them. Oh shit, here we go, another unknown experience about to come to fruition. We paddle over… Once we arrive they grab our kayak and tie it to their boat. Now, you don’t have to be an Einstein to know this is gonna go one of two ways, either good or bad, this much I know!

Greeted by huge warm smiles, we are instructed, through gestures, to hop into their boat. Being steeped in the experience as we are we figure we might as well. We hop in to their boat and are immediately handed cans of ice-cold beer. As the sun has been beaming directly on us for the last couple of hours these beers feel and taste a bit too good. There is two men and one woman (completely gorgeous, as a side note) aboard. The woman is the only one not drinking. She appears to be designated driver. Drinking in this fashion here is also “a man’s thing” of course.

The men grab their beers and open them with ours, hold them high and scream something to the air, looking at us with big smiles. They are obviously three sheets to the wind on their way to four. They keep their hands raised in the air, obviously waiting for us to do likewise, meeting their screams with equal zeal.  We raise our beers and scream the phrase back, fuck it! They then pound their beers from top to bottom in all of about 7 seconds, look our way grinning again.  “Oh man, here we go!”  We are obviously, in so many words, expected to keep pace with these guys as casually sipping is not an option and would seemingly be met with ridicule. That said, we are off to the races! In this heat it does not take long before the beer hits the bloodstream “acclimating” us to our new surroundings. Cans empty, we are handed another fresh set where the ritual is repeated verbatim.

Along with the beer we are handed some beautiful fresh crab to eat with them which apparently they are cooking right there on the boat! So, here we are now, in the middle of paradise, on some “by chance” meeting, feasting on fresh caught crab and iced cold beers with some really generous locals. Daniel is getting way into the party and is now 3 sheets to the wind as well, going on 4, as 3 beers are pounded within about 5 minutes time. I again begin to wonder about time and us meeting back at the boat properly. Daniel again says we have plenty of time, at least another hour or so. I figure at this point there is nothing to be done here but roll with it. The guys in the boat ask us what boat is ours. Again, this is all done more through body language and broken communication than through vernacular as they don’t speak English nor us Vietnamese. Can you image an hour in their boat getting pissed with them like this, eating crab the whole time? My only regret is not having a camera to document this whole happening! Kayaking with electronics is a bad idea as I unfortunately do not have a water proof housing for my camera.  For the gods, this one is!

As they are locals they know the routine of all the boats in the area… They have no problem finding our boat and bringing us to it. As we approach, we come to see the whole crew, along with all the passengers, standing on the upper deck watching us. Most are in their swim suits. We are still drinking beers and eating crabs. We all raise our drinks to them and shout the Vietnamese phrase we have been yelling over and over for the last hour, along with our local hero’s of course. Sergi and Florian are smiling from ear to ear as is most everyone else. You can just see the bewilderment all over everyone’s faces, like “What the fuck, how the fuck…? God I wish that were me!” Daniel and I are living it up and by chance found ourselves in the cut where a good experience is further transformed into a great one.

As we hitch up to our ship and jump in, trying not to spill our beers we pull our kayaks in with us, along with the help of the crew. We shake hands and exchange thank you’s with our “captors” who bid us farewell before they head back off into the open waters to continue their party feast. Daniel and I are in amazement and we are both a bit blissed out, having our day turned golden like this. People are coming up to us like, “WTF was that? How did that happen?” It is in this moment that we learned that we have been missing and that the captain and crew are a bit upset, not knowing what the fuck happened to us. It is also in this moment that we learned, as a result of our disappearance, the swim session was called off. Those people standing around on the deck in their swim suits never got to get in the water. Oops! How we doing on time now Daniel???

We apologized to everyone for holding up the ship and messing up the swim. Here’s the thing though, at least with these particular travelers, on this particular day, people were so in awe of our experience and the eminent joy we were having that no one could even get mad at us for blowing their swim trip, they were all just smiles and curiosity, everyone just straight up wanted to be us! As far as the captain and crew were concerned they were just relieved that we returned. I suppose they were thinking the worst, lost or drowned… So, us returning in party mode was somehow, though annoying, a blessing to them.

Daniel and I enjoy our laughter, as the moment we just lived together continues to residually shine upon us. Though I am admittedly a bit pissed (meaning tipsy), Daniel is further down the road, so to speak. We have a couple of hours before the sun will begin to set. D decides to lay down and catch a nap before dinner is served. I go up to kick it with the folks up top, see what’s what. Everybody wants the further story upon our escapade and someones gotta tell it, so I guess that’s me. Confirming my suspicions, people tell me they wanted to be mad at us but couldn’t because they could see how much fun we were having. Chatting quickly gnaws away at the time and before I know it dinner is to be served. I head back down to see if I can rouse D to come and eat as I figured the food would aid to revive him and re-engage him into the upcoming events of the evening before us, whatever they may be. Also, if you miss out on dinner you miss out on eating for the night! After some prompting I finally get him to comply. He pulls himself to his feet and readies himself for dinner.

As he and I are now looked on upon as somewhat of characters, due to our recent kayak excursion, I tell him we should further play the role by rolling up to dinner in our traditional clothing we purchased from our host family in Sapa. He is of course game and that is exactly what we do. See, I am definitely the type to ride the wave as long as it will carry me. High’s sometimes are far and few between. When you are on one, it is my opinion that you should ride that fucker out!!! Besides, it’s dinner time on the emerald bay…time to put on our finery and step to the occasion in proper attire. I am not an actor by trade…but I sure do enjoy wearing hats and playing characters from time to time.

Here is the scene from where we drop anchor, along with all the other boats on the bay tonight. To say it’s pretty would be an understatement!20140714-200417-72257859.jpg

The night turned into card games, drinking, and jokes. Though I again have the sensations of feeling a little awkward with such young company, doing young things such as drinking games, I accept my fate and carry gamely on.  Besides, aside from Sergi, Florian, and Daniel, no one knows my age.  When people do find out the truth of the matter they are always shocked with disbelief anyway so…no sense spoiling a good thing. Pass me a beer and shuffle them cards folk! The best part about this is it brought together people who were not in our crew, so to speak. We had a nice multigenerational (yes, there were even folks older than I), multicultural card game filled with laughter and drinking which included our guide and some of the off duty crew. Good people and laughs a plenty indeed help to while away these evening hours.  Life is a precious thing and staying young at heart is a valuable key to making a long healthy go of it!20140714-200419-72259064.jpg

The icing on the cake of the evening in my opinion was when a handful of us went up onto the deck to sit underneath the stars and talk the remainder of the night away, sipping on our beers and/or casually smoking our cheap Vietnamese cigarettes. Another game was introduced here. Play moves around from person to person, one at a time we take turns bringing up some deed or subject. Those not initiating the subject are to point at the person most likely to have done said thing in their life. The one who gets the most fingers pointed their way must either tell their story of said deed or defend against it. Pretty fun. Of course the game quickly moves into sexual escapades and fetishes of one kind or another. Good thing I never got any fingers pointing my way;) Anyway, it was just a chill conclusion to a fantastic day.  I feel sorry for my boy D who decided to seek the refuge of his mattress for the rest of the evening, as he was never quite able to recover from our extensive kayaking excursion.

The next morning began bright and early with Sergi and Florian bursting into the room all amped to jump from the upper deck of the boat into the bay.  They’ve come to gather more recruits and wanna know if we are game.  Sure, why not?  I pull my ass outta bed and into a swimsuit, head on up to the deck to see what’s what.  Apparently the Captain has nixed the idea of jumping from the upper deck due to past injuries that have occurred as a result of said activity.  Instead we all jump in off the back of the boat for a morning swim.  The water feels great and is a wonderful way to awake to another fine day!  Sergi and Florian, refusing to accept defeat and surrender to the order not to jump from the upper deck, head up to do it anyway.  The crew recommends against this as it is their job to listen to the captain…but to no avail.  They quickly make the leap and plummet down to the water like human missiles.  They emerge unscathed and victorious with beaming cheshire grin smiles. The captain emerges to show his scowling face, obviously he is not pleased that his command has been broken.  He let’s us all know that there will be no more of said activity on his boat, end of story.  Fair enough, he is the captain after-all.  If shit goes wrong it falls on his shoulders…so, I don’t blame the guy.

Here is a photo taken after our morning swim.  Today we will all part again, going our separate ways. Though there were more people than this on our boat, this was the core crew: 20140714-200420-72260355.jpg

While some people will remain on the boat for another day, bringing them to a neighboring island called Cat Ba, where they will spend the night in a bungalow on the beach.  As tempting as this is the fellas and I have to get a move on as we have individual things that are pressing upon us with time.  Florian has a bus booked to bring him across the border someplace further south into Laos.  I am heading to Laos next as well but I’m not sure exactly to where and when.  I know it must be soon as my visa only has two days left on it.  I’ve been loving Vietnam so much I am contemplating extending it.  Whichever way I decide I need to be in a place to make that happen. Cat Ba island will have to wait another day for me to happily step upon it.

We have a nice hardy breakfast followed by a demonstration (somewhat oddly enough) on how to make proper spring rolls. It felt like, “We need another activity for the morning. Hmmm…fuck it, let’s show em how to make spring rolls!”  Cool, let’s make spring rolls then!  We all get a go at it, some of us faring better than others.  After this, those of us that will not be continuing on to Cat Ba are told to ready our things to dock shortly where we will once again disembark, re-board the bus and take the same trip we came in on, in reverse. When I say the same that includes Surgi and Florian beating the shit out the gongs again at that arts and crafts center.

I again listen to music and write the whole way back to Hanoi where we are all dropped at various points of our choosing along the way.  Everything happens suddenly as stops are made and people hustle off.  It’s one of those really melancholy feelings as a traveler.  Friendships are formed so fast, so intensely…then just as quickly as they form, they dismantle…leaving one wondering if and when you will ever see one another again in this life.  It’s beautiful and tragic at once!  Florian begins to stress missing his bus to Laos that is scheduled to leave in 10 minutes time.  Talk about cutting it close! Fortunately he makes it just in the nick of time.  As the four of us are all heading off into separate directions I decide to head back to my little guesthouse I stayed at last time.

 

 

 

 

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Hanoi to Sapa, Vietnam

Having bought a ticket to leave tonight at 9pm for Sapa, via sleeper bus. I check out of my room and store my gear with the hotel for the day while I run around and enjoy my last day in Hanoi. I will be back soon so I don’t feel the usual sense of slight melancholy for leaving as I often do when I know I might not ever return to a place.  Rather than talk more about Hanoi (see my previous entry), here are some more shots from around the city. IMG_5805IMG_5825 IMG_5830 IMG_5854 IMG_5867 IMG_5885 IMG_5891IMG_5898 The bus ride to Sapa is 11 hours long. I much prefer to combine travel and sleep whenever possible as in the end it saves me time and money.  Sleeper trains or busses are the best for this as there is no further need to shell out on accommodations for the night and no day “wasted” waiting to get to the next location. It’s as simple as putting your head down to sleep only to find that when you next lift it you are have arrived upon your next destination. Two birds, one stone…works well for me. Once the time comes to leave Hanoi I gather my things and thank Vivian and her sister for their warmth and kindness. I wrote them a great review on tripfinder just because they were so super. When I come back to Hanoi on my return I will stay here again. “See you soon,” I say as I make my way out the labyrinth of little streets I have been slowly learning to navigate over the last few days, as the bus cannot enter there, and meet up with the bus to begin my journey to Sapa.  We start rolling. I locate my seat/bed to find out that it is shared/side by side with some woman who is not happy to see me, nor I her to be honest. We were both under the (mis)understanding that it was not a shared thing, but rather we had our own space. This woman makes a big fuss about it and creates a bit of a spectacle.  Though the people running the bus operation explain things to her (and I) she refuses, saying, “No, I purchased my own ticket and I’m not sharing it with anyone…” She gets on the phone and calls the travel agency she purchased the ticket from…starts complaining. I patiently wait, already having sussed out the situation. The bus is full and there is no other option at this point. “We were both mislead but here we are…deal,” I think to myself.  The whole bus is watching this spectacle unfold.  I’m patient and glad I am not the one making the scene. Ten minutes later, with nothing changing or going to change, I tell this woman, “Look, we were both mislead…but this is how it is. Everyone else on this bus is sharing as well. It’s uncomfortable for both of us i know…but, I purchased a ticket just like you did and I don’t intend to stand the whole way there so you’re going to have to accept the fact and move over to make room for me.” Huffing and puffing, yet with nothing to say (as the truth is the truth), she begrudgingly moves her bags off my side of the bed. I get in and put on my headphones…sit up and do some writing. I think to myself, 11 hours from now this will all be behind me…no worries. At this point it was not the shared space that was so terrible, it was the shared space with an angry person who blames you for being there and wishes you weren’t. Thing is, that’s her problem, not mine. I just did what I needed to do and got on with my life…probably infuriated her more as she sulked away…but, oh well! Now, on with the show… 20131205-165034.jpg On long trips the bus always makes a stop someplace in order for us all, driver included,  to get a bite to eat and stretch our legs, use the facilities. This seems to be typical bus protocol regardless of where in the world one might be traveling.  That said, we pull into a roadside restaurant where we are all pulled out of various stages of sleep and or contemplation… The bus comes to life slowly, as one by one we all funnel ourselves back into our current reality, climb out of our beds, walk down the isle to put our shoes on (pulled from the plastic bags we were given to store them in). From there, one by one, like ducks in a row, we step off the bus into the fresh night air.  We have about 30 minutes to do what we must before the bus will pull out, it’s nose pointed once again towards our destination place of Sapa. I go in and out, like most people, of wanting to be social or not.  You can get by navigating the terrain for the most part as an introvert but, you will speak with others at least three times a day, as you gotta eat.  Traveling in regions where you do not speak the language or vice versa requires a greater sense of courage and adventure. One must be both willing to experience laughter at yourself for getting it all wrong or a warm smile because you got it right, or right enough to be understood.  The appreciation for ones efforts, as well as disdain and rejection for the vanity (privilege of having the luxury to travel at all) to do so with no real comprehension of the language. It’s a fine line to walk but it comes with the territory, quite literally, when traveling.  Learning languages takes years…when one is traveling many countries at once this is not really a viable option.  English, being the universal language is both helpful and hindering at once. When it is spoken it allows you to navigate things easier…but at once it deprives you of having to figure it out.  It also forces the local people to use a tongue they don’t generally speak, just because your privileged ass rolls up without speaking theirs. It’s a weird position because often their English is hardly better than your ability to speak whatever their native tongue may be. Traveling like this forces everyone involved to engage, making everyone slightly uncomfortable for a bit. Again, sometimes it’s received, understandable so, with disdain. Others however, and this always feels better, receive it in stride as part of life, the world we live in.  Often times a lot of laughter is exchanged as we work through our inability to communicate well via words. Yet our ability to do “well enough,” somehow making it happen, at least to a level that keeps the whole thing possible, is a good start indeed.  In the end, you are going to eat, you’re not going to starve to death. You may not always know what it is you have “ordered” or what it is you are eating…but indeed, and most importantly, you are eating and most often times it’s really delicious (if you are open to such things that is). If not, maybe you should just stay in resorts, with a bunch of other people like you, where all the staff speak English and are there to “serve you” in order to make your experience as free of challenges and effort as possible. Or, better yet, stay home and save your money cause you are not really having an authentic experience of the place anyway, certainly not traveling anyway. I get myself a bowl of Pho Bo and am happy as a clam, sitting alone slowly ingesting this, one of my favorite foods in the world, pondering over the simple complexities of languages.  A Vietnamese man comes and sits across from me, starts talking to me in English (interesting timing). Turns out he is an English teacher and wants to learn about me, practice his English further. He is a really nice guy and we have a pretty interesting conversation, which at 1am on some little mountain town roadside restaurant feels really special. We talk while we eat and then further over a cigarette while we await the reloading of the bus. I find myself being really thankful for this nice exchange! It’s the little things like this that somehow are the points that you remember from your trip with fondness in your heart. It’s also the things you recall when you begin to get inspired and put the next big trip into planning. Back on the bus, rolling… The music in my ears tonight feels perfect, and it’s the missing link that synchs everything up.  I have found, that for me, music is the only thing that can do this. The right mix at the right time and it’s this sensational space that opens up where you are both fully present in the moment, yet all the while you can feel the wholeness of the life you have lived, wrapped up as one as you move into the future with each bit of passing time. I remember Carlos Santana talking about the special moments where you laugh and cry at the same time. This is one of those moments as I sit back, smile big inside myself, and allow the tears to roll down the sides of my cheeks in darkness and silence.  At times life just feels like this amazingly juicy ripe fruit that is starting to drip and run because it can no longer be contained within its skin. These moments are special and when they come I welcome them whole- heartedly! It’s these moments that let you see yourself objectively, how hard you have been living to put yourself in your dreams. “There’s a girl in new york city who calls herself the human trampoline. And sometimes when I’m falling, flying or tumbling in turmoil I say whoa, so this is what she means. She means we’re bouncing into Graceland.” “And I see losing love is like a window in your heart. Everybody sees you’re blown apart. Everybody sees the wind blow.” -Paul Simon Im awoken in the morning by the herky jerky motions of the bus which usually signify the arrival into town, as both right angle turns and the grabbing and releasing of brakes, due to traffic, enter the the configuration and jerk you back to life.  I open my eyes and sit up to find I am not alone in this activity as all my consequential travel companions are enacting the same ritual. After 11 hours on the bus I gather we are all pretty ready to stretch our legs and wander into our next independent adventures.  The problem traveling in the region is that the adventure always comes to you first. As the bus pulls in to the parking lot, through the window I can see the local “accommodation/transportation industry” chomping at the bit to fight over us.  “Here we go again,” I think to myself.  Sometimes you can’t even off the bus before being “attacked”.  This is one of those times apparently, for as soon as the door opened, they burst in like an explosion, pitching one thing or another. “Hill Tribe this hill tribe that…cheapest rates…”  Having just opened my eyes to the day, I am so not in the mood for this!  We all push our way through the madness, in attempt to make our way off the bus.  Some are snared in the sales trap, willingly or otherwise…  I say, “Look, can we get off the bus first? Excuse me please, excuse me!”  Once off I am immediate surrounded like a swarm of bees.  Shit starts to feel like 28 days later and shit.  Damn people!  I just laugh to myself and shake my head. It’s all so old hat by this point I can do nothing else. I decline I decline I decline, push my way through, get my bags and finally free myself from the noise, head over across the street to get myself a coffee and get my head together, let all the ruckus die down and see where things settle. I grab myself a seat in the little patio section of this cafe, drop my bags and order my usual ca-phe sua da. As mentioned, my purpose to come here is to head into the hills, into the villages in hopes to stay with a local village host family, a home-stay.  I went online earlier of course, read this and that about how to go about accomplishing this. It was all vague and a bit off-putting. The bombardment that just took place on the bus of people offering “authentic home-stays” was certainly not in accordance with my vision of things. In my mind I will just get myself back into the hills somehow and leave the rest up to chance. Seems reasonable enough. I have gotten to a point in traveling where I am no longer worried about things “working out” by sheer tenacity alone. I have found it often best just to relax and roll with the wave that’s carrying me. Things have a way of working out best sometimes when you relinquish control and stay out the way. Here is a case in point: While sitting down enjoying my coffee, eyeing the new town Im in, watching the whole spectacle across the street of swarmed travelers die down and finally disappear. It is now that I feel like I have finally arrived.  I don’t know where I am going or how exactly to accomplish my aim…but the best part about it all is I don’t care. I am simply happy to be where I am, enjoying my morning coffee in Sapa town. As the caffein begins to work its charm I begin to notice Black Hmong women appear here and there in the town. They are easy to identify due to their unique traditional dress they are adorned in.  It’s an amazing feeling to see the pictures you were looking at 6 months ago come to life in front of your eyes.  It is no longer static images you are longing to see come to life, no. Now, everything is real and you are in the picture, the motion picture in fact…rolling!  This one has no script and it is not fantasy…it is indeed real.  Oh what a powerful and liberating sensation…one of such grace.  I become the happiest man on Earth as I peer into this new world I have willed myself into.20131205-181057.jpg Lo and behold and sure enough I am approached by one of these beautifully adorned women.  She tells me, in what (to my surprise) is some of the strongest English I have hear spoken here, that her name is “Momma Chi” and that she would like to know if I would like to come to her village and stay with her family.  Now, here it is…this is the vibe I was looking for!  We talk for a bit and I ask her some questions to vibe out the situation further.  We talk for about 20 minutes before I accept her offer, whereupon she puts a bracelet on my arm that she has made.  This bracelet is the equivalent of a handshake to seal the deal.  It also serves as an identifier to other “mommas” (she tells me that all the women refer to each other as momma) that I am “spoken for”. Momma Chi tells me to take my time and enjoy my breakfast…that I can find her over at the market at the church courtyard right down the road. “Ok, great I say!  See you soon,” thanking her.  While I am sitting there I decide to try to rent a motorbike to get around…back into the hills and what-have-you. I ask the person working at the cafe if she can point me in the right direction. She tells me she will call a friend that rents bikes. 20 minutes later a woman rolls up on a motorbike, comes to greet me. We make a deal for me to rent the bike for 3 days for x amount of dong. I reluctantly give her my passport to hold and she hands me the keys. She tells me to just come to the cafe again in three days to return the bike.  I thank her and sit down again to finish my coffee. Wow, a lot has happened in the last hour. I went from having nothing set up to having everything set up and it was all really quite effortless. I smile and give thanks! I begin to take note of local men walking around with corn on the cob in hand.  As I love me some corn on the cob I say my thank you’s, pay my bill, grab my pacs and follow the thread back to its source. It’s an all local spot that looks great! People are eating and having coffee and or beer…enjoying each others company to begin their day. Seems like a morning ritual here for these gents. Of course I am looked at by everyone in the place…but not with any kinda funny vibe at all, more just like a “Hmmmm, you’re not from around these parts,” kinda look.  As I need to get some food in me I sit down. Besides, there is no way I’m leaving without some of that delicious corn on the cob! While sitting, I observe a small debate take place between servers over who will come to take my order. I’m sure it has to do with their level of English spoken. “You speak English better than me.”  “No, you speak it better than I.”  “Oh, you said ‘I’, see I told you so, you go take his order.” Something to that effect I am envisioning.  In the end a young man  shyly comes over, we nod hello to each other.  As mentioned earlier, no matter what, I find myself in this scenario at least three times a day, as I must eat.  I manage to order the corn on the cob by pointing, that’s easy. Also, I of course get myself a bowl of pho, my usual go to. You might think oh man, doesn’t this guy eat anything else here.  My answer is simple, one can never have enough pho in Vietnam!  If you’ve spent time here you understand.  If you have not but someday do, you will understand. The hardest part about these transactions is not the ordering of food, it’s in figuring out the money afterwards, how much the bill is.  By this point I understand some numbers through repeatedly hearing them spoken in exchanges.  I look up some more in my phrase book, try to assign them to memory.  If I don’t understand the amount I just hand over an amount that I usually pay for such a meal. Sometimes this gets me change and sometimes this gets me a pause and a stare. When the later scenario occurs I just hand over another equivalent dollar bill.  Most often times that gets me change but not always.  Sometimes, they look at me and smile, say “no no” and make change from my money in hand. This has not happened often, only a couple of times.  I know the denominations well enough to know if I was getting hustled for some large amount.  Fortunately, this has never been the case.  When this has happened it’s always been a warm person who was really kind in doing so, like “Here you go, this amount,” showing me what they took at the same time. One time by mistake I handed over a large bill thinking it was a small one.  The woman looked at me astonished,  then smiled and handed it back, taking the smaller bill and providing me with it’s proper change.  I looked at her with thanks and acknowledgement all over my face, like “Oh yeah, of course, stupid me.” Bill notes in SE Asia have a lot of zeros attached to them.  That little insignificant number, when standing alone, becomes anything but insignificant when following another number that proceeds it!  Traveling through many countries rapidly, crossing back and forth, can be a bit of a mind fuck with the money until you get accustomed to the new notes.  I usually try to watch others pay for their meals, see the denominations they are handing over and the change received as well. I do this to find out the amount but also to make sure I am not charged more. It becomes interesting to me to see who tries to overcharge me and who does not. In Vietnam, as a traveler you become quite used to the necessity of haggling. It is a survival skill here unless you want to pay three to ten times more for things. Street food, restaurants, and hotels are usually an exception to the rule and people seem to be fair across the board but not always. It’s a fine line. Sometimes you allow yourself to pay slightly more for things…it depends upon the situation. After all, the average salary here is the equivalent of $100-200/month. I don’t mind paying an extra 20 or 30 cents more than the locals for things from time to time but I’m not going to pay $3 for something that you sell for .50c. Um, not happening! The food is delicious and my belly is now full. I pay my bill without any snags and decide I am officially ready for the journey ahead of me, whatever that may be. I jump upon my new-chapter steel pony and head off to pick up a couple recommended things for the hills here. I’ve read it can get quite cold at high altitude here in Sapa so I decide it a good idea to get myself a proper coat (at this point I have only had need for a rain-shell). I cruise about the little rolling streets here looking for a store that sells outdoor gear.  It’s kinda funny as the place somehow reminds me of some little ski town. I see a place with hiking gear in the window, pull over to park, head on in to have a look. They don’t really have what I am looking for so I head on down the road in search for other spots. I’ve heard there are a number of places that sell gear so no worries. Sure enough I come across the right place. I try on some coats, engaging myself in a nice conversation at once with the woman who is running the shop. The coat I want is not in my size but I am told they can bring me one from down the street, “It won’t take long,” I am told. “Sure, that would be great” I say, further enjoying my conversation with this pleasant woman. There is a guy that runs out to get the coat, via motorbike of course. He comes back 15 minutes later with the coat. It fits fine but there is a flaw in the drawstrings. He goes out to get another one and 15 minutes later he has returned. Ok, all good. I buy a North Face (or so I think) coat for a great price. I also pick up another pair of good hiking socks. Now, here is how naive I can be at times. I have seen all this North Face gear around for uber cheap. I even bought a daypack for $15 to replace the bag I brought that I sweated out (add broken zipper to the equation). The deals seemed so good I even thought about buying a handful more (coats) and shipping ’em back home for gifts for family and friends.  Well, it was after purchasing the gear that I would come to find out it’s all bootleg imitation gear made in China. See, here we go again man. The Chinese are shameless for this shit. They wont make a similar or comparable product and sell it for the same or less. No, they will make a product that “is” another product. North Face, Samsung (Yes, I know Samsung is a Chinese company.  They bootleg their own shit too) you name it man. Looks legit, feels legit, but is NOT legit. You will find out soon enough when that shit starts falling apart. I’ve never seen so much imitation shit in all my life! I mentioned getting run on the used “Samsung Galaxy” phone I bought for $100 in Saigon. It turned out to be imitation crap that did nothing but malfunction and crash. Not to jump ahead on my timeline here but for the sake of my topic I will tell you, my “North Face” daypack lasted 2 weeks before the seems started coming apart and the straps started breaking off. Um, yeah… North Face my ass! Anyway, word to the wise for the traveler in order to not get taken by the same scams. Yes, I can be a bit naive indeed. I just thought shit was cheaper because it was bypassing all the import costs and first world store markups. Maybe naive is the wrong word, insert um, “dumb” here. Well, we all have our weak spots…now you know mine. Having purchased my necessary gear I guess I am ready to head into the hills. My next stop is to the church lot to find Momma Chi. The church is easy to find and in fact I drove by it on my way to find my gear. Gathered in the courtyard are many different hill-tribe women, mostly Black Hmong, displaying their wares for sale on the ground on spread out blankets. I don’t really have to venture down for as I roll up I am approached by Momma Chi along with another woman, Momma Pain. Momma Chi tells me that Momma Pain will guide me back into the village. Momma pain looks really sweet. She is quite tiny which is good as she will have to fit on my steel pony along with both my packs and her wicker basket which is of considerable depth. “Ok Momma Pain, let’s do this!” We hop on the bike which I parked nearby.  She points the way for us and we are off.  Momma Pain hardly speaks any English so most of our communication takes place through pointing, along with simple “yes” and “no’s”. It’s a great feeling to put myself in the picture I imagined and poured over…but I never imagined it like this.  Driving a motorbike with a Black Hmong woman on the back of the bike? “Strange days indeed…pretty peculiar momma.” Welcome to Sapa people! IMG_6070 As we wind our way up into the hills on these little dirt and gravel roads…the views quickly become stupendous! These terraced mountain rice fields I have seen in photos become manifest right in front of my eyes. The surreal nature of me being here with Momma Pain on the back of my bike hits me again. We tool pass many Black Hmong people walking the roadside.  Prior to arrival, months in advance, you begin to wonder what it will feel like to encounter some of these places, some of these people… Now, here it is, I am living it. To explain how bizarre this sensation can feel at times would be quite impossible indeed. Off the beaten path travelers understand what I am getting at here. 20131215-165422.jpgI check in on Momma Pain occasionally, make sure she is doing ok on the back. She wears a helmet as well as the bike came with two. She reciprocates my concern for her by checking in with me, cautioning me here and there about the upcoming road and it’s curvy drop offs. We stop off here and there along the way so I can get some of the shots of this ever so amazing landscape. This place is equally the most beautiful place I have ever laid eyes upon. Nothing short of majestic! While I stop to take photos I become conscious of the fact that this amazing landscape I am just now seeing for the first time, is the only landscape Momma Pain’s eyes have ever seen. It’s all so humbling on so many levels! I realize that the trip to the village, if I stop off to get photos at every little bend in the road that illuminates further the splendor here, it will be an all day affair. I resolve to get us to the village and come out again later, on my own, for photos as I don’t want to make my guide wait. I have no idea what her life is and whether or not she is on a time frame with things to do. We drive on and eventually come to a small little off-road and then again to another. There is a very steep incline that must be made in order to deliver us to the base of her village. Momma pain hops off the bike as two people will not be able to do it together.  Too much weight, particularly on the back and the front tire will be leaving the ground…  Alone it was fine, I put my weight forward and go. I am instructed to park the bike at the local village general store. When I say village general store, I really mean village general store. It is a family owned business of course and is as rustic as a store can be…let’s leave it at that. Momma Pain speaks with the owner and it is agreed that I will be allowed to house my motorbike there during my stay. So much of traveling this way relies upon trust and faith in your fellow human being. I don’t know any of these people, nor do I have any idea where I am at. It’s a weird feeling to just walk away from the bike I am responsible for, as apparently, we have a good hike ahead of us to get to Momma Chi’s house.  Placing yourself into the hands of “strangers” as we are taught, is not advisable. Well, one must use common sense here as well as instinctual awareness. If something feels off it’s usually because it is. If it feels ok, it usually is. This feels ok.  Trust… Leaving the bike behind I follow Momma Pain up a dirt, mud trench kinda ascent. We pass other people in the tribe both going up and coming down. The incline is somewhat steep and after about 10 minutes of it my legs get a good burn on as a result of me carrying all my gear. It’s one of those burns that somehow feels wonderful.  Accompanied by labored breathing, it somehow feels like progress. It’s times like this where I am reminded that you gotta earn the good stuff, which always involves giving something of yourself in one way or another. It is on this ascent that I first take notice of the basic yellow plastic sandals that all the locals are wearing. These things are cheap shoes, plain and simple…far from “proper” shoes more less hiking shoes… It will be a common point of observation and amazement from this moment forward. Well, Momma Pain and her little yellow plastic kicks are burying me and my fancy hiking shoes on the trail, plain and smle. She does not have as much weight with her as I do for sure, but she does have that big woven basket on her back full of stuff, not to mention that she is about half my size. Noteworthy strength to say the least! The incline further steepens and the feeling of “progress” is rapidly declining along with it, humbling me good and plenty . All I can do is watch the little plastic yellow shoes move on ahead of me. I am determined to not be left in the dust by this little billy goat of a lady. At once I am realizing that being “in shape” means many things. This lady walks this path and then some at least once a day, everyday of her life since she started walking about 40 years ago. For her it’s not some ass kicking hill…it’s just the way home. She could walk this thing in the pitch dark without two thoughts about it I’m guessing. My pride and stubbornness gets the best of me as I refuse to let this lady know I am burning up behind her. Every time she looks back at me I just smile as though it’s a piece of cake. I do begin to wonder to myself how far this trail head will continue on before leveling out. My legs are ready for that to happen sooner than later! The nail in the coffin of my pride falling to pieces is when a group of kids passes us, not just on foot, but on stilts, yes stilts! Bored by walking this path, leaping about like billy-goats, apparently they needed to up the anti and cure their boredom with a new challenge, that being stilts added to the equation:20131231-152912.jpg IMG_5933All and all the ascent is about a half an hours walk. I’d be lying my ass off if I said I was not happy to arrive and drop my packs. Once we arrive I get my wish. Drenched in sweat I unload my gear and allow gravity to affix it to the floor. The floor is a dirt floor. Years of packed down and hardened earth. I’m guessing it must be mixed with some type of cement compound to keep the foundation in place.  Yes, we are in Momma Chi’s house. Carrying with me no expectations of what type of living conditions I would encounter outside of things being very basic, I am happy to be in what will be “home” for the next couple nights. There is a living room that connects to the kitchen on one side and the bedrooms on another. The toilet is out in back of the house, a classic squat style toilet made out of the same hardened matter. There is minimal plumbing…a dump bucket type of flush system found so heavily throughout all the region.  Having been traveling in SE Asia for a while I’m quite used to it by now. The bedrooms do have mattresses of sorts that are covered in layers of really thick heavy blankets that seem more part of the make up of the bed than additions to it. I can tell just by the look of these well lived in beds that I will have to soup up on allergy medication before I lay myself down to sleep. Yes, I do indeed suffer from some allergies. I am pointed to a room with my own bed in it as the other two beds located in more of a common space are spoken for. All the better as far as I’m concerned. I move my packs into my new room and open things up to find a new shirt to change into as the one I am wearing is totally sweated out from the hike here. I go outside and get struck by the reality now of where I am. The views are stunning…nothing short of beautiful! I go in and grab my sticks and practice pad, take a seat outside and start to work on my hands while I take in the views. For years I’d thought about what it would feel like to have a practice studio that was steeped in nature, overlooking some stupendous beauty. Well, I’m really thrilled to be getting a taste of it now. I work through various stickings and patterns…working on my wrists and fingers… Heavy marching band sticks and a small practice pad is sometimes all you need to make a lot of progress. It’s a compromise but at once it’s a strength. Isolating certain things and putting them under the microscope to develop them further is a worthwhile pursuit! Once you return to the instrument it’s a different game.  The curse of a drummer is you can’t really travel like this with a drum kit, even a most basic one. One must accept the trade off and do what one can…understand that the inspiration and development does not always come from the instrument itself. Time to be a sponge and get my mind opened by this world…keep my hands together/improve them while I’m taking it all in. A little over an hour later I see Momma Chi approaching with three guys, fellow travelers. There is Surgi from Barcelona and Florian from just outside Dusseldorf. They are exchange students that have both been studying in Singapore over the last 6 months. There is also Daniel from Australia who is out traveling the world extensively before he returns to Australia and steeps himself in a new career. These guys are all totally chill and it is laughs and great conversation from the get. I quickly ascertain that Surgi seems to be the instigator/prankster of the group, so with him around there is always gonna be something popping off as a result. This makes me happy!  It’s odd to find yourself in some way remote part of the planet with some of the best company, just by chance, that you could ask for. The stage is set and the characters have been cast. Turn it up…bring the noise! Though these guys arrived into town around the same time I did they are arriving just now as they hiked here with Momma Chi from Sapa town. The hike was about 4.5 hours I am told.  Also with them is Momma Sun who is beyond tiny and seems to always be smiling. Her English is the best spoken here amongst the Momma’s and she is nothing if not a load of fun! Soon we are joined by another guy, Kevin.  He has already been staying here for a couple of nights and just returns from hiking.  A mid twenties French-Vietnameseguy who seems to be somewhat of a more soft spoken soul, extremely pleasant to be around.  I get the feeling that he has a lot to offer from the internal realms.  We all sit down to further get aquatinted, have some lunch that the family prepares. It turns out to be a really tasty tofu dish with rice. The portions are large as well with plenty of seconds for those who still have room. The meal hits the spot and we are all happy and somewhat pleasantly surprised. None of us were sure what meals would be like here but we all thought with certainty that they would be more sparse. Prepared for the latter, we are all pleased to be proven incorrect. After lunch it is decided that we will all head over to the waterfalls for a swim. It’s about a 15 minute hike to get there.  Sounds great!  On the way there my stomach begins talking to me in a way I am not looking forward to entering into conversation with. I decide to sit out the falls once we get there as the idea of being in freezing cold water right now suddenly went from great to bad. Instead I hang out with Momma Chi and laugh along with her. I shoot some photos of the crew and am secretly sad to not be in there. I also am secretly looking forward to emptying the contents of my stomach. As no one else seems to be affected I throw off the idea that it is the food. I’ve been traveling hard and on occasion this manifests itself on the system. So much new and diverse food, on the go, on the move, weird hours, sleeping lord only knows on what type of moving vehicle… After the waterfalls we head quickly back to the house to change before heading off to explore the village. I use this brief time as an opportunity to visit the hole in the ground that is the toilet.  I will spare you, dear reader, the details.  Feeling eons better I am ready to move out and explore the village.  The Mommas bring us around here and there and introduced us to people around the way. Everybody here seems so friendly. Here is a shot with Momma Chi and another Momma we met along the way. I am carrying Momma Chi’s basket.20131231-140558.jpg Here is a picture of Momma Mu, one of the local villagers, with her daughter strapped to her back. This little one had the remarkable ability to not only successfully carry her cucumber up the hillside without once dropping it once, but also, and even maybe more remarkably, was her ability to eat the thing, slowly but surely, with little to no teeth! 20131231-155125.jpg We are brought to the village school where class is in attendance.  We looked into the classroom to an immediately bombardment of excitement as the children yelled “Hello, Hello” non-stop to us, waving and smiling, laughing and giggling.  We just smiled and waved back, returning the hello’s that so warmed our hearts.  To be honest, these kids kinda melted me.  Their school is nothing more than a wooden shack, totally unequipped to be able to get these kids the education they desperately need and deserve.  There is a new school that is being build, that looks more modern…up to date.  It’s sizable as well.  I’m not sure where the money came from to build it but I am only so happy to see it standing there!  Operational or not, it’s becoming a reality and that’s the main thing!  A Los Lobos tune comes dancing into my head, “Angels with Dirty Faces.”IMG_6026 Though the landscape here is nothing short of stupendous, these terraced rice fields that have been maintained here over so many years don’t come easy.  Here is a shot of a Black Hmong woman hoeing the fields with her child strapped on her back none-the-less:20131231-141336.jpgIf you have any question whether or not these are some hard working people, these two shots should answer that pretty quickly!20131231-152600.jpg Majestic Sapa!IMG_6060 Enter Poppa Chu! Man, where to begin with this guy? What a character! All I will say is take caution if you are drinking the “Happy Water” with the man, for Poppa Chu gets real happy indeed! It’s funny, as during the day Pappa Chu is all business man! He sits for hours diligently working away on making jewelry, really gorgeous stuff at that! It’s inspiring to watch him work. No matter what you are doing, in the background are the constant sounds of Poppa Chu’s hammer, pounding and flattening, shaping metal, or intricately tapping away (ting-ting-ting-ting-ting)  inscribing it with beautiful patterns. His engraving tools consist of drill bits that he has pounded the tips of into various points. It’s really both inspiring and impressive to witness. Once again, poor people making something out of nothing, reinventing the wheel. Here is a few shots of Poppa Chu at work on some gorgeous rings of his own design:20131231-134913.jpg20131231-135149.jpg20131231-135256.jpg The family have two sons, one of which is Ku.  Ku is adopted and from what I can ascertain has had a pretty tragic life. His father, Poppa Chu’s brother, died a couple of years ago. His mom decided to give him away as she felt she could not provide. He lives with his uncle Poppa Chu and aunt Momma Chi. There is only so much money in this family and sadly enough only enough money to send one kid to school. There biological son goes and Ku does not. Though these two boys are near one another in age you can see the developmental difference between the two. Ku also has a huge scar that runs on both sides of his face from the corners of his mouth on back towards the centers of his cheeks. It is a result of a fall he suffered as a kid somehow. It all makes me so sad. I want to send this family money every month or so just for Ku so that he can go to school too. I am told that even if I wanted to do so there is no way the family can receive it as there is no way for them to get mail. These hill tribes are way isolated and somewhat outcasted. They are not really embraced or respected by the Vietnamese or the Chinese and are continually pinched by both. Though these people technically reside within the country of Vietnam, many do not speak Vietnamese at all.  They speak their individual tribal languages of course.  I think of all the people around the world who make some real money, 6 figures, more…  Some small monthly donation from them, money that is to them of little to no consequence, would go such a long way in places like this to help. I must pause to say something here about the process of traveling, being an outsider, someone casually passing through the everyday saga (often times seeming unalterable) of peoples lives, as a very privileged person (comparatively speaking).  I don’t just want to write about these peoples lives, their strengths and hardships, trials and tribulations, equipped with images, without meditating on the fact that maybe they don’t want to be made public…made to be examples, the subject of peoples judgments one way or another, either romanticized, trivialized, exoticized, or any other.  When I travel I try to do so respectfully.  I understand that I am a guest in their country, their home and daily life, and I try to move with the recognition of this, respecting this fact.  This is one of the interior struggles I deal with when feeling compelled to document my journey, in both word and image, bringing it to the public in hopes to both inspire and spread awareness that the world is much more than our little bubble we live in every day.  How much do you reveal, how much do you talk about?  Also, how qualified and informed are you to do so in the first place? What I can tell you, fact for certain, is that there are amazing people in this world, and these people I have chosen to portrait, are some of the most gracious and beautiful souls occupying flesh that I have ever had the good fortune to encounter!  I feel nothing but sincere humility, respect and admiration for these people!  I am speaking of all those amazing people I have encountered, both local and traveler alike.  My hope is that we, as a human race, one global interstellar tribe spinning in endlessly expanding (and potentially contracting) space, might embrace this reality and further learn to give, to respect, to do for your fellow (wo)man as a member of the human family should.  There is more than enough of everything to go around…  Until we recognize this powerful fact, becoming empowered by it, we can only continue ultimately to cause pain and strife, be it intentional or not. IMG_6110Now, enter Mr. Hyde to Dr. Jekyll. Night time comes around and the happy water comes out. Pappa Chu turns into a whirling dervish of laughter and games with a fair amount of um, how should we say? Let’s put it like this, you might get kissed on if Poppa Chu is drinking that happy water. He had all us fella’s in hysterics with his after midnight antics! Momma Chi and Momma Sun, quite used to this behavior apparently were as full of laughter as we were. Day in the life here when there are visitors. As if never empty glasses were not enough, regarding the happy water, Poppa Chu had to introduce the most ludicrous drinking game any of us have ever seen in our lives. We had to watch him “enact it” with us several times as we thought we were missing some vital link as to how the whole thing worked. In the end we were missing nothing! Everyone drinks, all the time! Hilarious man! None of us could believe it! To further this evening of exploit, out comes a huge plastic bag full of homegrown (see photo below) along with the commonly seen bamboo bong men smoke there tobacco out of here.       IMG_6011 We all got good and lifted in one way or another and we were not allowed to stop these festivities until that good ol happy water bottle was sure enough empty. Thinking we had completed our mission by running that bottle empty, we were all stunned when Momma Sun introduced a new bottle to the evening. All I can say is yes, yes we did…! Our plan for a 6 hour hike tomorrow morning, starting bright and early is certainly gonna be put to the test by this evening, beyond any shadow of a doubt! God bless us!20131231-153149.jpg Sure enough the day begins with Surgi and Florian waking the rest of us to the day with their wide eyed bushy tailed, ready to take on the world voices. Refusing to be outdone by the youngsters I quickly pull myself together and act as though I too am ready to take on the world. No worries because in 30 minutes, after 2 packs of “instant coffee” (How it’s done here.  Oh how I miss my ca-phe sua da!) and some breakfast and lastly, another trip to the bathroom, I too will be ready to take on the world!  I feel some comfort in the fact that Florian now gets hit with the stomach thing. Ha, good, it’s not just me then than, my stomach, I know it’s now situational and will pass most likely once we leave the village. 20131231-150741.jpg Here is Momma Chi in action, preparing us a delicious breakfast to fuel us for a full days hike.  This meal was really delicious and we all were flipping out over it!  Though the food is getting to our stomachs…it has not thrown off our appetites at all.  Delicious stuff!  Breakfast and coffee accomplished we head out to blaze some trails! Here is some of the visual poetry that is all abundant here in this magical land called Sapa: 20131231-151513.jpgIMG_6058 Here is a shot I really love of Momma Pain out on the trail:IMG_604920131231-154703.jpg20131231-151926.jpgIMG_5963 IMG_6086About three hours into our hike we pass through a Red Zhao village. Of course I am supper excited to encounter more people here! As we approach we are immediately surrounded by these beautifully adorned women. It’s all smiles and niceties until it comes time for business. That time comes real quick it seems as each of them, one by one begin to bring out wares they have hand crafted. Any sense of order quickly disappears as these ladies begin to fight over me, well my money anyway. It really gets out of hand like some small fire that suddenly is burning down everything in sight. These woman start to argue with each other, snatching things out of one another’s hands, including my own. I catch on all too fast. The idea is simple: “If you don’t buy from me, you don’t buy from her or anyone else!” The whole thing is such a turnoff, it’s really sad. It’s easy to understand of course as these people are incredibly poor. Though I have not much money by standards back in the states, I am comparatively quite rich here. Of course I want to buy some things from these people, not just because they can use the money but also because there are some really beautiful things they have made. I would have bought more from them but they just made doing business with them impossible. I would have loved to buy this hat but I just couldn’t go there as the lady selling it was really too much for me. In the end I bought only the first couple of things I set my eyes on before all the fighting over me began.  A common thread traveling, particularly in Vietnam, particularly in the north of Vietnam, as mentioned in prior posts, is the sad feeling of being seen as a dollar sign before being seen as a human.20131231-152048.jpg Here are a couple shots of the local livestock:IMG_6105I wonder how many baby piglets she’s carrying around in her.  Judging by her size I’m guessing it won’t be long from now before that question is answered. The ever present and quite formidable water buffalo.  They are the workhorse of SE Asia.  My Chinese zodiac sign is this creature.  I must say, there are certain traits I see in them that I cannot deny seeing in myself.  We sure do look alike if nothing else…no denying that.IMG_6083 We hike for about 6 hours and it is an amazing time! We are all wiped by the time we return, well, all but the mommas of course. While we sweat and pant they remain cool as cucumbers and look at all the young strapping men with held back laughter. We all decide we have lost the battle to these laddies only because we are playing on their home turf.20131231-143704.jpgSweaty and dirty, it’s bath time!  There is talk of heading down to the waterfall.  I’m all for it as I missed out yesterday.  My friends remembrance of how cold the water was eventually reverses their thinking and they opt to shower, bucket style, in the yard. This simple, private ritual turns into an ordeal and a spectacle as groups of village children sneak around, giggling and laughing, to catch peeks at the naked foreigners accustoming themselves to daily practice here.  I opt to try and sneak away, deciding to head down to the falls alone to bath.  The water is really cold indeed but it feels refreshing and amazing.  I am totally happy to have gone this route rather than the bucket shower!  My hope to have some privacy here is quickly dissolved,  as the one or two trailing children turns into a small audience of about 15 kids, all giggling to each other.  Once again I have become the exotic bird to be beheld.  It’s weird coming from so many years in NY, living together with such a wide array of cultures…easy to forget that so many places in the world are not used to seeing “others”.  It’s fascinating really.  With children, there are no filters…it’s all just innocence still at this point.  Thank goodness, as it would really feel strange to be surrounded by a group of gawking adults.  This is what I ponder as I carry on and enjoy the falls. Here is a shot of the kids in the falls.  They hop around the rocks like a bunch of sure footed billy-goats. IMG_5954 Once I arrive back at the house I am greeted by another Spaniard who has joined the ranks for the night.  He’s a really chill dude who has been traveling for some months and just came in from China, Mongolia, and Tibet, working his way down through SE Asia from here.  We all chill out, get aquatinted and exchange stories while we get settled in for the night ahead; dinner, laughter, happy water and Poppa Chu. I’m always amazed by peoples travel accounts, places I have not yet been.  The thing with traveling is you just never run out of places you want to visit and experiences you want to have.  The next thing is always just a border crossing away.  It becomes crystal clear, and it may sound silly to say as though it’s not a completely obvious fact, but this is one world.  Our neighbors are really are neighbors, like right next to us!  Sitting in large countries like America where are boarders on three directions are sealed by thousands of miles of ocean, you can easily suffer from the disillusionment that others don’t exist, that they are “way over there someplace,” somehow so far away it’s almost like another planet, another reality all together. You begin to see that you could easily spend a lifetime on the road and still never “get to it all.”  Yes, of course it is quality over quantity.  I’m no longer running around at mock speed when i travel attempting to “experience” as many places as possible. No, now I much prefer to move slower, take my time, allowing experiences to further unfold, meetings to develop into friendships…  No, I don’t get to as many places…but the experience(s) I have in those places are far more rich.  At some point I’d like to make a trip of some length to just one country or maybe even just to one area within that country. Pick one spot that I know I love and just be there for a year, two, three years.  As far as cities are concerned thus far, Saigon would be that place.  As far as country/nature…let’s see, further to fly. We enquire into the possibility of purchasing some wares from the families here.  It all started with Papa Chu’s bracelets and rings. The mommas bring out some beautiful traditional clothes they have made as well.  Really some exquisite work!  We pass things around the circle, reserving one thing or another.  I end up buying myself a pair of pants and a beautiful “cumber-bun” type of traditional hip wrap.  I buy two rings and a couple of bracelets in addition to two beautiful hair combs (see the photos of the mommas, they are always wearing them (so pretty!))  I wish I had more money with me to spend.  Equally I wish I had more room in my bag to carry stuff.  Anything I buy I gotta carry.  As I have a long trip ahead of me still I do not want to push that limit too far.  Of course I can’t resist and as a result I decide to ship a package back stateside before I leave Vietnam. IMG_5989Dinner hits the spot and is quickly devoured after a full 6 hour day of hiking.  Tonight we are fortunate enough to have water buffalo in our tofu dish tonight!  Water buffalo is really tasty peoples, just sayin’!  As the buffalo is so valuable throughout SE Asia for work purposes, people don’t eat them until they get older, past their ability to plow the fields anymore.  Their meat fetches a good price at market as well!  The happy water flows and good conversation abounds.  I cannot express enough how thankful I am for this life and the moments like this that make it all worth living!  We get to talking about what we do back home in our individual lives…  I bring up my music and art.  People are genuinely curious it seems so rather than try and explain what I am working on I opt to just show them.  I break out my iPad (a bizarre piece of technology in a place that hardly has electricity.  Kinda felt like time travel, something transported from the future through some wormhole to appear into the present) that has some images as well as some video clips of stuff I’m doing with solo drums and ensemble.  People were really pulled in and captivated with my solo drum music.  Those 20 plus hours a week in the studio back home working on building my language for the instrument are baring fruit.  This makes me feel really proud!IMG_6121 This is a painting I got commissioned to do before I began my trip:IMG_1929 Here is the trailer to a documentary I recently finished on my band Mysterium.  If you like it you can follow the link to the full length feature. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SWSRlW7YQ84 Here is some of my solo drum music: http://youtu.be/c1FbTRH7q40 We all begin the day by packing.  We have a lot of kilometers ahead of us if we are to make it to Halong Bay by tomorrow afternoon.  Our plan is to head back to Sapa town, figure out how we plan to get back to Hanoi.  We will be catching a bus from there to Halong City in route to the bay.  The earlier start we get the better.  Because I have the motorbike to get out I have more time to play with which is good because I want to just cruise around the hills here and take it all in a bit more, shoot some more photos.  Everyone else is on foot so we make a plan to meet up in a handful of hours by the bus station. We decided we needed to take a group photo together in traditional dress before we depart.  It’s really pretty silly as you can see.  The two young “princess” in the center crack me up with those hats man!  On the serious side though, these are some really beautiful clothes.  The pants I am wearing are the ones I bought.  Made from 100% hemp, they are both strong and gorgeous at once!IMG_6128 As Momma Pain is heading back to the church lot to sell her wares I bring her on the back of the bike.  It’s just like old times…  Once I drop her I double back to cruise alone.  I paid for the bike for 3 days and haven’t really touched it the entire I time I was back in the village so I’m trying to make good use of it today before returning it.IMG_6145 Here are some more shots of these breathtaking terraced rice fields I just can’t look at enough!   Down in the valley you can see the new school that is under construction.  Nice!!!IMG_6051IMG_6031 IMG_6095 I roll on and enjoy cruising these mountain roads abounding with awe inspiring scenes, stop where I like and get a few more photos in the can.  I figure I will most likely run into the crew walking along the roadside someplace and can offer a lift to one of them.  Oddly enough I don’t see them at all.  I’m guessing they have gone another route.  This turns out to be exactly the case.  I head back out eventually and return the motorbike, get my passport.  All good!  I sit back down in the same cafe I started in and enjoy my first ca-phe sua da.  Tastes delicious and feels so satisfying at once.   Soon I rejoin the fellas here, as one by one as they trickle into town.  Turns out they are paying to use a shower and electricity at one of the local guesthouses.  I will join in with them as I need to charge up my gear as well and lord knows I could use a nice shower before I’m back on some moving vehicle for the next 11 hours.  Before we leave we decide to head back over to the church lot to say one last goodbye to the Mommas for taking such good care of us, thank them again.  This experience in Sapa was one of those powerful moments where things bonded really tight, really quickly.  I will miss these people for sure!  This is one of my most favorite shots from my whole trip.  It’s me and Momma Sun.  I think I had just finished swinging her around on my back.  This lady was just too cool!IMG_6174 We begin to talk over our travel options to get us back to Hanoi.  Do we take a sleeper bus or the train?  If we are to take the bus from Sapa, the last one leaving today leaves in under an hour.  We arrange with the guesthouse we are utilizing to get picked up by a shuttle to bring us to Lao Cai, the next main town over, about 30 minutes drive from here.  Sleeper busses run from there, as well as is the train station located there.  It gives us a bit more time to sort out our details.  We have less time than anticipated however, as before we know it and much to our surprise, the shuttle is out front for us.  None of us anticipated it arriving so soon and we all still had our gear scattered about.  The shuttle is pretty full and it’s a little embarrassing to be caught with our pants down, holding up the show, as everyone watches out the window to see us scrambling to get our things together.  We throw things in our packs with much haste, thank and pay the lady who runs the guesthouse and jet out to catch the shuttle, apologizing to the people inside we held up.  Everyone is totally chill about it, kinda laughing at us at once.  They’ve all been there I’m sure.  A few minutes down the road Surgi realizes he has left some books.  Somehow he was able to jump out, run to get them, then run back to meet us at the next pick-up spot before we pulled out of Sapa.  Impressive! Once we get to Lao Cai we head towards the train/bus station.  We pass a travel agency along the way where an agent that comes out and asks if we are going to Hanoi.  We tell her we are indeed.  She tells us she has a handful of tickets left for the next train leaving in 30 minutes.  If we buy 4 tickets (one cabin) she will give us a discount as she wants to sell them before the train leaves.  The tickets work out to be about 20% cheaper than if we bought them in the station, with the added bonus that we will all be together in our own cabin.  Agreeing that this is a fine way to rock it back to Hanoi we snatch em up. Next up is a quick sit down for dinner before boarding the train.  Always a good idea to eat first!  From there we rush out to make the train and do so just in time.  We load in, find our cabin, grab bunks and resume the charging of our gear and organizing of our packs from our mad rush out the guesthouse in Sapa.  There is a lot of laughter and joking about as we get our own individual nomadic lives “re-grounded”.  I think we are all appreciative of the next 11 hours of downtime ahead of us, a chance to get some proper rest after a very active last few days.  We are all reflective as we scroll through the photos and memories of our lives unfolding on the road.  Soon we will be in Hanoi again in route to Halong Bay and our next adventure.

Hanoi, Vietnam

After a quick bite at the train station in Dong Ha, I board the train that has pulled into the station that will carry me to Hanoi on it’s overnight journey. I have a bed in a compartment to sleep in when the time comes for me to lay my head down. It should not be long, as sleep is definitely one thing I have not been getting a lot of as of late. Once boarded I head to find my compartment and drop my gear. It’s a six bed compartment, 3 beds stacked floor to ceiling on both sides of the room. My bunk is the top one on the left. I stash my gear, grab my tech bag and head off for the food car where I will sit down over the course of the next few hours and just as many beers to catch up on my writing, as life has been fast, leaving little to no time to actually put it down into preverbal stone. Now is an ideal time…and though I might not feel “inspired” to do it, it’s gotta be done. Writing is just something that needs to happen here in my life, particularly when I am traveling and living a bunch of new shit. It’s a responsibility I made to myself to just do it, get it done. Case in point…off I go.

Along my way to the food car, in between cars, I encounter some kids gaming over cards. I watch for a minute before I excuse myself to walk through there “card table” in between hands.20130828-164025.jpg
The food car is a bit rowdy due to one young drunken western couple who are just plain loud. They are trying to kick it with the locals…and though they are tolerated, they look so silly in the process. They know one word in Vietnamese and as a result they say it all the fucking time. The locals around the train just kinda shake their heads amongst themselves. I put on my headphones and disappear into a world I much prefer. Words pour fourth and the hours go by. It is not long before I am the last of the Mohicans in the car. I decide it’s best I call it a night and retire. I head back to my car and compartment. Rest assured, everyone is fast asleep in my cabin. I quietly pull myself up to my top-tier bunk, placing my bag of what is most important to me between me and the wall, close my eyes and fade to black.

I am awoken, in what seems to be mere moments later, by a woman poking me gently, telling me we have arrived in Hanoi. I pull myself out from my dream-state of illusion, slowly and groggily back into the reality of my life on this train in Vietnam, thank the lady for waking me, hop down, quickly gather my things, and stumble off the train slowly awaking to the day. “Where the fuck am I? Oh yeah, Hanoi. What does that mean? Where am I going? Oh yeah, no idea…find a place. Ok, ok…good morning.”

20130831-175054.jpgI decline the usual barrage of people offering me one thing or another, wander across the street from the train station where I notice people sitting down having breakfast, coffee. I am relieved to find this convenience right now. I quickly grab a seat and order a ca phe sua da and a bowl of pho bo. “Good morning Vietnam,” I again think to myself. Once the steaming hot soup is in front of me, along with my coffee, slowly brewing on the table, I become immensely happy. Ok, “Hello Hanoi, nice to meet you. Let’s do this!” I don’t know why exactly but eating in Vietnam has that effect on me, it simply makes me happy.

While I eat, I dig through my book, try to situate myself, figure out what direction I should be moving in and if I can walk there or require a good ol’ tuk-tuk to carry me. Though the area I want to get to is a couple miles away, I decide to walk it anyway, learn the city a bit. Of course it turns into an adventurous journey. I come to find out quickly Hanoi is not an easy city to navigate, in any way shape or form! The streets here change names every block or two even though it’s the same street. Nothing runs straight here either, no! Here in Hanoi, it’s like wandering around in a big cubist construction where all lines run on diagonals, no two points meeting where you anticipate them to. All I can say is good luck! Coupled with my sensation of being perpetually lost, is the disorienting and surreal existence of a sea of motorbikes piloted by people that seem to drive with little to no rules at all. It’s really something to witness, no doubt! Saigon has a ton of motorbikes as well but that being said, there at least there seems to be some semblance of order amid the chaos, other then the traffic running up on the sidewalk in mass in attempt to get a jump on the competition. No, here in Hanoi, traffic just seems completely chaotic, no sense of order that is discernible to the untrained eye, which would be me at this moment, in case you didn’t deduce it on your own.20130831-175550.jpg

Miraculously I find my way to the hostel that I’ve chose to stay at. It’s a place that my friend Lucie (from Bunaken) mentioned. I say miraculously because it is tucked away on a tiny little alley-way located off a slightly larger one and so on and so forth until you actually make it back out of the labyrinth to a “main” street. A seriously proper map is a must here in Hanoi! The hostel, to my good fortune still has one room available. It is a five-flight walk up, as the cheaper rooms always are. Part of the program…I look at it all like training here. The hard part is when you roll into a new town and are looking for places, carrying all your gear, just checking places out to get a feel for what is available for your money. Many a trip up and down various five-flight stairwells, with full gear, can get to you on a given day indeed. Fortunately though, as I said, I look at it all as training, so I am a willing participant in the process, smiling big and full of energy.

I take the room. It’s 200,000 Dong a night, that’s $10 US. Included in that price is my own balcony. I come to find that the best part of staying at this hostel is the staff. They are totally awesome, particularly Viviane, the main person here. She is uber fucking nice and really helpful as far as recommendations for the city. I am directed to where I can get a proper map and am asked to grab a few extra ones to bring back for the hostel. “Done!”

Once I return with the maps I sit down with Viviane to get filled in on her recommendations for food in the city. Before long my crazy map is full of circled areas with lines drawn to one point of interest or another. Nice, I’m officially armed and dangerous. Man on a mission, here I come!
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Hanoi is an intense and demanding city without question or doubt! Problem is it shuts down at 10 pm! It’s like someone is standing by the giant light switch all day just waiting to throw it. 10 pm lights out! From total chaos to total stillness at the flick of a switch! What thriving bustling city does this? Answer, Hanoi! This alone gives a hands down victory to Saigon as best city in Vietnam. Trust me though, Saigon wins on every other level as well, at least on my (western foreigner that knows nothing) score card. Why? Saigon has flavor…culture…it’s not just a busy city for work sake alone. Hanoi feels all business to me, with very little pleasure attached to it. However, that all being stated, let’s talk about the good things I found in the city…let’s talk about the food. Eating in Hanoi is a treat! Bun Cha for lunch is one of the best food experiences I have ever had in my life, hands down! It’s a heap of food…really more than any one person needs. It’s funny that it is so plentiful as portions in Vietnam, and SE Asia as a whole, certainly in comparison to America, are smaller, more indicative of what the human body really needs to run… Bun Cha is an exception to the rule, it’s a huge meal!20130831-174413.jpg

Other culinary delights to be found in Hanoi…a tasty dish called Xoi Yen. This delicious and at once filling sticky rice dish is not to be missed. It is most often served with pork though there are many other options available as well, such as shredded chicken, minced pork, Chinese sausage, pork floss, pate, bean curd, egg, mung bean, fried shallots, etc. It is served with some kind of boiled shredded root on top as well. Super wholesome goodness!

Here is a Bia Hoi Place (a local draft beer place that are all the rage) that was highly touted for its food as well. I had some ribs that were killing, along with a side of garlic sautéed watercress. So delicious. The Bia Hoi brought it all together real nice as well, setting the night straight indeed!20131113-175746.jpg20131113-175704.jpg

It’s a good thing there is so much in the way of tasty food in this country as it’s become apparent to me that I could stand to put a few pounds back on. My month in and out of the hospital, coupled with your average case of travelers weight loss has turned me into a bit of a slim jim. Here is a photo demonstrating the fact. I bought these pants just before I left for me trip. They fit me then. 20131114-152356.jpg

The night market in Hanoi is supposed to be one of the biggest in Vietnam so I am excited to partake. It turns out to be a big disappointment unfortunately. I have been loving the markets in this country so much, packed to the gils with interesting foods and visual poetry…local markets that are for buying and selling, mostly fruits, vegetables, fish, chickens… This market is a big tourist market full of a bunch of useless crap made in china, “Genuine Ethnic Wares” and the like. Whatevs! There were a few sights that were poetic though, such as this lady making homemade taffy by hand, right there on the street:20131113-181020.jpg

There is an old Chinese bridge that stretches from points A to B, over a small lake located right smack dab in the middle of the city. It’s a really beautiful fixture here in Hanoi for sure, especially at night when the whole thing comes to life in lights. Of course one must enjoy it by 10 pm before the electricity curtain comes down on the whole kit-an-kabudal. Here are a couple shots that give you the feeling of the area. I bought some mango with sea salt and chilly powder from this lady in exchange for the shot.20130831-181018.jpg20130831-181034.jpg

As I think I mentioned in Hoi An, I made the decision to not have clothes designed there as to not have to cary them with me to Hanoi… As Lucie told me that Hanoi was better to have clothes made, particularly suits, I figured no problem waiting, all the better. Well, this has turned out to be completely incorrect information provided to me by my amiga (thanx a lot there Lucy;)). Though there are tailors here of course, they are far and few between in comparison. All of the shops that I went into were impossible for me to navigate not speaking the language, as no English was spoken, or so minimal it was futile. I was able to decipher that all the shops were either unable or unwilling to make “Mao collar” style suits as well, lapel/western style suits only. Immediate disappointment for me! So much so that I actually contemplate extending my visa and heading back to Hoi An to get my suits made. Additionally I wanted to have some things made for family and friends. I even sent people to tailors back home to get complete sets of measurements that I could work from here. So, needless to say I’m disappointed! In the end I cut my losses and keep on moving, deciding it’s more important for me to continue traveling and experiencing places I want to get to, as time is running out, rather than having clothes designed to look good. The custom clothing will have to wait for another time. As for gifts to bring back, I have no doubt I will encounter some pretty spectacular things that speak to me before the time comes to leave these wonderlands.

It’s amazing to see the amount of goods that are often transported and displayed for sale off of a bicycle or motorbike here. This is a shot that will give you an idea of what I mean: 20131130-173743.jpg

It is the 38th year of commemorating the official ending of the American War as it is referred to here, April 30th 1975. All throughout the country you see the red and yellow signs, flyers, banners and billboards strewn about, adorning every nook and cranny. Here is an example: 20131130-172920.jpg

Along those lines of thought, today I planned on going to see Ho Chi Minh. Yes, he is, like Lenin, on display and it is a big deal to visit Uncle Ho indeed! As messed up as that sounds, I figure wow, how many chances in life do you get to see this guy? Let’s do it! Problem is, as I would come to find out now, the visiting hours end early and today is an off day. Bummer! “Well, I will do it when I return from Sapa (my next destination),” I think to myself.

Why have I come to Hanoi? Well, of course I had to come to experience this city I have heard so much about. Also, if I wish to go to Halong Bay, I will also be doing it from Hanoi. I’m on the fence with this one as I know it will be extremely touristic. Sometimes for good reason though, beings though it is listed amongst the 10 most beautiful natural places in all the world. It’s a hard one to say no to when you look at it like that. Not to put the cart before the horse though, one journey at a time.

I have decided to take the morning here to combine my coffee and writing as I often do. Having found a nice roost to take in the city life below at a certain intersection, observing the crosstown traffic and visual poetry of this place, I am happy as a clam. I’ve been trying to get the right shot of these bicycle hat venders since I got here. This one is in the running:20131114-151004.jpg

The imagery along my travels has really been nothing short of mind blowing! I have two wishes that run in conjunction with it. 1) Oh how I wish I had a better camera! 2) I need to learn to be more bold (yet respectful and humble) in order to really capture the people, the faces the way I wish to. Here is a woman I followed for a block (photography can be so weird) in order to get a proper shot. And no, she had no idea I was there the whole time, though others around took interest in me stalking her. Of the 10 or so I shot, this one is the keeper: 20131114-152038.jpg

Though I am limited by my camera system, unable to change that one quite yet, I can push the later and work to become the photographer I want to be. Looking over my images shot thus far it has become clear to me that I should really put together a book of my strongest ones. I plan on doing this upon my return. Maybe a coffee table book, 100 pages or so, with an accompanying essay as a forward. Here is a final image of Hanoi at this time. I will be back in a handful of days or so.20131114-153255.jpg

I will be leaving around 9pm tonight on a sleeper bus bound for Sapa. Sapa is one of the places that I am most excited to experience ever since I started planning this trip back home in Brooklyn a half a year ago. Located relatively near the boarders of both North Eastern Laos and South Western China, it is a mountainous town that is renowned for it’s terraced rice fields carved into the rolling hills. It has a large number of indigenous hill-tribes that reside within these mountains. From what I have read of them, along with the photos I’ve seen, they look absolutely beautiful! Though it is such a strange feeling and indeed weird thing to set out to a place to encounter these remote people in order to experience their ways and means, I am totally excited to do so! Black Hmong people are very prominent to the area I initially plan on going to. My aim is to do a home stay with a family there somehow.

Hue to Quang Tri Province, Vietnam

On another bus now, working my way north through this country, bound for Hue, the old capital city of this amazing land called Vietnam. I will not be there long unfortunately, as my time is slipping away too fast along with my visa allowing me to be here at all. There are too many places that I want to get to and too little time to do so. As a result, I will only spend two nights in Hue.

I get into town, find a hotel, get settled in…the usual. Here is a view of the sunset from the balcony of my hotel room: 20130624-120932.jpg

Hue is a really pretty little river town with a really relaxed vibe about it. It reminds me, vibrationally at least, of Kampot in Cambodia. Totally different place but the vibe is similar, relaxed, very chill. This would be a nice place to come and spend a handful of days relaxing. There is not a ton to do here but who cares…the vibe is always first. I am here as a base to do a tour of the DMZ, the demilitarized zone. My father was in the war and was stationed at a firebase called Con Thien. This is a pilgrimage for me, to stand where he was, see it, feel it. Though the times are fortunately very different…he having been drafted as a young man into a war zone… I, his son, just a traveler in a now free and peaceful country, coming to pay homage to him and his experience…this portion of my trip means a lot to me indeed! I come to find out that though I am close to where he was based, I am not close enough. To do what I need to do I will need to get closer, about 70 km north of here. I will head to a town called Dong Ha, located within the Quang Tri Province, the day after tomorrow to meet a war historian I have hired to take me on a private tour of the DMZ. More on that soon though… Now, Hue.

Hue, as mentioned, used to be the capital city of Vietnam from 1802 to 1945. The main attraction to this town is the Citadel, the central city within the city. Enclosed by massive stone walls and the accompanying mote that surrounds them, is this central city that houses not only the royal family, but also a large percentage of the cities populous. It’s really an enigmatic enclosure. Anyone can enter the citadel but if you want to visit the inner circles, the royal grounds, you must pay. As my time is limited for being here I opt to go it on my own. Though I do walk around a good bit inside the citadel walls, I opted to not pay to go inside. I don’t have enough time remaining in the day to do it and to be honest, I’m not feeling like “palace hopping” right now. Another time perhaps. Rather, I enjoy walking around the city, taking in the sights with both my eyes and lens. Here are a handful of shots in and around the citadel that came out well:20130624-121529.jpg20130624-121555.jpg20130624-121817.jpg20130624-121928.jpg20130602-213149.jpg

I walk for hours upon hours, get myself totally lost which feels great as it is wonderful to just be here! Eventually I will figure out where I am and how to get back. I wander way outside of the typical travelers areas here in the city and end up in some neighborhoods that seem pretty surprised to see me. I get a lot of smiles and bewildered looks… I am all smiles and hello’s! Only one bad experience transpires. A guy driving past me on his motorbike swerves to yell at me, attempting to kick me as he passes. I was pretty amazed actually! Fortunately, this type of ignorance has been minimal in my travels. I feel bad for the guy as he is the one that has to live with all that anger and hatred throughout his days. I’m afraid his mission to disrupt my beautiful state of mind failed miserably. It went in and out my body rather quickly, left me richer for the experience. Continuing along my way…

Here are a few shots from my walk that I really enjoy:20130624-134747.jpg20130624-122702.jpg20130624-133116.jpg20130624-133005.jpg

The sun has long set as I wander around some more. I am on the opposite side of the perfume river to which I am staying, this much I do know. Eventually I come to a bridge to cross over. Once on the bridge, I look way off into the distance to see the glow of the lights from the area of the city that I am staying in. I am a long way away from here now and will have a couple of hours more walking ahead of me, not including the time to get lost along the way, which is probable. As I cross the bridge a man on a motorbike approaches, asks where I am going. He’s less surprised at where I am headed and more surprised at where I am, the distance I walked to get there. He asks me if I want a ride back. At first I tell him I will walk, as it’s been really enjoyable thus far. In disbelief, he asks me if I am sure, says he will take me for $1. Well, ok then…I rethink things quickly, decide it’s been a great full day, that my feet could use a break. It will also be nice just to get back and get some dinner, relax a bit, pack for my early departure to Dong Ha tomorrow. Tomorrow is gonna be a full day as I have arranged to do a private DMZ tour via motorcycle. I’m totally stoked!

Once on the bike, the guy asks where I’m from… He then asks if I need drugs, a massage and/or a girl. Some things never change…it is always on the back of someones bike or tuk tuk that you get propositioned for such things. As it is always how everyone gets around, it stands to reason. Leave no stone untouched apparently. Though, once again I decline all offers, he will try a final time once I reach my desired destination and am dropped off. Can’t blame a guy for trying I suppose. As tomorrow is an up and out early day my plan is to head back to my hotel and get an early nights sleep. Though I do get to the hotel, a decent nights sleep is nowhere to be found. No, tonight I toss and turn, unable to sleep a wink until just a couple hours before my alarm is to go off…fade to black.

My alarm rings and I can’t believe it is time to pry myself out of bed in order to make my bus to Dong Ha. I climb out of the thick weight of my body, behind beyond tired eyes, resolving to get some sleep on the bus ride north. I quickly put myself under the cold water to wake me up, throw on some clothes, grab my packs and head on out, down into the lobby where I check out and go. A minibus comes around to collect me, I assume to bring me to the main bus that will carry me to Dong Ha. It makes it’s rounds picking up other people. The driver gets disgruntled about something and is soon cursing and slamming doors. I am so tired I don’t give it much of a moments thought, day in the life kinda thing. Now, the van fills quickly and I am asked to share my seat with another guy who turns out to be, not a tour guide, but the tour guide. He asks what I will do after visiting the caves? I ask him what the hell he is talking about, what caves? He asks me if I am not on the tour to the caves. I am utterly confused at this point and in no mood for any of this. I tell him I’m not going to any caves and that I am supposed to be on a bus to Dong Ha. I ask him if this shuttle van we are in is bringing us to another bus that goes to Dong Ha. He is now confused. My name is on his sheet for having joined the tour for the day. He tells me that they do stop in Dong Ha, but not directly, first they must stop at two places that are along the tour route. I tell him I payed for a bus to go directly to Dong Ha and that I have hired a very expensive guide who will be waiting for me at 8:30 this morning to pick me up so we can begin our tour. Now I am not only confused, I am livid! The receptionist at the hotel I was staying at simply told me I purchased a bus ticket to Dong Ha, not some tour. I was wondering why my ticket was more money. At this point I call the hotel I stayed at and speak with the receptionist who sold me the ticket. She apologizes, tells me that all the other bus tickets were sold out and that she arranged to have the tour company drop me off in Dong Ha as an only option to get there. I find this hard to believe as Dong Ha is not really a popular tourist destination. Besides, why did she not tell me I was joining some tour? WTF???

Anyway, I’m in it now, nothing I can do. I grit my teeth and bare the whole fucking thing. We stop here and there along the way while the tour guide speaks the whole time in Vietnamese, even though 75 percent of the van is not Vietnamese. English description is way limited. I’m glad I did not sign on for this tour, well at least not intentionally. Fortunately, I arrive to Dong Ha only 30 minutes later than planned. Along the way I phone Mr. Vu, my tour guide who is meeting me there, to explain the situation. He meets me at the drop off point and we introduce ourselves. Right away I get a good vibe from the guy and slowly begin to feel better about the day. We jump on his bike and drive over to his office where we sit down and have coffee, a much needed ingredient for me to feel human today. I’m running on next to no sleep and needless to say, my plan to get some sleep on “the bus” on the way here failed miserably! Coffee and adrenaline will have to carry me through today! Not exactly the state of being I was hoping to be in for this experience but it is my reality. Let’s do this! I drop my gear in his office, taking with me the essentials for the day, camera, rain shell, recorder… We hop on the bike and are off. Our first stop is actually in Dong Ha itself, a place my father mentioned to me as having been based in for a bit. I am brought to the only remaining structure there from war times. Dong Ha was totally leveled by munitions, shot to shit, absolutely cleared man! I am brought to an American aircraft hanger built like a tank, this structure survived alone. When you get up close to it you can see all the shrapnel holes, bullet holes, bomb markings, twisted metal… Here we go, it’s gonna be an interesting day it is!20130624-102810.jpg

Feels good to be on a real bike. More and more I really want to start riding. I’ve been riding a lot of motorbikes around throughout my trip…but no motorcycles proper. My plan for next time is to buy a motorcycle straight away, sell it on the end of the trip if it and I are still in one piece. I want to ride the length of the country, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, all the way up or down, depending on where it is I start. It’s really the best way to see these countries. When you get on a bus or a train, certainly a plane, you need a destination point. There is no stopping in between at all, or any, of the little towns and villages along the way. You watch all this amazing countryside fly by through the window from where you are sitting…but never get to get into any of it. If you’re on a bike, you can go where you wish, stop whenever, wherever you feel like. So often the best places, holding the best experiences, would not be the places listed in the Lonely Planet…but all the little towns and villages that span the distance between these tourist destinations. If you want to find the culture, the people, the real life here…best to learn a bit of the language and go search it out, get lost in it. This is how I plan to travel from now on. This trip is a big precursor for me, to find out where I want to come back to next time and explore further and at greater length.

So, we are sailing down the road, and only about 30 minutes into our journey we are stopped by the police and waived to the side of the road for speeding. We are not alone, as seemingly everyone is being waived over and given tickets. It sucks because this little altercation costs us about an hour of the day I am paying for and more importantly, from my experience. It really sucks for Vu because the ticket is really expensive and the money he is making from me today will only cover about a third of the fee. I feel bad but what can I do? He tries to call a friend who is a cop in hopes to work out a deal… It’s all corrupt business man. To charge this amount for a speeding ticket in this poor country is outrageous. The ticket price is more than the average person makes in a month, by a long shot! Really impossible and corrupt…total racket! Fucking governments man…no matter where in the world you go, the people are being fucked with! Finally we are cleared to go and we are back on the bike and on our way. Fortunately the ticket does not entirely put a bad vibe on the day. It easily could have as it’s a lot of money. Now instead of making profit today, Vu is working at a loss. Fortunately his character rose above the situation and he bounced right back to being an amazing tour guide and guy! Here is a photo I shot on the DL from the hip:20130624-103813.jpg

Soon we are in the hills and the countryside is coming alive… All the shades of green…I cannot even tell you. This country sure is a pretty one, I will leave it at that!20130624-105606.jpgWe pass villages of hill tribe people along the way, dressed so beautifully in their traditional handmade wears, carrying ornate baskets full of one thing or another. It’s great to see the faces once again change. Not only do they change from country to country, but also from region to region, depending. Really is a beautiful thing to observe and be a part of. The sad thing are the hill-tribe peoples in these countries are viewed as inferior people. They speak their own language, live in their own old ways…don’t really assimilate, nor are they really welcome to either. Seeing them you are very aware that you are witnessing an endangered species on the planet. As times change, land “develops,” these people will be forced to vacate their worlds, into a world they know very little about surviving in. They are already among the poorest people in the country…working incredibly hard long days, making very little gains from their labors. More on this later. Here is a shot of the village and another of one of the villagers walking along the roadside.20130624-105026.jpg20130624-104941.jpg

We stop off along the way here and there as Vu points out one mountain top to me or another. Here is a photo of me on the bike in front of the legendary firebase known as “The Rockpile.”20130615-212953.jpgVu has a e-tablet loaded with photos of these places during war times. It’s amazing to be standing in these spots, witnessing the stark differences, what things looked like then, during war times, compared to now. Shocking difference indeed…totally fascinating! Like I mentioned earlier, Vu is a totally war historian, specializing in the Vietnam War, or the American War as it is referred to here in Vietnam. His father was in the war, South Vietnamese, fighting along with the American troops. The war for him is twice personal, first as a Vietnamese person born in this time period, but also as a child of a veteran. I can relate to both of these points, though being raised in America is not that of being raised under the post war communist Vietnam regime with it’s reeducation camps and things of such. Regardless, both our fathers served in this war and we are both children born of this time period.

Many of the hilltops where these fire bases were located are entirely inaccessible by foot, car or bike. The only way to get up top on many of them is to either be airlifted by helicopter, or by having some serious hiking/climbing skills. Fire bases were most commonly located on the points of highest elevation in the area as they were used for their panoramic views of the area, providing security as well as key lookouts into enemy territory, as well as unobstructed pathways for firing. These fire-bases were laid out to cover a perimeter where each base could communicate clearly with the next one over, so on and so forth, to provide a unified front both for offense and defense. It’s all really logical when you look at it, have it pointed out to you, which type of guns, what caliber, were located at each base for their needed range and affect. Some of the big guns could send a 200 lbs shell through the air from 17km away with pretty good accuracy! The guns were employed, not only to neutralize specific targets but also as a shield for the infantry. They helped to “clear the way” for the men on the ground, in the field. War is a crazy thing! Anyway, some of these mountains have no trees on their tops. Trees cannot grow there any more due to the concrete that was laid down during the war to create the fire-bases. There is something haunting looking at the remnants of this… Some of the key fire-bases we are looking at include: The Rockpile, Tigers-tooth, Khe Sanh, Lang Vay, Camp Carroll, and Con Thien (the firebase my father was stationed at).

Here is a shot to give you not only an immediate glimpse into how amazingly beautiful the countryside is here but to also show you these mountains that held so many key fire-bases. The location that is flat, to the left of the mountain range, with the tower, is the legendary fire base Khe Sanh. Moving to the right is Fuller Mountain with Tiger’s Tooth fire-base just to the right, the highest peak you can see.
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Getting into these areas is spiritual for me. I can’t explain exactly why it means so much for me to be here, to stand where my father stood… It’s not like I can see or feel the times…no I can only imagine them, pieced together from what I’ve read about, seen in film, combined with the bits and pieces my father has offered up from his experience here. What am I here for, what am I looking to find here? There is not much left, at least in the way of physical structures, bunkers, the like. Most of it is just simply forest…it looks beautiful, looks peaceful… In fact, it’s impossible to stand here, in the midst of all this beautiful nature, this immaculate countryside, and imagine the whole thing going off, under siege, burning… The places match the photos I am looking at but boy they sure look different now! To stand in areas that were totally leveled by munitions attacks… You see the photos of where you are standing, inhabited by soldiers, all wearing that classic Vietnam War ambience all these kids came to embody all over their faces…things they were forced to see that man was not meant to see, forever part of their faces and psychologies… Or, to see the devastation of an area, torn to shit by intense bombing campaigns, hundreds of thousands of tons of ordnance having been dropped, millions of tons throughout the country, the war, ripping the hillside and all upon it to shreds, reducing it to a barren waste-field of bomb-craters and debris. You know it’s the same place…but it’s a world away at once! No, for me it’s a touchstone to be here, spiritually. It’s something I needed to do in my life for reasons that are not just logical or cerebral. For me there is something in the air, in my father, in his life, the family, america, the culture, the music, the times… I simply had to come here and lay hand to stone.

We work our way towards Khe Sanh, first stopping off at another firebase that currently is used as a stockpile for unexploded ordnance found and collected. As mentioned earlier, about 80% of these areas are still full of land-mines and unexploded ordnance. Finding and collecting these munitions employs the highly technologically advanced method of people crawling through the fields on all fours with a long stick in front of them. They are provided with military maps if they exist as to where mines were laid…but often they work with nothing. Once detected they are carefully collected, disarmed if possible, relocated to a stockpile to be detonated in mass from a “safe bunker” once the substantial quota is reached. It’s an insane job, or combination of jobs! There are three global mine clearing agencies that volunteer their efforts in this insane and noble pursuit for a better world. Below is a picture of a man who is standing guard over the area to make sure no one stumbles into harms way… Below that denotes a “sealed off area” that contains tons of collected munitions. And last, the detonation bunker where one person will be housed to finally push the button and set the whole thing off. Once it’s done, they begin the process anew. It will take hundreds of years at this rate, with these methods, to clear these areas fully.20130624-231247.jpg20130624-231021.jpg20130624-232225.jpg

Continuing on, we bike up the mountain roads towards Khe Sanh, an area that is a really weird place to stand in. The whole place was under heavy fire, to put it lightly. In short it was bombed to shit! The Americans, before leaving, bombed the rest of it themselves as to not provide any material to be used for the creation of propaganda by the north vietnamese army. This base became a critical factor, a major turning point in the war, as it was used as a massive smokescreen for the Tet Offensive happening concurrently in the south. Better to google the history as I am no historian and that is not what this blog is about. Just needing to touch on some of the history here to provide context and historical background. Anyway, I say it was a weird place to stand because a good portion of the base has been recreated at the top, bunkers and all.20130624-175915.jpgIt’s good in the sense that you get a feel of what the place maybe looked like and felt like, what life could have been like there…without being under siege that is. However, looking at photos of that place under fire makes it unimaginable to envision what life must have actually been like there. The place is to this date, so littered with shrapnel and bullets…buried sandbags from bunkers…that when it rains heavy, a lot of this stuff works it’s way to the surface. It’s really kinda beyond belief, i gotta say, after 40 plus years… I myself picked up a few remnants to bring home to my father. Here is a shot of me lifting a piece of buried sandbag from a bunker that has risen to the surface:20130615-213408.jpg

Con Thien firebase, my main objective here on the DMZ, was a bit more obscure and subtle you could say. Only one concrete bunker remains there, it was originally built by the French to use in their war against the Vietnamese. The Americans kinda just replaced the French who had their asses handed to them here. Ok, that’s putting it really simply but still and all, not entirely off the mark. Much of the forest here has been swept for land-mines but I am told about 80% of the area is still beyond unsafe! What has been swept here has been converted into a rubber tree plantation. It’s how you get in and out of the forest here at Con Thien. We came in on the motorcycle, a street bike mind you, and slowly worked our way back into the forest along slippery muddy footpaths until we could not ride anymore and had to walk the rest of the way. Watching row after row of rubber-tree pass by, each tree with it’s independent little collection bowl, is a very surreal experience in my mind, a massive juxtaposition from the imagery I arrived here with in mind.20130624-110241.jpgThis one concrete bunker is the only physical structure that still remains on the three hills that make up the Con Thien Firebase. Here are some shots of it. Here are a few shot of the bunker and one of the surrounding lookouts. Notice the bullet holes in the venting pipe on the roof. 20130623-125403.jpg20130623-125431.jpg20130623-125457.jpg

While sitting here, looking out over the tree covered valley, I feel at peace. I tell Vu I wish I could sleep here. He looks at me somewhat surprised…stay tuned as to why! This bunker was outfitted with a thick steel plating to provide as a blast shield for the guns looking out. Though the plating is no longer there, the steel plates that hinged them together, mounting them to the structure are still intact. Much to my amazement and happiness when I hit them with my knuckles they sounded amazing musical tones. This whole part of the bunker suddenly transformed itself into a musical instrument for me. You can even play the thing really pretty melodically at that. Once I made this discovery, I asked for a little bit of time alone from Vu. I then pulled out my recorder, turned it on and set to music making on this thing built for war and the protection from it. Playing music here, playing the bunker, really became something special and meaningful for me. I will definitely be using what I recorded in a track I will build upon my return home!

Apparently Con Thien was also referred to as “The Meat Grinder” due to the heavy amount of fire it was under. It took the heaviest pounding between ’67 and ’68. I think to myself how glad I am my dad was not here at that time, having arrived a couple years later. Con Thien was a hugely key area for both sides of the war as it, the most northernly located american base, was most responsible for keeping the north vietnamese troops from advancing in mass down into the south. You’d never know it by the look of it today, or any of these places really…on first appearance it’s just a lot of beautiful peaceful looking nature. Though there is not much in the way of structural evidence of the war, there is sure a whole heap of a lot on the ground! The whole damn place is littered with unexploded ordnance! My guide tells me this place is not on the typical tourist path for DMZ visitors. He says that generally the only people that ask to come here to Con Thien are veterans who served here. As we walk Vu turns up some leaves along the way, revealing some unexploded rocket launcher shells. “It would be bad if someone where to step upon those,” he casually says. “So as you can see it’s not really that safe here, the whole place is still covered with ordnance. Not really the place to be walking around in.” He has been here several times but even so you can see he is not comfortable on these grounds. He walks very carefully here. I instantly take note of this and without word I do my best to make sure I step where he does, no where else. We do not go trudging through the bush here to much. We come to a rock pile that some local kids apparently assembled, crowned with an unexploded grenade and a burnt out mortar shell. Vu turns to me and says, kids find this stuff all the time, play with it. Here I am holding them:20130623-124334.jpgWorth noting that while holding these, I was carefully instructed to not drop the grenade. I smiled, thinking Vu was joking with me. He did not smile back at all…instead looked very seriously at me and said, “No, I’m not joking, be careful not to drop it.” He then says, “So, still feel like sleeping here?” “Um…no, not really,” I say, thinking to myself, “Ok then…time to careful put these things down and move the fuck on outta here!” That’s how it happens though man, so many people, children especially, come across these things and either step on them on accident or make the mistake of thinking they are duds. Next thing you know they are dead or missing body parts. It happens all the time…and I really mean all the time! 1,000,000 collective causalities since then ends of the wars here is a very real number, all civilians, all accidents… Shit is no joke indeed!

That being said, still and all, Con Thien is a really beautiful piece of nature. Here is view below, looking out to the north, towards the Ben Hai River and the divisional line of the 17th parallel. My Dad told me, and Vu said the same, that across the river, in the distance, the only visible identifier was the massive flagpole flying the Vietnamese flag in the north. That flagpole is one of the only original things that still exists, to this day you can still see it in the distance. This makes me happy as it’s one thing I know both my fathers eyes and mine both rested upon and took in.20130624-112532.jpg

Vu informs me that if we want to still make it to the Vinh Moc tunnels before they close, we should get a move on. It’s really hard to pry myself away from this place for some reason. It’s been a big point of wonder all my life, certainly all my adult life. Now, finally I am standing here, right smack dab in the middle of it, and I gotta go as it’s time to go further be a tourist. I take a few minutes to say my piece and make my peace with this place, thank it for keeping my dad alive… Ok, I’m ready to go.

We wind our way back through the forest, slowly and carefully, making our way back to the motorcycle and clearly defined paths, aka safe ground. Once there we half walk the bike, half ride it out. The ground is hilly in spots and slippery with wet mud. We eventually make it back to the main road and are off, heading at a good speed towards the Vinh Moc tunnels, a good 45 minutes drive from here. We are racing against the sun which is soon to be resting its head for the evening. Along the way we stop at the 17th parallel. Gotta do it man! I walk the so called Peace Bridge that connects the north and the south. It’s an amazing feeling to stand in the center of this bridge, having one foot in the north and one foot in the south. Of course the bridge is a mock-up of the original, in fact everything in this area is, other than the flag pole, as everything in this area was blown to Hades and back again, multiple times over at that! It’s strikes me as so bizarre that they recreated this whole area, communication buildings and all. It’s really kinda cool, even though you know it’s not the genuine article, to be able to see what shit looked like at the time, get a feel for it. It’s also a weird feeling to be standing in what was an impossible area. To be an American standing on the 17th parallel, about to cross into North Vietnam…well, that was impossible unless you were part of some special ops unit on some highly dangerous and covert mission. I walk here now, welcomed as a free man, an American at that. Wild! I can only think how much I wish I were standing here with my dad…all these places today! I will come back here in a heartbeat if he ever wants to do it together! Here are two photos I shot from the Peace Bridge, right on the divisional line between the south and the north.
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Vu meets me in North Vietnam where I once again jump on the back of his bike as we take to the roadways at a brisk pace, determined to make it to the Vinh Moc tunnels before the sun sets. Unfortunately we do not succeed! It is here now that our late start to the day, coupled by the hour we lost with the speeding ticket and popo come to haunt us. The fortunate thing is even though the tunnels are technically closed for the evening, Vu knows the people that run them and we are allowed to go in by ourselves, just the two of us. This is special as during the day, there are many tours and tourists there in the tunnels… No, tonight it will just be the two of us. It was really a dope experience…wondering around in these dark tunnels with just our headlamps illuminating the way. My biggest disappointment about arriving after the sun set is it made photography absolutely impossible here! As a result I don’t really have any good documentation of me being here, nothing really stellar I can post and use, in this blog here, for example. Things like this are heartbreaking and devastating to me. I am a man that needs his pictures! Anybody that really knows me knows this about me. What can I do though? I resolve to return here another day, some other trip. Again, the fact that the time is running out on my visa makes it all so hard. In retrospect, I wish I would have given myself two days here to do this tour instead of one. What was I thinking? Sometimes I amaze myself man and not in the way I would like to at that.

Anyway, the Vinh Moc tunnels are beyond belief in their complexity of design. This sea side village dug this massive three level tunnel network entirely by hand in half a years time! The third level goes down to a depth of nearly 40 meters. That’s insane! The tunnel complex is really intricately built and intelligently designed to allow the air coming off the ocean to enter the tunnels and circulate everything, creating fresh air and the necessary oxygen required to breath and survive properly. Guard stations throughout all the tunnels were occupied to ensure they were not infiltrated. There was a medical area, and a maternity area, where 17 children were born over the 10 year time period these people lived underground. Equipped with meeting rooms and even “performance halls,” in order for people to not just survive but to live. Community walls existed as well to write and deliver messages throughout the village. Now, when you hear these words you think, rooms, stages, tables…proper medical equipment… No, these are mud tunnels people, nothing else! Outside it’s raining down bombs up to 600 lbs on your head. You can see a lot of bomb shells, unexploded, duds, that are lined up around the place, on display. Truly beyond belief! The only kind of bomb that could penetrate and destroy this underground community was a bomb called a bunker buster. A huge bomb designed to dig down deep in the earth then detonate. Well, there was indeed a direct hit from one of these bunker buster bombs but it didn’t go off! What are the chances? If it had exploded, there would have been nothing left of the place or the people in it. Talk about lucky, if you were amongst this village of people! To demonstrate the resiliency of these people, what did they do with the bomb? They dug it out and turned the crater into an additional air vent chamber for the community. One end of the tunnels lead down to the sea, the other end back up hill, through the village. Pretty sure that this village housed shipment of supplies, weapons and rations, coming in from further north off the sea. The whole thing was disguised and camouflaged to be as invisible as possible to high flying scouts in the area. Really brilliant!20130624-111008.jpg20130624-111045.jpg

20130624-114535.jpgIn total we did 300km today on this motorcycle. That’s a good full day of riding and a lot of ground covered. We get back in time to sit down for a shaved ice fresh fruit desert that is popular in Vietnam. We talk a bit about the day…things in general. I pay him the $70 we agreed upon and give him a $25 dollar tip on top of it. He was totally awesome and made my experience here today special. I hope to come back and join him again for another leg in the future. He tells me that he enjoyed traveling with me today, that he also had a lot of fun, tells me to come back on a motorcycle next time so we can take a road trip together along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. That would be dope indeed!

We are back on the bike again, this time with all my gear, heading to the train station in order for me to catch the sleeper train I booked to bring me further north to Hanoi. Again, it’s hard to leave this place and this experience…I only wish I had more time! In retrospect, as I stated, I would have stayed another day here to go back to the tunnels and experience them in the light of day… I didn’t count for the day starting with me on some bullshit tour bus I didn’t sign up for or for an hour lost because the popo decided to be bastards and pull people over that day. Well, once again, live and learn. Two things impossible to predict indeed.

We arrive at the train station with enough time for us to have a proper goodbye and for me to sit down and put a little food in my stomach before getting on the train for the 12 hour plus journey ahead of me to Hanoi.

Saigon to Hoi An and Danang, Vietnam

I arrive back into Vietnam, into Ho Chi Minh City, after a long bus ride from Phnom Penh. Once there I immediately try to get a plane ticket to Danang in route to bring me in the vacinity of Hoi An as there is no airport there. My efforts are all in vain however as everything for the day is booked solid. Looks like I will be spending the night in Saigon again. Though I am disappointed as time, or the lack there of, is becoming an increasing factor, life could be worse than having to spend another day in Saigon, a city I truly do love. I end up booking a flight for the following morning, bright and early. A woman that works at the travel agency, who, as a side note, is stunningly beautiful, offers to give me a lift to Hotel California, the place I stayed and loved so much last time. Though I tell her it’s not necessary, that I know where I am going, that it’s not that far, who am I kidding? I’m on the back of her bike and very pleased to be so. We could drive for 100 miles right now and I’d be happy as a clam!

Before I leave the agency I ask about the Cu Chi tunnels. It’s a place I would really love to visit, a place I wish I would have known about when I spent my original 8 nights in Saigon, as it is a day trip there and back. Built to use against the French, ten years before America entered the war here, the tunnels are over 150 km in length. They were used for transporting supplies, weaponry, as a hiding spot, and as a hunting ground by the Viet Cong. It’s a booby-trapped fortress, equipped with a number of death traps, spiked bamboo pits and the like, for the unfortunate soldier who happened to fell victim to them. It’s that shit you’ve seen in the movies and or read about. These tunnels were heavily used and ultimately became the deciding factor in the war as they were utilized for the infamous clan-destined Tet Offensive carried out in tandem with the smokescreen set up at the American firebase of Khe Sanh in the DMZ region of central Vietnam.

I ask the travel agent if there are any other tunnels in Vietnam as such or if these are the only ones. He tells me that the Vinh Moc tunnels near Quang Tri province, where I am already planning on heading, are even better, that they have not been augmented or altered at all for tourism. Apparently at Cu Chi the tunnels have all been enlarged to accommodate the larger statures of western people. Regardless, I really regret missing the experience of witnessing these tunnels. I can’t believe I was so near them, running around everyday in this city for 8 days, somehow unaware of the fact that they are right here. I would go right now if I could but I’m afraid it is too late in the day, by the time I arrive they would be closing for the day. I really kick myself hard over this one later as I know this place will have to now wait for the next time I come to Vietnam. Missing key things like this are really hard to accept.

I get checked into my hotel, a very nice room with a street facing balcony, quickly shower, change and head out excited for an unexpected day in Saigon. First things first when it comes to Saigon, it’s time to eat, as doing so in this city is nothing short of spectacular! Afterwards I head over to one of the several amazing peoples parks in this city, end up joining in on one of the many exercise areas here where there are a number of workout machines built into the park for free usage. I stroll about the park afterwards and snap off a few photos. Here is one of a gorgeously lush lotus pond in the center.
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Afterwards I head over to Reunification Palace, as for reasons unknown to me, I never went to check it last time. It was the site that officially announced “the end” of the Vietnam war during the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. You can google some very famous images from this day when a north vietnamese tank came crashing through its gates. You can also see images of south vietnamese people, hanging off of american helicopters, while trying to climb aboard, as the last of the american forces left the country. In short, something to see. I am content to see it lit up at night, as I arrive right at dusk.
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Directly at my back to the Reunification Palace is this spectacular sight with an amazing peoples park to my left, groups of friends out playing music together, talking, eating the all pervasive and fantastic street food, lovers of all ages enjoying each others company… It’s no wonder I love this city so much!
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From here I just stroll on, enjoying every step of this magical urban environment. I’ve always been a sucker for parks and it is by no accident that I end up in another one on the walk back to my hotel. As I have a very early flight out tomorrow I must not be out too late, tempting as it is in this town. I force myself to get back home to get some sleep to be relatively fresh for the day ahead tomorrow. Here is the full moon shining on in all of it’s heavenly glory, aiding to illuminate what is now one of my favorite cities on earth. It’s the perfect resolve for me on my last night in Saigon. Nothing but love and gratitude for this place. I so much look forward to the next time I will lay eyes upon this magical city. But for now, thank you Saigon and good night!
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I get back to the hotel, pay my bill and arrange to have someone pick me up at 5 am to bring me to the airport via motorbike. I head up to grab a little shut eye and slip into dreamland for all too brief a time, as before I know it my alarm is sounding in my ear to wake me to the day and carry me to my next destination of Hoi An, located in central Vietnam. I shower to wake myself up, get my packs together and head down to wake the man sleeping on the cot in the lobby. This is an all pervasive sight throughout SE Asia at guesthouses and hotels. There is always a man sleeping on a cot in the lobby, no matter where you stay. He is there to let people in and out of the place in the wee hours of the night and morning when reception is closed for the evening. He will be my driver to the airport and I am to wake him when I am ready to go. I do so. He gets up and stumbles to his feet, get’s himself together quickly and before I know it we are sailing through the near empty streets of Saigon at a very fast speed, honking the horn at each approaching intersection. This is a very rare sight indeed as Saigon is perpetually bumper to bumper with motorbikes, steeped in the hot heavy traffic of the day. The morning breeze feels great hitting me in the face as we make our way to the airport. He drives a bit faster than I would prefer but it’s his town and he drives it all the time. I just sit back and take in my final glimpses of this wondrous city I will miss so much.

Once we arrive at the airport I thank him for bringing me, pay him the agreed upon amount and bid him farewell, rush off to get checked in and get through security. The airport is packed with people and the lines are long and slow moving. At a certain point I am concerned about making my flight. In the end it works out just fine but it was a stressful couple of hours or so to get to the point where I could sit back in my seat on the plane and just relax. Now that it’s all good, I close my eyes and wait for our plane to finish taxying. Now, our turn on the runway, we take flight and I watch Saigon fade in the distance underneath and behind me. I pull out my computer to do some writing as I am perpetually behind on it all. Next stop Danang.

We land in Danang and disembark. I head to baggage claim and grab my pack. It’s still quite early in the morning and as I am in no rush, I sit down at a nearby restaurant to have some breakfast and a coffee. While I sit I do some research on Hoi An and the surrounding area, sketch out a rough plan of attack for my stay here. I am working my way north, getting closer to what is a huge reason I looked forward to coming to Vietnam. My father was in the war and was stationed at a firebase that is relatively near to where I am, a handful of hours or so north of here. It means an immense amount to me to make the pilgrimage there to stand in the areas where he stood. Fortunately, my circumstances are not those that he was faced with!

I catch a bus to bring me from Danang to Hoi An. Well, actually it doesn’t quite go to Hoi An but just shy of it. It’s very odd as Hoi An is one of the most popular places to visit in all of Vietnam. In fact, it has been voted the most beautiful city in Vietnam. In order to get there I must take a motorbike in from the bus station, about a 15 minute drive. For better and for worse I will be in Hoi An during the Vietnamese Liberation Day celebrations. As if that is not enough, the holiday also coincides with the full moon lantern festivals that happen each month in Hoi An. Needless to say, it’s extra packed here as a result of these events! The whole holiday is about 5 days in total and as a result, many many many Vietnamese are traveling their own country, heading to all the most beautiful places. As Hoi An is tops that list in a lot of ways you can imagine how packed the place is. Accommodations are, once again, as I experienced just recently in Cambodia for the Khmer New Year, hard to come by and at least twice the price if you can find them. This is rough on the ol’ travelers budget I am working under but, what can you do? Roll with the punches baby…

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Hoi An is notorious for it’s lit up lanterns. It’s really a very pretty sight indeed, as the whole river front is lined with them, as well as are many of the little winding streets through the quant little city.
Wish lanterns, where you purchase a candle lit lantern, make a wish and lower it into the water on a kind of bamboo pole with a little loop on the bottom to hold the lantern floating on the river, are all pervasive. The overall affect is really peaceful and poetic.
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Hoi An is a place of it’s own in Vietnam. If you are looking to escape the flow of tourism however, this is not the place for you. It’s all little shops and restaurants… It took me some letting go to actually be able to enjoy myself in this town as a result. I would like to experience the place on an average day, outside of the holiday crowds and festivities. That being said, it was still fun to see the place so packed with Vietnamese and other traveler alike, festivities unfolding everywhere, many games and performances. One of the ones I found most amusing was a simple game where a small basic terra-cotta flower pot is suspended from a rope, hanging about 10 paces in front of you. You are given a tightly woven wicker mask to wear, pulled down over your face, depriving you of your gift of sight, placing you into darkness. You are provided a wooden stick and are instructed to walk forward as much as you like, to where you think the clay pot is hung. Once there you have one swing to try and smash it. As the crowd chimes in telling you left or right, further forward or not…combating these unfair tips is the mc, a person on the microphone speaking loudly at you, more intensely as you near your objective…another person bangs two crudely fashioned metal crash cymbals together, collectively they create such a racket to cover up the instructions from the crowd…the whole atmosphere becomes one big cluster of noise and confusion. It’s quite fun to watch people swing at what they think is the pot but in reality they are 2 feet away, left or right, behind it… Some people were quite good at it and smashed the pot twice in a row, winning a bigger prize. It looked like so much fun I myself had to give it a go. I came up all air! I think those successful were able to hear the prompting from friends and family in the crowd. As everything was in Vietnamese I couldn’t understand jack! If people were yelling the directions at me in English I think I would have been able to hit the damn pot too. It defeats the whole point and fun of the game though really. Cheaters!

Out and about for a walk through town. Here are a few shots I really like from these amazing Vietnamese women in and around the central market. I am convinced they are the strongest women in the world. In this country it is the women that do the physical labor. It’s astounding to see these tiny little women hauling around their yokes, balanced perfectly on both ends, like scales, carrying whatever individual wares they are selling.
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Today, my first full day in Hoi An, I decide to walk to a nearby beach. As I have not heard anything about beaches and Hoi An mentioned together, I am not expecting great beaches. Along my walk, which is about 5 km or so I stop off at a Japanese shrine that is situated amongst the rice fields. The landscape is stunning. Here I encounter a local man, maybe he is the owner of the fields I stop in, I’m not sure. He is very aggressive and grabs me by the arm to pull me one way or another, pointing out this or that. I’m sure at the end of it he will ask me for money. I hate it when this shit happens. It’s best just to say, “No money,” right away, as that usually will cause them to lose interest. This is one of those rare experiences where no will not suffice. We make our way over to the shrine where the guy prompts me into praying…wasn’t really feeling it but didn’t want to be disrespectful all the same. Next he tells me I should leave a donation at the shrine. This is commonplace whenever you stop to pray. The donations left are always smaller moneys, nothing large. I place a 1,000 vd note in the offering cup. He looks at me and says no, no, tries to bait me into leaving 100,000 vd. I tell him no way. Then he tries for 50,000 vd. It’s all very sad as it’s quite obvious that he will collect the offering and pocket it. I work my way back to the main road, accompanied by my uninvited “guide.” Once there, I thank him and say goodbye. Now is the time for him to raise his hand and say, “money money,” and of course he does. I give him 10,000 vd which he scoffs at, wanting more. I tell him no, that I never asked for his help and that’s all I am willing to offer him. He quickly pushes me back towards the main road, pissed off that I would not give him more money. Really sad. The way I see it, I payed 10,000 vd to wear this dope tore up traditional farmers hat, commonplace among the women here.
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Here is another shot I really like from a bridge you must cross on the way to the beach:
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I resume my course, bound for the beach. Eventually I arrive and much to my surprise I come to find it is a really beautiful beach with plenty of room to get away from the one main tourist area with all the beach chairs… I do not swim as I have too many valuables with me and am alone. I am content to just walk along, wading in the water, sitting on the beach here and there to just relax and breath it all in.
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After enjoying starring into the sea for some time, I make my way back to the road where I sit down for an iced coffee before making the haul back to my hotel. While I sit I am approached by the owner of the sea side restaurant I am sitting at. It’s a nice place he has there and it seems he does alright with it. He seems to be a very nice guy other than the fact that he is completely inebriated. He does not speak English and for some reason continually speaks to me in Vietnamese as though I am understanding him. The spectacle becomes a point of amusement to neighboring tables. From time to time someone will come over laughing, trying to translate for me what is actually transpiring. Something like a NY minute but this time not in NY. He wants me to drink with him. I thank him for the offer but kindly decline, deciding instead to make my way back to my hotel and prepare for the evening and the following day where I am planning to rent a motorbike to allow myself to get back and forth to Danang, a city about an hours journey from here. I head back and treat myself to the local dish, only served in Hoi An, that I had heard so much about as a must try. It’s called Cao Lau.
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There is a bit of mystic that surrounds this dish as the water to make it can only come from a nearby legendary well. Here is a picture of the infamous well. I shot this at night so it’s flash photography. Take note to all of the cockroaches or “water bugs” as they are also referred to as, that are clinging to the walls. Not a big deal really as these insects are also fried up in mass and eaten in Vietnam. As you were…
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I decide to rent a motorbike for a few days to head back and forth to Danang as there is an annual international fireworks competition taking place there. I had read about it and as I love fireworks, it’s part of the reason why I am in the area I am in at this time. It’s nice to have a motorbike as there are a few places of interest between Hoi An and Danang that I want to check out. My first mission on the bike is to head out to China beach just outside the city of Danang. It’s a beautiful beach and it also has some interesting history behind it. It’s where the first US troops landed and throughout the war it was used as a major R&R beach for the troops at the time. It feels great to get in the water there! I swim about for a good hour, just loving the water and the views of the scenery and landscape I am immersed in. I you look into the distance on this photo, you can see a large white statue. It’s a massive buddha! I drive over to it after I leave the beach to stand in front of it. Thing is massive!
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The next day I will make the journey towards Danang again as I will make my way to a place called Marble Mountain. Marble Mountain is a number of large limestone cliffs that stand alone in the midst of what is otherwise a relatively flat area. These cliffs are adorned with some amazing temples that are housed within caves in these mountains. Some of the cave temples are really massive…enormous and moving! Speaking of moving, in one of the caves there is a huge stone buddha that I swear to you moves, sways to and fro, vibrating. I’ve never seen stone move before but those days are over. If someone were to tell me this story I would be the skeptic, like, “Sure the stone moved… The weed pipe you were smoking also moved.” But, I shit you not, this stone Buddha was moving! This is how you find him:
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Here is a shot from up top on the main limestone cliff in the Marble Mountain area. All these cliffs are full of cave temples!20130602-192707.jpg

I get back to my hotel around 7 pm and am told that I will have to switch rooms in the morning, to a larger more expensive room upstairs. When I checked in I told them I would be staying two or three nights, possibly longer. They booked the room while I was staying in it rather than ask me if I was going to stay longer. This is shit and turns into a big problem and a huge argument between myself and two staff members there at the hotel. I’m already paying much more money to be here during this holiday time, now they want me to move and pay more because they double booked my room. If the city was not entirely packed and booked I would have simply voiced my complaint and relocated to another hotel. This is not really possible at this time so I try to work it out with them. They refuse to contact the person they booked my room to and tell them they made a mistake, offering them the larger, more expensive room. This to me is the correct thing to do and the quickest resolve to the situation. They tell me they can’t do it because they booked the room online, blah blah blah. I demand to speak with the manager…of course he is nowhere around. It’s all a big ball of frustration. In the end I move to the other fucking room and payed more money. I just couldn’t argue with these people any further as it was totally ruining my mood and experience.
Today I ride back into Danang on the motorbike I rented for three days. Tonight is the first night of the international fireworks competition I am so excited to see. The ride there feels great! Coming back at night with all the traffic of partying people will be more the challenge I imagine. I arrive into Danang, much to my surprise, right in the exact area I need to be for the fireworks. One of the beautifully lit up bridges, connecting the city across the river, serves as a main viewing point. I am literally a four minute walk from the best place, outside of a rooftop somewhere, to watch the fireworks. This makes me so happy as I could have ended up lost in the city, having to deal with the language and directions, getting lost, in hopes to eventually end up here, where I found myself naturally by chance and good luck.

As I have a couple of hours before the sun sets and the festivities begin, I sit down at a local spot to have some food and a cold beer. Once I get up and pay my bill to leave, the man attending to the motorbikes there tells me I can leave my bike there for the fireworks. This is ideal as it saves me on having to do the parking lot dance, costing me money as well. Really dope! Pleased at how this day has taken shape I head up to the bridge to check out the scene. It’s a really festive atmosphere of really warm people, all excited for the evenings fireworks. Today, in Danang, I am the only white person I see. Feels really nice for some reason. It’s surprising though as the fireworks are such a big deal and attraction. I shoot a good number of photos from the bridge, working to grab some gems that capture the energy of the experience and the atmosphere. Here a few shots to provide you with the vibe:
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My night gets further made when I am befriended by two different groups of Vietnamese traveling their country, with a stop off here in Danang, like myself to take in the festivities. We spend hours talking and joking and it really transforms my experience from good to great! Thank you beautiful people!
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And the main event:
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Once it’s time to mount my bike and make my way back to Hoi An I cross my fingers and go. I am proud of myself for navigating the city at night full of traffic as a result of all the festivities! I make the hour drive back home no problem. On the way back to my bike before leaving I get this shot. This is one of the strongest images I have shot on my trip. I am so happy about it! This guy was in the flow and it all just worked out perfect!20130604-150348.jpg

Hoi An is a town that is world renowned for it’s tailors. If you are ever in Vietnam and are looking to have beautiful custom clothes designed for you, this is the place! It is impossible to close your eyes, throw a stone in any direction, and not hit a tailor. Unfortunately, I took the advice of a friend of mine who has traveled a lot in Vietnam to have clothes made in Hanoi. I thought it would be best for me to do in Hanoi as it was to be one of the final places I traveled on my trip in Vietnam. I thought it would be nicer to not have to carry a suit and whatnot around for the travels in between. It’s a huge regret of mine, as once I got to Hanoi, later on in my trip, it did not work out. The options were super limited, nowhere even close! Also, what the tailors were able to do there was entirely limited too. Everybody refused to make Mau collars there, for example. Additionally I could not find any tailer that spoke enough English to convey what I was looking for. I was so disappointed I even contemplated paying to extend my visa then traveling half the country back to Hoi An to do it. In the end I moved on, resolving to have clothes made for me some other time. Travel, time and money won out over the desire for custom clothing. Like I said though, this is a really big regret of mine on my trip! Not only for me but I also was planning to have some things made for family and friends back home. I even had everyone go to a tailor to get me measurements and everything. Bummer, but oh well…on we go. I really should have trusted my instincts on this one. I allowed myself to be talked out of it. Live and learn!

One thing that is really annoying in Hoi An is that it is literally impossible to walk ten steps without every single vender and shop keeper asking you to buy something. It’s beyond frustrating and really can fuck with your experience if you let it. I will come to find out that this behavior is much more indicative of the people in the north of Vietnam than the south. As a result, I much prefer the people and the experience in the southern half of the country. Sure there were exceptions to the rule, I met a good number of people in the north that were super kind and welcoming, not trying to sell me some shit, viewing me as a dollar sign before a human being. For those people, I thank you! For the rest, get over it man! Truthfully, I would have bought some things that I liked or wanted but was turned off by the intense pressure to buy shit. I refused to buy anything from any person that drilled me like that, no fucking way! For travelers that have spent time in Vietnam, you either get a “Yes, I absolutely loved this country” or a “No, I couldn’t stand it.” The reason given for the later is always because of the pressure to buy and haggle for everything. It’s one of those things you must simply embrace as part of the fabric of traveling here. Personally, though the haggling is not that big a deal if you are willing to do it, the pressure to buy shit beyond annoying…I love this country and want to come back again in the future to spend a greater chunk of time here!

After five nights between Hoi An and Danang I will be leaving tomorrow via bus for the old capital city of Hue, a few hours north of here. I gotta get a move on as the time on my visa is slipping away rapidly. Much ahead to experience first! Here is a photo of a very famous Japanese bridge in the center of the old town. It’s really pretty at night with all the lanterns… Thank you Hoi An. Hope to see you again one day!20130604-152649.jpg

Otres Beach, Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh, Cambodia

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Came here to Sihanoukville, Otres beach, via bus from Kampot. Otres beach fortunately, is removed from the main party atmosphere of central Sihanoukville and it’s line of beaches. Otres is the beach located farthest south. Unfortunately, it is not removed enough for me! Same problem that has been a frustration on the beaches I encountered on Phu Quoc. To be honest there are just too many tourists, travelers, whatever you want to call them. Despite my frustration to get away from them, I am one of them, I know. This place is very pretty and the long winding beach is really quite beautiful…the water is amazing and all of that. I just didn’t come to Cambodia, or Vietnam, or wherever, to spend my time surrounded by nothing but other travelers. It feels more like Florida or spring break in Mexico than it does Cambodia. You would hardly know this is the country you were in, save the staff everywhere being Cambodian, outside of the bartenders at a lot of places that are also foreigners, expats, travelers who have hung up the traveling shoes for a while to call this home. You will know it’s Cambodia once you step off the beach onto the road. There, you will be hounded by a gaggle of tuk-tuk drivers that annoy the shit out of you, asking you over and over, with every fucking step you take, “Sir, where you going? Tuk-tuk? Moto?” “Dude, I’m walking down the street 100 fucking steps, that’s where I am going. Fucking relax!” I don’t say that of course, but I sure fucking think it! This is what happens when you get an area to heavily populated with tourism.

The whole thing leaves me feeling completely alone and saddened. Here is a picture I shot at night, hanging out on the beach. It captures my feeling.
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Nothing against it all but this is not what I came to Cambodia to see and experience. I know I am in an amazing country and I need to leave that fucking Lonely Planet book alone apparently to find it. More and more that book misses the mark for me! I am leaving again tomorrow as a result, heading to Phnom Penh, the capital city. I gotta make my way back to Vietnam ASAP anyway as my visa there, very expensive to purchase, will expire on the 13th of May. I still need and want to explore much of Vietnam so I am going to head back now to do it. My plan is to return to Cambodia sometime after Thailand, over a months time from now. Everything is loose and open right now, other than my visa restrictions. I should have planned better with my time before coming into Cambodia. At the time I was unsure if I would be extending my stay in SE Asia or not. I tell you, that month I lost being in and out of the hospital really messed up my itinerary! I feel all blown out of balance right now, not just with time and scheduling…but just in trying to work my way back into the flow of traveling. Before the accident I felt on top of the world, totally connected to the land, the journey, my soul…now, I feel like I am fighting to get back into the right modes of being. It really got me bent out of shape! I just have faith that I will again be able to reenter the proper flow of myself in relation to this whole experience.

I arrived to Otres Beach in the evening yesterday, I will leave tomorrow morning for Phnom Penh. Two nights total here for me is more than enough! I would not come here again. Next time I will go to Koh Rong, a nearby island that is much more removed, as originally planned. I am just running out of time on my visa and gotta skip it for now. Also, though it’s a place I really want to experience, now is not the right time. I am not feeling like lazing around on a beach with nothing else to do. No, I want to get into some shit and experience some culture here!

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Up early in the morning, I’m packed and out, in a tuk-tuk, heading back to the center of Sihanouknille, to catch my bus, excitedly, for Phnom Penh. I board the bus which is near empty, having only three people on the bus right now, all sitting together. They are friends, sisters. My assigned seat is with one of them. As the bus is empty I figure it’s silly to crowd in. I will wait to sit there until I must. Within a couple more stops, the bus fills up and I must move to my assigned seat. Once seated again, the woman next to me strikes up a conversation. Her English is descent and she’s funny. The handful of hours to Phnom Penh pass quickly joking around with her. We stop midway at a little roadside restaurant. She invites me to join them for lunch. I accept. In the end Bee treats me. Very kind of her!

We continue our conversation back on the bus and all the way to Phnom Penh. I really welcome the exchange, as lately I have felt starved for communication. Once we arrive at the bus station I offer to take her out for lunch the following day. She says tonight would be better. As I have no plan it’s fine by me. She also volunteers to show me a bit of the city. This is exactly what I have been praying for! We part ways here as I must do battle with the hounding masses once again, offering me rides and accommodations. I decide to head over to a local restaurant and sit down for an iced coffee while I look over what area and hotel it is I’m planing on staying in, finalize a plan. While I’m sitting enjoying my coffee, I look up to see a face I think I recognize in the distance, disappearing into a crowd, heading into the central market. I am pretty sure it is Kim, one of the two French Vietnamese women I dove with back on Bunaken, in Indonesia. I quickly look for something upon her that is easy to spot in the crowded market place. Her orange backpack and sunglasses will do just fine. I finish my coffee, pay my bill, sling my packs and quickly head off into the market. It is packed and there are a number of different isles to choose from. I just head past them all, scanning them for the orange backpack. I spot her on the other side of the market, exiting the building. I work my way through the crowd and come up behind her, still not sure it is Kim. Once I am in range my belief grows stronger. I walk up next to her looking over one last time just to be sure. Yep, sure enough, it is her! I get her attention by making strange noises next to her…she stops to look at me, “Hey, I recognize this face,” she says. We smile and laugh. We talk for a bit and decide to sit down over a coffee to catch up. It’s been a couple months since Bunaken. Having heard about me getting decompression sickness from diving, naturally it is the first thing she mentions. I giver her a quick run down on my experience… She makes note that I have lost some weight since last she saw me. It is true, the whole DCS experience took about 10 pounds off my body.
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We talk about her travels, where she’s been and what she’s been up to. She has been in the Philippines and in Taiwan. She tells me that Lucie, her friend from Paris who I also dove with in Bunaken will be coming to Phnom Penh in a few days time. Lucie and I have been in contact so I know the deal. What I did not know is that Kim would be in Phnom Penh as well. It will be a little reunion for us all it seems. It’s great to see Kim as that time period in Bunaken was really a high for me, having spent near two months in Indonesia at the time, feeling really tied in spiritually, emotionally, physically to my travels. Seeing Kim reminded me of this whole period, all those sensations I experienced with it…diving everyday, the beauty of the island… I have had some amazing times traveling since then, experiencing wonderful places and people, events…but, something has been missing. That energy, the high I was on, the feelings of being tied in, connected to something larger… I long to reenter that space again for the remainder of my journey! Seeing Kim felt like a touchstone to that world.

We sit and talk for about an hour before bidding each other a farewell. Most likely we will see each other again in a few days, once Lucie arrives. It’s a bit hard for me because I was only planning on staying in Phnom Penh for about 3 days. Time, as I mentioned, is moving way too fast and I am concerned over my visa expiring in Vietnam without me seeing everything I hoped to see. Though I wish I had more time in Cambodia right now, I’m afraid the reality is I do not. As a result, I am itching to get back to Vietnam and make it happen while I still can. My visa for the country was very expensive…but most importantly, I just need to experience more of that country before I leave!
I have decided to return back to Cambodia towards the end of my travels as I have much to see of this amazing country as well before I leave.

I put my finger on the map in an area I decide to stay in, chose a hotel to begin with and head off to find it. It takes some doing to figure out how the streets work here, the addresses. It’s a bit confusing to begin with. I, in no rush, wander around enjoying the architecture and the energy of the city. Phnom Penh seems like a pretty interesting place…I’m diggin’ on the vibe here thus far. I am so happy with my choice to pull the plug on Sihanoukville and the beaches…get back to some culture and some Khmer energy. There is a right time and place for everything. If you are in the right place at the wrong time or vice versa, shit just doesn’t flow right. That’s what I was feeling in both Phu Quac and Otres Beach.

Once I make the rounds looking at different hotels I make a choice and drop my packs, yet again. I speak with Sreysom (that’s Bee’s real name) on the phone and we agree on a time to meet. I head down to the lobby of my hotel to have a beer and play a few games of pool. I really love playing pool, always have! It’s a game I think I could really be quite good at if I really put myself to it. I used to play a lot back in high school and played an alright game. Now, I am hot or cold. Anyway, in another life I might be Minnesota Fats…but not this one. I got the MN half though and fortunately not the “fats” part. Bad humor, sorry.

Sreysom arrives a half hour later and next thing I know I am on the back of her bike watching Phnom Penh lit up by night, dancing in my eyes as we drive on, SE Asian style. She is giving me a nice tour of the city, pointing out one thing or another to me along the way. Feels so good to have made a friend and I feel totally thankful for it! When I encounter local people, that for whatever reason want to open up their life and world, their city and home to me, I always take it to heart. This is a lesson I will carry with me back to NY when I get there. Those times you see someone standing on the street corner or the subway platform with a map in their hands, trying to figure it out…those are golden opportunities to help to transform someones travel experience, especially lone travelers. Showing people your city can really be a cool thing. You don’t have to take em to the empire state building…no, they will figure that shit out. Take em someplace cool, someplace that has got the mojo of the city or town you reside in, someplace they would never ever find on their own. At least extend the invitation. It may just work out to be a transformational experience for both of you.

On the bike cruising along… The first thing I must mention outside of the sheer energy of the place is the architecture here in this city. The landmark buildings and monuments, the museums, the palaces…are designed and built in exquisite fashion! It’s starkly different than anything I have seen previously. It almost has a russian doll quality to the roof design in some places as one tier extends to another slightly smaller below it that jettisons out from underneath it. This repeats several times in places. It’s like the mouths of H.R. Geiger’s alien mouth designs for the film(s) “Alien(s),” albeit much less dark. Couple this visually poetic atmosphere with the noise, the commotion, the energy, the life around you as you sail through the city traffic and it really does something to you!
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Our first stop it so happens will be a little amusement park called, “Dreamland.” Of course, the first thing you see from a distance is the ferris wheel. Question. Why does New York not have a ferris wheel? Seemingly every other really cool city in the world has one so lets do this Bloomberg!
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We park the bike, where the attendant writes a number that corresponds to our ticket across the dashboard in chalk. This is how it is done in Cambodia and in Vietnam as well. I buy us some passes to get in so we can go on the rides there. Some of them look pretty fun. Bee looks at me with a weary look on her face, part fear, part uncertainty. She says she may very well vomit if she goes on the rides. I think she is pulling my leg and is just scared. I assume, because she brought me here that she has come here many times to ride these things. First ride we rush up to is a ride called,”The Twister.” There are no lines to be had as the park is pretty empty. We step right up and get strapped in to this thing, roll bars over the shoulders, another cross bar comes down on top of that. Here we go! The Twister is a ride that is a platform you are seated on that swings first to the right than to the left, repeating this, each time with a little more height and speed added. Finally you come to the top, the maximum height, where you begin to swing around in full circles, more force and speed with each rotation. There are three of us on the ride, Bee and I, and a teenage boy sitting next to us on my right. He and I are laughing…enjoying the ride. I look over at Bee, her eyes are closed and she is screaming… Some people do this while on rides, you see it all the time. She makes me laugh…so I talk to her as we spin around. Now, I will admit, I was taken by surprise at how fast this thing gets to swinging, the amount of g-force we are being subjected to…it really is cooking! We are thrown all around, up and down in our seats, pushed up against our restraints on the way down, than brought down heavy on the way back up. Eventually it slows and stops at the top. I look at Bee, ask how she is doing. She is kinda just whimpering, eyes closed, “Eric, I’m scared…” I tell her it’s almost over and that she will be fine. We now start swinging in the other direction. “Ah, sorry Bee, now we go the other way but it will be over soon.”
Well, once the ride resolves itself and our roll bars are released, we are free to get up. My adrenaline is pumping now because that was a seriously wild ride! I look at Bee who looks like she hasn’t slept in a week, like a ghost with no energy. That ride took it all out of her! She is smiling a bit though and I’m still unsure if she enjoyed the ride or not. We all do these rides because they scare the shit out of us…that’s the whole point really. It’s the adrenaline rush of knowing you are not in control to what is happening to you and if something where to go wrong you would die. Good fun, right? So, I’m like, “That was awesome, right Bee?” “I was so scared…so tired now.” Well, we are next on some ride that spins you around in a circle while it raises and lowers you at once. It is a walk in the park compared to the Twister but it is one that makes you a bit more dizzy. I turn to Bee mid ride and take her photo.
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I shoot a video of her as she is once again eyes closed and sunken in her seat, moaning and groaning quietly to herself. I find it really funny. I know, I’m an ass, right? Ok, the humor ends when she starts to heave. Fortunately the ride is ending so she was able to keep it together. She was indeed very close to vomiting. Ok, now I see she was not kidding me when she said she might throw up. My assumption that she has been on all these rides before was totally incorrect, the actuality is that she is terrified of them and has never been on any of them before.

Once we are off the ride I take her by the arm and lead her to a bench to sit down, allow her to collect herself. I feel bad that she feels sick now. I am confused why shy brought my to the park though and allowed me to purchase the tickets so we could go on all the rides. I guess she was being brave and decided to give it a go finally. “So Bee, what did you think about the Twister?” “Oh, Twister…never again!” Once Bee feels better we decide upon another approach. We head into the video arcade to play some games. There are not too many games of interest here unfortunately. We both agree that the basketball game, shooting hoops while the basket is moving, is the most fun, so we play it a lot! We laugh and joke around and it’s good to see some life back in her face. Those rides really put the hurt on her I’m afraid.

We decide we should get back to our original plan and get some food in us as shooting hoops made us hungry. We head off on the bike again, back along the river. The views here are so enjoyable…it’s a very pretty city! We soon arrive at the night market which apparently only takes place on the weekends. It is something to look forward to though, no question, as it is such a festive place and experience! Large rattan woven mats line the cement courtyard, framed by street food vendors. You select what you would like to eat from the vendor and find yourself a place on a nearby mat to await your feast. The selections are fantastic and I am so happy to be with a Khmer person so I can try a bunch of stuff and learn about it. Things I would not know how to order on my own with the language barrier and edicate. Here is the scene:
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It’s so fun to be there with her and learn about the food, how it’s done. We chose a bunch of different things and grab a place on the mats. You kick off your shoes of course before entering. It feels so wonderful to just sit back and look around at this new festive environment. The evening is perfect, the weather, the sky, it all could not be better. Bee excuses herself and comes back a couple minutes later with two glasses of duk ompeu. Duk ompeu is a drink that is pure sugarcane juice. They press it right in front of you, running the stalks of skinned and washed sugar cane through a press multiple times, juicing it! Sometimes a little tasty green lime is pressed in too for flavor. Anyway, this drink is my favorite drink in the world. Having told Bee that she came back with two of them in her hands. I first experienced this drink in Ho Chi Minh City. In Vietnam it is called nước mía. I think there has rarely been a day that has gone by where I did not have at least one. It really is like the best thing in the world, I’m telling you!

Our food is brought to us shortly thereafter and we dig in, sampling our way around everything. I must confess, I finally can say that I enjoy eating intestines. It all depends upon how they are cooked, prepared and served. Here, they are done so many different ways. You would never even think that’s what you were eating if you didn’t know that’s what it was. Well, absolutely delicious is all I have to say!

From the night market we made our way over to the nearby riverfront to take a stroll and have a sit down to relax the night away. A beautiful evening along the river…lovers out sitting along the benches that line it. The peaceful mood was only interrupted two times, once by a man burning a fire down by the water, burning plastic and lord knows what else. In SE Asia the burning of trash is commonplace, everyone does it. The problem is they burn everything, regardless of what it is and how bad it is for the environment, plastic and all. The second interruption was a domestic argument between man and woman, maybe husband and wife. The woman was yelling and raising a royal noise. The disturbance was quelled about 5 minutes later by the dead thump of a policeman’s billy club landing somewhere upon the body of the man who quickly and smartly made off running like a banshie for the hills. I know these two incidents make it sound like it is far from a beautiful peaceful evening…but truly, it was gorgeous! Bee drives me back to my hotel where we part for the evening. She wants to spend tomorrow with me as well…how can I say no? And, more importantly, why would I? We had a great time and she is really good people!

Bee decides that I will drive the motorbike all day today, she will navigate. Here after all, in SE Asia , men are supposed to drive and woman are supposed to ride, unless of course there is not a man on the bike. I will say, I enjoyed driving as it’s fun to do so here in Phnom Penh, quite exciting indeed! Our plan is to hit it early, starting with a fairly long drive out to The Killing Fields.
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The killing fields, which most people at least have heard of, was a Khmer Rough death camp. If you are not familiar with the Khmer Rouge please google it as I cannot go too deeply into it, both for lack of knowledge and also because it’s way too lengthy and complicated for me to write about here. I will provide a really condensed version. The Khmer Rouge was a military regime headed and led by a man by the name of Pol Pot. His fundamental principles lie in the belief that the educated and intellectual classes, were infecting the nation and that the true heart and soul of the country belonged to the farmers working the land. Over a period of roughly 3 and a half years he successfully built such a military force that he removed the entire populations from the cities, relocating them to the country to work the land. He worked them to death, quite literally, through exhaustion and starvation. Those that fell behind, as near all eventually did, were brought to places like the killing fields, where they were executed.

There is an area where skulls are piled from floor to ceiling, along with clothing of the victims. Here is one such skull:
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Pol Pot’s loathing of the educated people and the urban environment further extended itself to the rest of the nation, regardless of position and background. He even executed a large number of soldiers from his own regime. By the time he was overthrown in 1985, by the Vietnamese, who were asked to intervene, he had systematically killed about 20% of the Cambodian population. Pol Pot sought exile in northern Thailand at the border of Cambodia. As the genocide unfolding was kept within the confines of the country, at the time Cambodia was one of the most separatist nations in the world hidden away from any type of a public word view, not unlike North Korea today, the Khmer Rouge was recognized as the official government of Cambodia, given three seats in the United Nations and millions of dollars in relief aid to rebuild the country. Pol Pot used this money to continue his campaign in attempts to rebuild his Khmer Rouge. He lived to be 82 years old and died of natural causes with seemingly no regret, remorse or feelings about his actions. A total psychopath! Many of the head officers in the Khmer Rouge, if they are still alive, remain free today, in exile.

As this history is pretty recent, most present day Khmer families have been directly affected. Sreysom, for example, lost her grandparents and an uncle on her mothers side to the regime. Yes, her mothers parents and brother were taken away to labor camps, never to be heard from again! To date there has been little to no justice served to those that were party members, who remain free, living amongst the very people they were exterminating on the daily. As the Khmer people are practicing buddhists, they live side by side with these Ex-Khmer Rouge, believing that they will suffer in the here after for their heinous deeds and bad karma.

This same types of things are happening right now in North Korea. Though it is as complete to a closed nation as you can be, not unlike Cambodia then, there has been enough leaked information, mostly from a lucky few who, through nothing short of a miracle, were able to escape with their lives in tact. North Korea is loaded with death camps and people disappear all the time! If you are interested, watch some documentaries on the nation. It’s unbelievable what is taking place there. Cambodia suffered these horrors just as the Jews did in the holocaust or the Tutsis did by the machete wielding hands of the Hutus in Rwanda, Idi Amin’s regime in Uganda, Saddam Hussein with the Kurdish, the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, Darfur, Palestine, Cechnya, East Timor, the list goes on and on.

So, to bring it all home, the Killing Fields was a heart-wrenching and sobering experience! Loaded with mass graves, still to this day, when it rains heavy, bone fragments and bit’s of clothing will filter to the surface. I can verify this as I have now seen it with my own eyes. Also, as if the acts of genocide are not enough, how it was carried out was just as bad. Workers, prisoners, were tortured severely, and I mean severely, before they were executed. As Pol Pot felt that bullets were too expensive and valuable to waste on these people, they were most often time beat to death with blunt instruments, often times the very farmers tools they were forced to work with every day, their throats slit with razor sharp, jagged tooth palm stalks to cut their vocal chords so they could not scream. Propaganda speeches and music were played throughout the compounds at a high volume to aid in drowning out the aural horrors taking place. They followed Nazi protocol in the transferring of workers to these killing fields by loading the people up into trains and busses, packing them in like cattle, all the while promising them that they were simply being relocated to new homes and farms.

Here is an image of some of the killing fields. The holes you see are mass graves that ran some 15 meters in depth.
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After we leave the killing fields, I drive us to the Boxing arena to catch the fights. Talk about a change of energy! I’m so amped about being in the arena and witnessing this! It will be my first time seeing any professional fight up close, in real time. I love watching MMA and fights in general, so I can’t wait to witness my first Thai Boxing match. Apparently Muay Thai originated in Cambodia. Here it is called Pradal Serey. The stadium is small but it is packed to the gils! It’s an open air stadium which is nice, a type of pavilion, bleacher seating. We arrived too late to get seats but standing, though packed, is not so bad as we are close enough to the ring. The first fight begins about five minutes after we arrived, perfect timing! Watching the fights on tv looks hard core enough…but to see it in real life is some next level shit! These guys are some tough cookies man, they are in there doing it boy…simply fearless!
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Over the course of the next few hours we will watch six different matches. A very lively atmosphere, with the people packed in like sardines, sweaty bodies as a result of the suns intense heat. In Thai boxing there is music that plays along with the fight. The fighters enter the ring, circling the mat, praying in the corners, dancing at times. Once the fight begins, no one comes out the gate throwing blows. First, both fighters dance with the rhythm of the music as they close the space between them. Eventually someone will throw the first leg kick, beginning the match. The fighters have a lot of respect for each other and there is something of the spirit involved. As I said, the Khmer people are practicing Buddhists, the ring is no exception to the rule as it too is a spiritual place. It’s really quite beautiful to watch them enter the ring and work through their rituals towards the fight. All six matches go the distance, which is five 3 minute rounds. Well, technically five matches as one of the fights was a straight up western boxing. No feet, no elbows, no knees…just hands. They had some serious striking chops with those hands though, no doubt! After watching all the pradal serey matches in a row, the boxing match took some adjusting to get into, as the pace was much slower, with more rounds, longer rounds and no music, creating a very still and silent atmosphere. Though I didn’t get to see any knockouts, all the fights having gone to decision, I did get to see some blood on the apron! One fighter got caught by an elbow to the top of his head, the blood was just pouring out man! Of course they closed the wound with vaseline in between rounds but it continually reopened shortly after fighting resumed. The best part was that he went on to wear his opponent down over the next few rounds earning himself a draw in the match in the end. Heart for days, I tell you!

From the fights we hop back on the bike and I bring us to Wat Phnom. It’s a temple of grand splendor located in the center of the city near the river. These places really create a magical atmosphere. The architecture of these spaces is just divine!
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Next on the hit list is a sunset cruise on the river. So nice to see the city light up, lining the banks. Our cruise is not that long, about 45 minutes in length but long enough to enjoy the river and the views. The music on the boat was horrible though. I wish people would not assume that others want to hear music at all, more or less that music. I will say it again, music is the most bastardized art form in existence. It gets appropriated for everything and 99 out of 100 times it sounds terrible and detracts from the experience. Most people can’t hear shit anyway and don’t know their head from their ass when it comes to music though so there you have it. This experience is yet another case in point.

After the cruise we hit the night market again to enjoy dinner and the beautiful evening. Again we select a large assortment of things to try and enjoy, accompanied by my favorite of favorites, sugar cane juice. Once again it feels so wonderful to just sit amongst the people, out under the open sky, enjoying the atmosphere and our feast, each others company. Here is a shot of Bee kicking back taking it all in:

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All evenings here seem to end at the river as it really is the perfect finishing spot for a day spent on the move in the sun. It just feels perfect to lay back on one of the benches and look up at the sky. On this particular night there is one of those rare happenings where the cloud line forms a perfect circle around the moon, creating a secondary circle of light, a lunar halo as it is referred as. I have not seen one of these in years and could not have had a better place or time to experience it again than here along the river in this wonderful city of Phnom Penh.
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Today, I begin my day by going to the Royal Palace. It’s the shining architectural jewel of Phnom Penh! It’s a massive walled compound, as these things often are.
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I do some praying in one of the temples here as is the custom. The majority of my time here is simply spent marveling at the architecture. One temple, called the Silver Palace, called as such as the entire floor is tiled in silver, is full of antiquities. The Buddhas in this temple are quite remarkable. It is a very important place of worship for many Khmer people.

From the Royal Palace, I chose to go to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Along with The Killing Fields, it’s a must visit if you ever find yourself in Phnom Penh. It is necessary in order to understand the Khmer peoples very recent history and experience! Do not look for a good time in these places though, they are as tragic and dark as places can be! Tuol Sleng, originally built and used as a high school, was taken over and turned into a prison camp by the Khmer Rouge. It was a torture facility and a death camp where thousands of lives were extinguished, in the most cruel and heinous means imaginable. It is beyond belief what man is capable of doing to man. Here, at Tuol Sleng, I am provided with a prime example of this fact. Lord help us all!

Prisoner rules at Tuol Sleng:
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Here is a photo of a rack of shackles used to chain prisoners by the ankle and wrist:
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The facilities here are divided into different wards. There is a building that was used for interrogation, for horrific displays of torture. In these spacious rooms, furnished with nothing but a lone metal framed bed, the most cruel acts imaginable were carried out. Some rooms have one large black and white photograph hanging on the wall, depicting the very room you are standing in, the very bed you are looking at, the very leg and arm shackles, crudely built. Upon the bed or on the floor, shackled to the bed, you will see a body, a victim, a detainee, his or her body so badly beaten, so badly wounded, tortured, with pieces of it missing, that it hardly looks human at all! Blood collects in large pools upon the floor!
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There is another building that is all the prison cells. The Khmer Rouge knocked out crude passageways through the walls that separated the rooms, connecting all the various cell on a given floor, allowing the guards to be able to patrol the rooms without having to leave one room to go to another. The cells on the first floor are concrete cells, the upper levels house cells made of wood. Of course they are all tiny and terrifying looking spaces, all of which equipped with a metal ring fixed in concrete that the prisoners were chained to, in order to minimize any chance of escape or free movement, as well as communication with those prisoners in neighboring cells. Here are a few images of what it looks like in there:
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Room upon room of mug shots taken by the Khmer Rouge, at the time these prisoners were admitted, each wearing a number around their neck, fill this prison turned genocide museum. These faces, thousands of them looking at you, are haunting. Their looks are so piercing, so telling, so emotional. You are not looking just at faces, you are looking into the eyes of people that are staring into the eyes of their captors, their torturers, their executioners! You feel chilled to the bone combing these rows of faces that seemingly never end, men, women and children alike.
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The Tuol Sleng prison museum is located near where Bee lives. Once I get out the museum I give her a ring to see if she wants to get together for dinner as it’s about the time she is getting back home from work. We agree to meet up and grab something to eat. I thought we would go someplace nearby and local to make it easy, just a simple meal. Bee had something else in mind entirely it turns out. As my navigator, she’s got me driving to the ends of the earth. Eventually I turn back and tell her, “This is not exactly local girl. Let’s just eat.” Apparently we are near the place and soon we are indeed there. The food was good but to be honest, I would have preferred just walking to a nearby spot and sitting down, easy like. Driving in Phnom Penh is, like so many of the cities in SE Asia, an adventure! I like to do it, it’s exhilarating…feels almost like an arcade game. Thing is, you gotta be ready to go to battle once you drive someplace here. Tonight, I just wanted to chillax!

After dinner we head back to our usual spot along the river for another sit down. It will be our last night spending time together as tomorrow my friend Lucie arrives into town. We have been trying to work it out to see each other for about a month now. We are both excited to have a reunion as our paths in Vietnam and Cambodia have been very similar, just out of synch with our individual timeframes. Finally we will be in the same place at the same time! It will be a short reunion though as I have purchased my plane ticket to fly back to Ho Chi Minh City the following morning, bright and early. Classically, Lucie will arrive to Phnom Penh from Ho Chi Minh. We are crisscrossing as usual! We make a plan to meet at the National Museum as she does not want to go with my first and hopeful plan of going to race go-carts at a track just outside the city. What a punk!

Lucie and I meet up the next day as planned and it’s great to see her! We sit down to have coffee and catch up before going to the museum. The time passes rapidly and before you know it we have talked the hours away and there is no time left for the museum. I must now rush off to meet with a woman named Sharon at a music school someplace in the city. My friend Jeremy Danneman put us in contact. After about an hour of walking and getting lost in the crazy ass heat of the day, I finally find the school and meet Sharon. Unfortunately, I arrived later than planned and we have little time to talk as she has a violin student coming in. We are brief. She is willing to set up a workshop for me to teach Soundpainting (google it if you don’t know it) if and when I come back to Phnom Penh. She will require a minimum of a months notice before my arrival to give ample time to promote the workshop. Well, this is what I was trying to do from NY some months back but shit kinda got lost in the process. I should have been more persistent with it all and stayed on-top of it better. Sharon was very nice and quite open so it’s good to know I can do something if and when I return.

I must say it again, the tuk-tuk drivers in Cambodia seem to be the worst ever! They just will not stop hounding you, every step you take, “Tuk-tuk sir, motorbike…very cheap, where you go?” They are relentless and it really is beyond annoying! It makes you want to throw things at them because they just wont take no for an answer. Your whole walk, for the duration of your day, will be tainted by these motherfuckers. Phnom Penh is an amazing city, it really is…but, the tuk-tuk drivers can kiss my motherfucking ass!

Later on in the evening I meet up with Lucie, Kim, and a couple of friends of theirs they are staying with. We all go out to an Indonesian restaurant, by no accident as this is where the three of us met a couple of months ago. It’s nice to speak the few Bahasa words I know again as the owners are Indonesian. The food is good and it’s a nice hang. From the restaurant we go to some bar with a band that’s playing cover tunes. I can’t wait to leave! I feel bad for the band cuz they are bored as shit and you can tell they hate being up there playing some tired old shit. From the bar we make our way to the river to sit down and just chill, take in the evening with quiet conversation. I am not alone it seems here in Phnom Penh. Here, we all make our way down to the river for the evenings…it really is the the thing to do!
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As I have to catch a 6am bus that will bring me back into Vietnam, back to Ho Chi MInh City, departing at 6 am, my smarter half tells me I should call it a night, go back to my hotel, pack and get an acceptable amount of sleep. Of course my smarter half is swayed out of it’s position by my less rational half, prompted by quite a bit of peer pressure from my friends, to join them for a final drink at a rum bar in town. Fortunately the place is very close to where I am staying and is a really chill Lounge, French owned, great music and vibe, really relaxed. The owner has a large selection of his own deliciously infused rums. Nice comfortable couches and dim lighting…the place had a real nice ambiance and vibe about it. Much more my speed than the bar we previously ended up at. Here we get into conversation, talk about politics…

We leave the rum bar and walk together until we must part. Hugs good bye with promises to stay in touch and hopes to once again meet each other in life…we part. I now am dead tired and my more rational half is telling me, “See I told you so…when will you learn to listen?” I take my dead ass back to my hotel and force myself to pack as I know if I don’t do it now, I will never wake up in time to do it in the morning. I pack as quickly as I can and then set two alarms to wake me up in 3.5 hours so I can catch my bus. Morning comes too early as it always does on nights when you don’t get enough sleep and before I know it I am prying myself out from behind my heavy eyelids to throw myself into a cold shower to wake me to the day. From here I grab my packs and head down in time to catch my bus to bring me back to Vietnam. I will have to do another border crossing today, passing through immigration again. I have a valid visa though for Vietnam so it should be smooth going.

I am sad to be leaving Cambodia so quickly, though I will be returning before I leave to at least experience Angkor Wat in Siem Riep. I hope I will have a little time left over so I can visit at least one more place in Cambodia. I am realizing that I will simply need more time for all these countries as it’s just too much to move through so fast. For me it’s better to go less places and have fuller experiences than to see more but experience less. That being said, it is still a sad feeling to have to admit to yourself that you have bitten off more than you can chew and realistically you will not be able to experience everywhere you hoped to go. I promise myself I will return in the future to continue on my explorations and to spend more time in the areas I really have taken a liking to. Regardless, I have had many experiences that have been really spectacular and have stood in some really phenomenal places… I am very thankful for my journey and the life I have been able to live along it! I have been traveling now for four months. In a way it seems much longer, as much life has been crammed into this time frame. I look back to my life in NY before I left…it seems like it was almost a dream…so distant and removed from my present reality. I know that in two months or so I will renter the reality of NY and somewhat the life I left behind. I can only pray for a safe and smooth landing and a blessed reentry into that now unforeseen future that awaits me. My whole reason in leaving NY and embarking upon this journey was to awaken myself to a higher potential for living. My life there, as it was, was not working correctly for me. I am optimistic that I can reenter NY and place myself into a life that is closer to my heart and soul, better for a long and healthy life full of realized dreams, filled with music for the people. God bless!

Kep & Kampot, Cambodia

Up and out early to pay my bill and catch a motorbike to bring me to the harbor to catch the 8 am boat to Ha Tien from Phu Quoc. As there is a problem with the credit card machine at the guesthouse I’m staying at, I gotta pay cash. Bummer cause I am already light on it in my pocket. Paying cash here will leave me with next to no money. This little hold-up, coupled with a very slow disorganized family checking out in front of me, get me out the gate a bit later than I was planning on and hoping for. I get to the harbor just in time to see my 8 am boat leaving the docs. Shit! I then find out the good news that the next ferry doesn’t depart until 2pm. Ok, stranded at the harbor for 6 hours…what to do? Though I am disappointed to miss the morning boat, I don’t stress it too much. Instead I sit down to have some breakfast and get my head together. I decide to really dig in and get some writing done. Once again, I have fallen way behind. So, missing my boat is actually a blessing in disguise. Once you arrive to the next place, it’s go time and too easy to not write as you are too busy living it.

Another blessing was running into a couple I had met on Phu Quac, near the night market. He is from Singapore and is a very kind man. He treated me to some food a couple of nights ago. He and his wife are really just warm hearted, kind people. For some reason, he is curious to speak with me and hear a bit of my story. He finds it so cool I am an artist as he, self professed, is “In the corporate world.” He is also amazed that I am traveling the world alone…can’t understand exactly how I am doing it, or maybe even why I am doing it. His wife is Vietnamese so he is back and forth from Singapore to Vietnam about 12 times a year, once a month. His name is Chan and I thank him for his warm heart and curiosity! Here is a photo he shot of me with his father-in-law who, as you can see by the glow of his face, is really a sweetheart of a guy. Thanx Chan!
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It is a shorter distance to Cambodia from Ha Tien than from Rach Gia. Consequently, it is over 100,000 Dong cheaper as well. My plan is to catch a bus once I arrive in Ha Tien to take me across the border into Cambodia. I read that the price should be $7. I will need to stop at the border crossing of course in order to attain a visa for Cambodia. Once I arrive to Ha Tien, I am of course approached by the masses wishing to give me a ride into Cambodia for a “very cheap price.” I am told, despite my readings, that there are no busses going to Cambodia and that I must go by motorbike. I pay a driver to bring me to the bus station to check the situation. Sure enough, there are no buses going to Cambodia. No one informed me however that you can take a small bus or minivan to the border crossing, then further into Cambodia. My driver wants to charge me $22 to take me to Kep, the first town in Cambodia I plan on visiting. It’s about 46 Kilometers to get there. Not seeing any other option at the moment I tell him ok.

On the way he tells me there are no ATM’s in Kep. This is not good as I am almost out of money in the pocket. He brings me to some random guy at a shop who offers to exchange money for me, Vietnamese dong to Khmer riel, the cambodian currency. I am unprepared for this trip as it’s a country I have done little research on. I do not have a guide book yet and don’t even know what the money is worth, the exchange rates… I opt to not blindly trust this random guy to exchange the little bit of money I have, deciding to work it out later once I arrive. This is a wise decision, I will find out later, as my driver turns out to be bullshitting me about a good many things as I will soon mention.

We arrive at the border crossing, Prek Chak on the Cambodian side. These guys got a real loose operation there to say the least. It moves at a very slow pace, as most of the immigration officials seem to just be milling about, joking, doing nothing. It reminds me of the NYPD back home. I am sent from one window to another to fill out this or that form, pay this or that money. The most humorous moment is when I am sent to the health department window where I must fill out a form stating I do not have any infectious diseases, fevers, rashes… My forehead is then scanned by the official there, using some dirty ass electronic reader. He tells me to pay $1 to him there. I am now officially stamped and cleared to enter Cambodia. I have no doubt some of the fees I payed went straight into the pockets there. In all I ended up paying a few dollars more than the visa fees I read about. Whatever, I am glad to be done with it and finally admitted into the country.

The whole time all of this is happening, it is raining. There is a major storm brewing and being in it on the back of a motorbike sounds horrible. I and everything I own will be soaked through by the time I arrive. I see some minivans at the border crossing, on the Cambodian side. I approach one of the drivers to find out if they have room and the price. He is very hesitant to tell me anything as he is aware I am “committed” to my motorbike driver, who is standing nearby watching our transaction. I play mind reader at this point. “Ok, so the answer is yes, you do have room, you just don’t want to tell me, right?” “How much is the price?” I demand. Finally he comes clean, $7! Ok, this matches what I read about. “Great,” I tell him, “I am going with you!” He tells me to talk to the guy I came with thus far. “No problem, I tell him. But I am going with you, ok?” He tells me yes, that’s fine. I go up to my motorbike driver and asked him why he misinformed me, as if I don’t already know the answer is money. He apologizes, says sometimes the buses run and sometimes they don’t… Another bullshit answer. I tell him I will pay him for bringing me to the border but that I don’t appreciate being lied to. I ask him how much. He tells me I should pay him the full 22 dollars and he will pay the minivan driver. You gotta be kidding me! I laugh in his face and tell him he is insane. I tell him I will of course pay the minivan driver separately and will only pay him for bringing me to the border. Again I ask how much. He says, No problem, whatever you want to pay. I hand him 100,000 Dong, $5. He snarfs and asks for more. “Well, how much man?” He wants $10, 200,000 Dong. It’s way too high a price and we both know it. While all this is happening, the minivan is loaded up and ready to go. I allow myself to be cheated by this guy, knowing the 100,000 is most likely more than enough. I give him the 200,000 he asks for and tell him to take it only if he thinks it’s a fair price. I tell him I don’t feel good about it at all. I am allowing myself to play a karmactic game at the moment. In my mind, If he excepts the money, he will lose it 10 fold soon, somehow. He very reluctantly takes the money, but takes it none the less of course, like a mouse that can’t resist taking the peanut-butter topped cheese off the mousetrap. I pat him on the shoulder and say, you and I both know this is not a fair price and that you misguided me on top of it. I tell him I wish him luck and quickly make for my minivan. Once I get there to climb in, there are a few open seats remaining, a passenger in the van says to the driver, “No way! I chartered this bus privately from you and paid you in full upfront. No one else is coming!” I turn to see my motorbike driver heading into the distance, back Vietnam way with the 200,000 dong I just gave him. There are no more buses around. It’s either this van or um…I have a problem. I flip out on the driver, tell him, “We just spoke about this! You told me there is room and that I could go with you.” “Oh, sorry sir, I didn’t know it was a private van…” “This is bullshit man,” I tell him. He’s gonna have to fix this problem, as I am not going to get stranded in this storm that’s about to drop big time, on some dusty dirt road, at this janky Cambodian border crossing. The man who hired the van speaks up, asks how far I am going. The driver and I both say, only to Kep, about 30 minutes drive away. The man says, “Ok, you can come, but sit in the back, ok?” Sure, whatever dude, I think to myself, just grateful that I am not going to be stranded there.

I climb in and make my way to the back of the bus, saying hello to the other 3 passengers on board. No one says hello back to me! It turns out they are all from the Ukraine, from Kiev, the capital. As we drive off, eventually the guy turns back to me and strikes up conversation. In the end he is very nice to me and again, I am very thankful he allowed me to ride with them! He is not so fond of the Cambodian or the Vietnamese people though, it seems. He, I am guessing, by the air about him, makes good money. He says, here in these countries, the level of service sucks. He adds, “It’s still on the level of monkeys here.” I have to ask him to repeat himself because I am in disbelief of what he just said. He proudly repeats himself, adding, “They are very good at taking money though,” cupping his hands in front of him and making a monkey face. Wow! Well, on we go!

On the way he recommends me places to stay and places to avoid along my Cambodia travels. He has been in Cambodia for 3 months, apparently on business. When I ask him what kind of business, he avoids the question, telling me, they have come to the decision that Cambodia will not work for them and that they are moving on to other countries. Ok, I say, not wanting to press the issue. I must say though, I am quite curious what this business is that he does. I must leave it to my imagination I guess. Meanwhile, the rains piss down like one big fucking endless sheet! The man turns back to me and says, “Imagine being on that motorbike now?” We laugh as I say, “Yes, would have made for a great story but a horrible experience!” We laugh some more. I am kind of amazed that during the whole 30 minute ride not one of the other 3 people turned back to say anything to me, or even look at me. I think they are not very happy I was allowed to join the van. No matter I guess, though kinda sad I think! 30 minutes later we roll up into Kep and I jump out, thanking the man again for allowing me to ride with them. I pay the driver my agreed upon $7 even though technically, I guess I should have paid to the man who already paid the van in full. Whatever…a bit of a confusing and uncomfortable situation.

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I duck out of the poring rain quickly, into a little cafe restaurant that is right there. I drop my packs and sit down to have a coffee and some food while I wait out the rain. Time passes… The rain is endless it seems and eventually I will need to make my way into it to find a place to sleep for the night. This will turn into a serious mission, a very frustrating one at that, as it is the Khmer New Year now. The Khmer are the Cambodian people. As a result of this big holiday, many many many Khmer people are on holiday and traveling, mostly to the beach areas and the river towns to relax together and celebrate the new year. As a result, most of the guesthouses are completely full. I will end up walking around in the pouring rain for quite sometime, and oh yes, it is the evening time as well, so I do not have the light of the sun to guide me either. One guesthouse I came to had one room remaining, wanted to rent it to me for $15. She said she would give me a good price because there is a little rain dripping down from the ceiling. She takes me to see the room, located down on basement level. The whole floor was flooded by the rain, a lady mopping the flood as I was shown it. They both look at me sheepishly, “Is it ok?” I laugh and shake my head, tell them they must be joking! “Um no, it is not ok!”

All the prices for things are all inflated now as well because of the New Year influx. Happy for the Khmer people…but this holiday is not working out in my favor at the moment. I head back out into the dark rain to resume my search. After several more, “sorry, we are full” notifications, I finally come to a place that has a room, $10. I will take it! I drop my gear, unpack to air out my bags and allow everything to dry. Fortunately I have a rain tarp on my travel pack and a water proof sack inside my day pack, housing my electronics, otherwise it would have been a disaster! I strip my soaked through clothes off, jump in the shower to wash the mud off my feet, and the rain off my body. Feeling the world better now, I curl up to do some writing. I even have a wifi connection here, so that is great! I am also enjoying the signs posted here. This one for example:
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The next day I am up and out, though later than I would have liked. I crashed out pretty hard! I walk out into the blistering sun and heat, make my way down to the coast to take in the images of this festive time for the Khmer people. The whole coast is lined with beautiful raton woven mats, rain/sun tarps strung above them all for protection against the elements, making a nice cozy space. There are hundreds of people out, casually enjoying each others company, drinking and feasting along the water. Napping bodies lay in hammocks strung all over the place as well. It is a very pleasant air and a very pretty little coastal town. Opposite the sea side are large French colonial style houses that sit, perpetually uninhabited. Kep is written about, as a type of ghost town, for this reason. Also, immediate to the landscape are the thick green forests and hills. Monkeys come down to the roadside in hopes to score some tasty treats unattended, or the remnants there of, discarded.
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In the sea you can see many a body, fully clothed. Cambodians swim, well maybe not swim as seemingly most cannot, but more accurately wade around in the water, fully clothed, men and women alike, particularly women. This is done for two reasons, to avoid revealing the flesh, and the sensations of lust they might cause, as well as to avoid the sunlight. All throughout SE Asia, and Cambodia is no exception to the rule, everyone wants white skin. White skin is seen as beautiful and desirable. It is also related to class. If you are dark skinned you are viewed as one who works outside, a farmer, a peasant, a poor person. If you have light skin you must have a better job, part of the upper class… All the shops throughout my trip are loaded with skin whitening products, soaps, shampoo’s, lotions, sunscreen… Really is remarkable! White people trying to get some sun in their skin and dark people trying to take it away. Oh lord! Here are a few Khmer bathers:
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As I have heard so much about the crab market here, as it is quite famous in the region, for it’s amazingly fresh seafood, delicious crab particular, I make my way on over. It is a very lively market, fit with both dine in restaurants that allow you the comfort of a nice table and seat, ocean views, shielding one from the sun, and also the market area proper, loaded with vendors grilling up and selling a huge variety of amazing seafood fare! Many an item is being sold at this bustling market. Really a spectacular atmosphere!
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Renowned in Kep is also its pepper plantations. They are world famous for their pepper! You’re probably thinking as I did, “What’s the big deal, it’s just pepper, right?” No! Wait until you experience a dish served up with this pepper, the taste, the presentation…really a culinary experience! I can’t explain through word, as taste is a separate unique sense for a reason. I can tell you though, the pepper is really citrusy in addition to the spiciness of it. Served fresh on your plate, garnished in your meal is just really something worth the trip here alone for! Check it out, here is the meal I decided upon at a restaurant that came highly recommended by my friend Lucie, who I dove with on Bunaken, Sulawesi, Indonesia. Amazingly delicious!!!
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To my dismay, I have decided to leave Kep today, heading to the nearby town of Kampot. “Why so quick?” you might ask. Simple. Money! I am near out and I need to get to an ATM. This is one bit of information my bullshit motorbike driver didn’t lie to me about. There are no ATM’s in Kep. The nearest ones are in Kampot, a nearby town I want to experience anyway. I purchase a bus ticket, $3. The bus departs at 5. One thing I find fascinating is that one main form of currency here is the US dollars. They are widely distributed and gladly accepted throughout Cambodia. If the ATM’s dispense US dollars I will be all too happy as they are easy for me to work with and exchange as needed, further along in my travels, regardless of where I go. I am sad to have to leave this town so early as I have just arrived and experienced far too little. The nature here, the landscape, the hills and rivers are supposed to be really beautiful… Well, perhaps I will return again.
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I board my 5pm bus bound for Kampot. The roads go back and fourth from shoddily paved to dirt. It’s hot and dry so the red dirt from the road gets kicked up, both by traffic and by the winds, crating a very dusty landscape indeed. The ride is often times quite bumpy and, as a result, slow going. It is not a long journey though, taking about 45 minutes in duration total. Once in Kampot, having read that the town is small and easily walkable, I decline the readily waiting motorbike ride offers that great me. First stop, the ATM. Centrally located, and near to where the bus dropped me off, I have no problem locating them. I am pleased to find that indeed, they do dispense US dollars. Especially helpful right now as I am still a bit in the dark about the exchange rate here. As foreign transaction fees add up quickly, I do not want to make a mistake and withdraw an amount of money too small. Mission successful having withdrawn an amount that should last me a while, I hope. Next mission, find a place to stay. I walk around a bit and soon it is dark. Here street lamps are not so prevalent in many areas, so when I say it is dark, I really mean it is dark! I access a map and get a recommendation on an area of town I should be looking. I head off to again experience a lot of, “Sorry, we are full” scenarios. I finally am successful in getting a place though once again the rates are higher do to the new year. I am told the place I am staying has wifi, always a deciding factor for me as I need it for research and writing. Though the place does in fact have wifi, it is not working at all. I will only stay in this place one night as a result.

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After a shower I head off to explore this town. Here, there are also many French influenced buildings, some occupied, some abandoned. It makes for a weird experience. Eerily poetic, I must say. It’s a very pretty town in a way, lively enough, but far from a city, more less a dynamic city! I am not sure why I am here yet. There are pepper and durian farms to tour, if so I wish, also the mountains nearby are supposed to be worth the journey. I will say that I will be all to happy to arrive unto the next place that I fall in love with, or at least really like a lot. I’m getting to a point where I want to meet some cool people, to at least hang with over a period of days, possibly even travel with. I am feeling, not necessarily lonely, but the feeling of aloneness is getting to me. I am beginning to long, as I said, for good company, good times, good conversation and laughter.

As a result of the new year here in Kampot, much of the town is closed for business. It’s slow now! Again, it’s great for the local people who are enjoying their celebrations….but for the lone traveler, it can be a bit difficult and frustrating. For example, I mentioned I do not yet have a guide book here to really plan a course properly… I feel like I’m just kinda milling about without any real modus operandi. There are two bookstores in town that I’m confident I will find a guide book in. Both however are closed for the holiday time period, a handful of days anyway. One has a hand scrawled sign taped to the gate stating they will be open tomorrow. I hope this holds true as I really need to get my hands on a book! The internet connection in my new hotel I relocated to today does have wifi that is actually working but the connection is beyond slow. It’s too hard to plot a course and have a plan this way. I need a book. Fingers crossed for tomorrow!

My plan for tomorrow is to rent a motorbike and drive up into the Bokor Mountain range. I’m not sure I will do any hiking though. With all the remnant land-mines that are left over from the combined wars here, it is not a good idea to just wander off on your own! If I do any hiking, I will be sure to go with a guide. One step planted in the wrong area here and you are going to pieces, quite literally! Staying on the clearly defined paths are a must for travel, both in Cambodia and in Vietnam. There has been around 100,000 land-mine casualties alone, since the end of the Vietnam war in ’75. Combine that total with that of all the mines laid by the Khmer Rouge and I hear it’s nearing 1,000,000 people. That’s since the end of war mind you, mostly civilian deaths and severe injuries. No joke!

While sitting having breakfast, news gets to me about the bombings in Boston at the marathon. It’s sad to hear this news is happening back on US soil again. I feel so bad for the victims and their loved ones affected! More and more I’m afraid these types of things will take place. America is sick with violence. The nation was born on violence and genocide and has become the worlds dominant power through more of this same violence. The culture is inundated with violence, it’s in everything, trickling down from the hierarchy of the oval office, corporate, global political machine, all the way down through the entertainment industry, heavy in the video game and film industry. It’s no surprise it is in the blood of the people, like an infectious virus. Coupled with this is the demands put upon us all to keep up with the hyper-increasing speeds of our highly technology driven world. Each year It gets faster and faster. It is expected that we keep up with the machines or fall by the wayside in the process of trying, to be left behind and forgotten about, deemed unsuccessful and useless. I feel that these two things combined are responsible for the cycle of violence that we are experiencing today.

For America to rid itself of this disease, we as an American public are going to have to demand a new value system. For this to happen we, each as individuals, are going to have to do some soul searching to further understand ourselves, our nature more, in hopes to find a better way. Then, collectively as a people, we will have the potential for change. Many Americans have done this, are doing this, and with any hope for the future more will join in and do the work to improve their internal outlook. The world you feel and believe in inside is a possible world. It only takes the collective struggle of the people to slowly sway the balance of the nations value system. I do not say this lightly as we know this will not come easy! The corporation has little to no interest in creating this much needed change, as they profit far to much off the killing, both physically and psychologically, of the worlds people. People need to stop looking to Fox Entertainment Network as a valid news source, instead, applying a little effort to search out and ingest different streams of information, more accurate and acute. It’s always best to read multiple sources of the news. Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn anyone?

It’s crucial to know how you as a nation are being perceived by the rest of the world. More and more America is digging a hole so large, it will eventually not have the option to climb out of, let alone fill up, planting fragrant flowers on top, as a symbol of peace and forgiveness, hope for a brighter future. America is not an isolated case of course. We are not the first hyper-aggressive nation founded on violence, and we will not be the last. As regards the future, China, for example is coming up fast. Traveling this world now, it’s presence is felt everywhere. America’s Federal debt is currently at around 17 trillion dollars! China currently owns over 7% of this debt. America really has got to get up off China’s dick and start producing our own products again. We also need to stop consuming useless crap because its cheap in price. It’s also cheap in quality! With the wars we are having over petroleum, coupled with our environmental problems, do we really need to purchase more items made from plastic, unless it is really necessary? I have nothing against China or it’s people… It is a country, with an incredibly rich and ornate culture and history which I also long to visit and explore. I mention them only as another massive empire that has long been on the rise, growing at a very rapid rate. I also mention it because I have seen a lot of Chinese arrogance and vanity on this trip. Rude people throwing their money around, demanding one thing or another, never looking quite happy all the while.

Currently there are plans on the table to construct a railway system from China down throughout SE Asia, through Malaysia and into Singapore, and though it will have passenger lines, the main reason is for the transportation of goods to and from China. All this will encourage more extremely wealthy Chinese to purchase land and establish business in the region. I’m afraid this rail line will really change these countries a lot, and not favorably for the most part. What was once a 72 hour plus multiple train ride before now will be attainable in just 11 hours. Of course many people and families will be displaced in it’s wake as the rail plows through towns, displacing scores of people. Laos will receive the heaviest hit it seems, with Cambodia and Thailand not far behind. This is going to be a big problem throughout SE Asia as the people I have encountered thus far are already not so fond of the Chinese. Cambodia, for example, has perhaps the most valid reason to not like China. During the Khmer Rouge reign, it was China that was supplying Pol Pot with the arms to oppress and exterminate the Khmer people. In the end, about 20% of the Cambodian population was systematically executed over a period of 3.5 years.

America’s future really depends upon it’s own self sufficiency. The nation needs to be healthy and secure, educated and cared for, respected by it’s government. We need to begin employing our own people again, not outsourcing everything. We need to address the issues of poverty, mental health and addiction. The well-fare system needs a total restructuring, in order to build a better bridge-way off the system and into self sufficiency. Right now to qualify for healthcare and subsidy, you need to make such a small amount of money each month to live. Really an impossible amount to live! If you earn above that you lose all your benefits. This, coupled by the lure to have more children to receive more aid, is a disaster scenario that is bad for the nation all around. Outsourcing is cheap labor that makes company executives a lot of money…but, it does not trickle down through the rest of the nation. It stops in the pockets of these money lords. Meanwhile the American people are out of work and the economy is all messed up. These money lords are the people ultimately deciding the future of the nation and as a result, each and every american life within it. They have long been in bed with the politicians and despite the always present rhetoric that they have the American peoples interest at heart…the truth is, they do not! We need to stop waiting around with perpetual hopes that these politicians are going to improve our condition and the lives of our future generations. We need to start to organize and work together to create change from the bottom, the base, the community, the people. With enough numbers and the correct approach, we can achieve the much needed revolution our country needs. I do not use the word revolution, as it is commonly thought about, referring to violent revolution. No, I mean a true revolution of the heart, coming from a more spiritual understanding of our short lives on the planet, in relation to future generations. I use the word revolution in it’s true sense, simply meaning a turning, a rotation, a movement.

It’s not just America of course, It’s a global problem. Then again, history demonstrates that people do heinous things to each other all over the world, regardless of the level of technology. Maybe people are just messed up all over for reasons I do not understand. I just have a lot of concerns for the worlds people, both inside and outside of America. We need somehow to put ourselves in touch with the power of love and compassion. All I am saying is we have work to do. Rich people in America have first choice on everything, including buying the best education and as a result job opportunities, often times, especially on the really high levels, its a family affair, all strings attached. Take George W. Bush making his way to the Oval Office as a prime example. How was this possible? Well, it’s a family affair baby, that’s how! If you ain’t in the family, you ain’t invited to dinner, simple as that. I will now stand down off my soap-box. No, I do not believe I possess any answers necessarily…but I sure do possess a good many growing questions.

First mission of the day accomplished. I was able to trade my Indonesian guide book, that is big and heavy by the way, in for a bootleg copy of a Lonely Planet guide book on Cambodia. Yes, thankfully the bookshop was open today! I sat for an hour and combed through about half of it, marking pages for what will be the next three weeks or so of my life in Cambodia. From here, after breakfast, I rented a motorbike and drove out of the center of town over the old bridge, then headed up into the hills, destination, the peak of Bokor Mountain. The drive up was, to my surprise, much easier going than I expected. Reading about it makes it sound like a serious haul on rough dirt roads, dirt bike required. Maybe once upon a time I guess. The whole thing, in actuality, is nicely laid asphalt, all the way to the top. As, a simple scooter is my means of transport, it makes the journey, without guide (and inflated fee) possible. If ever you do this trip, go alone! Rent a motorbike and you are all good. Start before noon if you don’t want to return down the long winding mountain road in the dark. There are no street lamps so only your headlight will illuminate the journey. Also, be hyper aware of oncoming traffic, as the lanes painted on the street mean hardly anything at all. Passing is a constant and it matters not if it is a series of zigzag turns or straightaway. It’s really beyond belief at points!

On the way up you will come to a massive statue of a seated buddha, and I do mean massive! It is quite a sight to behold! There I joined in with the people in making offerings and engaging in prayer. I wonder how I, the westerner, is being perceived, partaking in these rituals, but in the end I think it is thought that prayer is prayer, regardless if I am from the region or the tradition. It’s a culture where there is a lot of respect for prayer, regardless of who is doing the praying and where one might hale from. This area has nice views as well so I take my time here before getting back on the bike to head further up mountain.
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Also at the top of the mountain, oddly enough, is a massive casino and resort, that over the years has been in and out of operation. It has it’s own long lived failed history. You can google it if you are interested. It has reopened, to try it’s luck again. As I have never been inside a casino, I feel this is as good a time as any to give it a go, perhaps maybe even better. I stop in to carouse the joint, watching people feed the machines, play blackjack, roulette, the works. My thoughts to try my hand at gambling here were changed as I felt it better to eat with my money than simply give it away to the casino. To be honest with you, I don’t really get the whole gambling thing. It all seems so boring and unattractive to me. I think that is probably a good thing! I have heard some horror stories of peoples lives going down the drain as a result of being addicted to the casino. I might have other problems I need to work on…but, fortunately, this is not one of them. My big expenditure there turned out to be a $2 iced coffee and an overpriced bad meal outside the casino in some street festival that was taking place. It was interesting to be there though as I got to hear and witness my first live Cambodian band. Good drummer and guitar player. The drummer was playing an electronic set of drums which seems to be the norm here. Though the music was really bad Cambodian pop music, I found the rhythms used, where they place the accents in the beat, to be interesting.

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Further up the mountain I came across a very old temple nestled in its hills. I stopped for a while, ended up making a small donation or offering, a small amount of money, to have a monk bless me, reciting some ancient buddhist text beyond my ability to comprehend. He would anoint me with holy water, dousing me, with some kind of wooden multi-split stick or brush, he would repeatedly dip in the water. While I am being blessed I sit on my knees before him, hands in prayer position. I won’t go into my prayer as it is not to be spoken of but I will say I felt quite natural and at piece. The conclusion of the prayer is a “mantra” that is sung by those around me. Really a wonderful experience! Religious or not, I figure it can’t hurt to be blessed by a monk. Unorthodox though it was, I recorded my prayer to use in some of my music I will make once I return home. I do wonder what that monk thought when I placed my recorder down in front of me, between us. When traveling, I find it is essential to respect both where you are and also who you are, where you come from, not just regionally, but internally, mentally, conceptually, spiritually. I am not a traditional buddhist after all, I am a musician and artist from New York City! I did not allow myself to take photos in this ornate and beautiful temple, tempting as it was, out of respect for the traditions and the sacred space I was in. Taking photos in there would have been deemed, and to a large degree rightly so, disrespectful both of the space and those that were engaged in prayer within it. It is a fine balance I find that must be adhered to and respected. Some things you must just accept and move with, feeling content to just be in the reality of the situation and experience. That alone, will have to, should, and ultimately does, suffice. Here are a couple shots of the temple from the outside:
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Enjoying myself so much up there, the views, the temples, the old abandoned buildings, I allowed myself to stay, catching a beautiful sunset off the coast, from the top of the peak, from one of the temples there.
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Also at the top of the mountain there is a old school abandoned Catholic church. I arrived here just at dusk and quickly snapped a few photos, the sliver reclining moon hanging above it in the sky.
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From here I made my way to the final destination point nearby, the Bokor Palace Hotel. Opened in 1925, catering to the wealthy as you might imagine, though apparently not all that successfully either, as it closed in 1940. The result is a massive old ruin that sits alone, on top the mountain. This place would have been “pimpsville” man! Huge and gorgeous, serious masonry in this joint, perched atop Bokor Mountain, flaunting apex views of the valley running down into the Sea of Cambodia.
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The drive back down off the mountain was peaceful and meditative to me. Darkness all pervasive, with only my headlamp to illuminate the road, surrounding by the intense sounds of nature even audible at times over the hum of the engine. The occasional car would pass my by here and there, either going up into the hills, or descending down from them. A very peaceful drive indeed. It took me about an hour or so from top to bottom, maybe an hour and fifteen minutes. I promised myself to take it slow and easy, not trying to keep up with the traffic of the locals that know these mountain roads like the back of their hands.

Having made my way off the mountain I drive back to town, again over the old bridge. Hungry, I am excited to park my but in a chair and enjoy a well earned meal, accompanied by a cold tasty beer or two. In fact, I am so hungry, having skipped lunch, that I end up ordering two meals, back to back. One of those rare days where I feel like a bottomless pit. Both meals were tasty and carried me home, finally satiating me and my cravings.

I have made the decision to extend my travels by a month. I secure this by renting out my apartment for another month to Karina who has been both kindly and patiently awaiting my decision. I still must extend my health insurance and two flights to fully seal the deal and make it official. As I said in an earlier posting, it will cost me about $500 to do so. I find it interesting that, my estimated tax returns, I recently did while in Ho Chi Minh City, work out to be for a reimbursement of the same amount. As money is tight at this point, it worked out to be the deciding factor in my mind to go ahead and extend. If for some reason I change my mind or am for reasons unforeseen unable to extend, worst case scenario is I rent a place in NY or humbly request shelter from my friends there in NY, a week here a week there. I figure, if it goes this way, I will look at it as a further journey, a different experience and perspective in NY. Another option is to just head off to do a little road trip in the states for a month, though it would have to be done on a serious shoestring budget. Whichever way it rolls, it will be an experience and I am willing to have it. Everything in life has its lessons and rewards… I feel confident that no matter how things go, It will work out for the good. Bless it!

Today, my plan was to leave Kampot for some islands southwest of here. Game postponed on account of rain I’m afraid. Maybe rain is not the best term for the amount of water falling out the sky. Three major rain storms today, with brief periods of light rain in between. Basically it poured from early in the morning all the way until through the late afternoon till about 5:30. I decided to stay here another day and go it tomorrow, hopefully with nicer weather at my back! A very lazy day today as I was to be contained within four walls for most of it. To be honest, last night was a long one that involved great conversation with people and a fair amount of drinking. I went to a place called the ABC Bar, it’s around the corner and down the block from my hotel. I heard some blues music coming out the joint and my curiosity had me follow the sounds on in. Nothing too inspiring though, unfortunately. The star of the group, comprised of expats in their 60’s, was the guitar player who sure as hell loves himself some Jeff Beck! Anyway, I ended up sitting in, regrettably, for a couple of tunes. Just not much going on in this music for me I’m afraid. Not really done all too well as a whole! Additionally, I was playing on a set of Roland electronic drums. Man, it’s too bad with those things…such a great idea…but such a bad result! Worked for guitar, the electric aspect…added something new and different…but, I’m afraid for the drums, and I have tried these things time and again over the years, having entertained the idea of buying one both for quiet practice reasons, and for conceptual reasons, they just fall short…way short! Anyway, a few people bought me drinks and I’m not used to really drinking right now. Combined with the splifs being passed around and the heat of the day, it all made me a bit tipsy. Great night though, great conversation and a lot of fun. It felt great to be social…exactly what I needed as I was starting to feel too introspective and stir crazy. Wasn’t so mad to be rained in this morning. In fact, of all days to be rained in, this was a good one. After the rains stopped, with just an hour or so left of sunlight, the remainder of the day and night turned beautiful and clear! I went out to take a walk shooting some photos along the way. Felt wonderful to finally be out and about! It always feels wonderful to take a walk after a good storm. Everything is clean and peaceful, quiet, and the smell after a good rain shower…! Here are a handful of shots from around town, post storm:
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I treated myself to a massage this evening, something I have been meaning to do for some time. Here in Kampot there are a number of massage parlors that are staffed by the blind. It is a big thing here, you see it all over. It provides some opportunity for these disabled people to work and contribute to society. “Seeing Hands” as they like to refer to themselves here. Figuring I could use a good massage I felt this is a good way to do it. The message was a Japanese Shiatsu style, deep tissue, a lot of acupressure. I won’t lie to you, it could have been better, for reasons having nothing to do with sight. No, the unfortunate and frustrating element was the guy who was my masseuse spent to much time talking with his co-workers while working on me. In a couple spots he even answered his cell phone. Lame! Anyway, what do you want for $5? Was it worth the money, of course it was! Would I go there again? Absolutely not. Perhaps other centers will offer you a better experience… I went to one of the original seeing hands centers, as I had heard they were supposed to be the best quality. Not what I was hoping for by any means.
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From the massage parlor, I headed out for a fantastic rib dinner. There is a restaurant right off the river that has apparently been nominated, more than once, for making the best ribs in Cambodia. There was no way I was gonna pass on that! The ribs were hitting alright! Serious meat on these bones, done in a sweet style barbecue. To be honest I am more a thick savory, spicy sauce kinda guy and or a good rub…but, this really was truly delicious all the same! A couple cold beers to wash it all down right. Gotta have beer when you eating ribs! Dinner was followed by some good conversation with a group of travelers the table over from me. Got some more tips on Thailand from one of the guys who has been working there for 7 months. From there, it was a polite refusal of an an offer to join them for a night of drinking on the town. That was last night for me, so tonight I am ready for a quiet night in my hotel, where my aim is to get some writing done and then pack, prepare myself to leave early tomorrow.

Up early to get some breakfast in me and make some final rounds before leaving Kampot. I am catching a 3pm bus today to Sihanoukville, a costal town about two hours west of here. Once there I plan on making my way to Otres Beach, supposedly a quiet and beautiful beach area removed from the party scene of the main beach, Serendipity. From Otres Beach I will make my way via boat to some nearby islands, Koh Rong particular. I’m not necessarily feeling like being on the beach right now but I feel I want to see these places regardless as I have heard great things about them. From there my plan will be to head back, east towards the city of Phnom Penh.

Kampot is a very warm town with very warm people. I must say, I enjoyed it very much here. I could definitely see myself returning here in the future to spend a bit more time. It’s just a great place to come and relax and at once still be productive. That being said, thank you Kampot. Looking forward to the next time I see you!
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