New Year, New Blog!

This blog has been a bit silent over the last few months, but it’s not dead!  I have been working on migrating it over to a new website, with more photo content and videos (coming soon!), and the process is finally finished and ready to share!  I will no longer be posting on this blog, but you can see new posts, as well as ALL of the old content on my new website: www.seethinkexplore.com

Here’s a screenshot preview:

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Visit, follow, and check it out on Facebook as well!

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Pakse: a Glimpse of Southern Laos

Last month I got my first peek of the south of Laos, visiting Pakse city and Paksong District, on the Bolavan Plateau.  The air on the plateau was crisp and cool, even as Vientiane boils this time of year at 90+ degrees each day (and far more with humidity).  It was just a quick two day excursion for a work project, but a nice glimpse into the friendly south.  Here, I saw another bend of the Mekong as it curves down toward Cambodia.  The streets seem wider, the traffic lighter, and the seafood more bountiful.  The highlights of two days working here were tasting locally grown coffee, visiting Pakse’s most famous wat, and magnificent waterfalls, and taking in the smells and sights of the fresh fish market.  

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Boun Bang Fai, an Explosive Festival

After nearly three years in Laos, I’ve been to most of the major local festivals.  I’ve given alms at That Luang, tried paddling (but mostly cheering) a Dragonboat, respectfully tied baci strings for babies, at offices, and at weddings, thrown water like a champion at Lao New Year, and so on.  But the one festival I’ve been missing out on is boun bang fai, or the annual Rocket Festivals.

Not enough explosions? Take some home.

Not enough explosions? Take some home.

These celebrations are harder to track down, because they don’t just happen on one day, but could occur any time between April-June, in the transitional period between the dry and the rainy seasons, and happen on different days in different villages.  Generally they occur more in the countryside, rather than in the city-proper (which is for the best for safety reasons), and are said to have a link to ancient fertility ceremonies, which makes sense with the scheduling to signify the coming of the rains, and the beginning of the rice-planting season.  In keeping with this theme, rocket festivals can often be a rather raunchy affair, with a fair amount of cross-dressing, drunkenness (okay, well, this is true of all Lao holidays), and phallic rockets or drawings.
picnic
After two years of talking about rocket festivals, I knew I had to finally  see what it was all about, so when a friend invited me and some of our other friends out to his family’s village in Ban Naxone, about a one hour drive from the city, I was ready to go.  After a body-numbing motorbike drive out to the village with my friend Ilse, we knew we had arrived when traffic in an otherwise quiet area drew to a standstill, and loud cowbell music began to resonate in the background.  We began just with a quiet lunch at our friend’s house, with the usual fare of papaya salad, small river clams, and beef with chili sauce, before venturing out to check out the scene.

Condensed milk slushee coming up.

Condensed milk slushee coming up.

The Ban Naxone rocket festival seemed to be bigger and more official (and therefore less raunchy) than many other rocket festivals.  The currently dry rice fields were the site of a massive carnival, with stalls selling grilled meats, homemade slushees, Gangnam Style balloons, and tiny take-home rockets.  Families had picnics, and everyone flinched a bit when a rocket went off.  The rockets themselves are not exactly anything that would pass a safety inspection in the US.  These are PVC bottle rockets (homemade in the village) of varying sizes, from small (do-it-yourself) to big, to VERY big (saved for the grand finale, which we unfortunately missed).  The larger-sized ones are set off from a launching platform, and are lit by either brave or stupid men inevitably wearing flip flops, and hurtle in the air with an alarming sound that makes you want to hit the deck to save yourself.  The crowd shades their eyes as they smoke high into the air, and then begin their descent…to land wherever they might land.  It’s an entertaining festival, but one to be approached with caution.

A few heart-stopping rocket launches was enough for us, as we had to head back to Vientiane before it got too dark, but it was certainly a worthwhile spectacle.  Let the rainy season begin!

The launching platform.

The launching platform.

there she goes

What goes up, must come down.

What goes up, must come down.

Trying to figure out where it will land.

Trying to figure out where it will land.

 

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Dubai

city scape
I’ve been helping out at the Lao Rugby Federation for a few years by now, but last month, I got to be a part of one of their most exciting accomplishments yet.  They have been winning their tournaments with Cambodia for several years now, and as such, were promoted to a higher division of their competition, Division IV of the Asian 5 Nations.  That means that for the first time their competition moved out of Southeast Asia…into the desert.  This year the Lao men traveled to Dubai to take on Uzbekistan and Pakistan in competition, and I went along.

In preparation for the trip, the men underwent 6 strenuous weeks of training 8 times per week, and I underwent the slightly less strenuous task of recording their journey:

…and then, compiling a video of all of the other people cheering on the team from all corners of the world:

Finally, during the first week of May, we were off to Dubai!  For more on the rugby, check out updates on the website and facebook.  In the end, the team did not win, but made an excellent debut in a new and challenging division of competition.  It was also my debut in the Middle East, although Dubai is one of those cities, somewhat like Singapore in my opinion, that feels like it could be anywhere.  It reminded me of Singapore in other ways as well–good shopping, good food, clean, modern, air-conditioned, extremely diverse with many immigrants, efficient, but not a whole lot of unique character.
dubai
Granted, I didn’t get out that much in Dubai, so there is still a lot more to discover.  And it is undeniably an impressive city.  It is quite astounding to look out at the glittering skyscrapers and realize that it is all just built on sand.  Anywhere that is slightly unkempt–an unpaved lot, or untended alleyway, is filled with sand, and driving on the highway out of town (as we did to go out to all of the matches), the urban jungle quickly recedes into the sand dunes.  The wealth it would require to keep the city going in the middle of the desert must be immense.  We took the highway through the desert, eventually ending at a tree-lined boulevard and the most beautiful grassy sports complex with free flowing water abound.  Clearly a lot of effort goes into the city’s many luxuries.
the creek
And there are plenty of luxuries indeed–the bus stops are air-conditioned, the artificial Palm Islands lay off the coast, and the Burj al-Khalifa, currently the world’s tallest building at 829m (2722 ft), looms impressively above the city.  We went to one of the natural public beaches for an afternoon (photography strictly not allowed) and the view of the Persian Gulf in one direction and the skyline in the other was rather surreal.  This followed by an evening with incredible hummus and hookah along the Dubai Creek made me realize that although somewhat artificial, it is a city worth revisiting.
hummus

mall
On our last day in Dubai, we went to the Dubai Mall, an impressive town-sized complex of every store imaginable, with their logos imaginatively redone in Arabic (I LOVE logos in Arabic), plus a shark tank, waterfall, and who knows what else.  I missed the indoor skiing and desert safaris this time…but next time, it’s a given.

dubai

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Pi Mai Redux

Last month, the country shut down to celebrate the Lao holiday to end all holidays, Pi Mai Lao, or Lao New Year.  Time must be flying here, since I feel like I just celebrated the new year…but wait…I did!

Since last Lao New Year, I have actually celebrated 4 new years, so no wonder time seems to be passing so quickly!  Last April, my friends visited and we celebrated the Buddhist year 2555 with the classic Lao water festival celebrations, which I detailed culturally, and festivity-wise in previous posts.

The details of a beautiful traditional Hmong skirt.

The details of a beautiful traditional Hmong skirt.

A girl's traditional hat for Hmong New Year.

A girl’s traditional hat for Hmong New Year.

Just when the year was starting to feel long, it was time for Hmong New Year in December, when I visited Phonsavane and Nonghet District in Xieng Khouang Province just in time for the colorful cultural parties.  With this week of feasting on plain rice and drinking lao lao out of gasoline containers barely behind me, it was suddenly time for the international New Year.

I rang in 2013 with my friends Elle (who was actually present for the 2555 celebration as well) and Ilse in Bangkok, with Mexican food, VWs-turned-bars, and a rooftop countdown that came a few minutes too late.

Fireworks over Bangkok.

Fireworks over Bangkok.

A VW turned partymobile.

A VW turned partymobile.

Just when I thought I was done with new years for awhile, it was time for Chinese New Year/Tet and the Year of the Snake, and thanks to Vientiane’s large Vietnamese and Chinese population, storefronts hung lanterns and displayed red clothing, while drummers pounded out rhythms on the way to dragon shows with their teams.  I celebrated at a Lao-Vietnamese friend’s house with traditional table settings, incense and fireworks, and the less-traditional Pitbull soundtrack and Beerlao-induced dancing.

Vietnamese/Chinese New Year table.

Vietnamese/Chinese New Year table.

And then…time for another Lao New Year!  Soon enough, a year had passed (or is it several years?) and last month we rang in the Buddhist Year 2556.  As it’s my third Lao New Year, and third Pi Mai blog post, I won’t bore with the details and description (look for that here and here).  Instead let these photos and your imagination take you to a sweltering saturated 3 days in which neons, florals, and Beerlao-yellow blend before your eyes, wigs, sunglasses, and caveman costumes get swapped from person to person, and there are no moments of silence.  By now, the city has long since cleaned up the water balloons and party debris, and I am waiting around for the next new year I can celebrate.  Any ideas?

Anything goes at Pi Mai Lao!

Anything goes at Pi Mai Lao!

Safety first?

Safety first?

Downtown Vientiane on the first day of Pi Mai.

Downtown Vientiane on the first day of Pi Mai.

It's impossible to stay dry.

It’s impossible to stay dry.

 

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Tailoring in Hoi An: A Stich in No Time!

Hoi An may boast World Heritage historical houses, temples, and nearby beaches, but one of its main draws is getting custom fitted clothes in any style imaginable.
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Misha and I definitely came with tailoring largely in mind.  There are tailors in Lao, and I have done some tailoring here, but most only really do traditional Lao outfits for ladies, and men’s work clothing.  Tailors who make styles other than tightly-fitting silk tops are harder to come by, slow (a month or more), and most importantly, there is no variety of quality fabric (aside from those for the traditional dress).  I knew Hoi An, with fabric in multitudes of textures and colors, was going to be overwhelming.

And it certainly was… In Hoi An there is an impression that everyone in the town is somehow involved in the tailoring industry.  If you meet someone who isn’t a tailor themselves, you can bet their brother/wife/cousin/sister-in-law/best friend/niece is.  Every third shop is a tailor shop, with someone calling out to you sweetly from the doorway.  The range is extreme, with some fancy high-end stores with uniformed staff, their own labels, and waiting courtyard areas.  Meanwhile, others are just one-room affairs, with a few family members running the show.  With this overwhelming amount of choice, it was essential for us to strategize and plan ahead–what we wanted, and how much we were willing to spend.  There were so many details to consider: fabric type, texture, weight, color, zipper style and placement, seams, neckline, buttons, lining, sleeves, length, and so on.  Who knew that getting custom made clothes could actually be so stressful!? (But hey, I’m not complaining).  In Hoi An, it feels like sky is the limit–winter coats, sundresses, ball gowns, suits, shorts, even shoes (from Converse, to strappy sandals, to knee-high boots)–it all can be made in a day or two.

Approaching the cloth market.

Approaching the cloth market.

Inside the cloth market.

Inside the cloth market.

A stall inside the cloth market.

A stall inside the cloth market.

In the end, after a day of scouting, sketching, price comparing, and feeling fabric, we decided to go for a combination, getting a few key items (a nice dress and jacket in my case) at an expensive designer store, and more standard items (copies of shirts and shorts already in my wardrobe) at a stall in the cloth market.  And of course–shoes (just boots and wedges, in an act of incredible restraint).

The interior of one of the fancier tailor shops.

The interior of one of the fancier tailor shops.

Truly, the most astounding part of the whole undertaking is the speed.  On our last day, we ordered a last-minute pair of shoes at 10am…which were ready, stitched-soles and all, by 8pm.  Perhaps it’s a good thing this isn’t more common as it would be sorely tempting…don’t know what to wear tonight?  Make something new!

Picking out colors at the shoe tailor.

Picking out colors at the shoe tailor.

The boot aisle at the shoe tailor.

The boot aisle at the shoe tailor.

Indeed, tailoring and eating took up most of our time, but occasionally we did manage to have moments for more tranquil and cultural activities, like walking along the harbor in the old town, and visiting the famous Japanese covered bridge.  One day, we even left downtown for the beach, walking a sweltering few miles to An Bang, the slightly less touristy beach.  We “rented” umbrellas and chairs for free, in return for patronizing an astoundingly mediocre beachside restaurant, and admired the strage circular rowboats docked on shore.

The circular boats on An Bang beach.

The circular boats on An Bang beach.

Between fittings and feasting on cao lau, the four days in Hoi An flew by, and soon we found ourselves back en route to Vientiane, with full suitcases and full stomachs to show for our week in Vietnam.

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Hungry in Hoi An

Touching down in Danang and driving the one hour to Hoi An, on Vietnam’s Central Coast, seemed quiet after the hectic streets of HCMC.
japanese covered bridge
Our main destination for the trip was Hội An, formerly knowns as Faifo (most everywhere in this part of the world has more than one name, it seems), a historic UNESCO World Heritage town of around 120,000.  Hoi An was historically a trading town, strategically located on the river, near the sea, and the architecture and fortunes of the city were strongly influenced by past merchants and settlers, especially from China and Japan.  Undamaged during the war, the town is an extremely popular tourist spot today, known for its beaches, architecture, food, and tailors.
boats in Hoi An
hoi an
Just like Luang Prabang in Laos, Hoi An is one of those places that remarkably retains its charm despite the influx of tourists.  Every third person on the street is a tourist, rather than a local, and it seems like nearly everything is geared to attract their dong (the local currency, the name of which is predictably the butt of many jokes and bawdy t-shirts).  The calls of “Miss you want bicycle? Come into my shop? Just looking? You eat here?” and so on, do get annoying, but the appeal of Hoi An manages still to transcend the touristy fanfare.  The downtown area has narrow streets, open only to motorbikes, push bikes and pedestrians, and the buildings are all a beautiful mustard yellow, with vines and blossoms cascading over their walls.  Rice farmer hats and paper lanterns abound, and narrow alleys reveal crumbling and dignified porches.
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lanterns
Before this trip, my Asian food allegiance was solidly in the camp of Lao and Thai food, but in Hoi An, Vietnamese food stole my heart.  Back in the US, most of my experiences with Vietnamese food seemed nearly identical to Chinese food in the States.  Whether this is because I didn’t know what to order before, or because all exported Asian food ends up looking the same after awhile, I’m not sure.  But now, my impressions are of a light, flavorful, often quite healthy, cuisine.

Some highlights:

Vietnamese drip coffee: The rocket fuel of Asian coffees, which I always order “white.”  The secret is that it’s really just like drinking highly-caffeinated sweetened condensed milk.  It’s necessary to take a little break from caffeine after drinking this everyday for a week.
drip coffee
Cao Lau: A Hoi An specialty, served in many different styles around the town, but always with: pork, thick noodles, greens (often mint, lettuce, and sprouts), and a mystery sauce that is light and salty.
Cao Lau
Salads: Creative mixtures of meat or tofu with peanuts, bamboo and other fresh veggies.  I don’t actually know what they’re called in Vietnamese but all sorts of delicious varieties crossed our plates.

Beef salad and Vietnamese iced tea.

Beef salad and Vietnamese iced tea.

Pho: Ah pho, an old friend.  Although I can eat this all over Laos, it’s just not quite the same as in its homeland of Vietnam.  A cheap, salty bowl of rice noodles and meat, known to be tastier the more brackish looking the broth is (it means that the bones have been boiling for longer).  Add fresh lime, chili sauce/flakes, mint, sugar to taste.  I’m sure there are posh Manhattan fusion restaurants that sell it for $14, but I’ll never be willing to spend more than $1.
pho
Spring rolls: Another ubiquitous Asian food that just seems better in Vietnam, perhaps for the sheer variety. Tofu, BBQ beef, shrimp, fish, egg, pork, you name it.  Freshly wrapped in rice paper with sweet peanut sauce for dipping.

Spring rolls eaten on the street.

Spring rolls eaten on the street.

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Saigon…or is it Ho Chi Minh City?

I last visited Vietnam in 2011, when I spent only a few days in the bustling city of Hanoi, and for my end of term holiday last week, I decided it was about time to return to see more of this densely populated Eastern neighbor.

This time I passed over Hanoi, in favor of its modern southern sister, Ho Chi Minh City.  Among travelers, HCMC doesn’t exactly have a glowing reputation.  Given that neither does Vientiane, a city I love a lot, I knew it was still worth a visit to find out for myself.  And indeed, I found it to be surprisingly pleasant and home to the best massage I’ve ever gotten…which certainly helped my impression.
traffic
traffic
When you mention HCMC, it’s nearly impossible not to make a comment about the traffic.  It is rather incredible.  There are an unbelievable number of vehicles on the road; with over 7.5 million people in the city (more than in the entire country of Laos) it sometimes feels like every one of them owns a motorbike.  At every red light the bikes steadily accumulate, passengers all wearing helmets (impressive, though they are little more than laminated baseball hats), with 1-4 people per bike, perhaps 5 if there are particularly small riders.  But what is most incredible is not the sheer number of vehicles, but the fact that they are generally not locked in a traffic jam, but rather going at a constant fast clip, mere inches from one another.  In the first taxi ride form the airport, we narrowly missed other drivers by a couple of hairs at least four times.  The taxi driver barely blinked, but said “many motobike” in response to my friend Misha and I’s cringes.  By the time we arrived at our guesthouse, I was thoroughly convinced that Vietnamese people have superior reflexes.  Perhaps it’s something special in their pho, or just survival of the fastest?
ho chi minh
Next it was our turn to learn how to navigate the busy streets…on foot.  HCMC seemed to me like quite a livable city—surprisingly green, graced with large, mostly pothole-less sidewalks (a novelty!), and a decent mix of Southeast Asian quirkiness and modern convenience.  But I’m not packing my bags to move there just yet, in part due to the sheer peril and stress of crossing the road.  The key, it seems, is to not look at the oncoming traffic at all if you can: it won’t stop for you.  But if you walk at a steady (this is key, no unpredictable movements), slow pace, it will part around you, as if you’ve introduced a rock into a flowing stream.  If you can’t overcome your nerves, you’re doomed.  And even if you do master this technique, it’s quite draining.
Inside the Ben Thanh market.
Once we managed to cross a few streets, we eventually made it to the covered Bến Thành Market, where you can buy the usual tourist crap, knockoff goods, sequined fabric, coffee made from weasel poop, live eels, or dried sea cucumbers (over $100).  Vietnamese bargaining is much more intense than in Laos, so it was good to start practicing for the rest of the week.  In the end, I did buy candied ginger and the aforementioned sequins, and passed on the sea animals, both dead and alive.
sequins

Dried fruits at the market.

Fresh eels for sale!
It’s nearly impossible to visit HCMC without thinking about the war.  After all, most people still call the city Saigon, although the name was officially changed to Ho Chi Minh City in 1976 after the current government gained power.  As such, we visited the War Remnants Museum, a sobering collection mostly of photographs of the horrors of the Vietnam War.  Some are iconic, many are more unknown, of bodies of the young, or the wreckage of obscure civilian villages.  Living in this part of the world has vividly filled in so many of the gaps of the parts of history quickly glossed over in school growing up (after a long time discussing WWII, most American history classes seemed to nearly run out of time for the many remaining more recent decades).

Saigon's safety seat.

Saigon’s safety seat.

All that was left in our single day in HCMC was a dinner of “Vietnamese tapas”—ie. a sampling of street food.  We nibbled on BBQ beef spring rolls (yum), grizzly fish spring rolls (not yum), deep fried tofu, dried fruits, and garlic butter corn (more to come on Vietnamese food in my next post).  At the end of the day, it was just the perfect time to visit a spa for a late night pedicure ($3) and massage ($8)… Truly the best massage I have ever had (and I’ve sampled a lot in Asia); it released all of that tension from crossing the street.

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Vang Vieng

I returned from the beach sunned, and with the souvenir of a sea urchin fragment embedded in my foot.  With the final weekend of vacation in January, I visited somewhere new, but much closer to home: Vang Vieng.
Vang Vieng
Vang Vieng is at once a notorious and beloved tourist destination.  After Luang Prabang, it is probably the most well-known and popular location for visitors to Laos.  It is both known for its stunning landscape–with craggy karst mountains overlooking the Nam Song River–and its hard-partying-anything-goes reputation.  For years, Vang Vieng has been a magnet for drunk Aussies on spring break (to be stereotypical against someone other than Americans for once…although all nationalities partake in the debauchery).  It’s known as the place where you can drunk buckets of cheap local liquor, enjoy “happy shakes” spiked with your opiate of choice, and float/jump/frolic intoxicated in the Nam Song River.  It’s a double-edged sword: it provides a good livelihood for enterprising locals in tourism, however, at its worst the debauchery is both disrespectful and dangerous.
downtown VV
During the ASEM cleanup, bars along the river were torn down, and a curfew enforced, and by the time I visited Vang Vieng in January, this cleaner face of the town was still preserved.  I had passed through Vang Vieng very briefly in 2011 on my motorbike expedition north, but barely saw anything of the town.  However, in the few hours I was outside getting dinner I clearly remember hoardes of noisy tourists in frat tanks and booty shorts walking barefoot in the roads sporting lewd day-glo body paint and Sharpie scribblings on their body.

roti menu
The Vang Vieng after dark this time was starkly different.  The streets were relatively quiet and fairly deserted, more like Vientiane or Luang Prabang, and the TVs in the Friends cafes (every other business is a restaurant with comfortable cushions and reruns of the sitcom playing on a flatscreen) and Top 40 music at bars faded by midnight.

While this version of Laos’ hedonist haven seemed much more pleasant (I was thankful not to have to watch half-naked falang spilling french fries), many vendors and bar owners bemoaned the fact that it was supposedly “high season” but certainly didn’t seem like it…and that they were forbidden from continuing to sell their liquor buckets.  Supposedly the river tubing experience has also calmed, although I have yet to try it myself.  It’s unclear how permanent the change is–things here often go in waves of strictness and relative laxity.  But hopefully in the end, some sort of happy medium will be reached, which restores the tourism and fun, but with a higher degree of safety and respect.
Vang Vieng landscape
Vang Vieng isn’t just for frolicking falang, it’s also a popular tourist destination for locals, as it’s only a 3-5 hour bus ride from Vientiane, and offers a spectrum of pleasant outdoor activities.  Waterfalls, swimming holes, and caves abound to be explored.

In my short two day visit, I wandered around town, enjoying how relaxed and walkable it is, and strolled the stunning riverside.  I headed out of town to one of the caves, which was surrounded by a well-kept park filled picnicking families and Thai tour groups.  Finally, I made sure to catch a couple episodes of Friends on a couch, and feel unabashedly touristy for a few hours.

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The Lao Nagas

Last year, a Lao rugby team, called the Lao Nagas, traveled to Hong Kong for the first time to compete in the Kowloon 10s tournament and watch the world’s most elite 7s tournament.  The team invited a videographer from Lao New Wave Cinema to join and make a documentary of the event, which has been well-received in both Laos and Hong Kong, and was featured at this year’s Vientianale film festival.

Thanks to the success of last year’s tournament, the team is on their way to Hong Kong for the second time this week, and I invite you to cheer them on by watching the full length documentary, or the 5 minute trailer version on YouTube below, which I edited from the original film last month.

Let’s go Laos, Lao sou sou!

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