Category Archives: Uncategorized

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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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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VIRC Highlights

Highlights from the Vientiane International Rugby Championship this past weekend!

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January 28, 2013 · 1:31 pm

Asian Beer Label Table

Although I don’t really enjoy beer that much, I’m a fan of the commercial artwork on beer labels across the world.  They are also a cheap and light souvenir, so I’ve begun collecting beer labels from each country that I’ve visited since moving to Asia.  It’s always been my goal to make some sort of table or bar out of the collection, and I’ve finally amassed enough to put together my “beer label table.”

How many countries can you find?

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Laos at the Olympics

It’s that time again.  People who never watch sports (myself included) have been tuning in to see athletes from around the world jumping, lifting, swimming, running, diving, hitting…and so on.  The Olympics are always a bit of a geography lesson when athletes from less well-known nations appear (where is Sao Tome & Principe again?), and this year Laos made a small mark on the Olympic world map with three athletes.

(source: daylife.com)

This is Laos’ 7th time in the Olympics (they have never–yet–won a medal) and three very young athletes in men’s swimming, and men’s and women’s track traveled to London from Vientiane.  All entered as wildcard participants.  Now that the games have wrapped up yet again, it’s time for everyone to start training for 2016, and hoping that there will be even more Lao athletes next time around!

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Holiday Wrap-Up


As is evident from my sparse posts on Australia, as the holidays get closer, life has been getting busier.  Term 4 has come to an end, my dad has been here enjoying the relaxed Vientiane lifestyle for a week already, and tomorrow we are off to Malaysian Borneo for two weeks.  Walking in the woods with my dad was a common pastime of my childhood years, and now we’ll be taking it to the next level with a climb up Mt. Kinabalu and visit to the world’s largest cave chambers.  These woods will be hotter, more exotic, and filled with wildlife much more interesting than the deer of central Virginia.  As our itinerary consists mostly of activities involving nothing but insect repellent and hiking shoes, my connection to the world outside the jungle will be sporadic.

Happy holidays!  Happy new year!

The blog will return in 2012.

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Spring Break

Though it may sound like I’ve been constantly traveling, because it takes me so long to update the site, I actually have been working hard here in Vientiane for the past 10 weeks, and the first term of 2011 is already over.  Review Jeopardy has been played, reward stickers have been distributed, and reports have been handed out.  So that can only mean one thing–spring break!  The blog will be on hiatus until the end of April because I’ll be on the road again.

Here’s what’s in store:
April 2-5: Thailand- Bangkok and Chiang Mai
April 6-13: Burma (Myanmar)- Yangon, Bagan, and Inle Lake
April 14-19: back in Vientiane for Pi Mai Lao! (Lao New Year)
April 20: back to work for Term 2

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Travel Plans

Now that the term has come to a close, it’s time for a vacation.  The break after this term is a month long, because it’s summer in Australia and because this is the end of Term 4 at Vientiane College, so the new year also starts a new school year.  Therefore, there are major travel adventures in store.

The itinerary:
Dec. 19:
One day in Bangkok
Dec. 19-Jan. 1: India!  I’ll be traveling with two PiA Singapore fellows, first taking trains between Delhi, Agra, and Varanasi, then flying south to Kerala State (Cochin, Munnar, Allepey, Varkala).  I’m expecting India to be crazy, chaotic, fragrant, possibly illness-inducing, colorful, impressive, and delicious, among other things.  (The first sentence of the Lonely Planet Guide description of Varanasi is “Brace Yourself.”)
Jan. 1-Jan. 4: Singapore!  Spending more time with the Singapore fellows, and (likely) marveling at the efficiency of the modern city and the contrasts with India.
Jan. 4-???: Thailand!  I’ll be visiting friends and PiA fellows in Chiang Rai, Nan, and Chiang Mai.  Enjoying the company and working my way back toward Vientiane.
Jan. 20th: First day of teaching.  New year, new term, new classes.

(key: A: Vientiane; B: Bangkok; C: New Delhi; D: Agra; E: Varanasi; F:Cochin; G: Trivandrum–departure point from India; H: Singapore; I: Chiang Rai; J: Nan; K: Chiang Mai)

Unfortunately, the fact that I’m having these epic adventures and visiting so many different places means that there will probably be a month-long blogging hiatus.  I might try to drop in a quick update or two when I get a chance at an internet cafe, but substantive updates and photos will have to wait until January…look forward to many exciting things to come in the new year!  In the meantime, enjoy a glance at some more photos from the past 3 months in my Picasa albums.

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Crazy Falang

For Andrew’s last day in Laos, we decided to take a bike trip out of town.  Somehow this was premeditated, yet I completely failed to take all of the factors into consideration: my fitness level, the 90+ degree heat, the conversion between kilometers and miles (not as favorable as I led myself to believe), and the fact that we were leaving at the hottest and sunniest part of the day (around 12:30pm).  We had heard about a charming “floating restaurant” on the Nam Ngum River outside of town and thought it might be nice to bike there to check it out for lunch and see some of the surrounding countryside.  I’m not a particularly experienced biker.  In fact, I don’t even own a bike at home.  My experience has increased immensely in the past few days, biking through a city in which lanes are irrelevant and you can switch from riding in the road—wedged between cement mixers and songathaews—or staying safe and sticking to the right side of the road, which means you still might have to play chicken with motorbike drivers riding on the wrong side of the road.

finally, the floating restaurant

Friday’s “little bike trip” turned into a 6-hour, 50 kilometer (31 mile), excursion in the midday heat.  Very little shade, with plentiful dust and coursing sweat were the ingredients of the day.  Once we got out of the city, the ride became more pleasant as we passed through what might be closer to rural Laos—rice paddies, livestock, thatched roofs, small country shops.  It was clear that we had moved out of “cosmopolitan” Vientiane because of how many more stares we got, along with calls from the side of the road, many from people surprised and amused to see such obvious foreigners biking “for fun” at the most miserable part of the day, when most locals are hunkered down next to fans, or walking with umbrellas for shade.  Just another “crazy falang” thing to do.

The level of English also dropped drastically outside of Vientiane, making me wish I had started my Lao lessons earlier.  Most of the people we interacted with by the side of the road clearly had no idea what we were saying, and vice versa.  We stopped at a very local market to get some juice (served with coconut milk, condensed milk, and ice in plastic bags with straws) and were stared at from the moment we biked into the village.  I wanted so badly to take photos of the covered market—the eclectic collection of clothing, local crafts, and fly-covered meat—but felt like it would be almost disrespectful to pull out my big camera, despite the incredible photo-ops.  Perhaps at some point when I know enough Lao to ask politely for permission, I’ll feel more comfortable.

After numerous crises in morale, we nearly turned back (knowing we would still have to cover the distance back to Vientiane).  At the last moment, ready to leave, we showed a woman at one of the omnipresent lottery stands by the road the name of the restaurant.  Little comprehension passed between us, so she yelled across the street to a girl eating lunch.  The girl ran over, and after trying to explain directions in English, hopped on her motorbike and had us follow her the last half-kilometer until we finally reached the floating restaurant, Boungnanh.  The food—very spicy chicken laap and khao neow—was good, but mostly we enjoyed the sense of accomplishment that we had finally found the place after many hours on the road.  But there was still the ride home.  After the trek, I’m both sunburned and sore.  As soon as the first goes away, I’ll be looking to remedy the second with one of the inexpensive traditional massages all over town.  In the meantime, the foot and leg massage I got for $5 today will have to do.  I don’t want to sit on the bike again for a long time…but unfortunately I had to ride it to get to the internet café to post this.

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