Tag Archives: travel

Luang Prabang Escape

Back in November, as the traffic and curfews related to ASEM closed in on us here in Vientiane, and our workplaces closed for a few days, my friend Sam and I decided to escape the capital city for Luang Prabang.  As the country’s crown jewel of tourism, Luang Prabang has no shortage of things to do, but this was the fourth or fifth trip for both of us, so we already knew the usual temples and caves quite well.
LP scenery
So what did we do on this repeat visit to Luang Prabang?

1. Relax.  Although it’s the Luang Prabang cliche (and some apply it to the whole country), it really is “laid-back,” to quote every guidebook’s accurate assessment.  Despite the touristy-ness of some parts of Luang Prabang, especially the downtown, after a few days it was hard to think that I would actually have to leave and go back to work.  Massage, pool, coffee/cocktail/fruit shake by the river, afternoon reading on the bamboo porch  at the appropriately named Utopia restaurant.  After being here a few times, it’s an even better place to relax, without the self-imposed pressure to see as much as possible.

We weren't the only relaxed ones (at the bear rescue center).

We weren’t the only relaxed ones (at the bear rescue center).

2. Eat, drink. Our “must-eat” list was equal length as our “to-do” list upon arrival.  Northern Lao specialties like khai pen (dried riverweed) and sai oua (sausage), and the best French food in Laos, at L’Elephant.

3. Shop. No matter how many times I’ve been to the night market here, it’s always worth a perusal, though now with a more discerning eye.  We also rode out to the OckPopTock living crafts centre to watch weavers in action and get a glimpse at how traditional textiles are made, from silk worms to dyeing.
weaver
4. Follow the signs.  As neither of us had any specific things we wanted to do or see in the city, that left our time open to just following our whims.  We saw that the annual bamboo bridge, which is built temporarily over the Nam Kham river each year during the dry season, was almost finished, so we walked over it.  We saw signs for an ethnic fashion show and hip hop performance, so we sat and watched girls model sinhs transformed into pants, and young Lao guys break dancing.  We discovered that there was an ethnic museum and restaurant that neither of us had heard of in town and tasted Akha meatballs and Tai Leu salad.
bridge seating
bamboo bridge

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5. Revisit. Although both of us had been to Kuang Si waterfall before, we decided it was worth a revisit, but this time rented a motorbike to drive out there, rather than going with a tourist songataew.  It was a whole different experience.  While fighting off numbness caused by the 45 minute ride, instead of car sickness, there was much more to notice in the open air.  Trees opened up into rice paddies ringed with mountains, albino water buffalo crossed the road, and just after 4pm, the road was filled with kids of every age cycling home from school.  Coming from Vientiane, where the Toyota Vigo Hilux is king, or at least a Honda motorbike, it was amazing to see so many bicycles slowly moving across the pavement.
buffalo
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Bound for the Himalayas

In a few hours, I’ll be en route to my next destination…Nepal!

For the next 10 days I’ll be traveling on the “roof of the world,” which will be, I imagine, quite different than any other place I’ve seen.  I’ll be meeting my friend Ben there, who was last here during Pi Mai Lao and has been travelling around Asia ever since.

Less than 2 weeks is really far too short to spend in the country of a million treks, but I hope just to get a taste of the Himalayas and of the geographic and cultural landscape of Nepal.

The rough plan: Kathmandu–>Pokhara–> several days trekking in the Annapurna region –>Pokhara –> KTM–> and home.

I’ll be back to blogging at the end of the month, with some exciting blog updates coming this fall!

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American Summer


I have been in Asia since 2010.  Aside from a brief jaunt in Australia, I have been back and forth across the continent, from Burma to Bali to Bangkok (again and again), though mostly just here in Vientiane.

I have not, however, been back to the US in the past two years.  Not for any particular reason, but more because I haven’t had a particular reason I need to go, and friends and family are scattered across the country.  Last month I finally decided it was time for a visit back to my home country…it had been too long since seeing people, and even though it’s the same as my other two-week quarterly breaks here, “summer vacation” just seemed like the right time to visit.

Route 64 West outside of Charlottesville.

In just thirteen days in the US, I went from Virginia, to NYC, to Boston and Providence, to New Jersey, before beginning the long haul back to the Asian continent (2 hour flight + 13 hour flight with no personal TVs?!? 6 hour flight + overnight in Bangkok + 1 hour flight).

So after 2 years away, what did “America” look like to me?

People
* Diverse.  Wow, people of so many races, ethnicities, and nationalities all over the place!  True, Laos is home to many ethnic groups and quite a diverse population, but it was nothing like being in New York City.  The subway was like a menagerie of humanity–advertisements in Spanish, foreign tourists looking at maps of Manhattan, and so many Americans, but all of different backgrounds.  It’s not like in Laos where when someone looks strikingly different you know they are a foreigner.   You can’t make assumptions about anyone’s background in the US.
* While I’m describing people, I’ll say it: I was struck by the number of people that were overweight.  Coming from an area where most women (and some men) are at least 2 sizes smaller than me, if not a lot more, I was amazed about the stereotypically supersized Americans.  Maybe it has something to do with the massive amounts of food I was served!  Or other new American innovations in the last 2 years, like triple-stuffed Oreos, and Dorito-shelled Taco Bell tacos.  Just a theory…

A heaping plate of American food. YUM.

Amenities
* The internet was fast!  You can click on videos and they stream instantly.  When I play a video usually I click pause and then open a new window to do stuff while it loads.  Not in the US, with its super speeds!  Luckily I wasn’t there long enough to really get spoiled by this.
* The roads are wide, empty, and oh-so-smooth.  Cars drive FAST.
* People who are stationed in places to help you actually help.  And know the answers to your questions. (Train stations, malls, etc.)
* You can pay everywhere, for everything, with a credit or debit card.  In a taxi cab, in a convenience store, at a vending machine, when buying something that only costs $ 0.98.  Credit cards all the way.

Rules
* There are a lot of rules.  You have to show ID to buy alcohol.  You have to come to a complete stop at stop signs.  You have to look for real parking spaces even if they are hard to find and totally inconvenient.  I could go on.

I realize these are all very superficial observations, but those are the types of things that were most surprising.  As disappointing as it might be, I wasn’t struck by any deeper sense of reverse culture shock.  As soon as I got in the car and rode down Route 29 in Charlottesville, heading south from the airport, it felt like I had never left.  It seems that no matter how long you spend away from a place you know well, it always feels like no time has passed when you return.  Of course there are things that have changed–new roads, old places that have been paved over–but most things are the same.

Classic Downtown Charlottesville.

In contrast the rate of change here is so rapid, that the city seemed a bit different after only two weeks away–new buildings have arisen from dust, new shiny billboards and scaffolding hide the skeletons and massive development projects, and traffic and bureaucracy already seem to have increased in anticipation of the major international conference being held here this fall (more about this in a later post).  After two weeks I probably noticed a similar number of new things in Vientiane as after two years in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Although I have been slacking on blogging for the past two months, it’s back.  To keep up with the racing pace of change here I’ll be trying to pick up the pace online as well…look for posts to come on development, Hillary, teaching, and more!  I’m still posting daily photos too, so check them out.

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2012: Back from Borneo

January is halfway over, and I’m long overdue to refresh my blog.  Two weeks ago, I said goodbye to my dad at the Suvarnibhumi airport, and since then, life has been a whirlwind of nametags and icebreaker games.  Has it only been two weeks back at school?  Has it already been two weeks?  Both are surprising.

Though we have four terms per year, and so four “term beginnings” of workshops and new classes, none is quite as busy as the real beginning of the year.  The weather might feel like it’s perpetually June, but there is a distinct sense of new beginning at work that reminds me it’s January.  Almost 100 new daytime scholarship students have come to begin their studies for the year, many of which will end in Australia or New Zealand, and the first weeks of getting to know each other, tone-setting, and orientations are reminiscent  of making group new year’s resolutions.  Many of our overarching messages to the students for the year–about reflection, active learning, goal-setting, and changing–are equally relevant to me in my role as a teacher.

This term I’m teaching two daytime classes, one on a year-long program that prepares Master’s candidates for their postgraduate study in Australia, in which I’m teaching Information Literacy (in other words, research skills), and the second on a six-month program that prepares government officials to better qualify to be accepted to the previous program.  I’m teaching them Learning Strategies (in other words, effective study skills).  In the evening, I’m teaching the second half of the Creative Writing course that I taught last term, and a children’s class (I like being able to have deeper conversations with most of my students…but what would I do with all of my stickers if I didn’t continue to teach some kids?!).

Toward the end of last year, I made the decision to stay on in Vientiane through the end of 2012 (at least), and so the new beginning of the school year has been a good time for me to renew my excitement about the 11 months ahead.  One of my personal resolutions has been to DO something more with all of the photos that have been accumulating by the thousands in my iPhoto for the past 16 months.  En masse, they are overwhelming, more than could be properly examined or posted on Facebook or on a blog.  So instead, each day, for the 350 remaining this year, I’ll be posting a single photograph I’ve taken somewhere in Asia, in no particular order, as a simple visual impression (unaccompanied by my ramblings).  The first 15 photos for the month of January are up, so feel free to peruse my Impressions, ทุกวัน (thuk wan means daily).

But before all of this, I was in the jungle with my dad.  Where were we?

Borneo.  The world’s third largest island, after Greenland and New Guinea (Australia doesn’t count…it’s the world’s smallest continent).  The island is split between Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei, and we visited just the northern Malaysian parts, which includes the states of Sabah and Sarawak.

In our “fourteen days of Christmas” spent in Malaysia, we saw 14+ wild pygmy elephants, 13 (thousand) feet of mountain, 12 meals of noodles, 11 proboscis monkeys, 10 story malls, 9 early mornings, 8 giant hornbills, 7 different flights, 6 hour bus rides, 5 Mulu caves, 4 orangutans, 3 million bats, 2 Petronas towers, and an epic sunrise over the clouds.  Whew!  Try singing that to the tune of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

Before flying to Borneo, we spent a day and a half in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, a mall-filled, multicultural, sprawling city, with the former tallest buildings in the world, the Petronas twin towers.  If I thought there would be no signs of Christmas in this majority Muslim capital, one look into the nearest ten-story mall proved me wrong.  But we were all too happy to escape the craziness of KL for a different type of chaos–the noisy, humid, chaos of the jungle, of nights echoing with the sounds of bats and giant frogs.  The first stop: Mt. Kinabalu…

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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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I’ve Come from a Land Down Under


After commemorating my one year anniversary here in Asia last month, I left the continent for the first time to head south–way south, to that crazy continent of Australia.  Two of my good friends from work were getting married (again), and I was able to take some time off to go to the wedding, and then stay to travel through the end of term break.

In the past year, I’ve been incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to travel to so many fascinating places in Asia.  Since moving here, I’ve managed to travel to Hong Kong, Bali, Thailand, India, Singapore, Vietnam, Burma, Cambodia, and around Laos.  Just making this list amazes me a little.  With so much to see, the year has flown by (and I’ve come to realize how much my perception of the passage of time is dependent on the seasons-is it really a year later?) and I haven’t left.  So my trip to Australia was my first time in a Western country, and a place where English is the native language, in a year.  As such, it felt a bit like coming home, even though it was a totally new place.  I haven’t experienced much homesickness in the past year, but the break was rejuvenating in a way that perhaps I didn’t realize I needed.

Surfer's Paradise, Gold Coast, QLD.

That said, while in Auz, I often asked myself: is English really the native language?  My Aussie friends and I have joked a lot about the differences in our “languages,” but in their homeland I got to see the all of their vocabulary in context, which was certainly a source of amusement.

A dictionary of Aussie slang could be massive, so here’s just sampling that I learned:
Arvo: afternoon; Let’s have a barbie in the arvo.
Barbie: barbecue; Put some snags on the barbie.
Brekkie: breakfast; Let’s go out for brekkie.
Eski: cooler; Bring an eski to the barbie.
Footy:
football-not soccer, but AFL (a bit like rugby), often used with the article “the”; Let’s have a barbie and watch the footy.
Lolly: any type of candy, or a popsicle when paired with the word “ice”; Wanna buy some lollies before the movie?
Nibbly: appetizer; I reckon there’ll be some nibblies before dinner at the reception.
Pokies: slot machines, found at almost every eating establishment; I lost $30 on the pokies last night.
Servo: a gas station/convenience store; Let’s pick up some lollies at the servo.
Snag: sausage; I like snags for brekkie.
Stubby: a regular-sized bottle of beer (big ones are known as “tallies”); Get me a stubby out of the eski.

In Australia, I spent most of my time in Queensland. It’s springtime in the southern hemisphere, and as Australia’s “Sunshine State,” it was warm and pleasant for most of my visit (the same cannot be said of Sydney).  With only 10 days in the country, I didn’t even scratch the surface of Australian sightseeing.  It’s a continent–what would you tell someone to do with 10 days in America?  So many possibilities.  I stayed in the northeast for most of the time, checking out sights on the coast (and as many Aussie animals as possible), and flew to Sydney for my last weekend for a taste of the city.  Though there’s so much more I’d like to see–the Great Barrier Reef! Tasmania! The Outback! Melbourne!–I managed to get a feel for the place.

Reference map for we ignorant Americans who don't know our geography. (From: http://www.brisbane-australia.com/)

The incredible hospitality of friends and their families, mostly strangers before this trip, played an essential role in my travels.  For one, Australia is expensive.  The sticker shock coming from a year in Asia was staggering, but I think it also would be coming from the US.  The AUD is currently about equal to the USD, which made it very easy to notice the inflated prices.  But more importantly, all of the generous people who hosted me made me feel so at home.  I joked with a friend that I was doing an “Australian home-stay” with her family, and though that sounds funny, since it’s something usually associated with tours or study abroad, it’s really quite accurate.  So many people took me to see special things, gave me rides, and opened their homes for me.  And in general (with only a few exceptions) everyone I met seemed overtly friendly and good-natured.  I had the most jolly bus drivers I’d ever seen, the ladies working at 7-11 were smiley, and everyone seemed willing to go out of their way to be helpful.  Perhaps this is just my perception because I could finally understand everything that was happening, and the scripts and interactions were familiar, but in general, I left with an impression of a very warm and neighborly people.

Fishing in the ocean on Fraser Island.

Now that I’m back, Term 4 at VC is in full-swing.  The start of this term marked my one year mark teaching, as I arrived for Term 4 last year, and while I’m learning more everyday, the improvement in my teaching since then has been huge.  The change in mostly in my confidence, which trickles down to other teaching skills, like improvising and providing feedback to students.  There’s certainly much more I need to work on, but it’s heartening to compare the relative ease of starting new classes–now for the fifth time–this term with one year ago when I was panicking about what to do on day 1.

With five classes, I know life will be hectic again soon, so I’m trying to relish these first few weeks of relative calm.  This calm is really only the office though, as the city is currently abuzz with holiday festivities (the end of Buddhist Lent) and the seemingly endless social events of fall.  Over the next few weeks, I’ll continue to share stories from my travels in Australia, interspersed with updates on all of the events in Vientiane.

Wave from a humpback whale, outside of Hervey Bay, QLD.

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Burma: An Introduction


In the West, the first thing that “Burma” generally brings to mind these days is a notoriously oppressed place.  For that reason, most people likely imagine it as an unstable place to visit, when in fact the parts of the country where visitors are allowed are no more unsafe than anywhere else in Asia.  Despite the infamous government, daily life goes on for the residents, who seemed largely excited to see foreign faces, and the government is happy to accept dollars from foreigners as long as they aren’t leading protests.

That said, the government can be a bit of a deterrent from visiting.  They’ve been in power since the 60’s and despite the fact that there were elections last fall, everything is “still same same,” as one person in the country described it.  He added that “90% of Myanmar people don’t like government, want ‘the lady’ to be president,” but seemed unhopeful that this would ever be a reality (“the lady” being Nobel Peace Prize Winner Aung Sang Suu Kyi, who won the elections in 1988, but was put under house arrest).  It’s impossible to visit without some money going to the government, between visas, exit fees, and entry fees to tourist zones.  However, with a rise in tourism has come a rise in privately-owned guesthouses, so with responsible planning, you can maximize the amount of money going to local business owners.  This was what I decided to do.

Theravada Buddhism is the major religion in Myanmar.

Another debate surrounding the place is the name.  Myanmar or Burma?  In my research, it appears the jury is still out.  The new official name is Myanmar–some stick with Burma, and some say that Burma is an old colonial name that represents a minority of the population.  The locals that I met only called it Myanmar, which they also used as an adjective (“Myanmar food,” “Myanmar language,” “Myanmar people”), so that’s what I’ve begun to use most of the time.

Both men and women wear traditional longyi skirts.

The Myanmar people were by far the most memorable part of my trip.  I met so many friendly people, who were so full of smiles that it seemed incongruent with my previous image of the country.  Not to say that everyone is happy with their lives, but they seem to be good-natured despite the lack of freedoms.  So many people on the streets, especially the women and children, just waved and grinned when I walked by, or wanted to say a little something in English, not to ask for anything, but just to say hi.

Burmese is a fascinating-looking language.

One peculiarity about travel in Burma is that there are no ATMs in the country, and no credit card machines (supposedly all the foreign banks pulled out in the 1990s), so you have to bring in however much cash as you think you’ll need in perfectly crisp, unmarked, US dollars–anything less than perfect will be rejected.

A 200-kyat note, worse for wear.

In exchange for your pristine dollars you sometimes get tattered, taped-together, often-smelly kyat which look like they’ve been in circulation for decades.  Sometimes the small denominations are stapled together to make them easier to count.

The way to get to Burma is through Yangon (formerly Rangoon), the capital city, located near the south of the country.  I flew in from Bangkok, and less than two minutes after exiting the airport I stepped into one of Yangon’s many atrocious sidewalk potholes.  Welcome to Yangon.

Watch your step!

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