The boys declared Nepal the best country so far within an hour or two of landing in Kathmandu. When asked to specify what made it the best country, their answers varied from the vague “I don’t know, it’s really cool” “everybody’s really open and nice and stuff” to the more specific “the tea” “the colors, sounds and smells” “the sadhus”. I have to agree with them, but I am also hard pressed to put the “why” into words.
If only one word was allowed, it would be “texture”. That might be a stand in word for “what a place looks like when it is extremely poor”, but there are other extremely poor parts of the world that don’t have this feel. Nepal is an unthreatening place, even (apparently) for a nine year old boy. It is a place of stunning natural beauty (which we’ve so far only caught a glimpse of from the plane window). It is a place of vibrant culture, much of it intertwined with two of the most fascinating world religions: Hinduism and Buddhism. It is a place that seems totally chaotic, but in a good, exciting and energizing way. We’re all looking forward to our two months here.
It did not hurt the first impression of Kathmandu that we decided to stay in Bodhnath (or Boudha) on the good recommendation of our friends Kevin and Sarah. Boudha is the home of Asia’s largest Buddhist stupa and is inhabited primarily by Tibetan refugees. Our first afternoon in the country was spent circumambulating the Bodhnath Stupa with the maroon-robed monks and other devotees under fluttering prayer flags with the scent of yak butter candles in the air. Among the many people who took an interest in boys (but who could not care less about the boys’ parents) were two newly minted nursed who wanted to practice their English. The boys have enjoyed celebrity status throughout the trip, but Nepal has brought it to a new level.
We’ve been enjoying the life of luxury in Bangkok; a big, crowded, hot and humid SE Asian capital city. Our home has been the Four Points hotel on Sukhumvit Soi 15, a high end district of Bangkok, paid for on points. The free shelter has been accompanied by perks like 2 for 1 drink specials at the rooftop pool bar complete with a buffet robust enough to feed this family of four, and free wi-fi in the lobby. In other words, we are acting like backpackers, but living like five star tourists. The AC, reliable electricity and hot water, the fast internet, the concierge desk, pool, cable TV and etc have been really nice and potentially addictive. We will wrench ourselves loose from this paradise tomorrow when we fly to Kathmandu for two months in Nepal.
During our stay here, we’ve done a couple days of urban adventure that have included a stroll to the largest shopping mall in Asia and a day riding the SkyTrain and Chao Praya river taxi to the old backpacker center of Khao San Road, the Royal Palace, and Wat Pho (home of a huge reclining Buddha with beautiful mother-of-pearl inlaid soles).
We’d been on an island off the coast of Cambodia for five days without an internet connection when we returned to the mainland to say good bye to Coco and to find a column in the New York Times by Joyce Walder titled “On the Road, With Mothers” in which she wrote: “I have been thinking of writing a book, “How to Travel With Your Mother,” but it would be a very short book. That is because my first tip is: Don’t. Do not ever travel with your mother. Unless maybe you are disposing of her ashes.”
As our faithful readers know, Coco joined us at the beginning of February in Hanoi and traveled with the team for a month through northern Laos, Thailand and Cambodia, departing Sihanoukville March 1st by cab on the way to a day and night and day of travel that would take her from Phnom Penh to Hanoi to Seoul to New York to Burlington across 12 time zones. While I cannot speak for my wife or my children (who might write different blog entries, such as “how to keep your marriage together while traveling with your mother-in-law” or “how to manipulate two generations of parental authority figures to get what you want in Southeast Asia”), I would always welcome a good adventure with my mom.
For the Coco-philes, here is a photographic tribute to our month with Coco:
From Luang Prabang we traveled eight windy, bumpy (and for some team members, barfy) hours by minibus to the town of Luang Namtha — one of the jumping off points for exploring the Nam Ha National Protected Area — for a three-day guided jungle trek. The highlights of this adventure on the eastern edge of the Golden Triangle were not found in the hiking itself or in the flora and fauna, but in the people.
On the hiking: it was steep up and down, at times treacherously slick, jungle trekking with few views through the dense foliage (despite relatively high ridge and summit trails) in what an Ashevillian (not to mention a Vermonter) would consider extreme heat and humidity. (Nonetheless, our guide, Tom, referred to this time of year as the “cool dry season”.) On the fauna: we saw little of it but heard some pretty “jungley” noises probably produced by birds and frogs (interspersed with some mysterious nighttime shrieks and crashes). On the flora: we saw a lot of it, but, with no expert botanist with good English language skills on the team, we did not learn much about it.
The people made the trip. Our guide Tom was a gentle, knowledgeable young man who, along with his sidekick Zhuan, could fashion almost everything you would need out of the raw materials around them (mostly bamboo). These items included strong, light weight rattan walking sticks; bamboo picnic tables, shot glasses, chopsticks, spring loaded pea shooters; and banana leaf food wrappers. Our fellow trekkers Pawel and Goshe provided good stories of previous treks in Ethiopia and important insight into their recent trekking experiences in Nepal (where we hope to trek next month). Pawel’s camera size (large) and shooting frequency (often) indicate that he will produce some great images (which we hope to receive by email someday). Our other fellow trekker, Ian, was a mechanical engineer with the Mars Curiosity mission, responsible, among other things, for the percussive part of the rock drill the rover has recently started using to take samples of Mars’ rock layers. The drilling had just started when Ian left on the trek, so he was anxious during the trek to find out whether the drill (specifically the percussive element) actually worked. (It did.) Ian’s knowledge of things galactic came in handy when answering the boys’ many questions about life on Mars and etc. We’re calling those Q & A sessions homeschool science class for the week.
Night one was spent in a rustic jungle camp. Among the practical issues faced by residents of a jungle camp is protecting food (here sticky rice grains) from rodents. Snakes take care of part of this problem, but the complete solution involves trapping, roasting and eating the critters, specifically jungle rats. Sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves and served with a variety of meat, vegetables and spicy sauces was the order of the day at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Day one: “I love sticky rice!” Day three: “Oh no! No more sticky rice!”
Night two was spent in a Lanten village. The Lanten (variably known as the Lantien, Landian, and Yao Mun) may have originated in the Yangtse River Valley of China but migrated south into southern China and the mountainous regions of Southeast Asia during the last centuries. They are closely related to the better-known Hmong (better known in the US for their role as our allies during the Vietnam War). Walking into this village, accessible only by footpath, was a highlight of the three days. Chickens, pigs, dogs, and cows roamed unfettered through this community of 113 souls (down from 115 a month earlier). The effects of poverty (and possibly the shallow depth of the Lanten gene pool in this region (the tribes apparently do not intermarry very frequently)) were apparent on their faces. The first three grades of schooling are offered in the village, after which ambitious young scholars who choose to continue their formal education must hike 3 to 4 difficult hours to a school on the main road where they spend the school week before returning home for the weekend. Having hiked that route out of the village on Day 3, I can attest that those students do hike uphill to school, both ways.
In addition to the events Amy described, our visit to Luang Prabang also included an elephant ride. The corny and uncomfortable first half hour sitting on a platform seat strapped to an Asiatic elephant riding through degraded forest was followed by a much more exciting barebacked ride into the Mekong River for an afternoon bath. Coco’s mahout (elephant wrangler) got a big kick out of getting her elephant to fully submerge itself starting with its head in an attempt to throw Coco off the front into the muddy Mekong. The scene reminded me of a mechanical bull riding contest in the middle of a very large river. Her core strength and sense of balance along with a firm determination to keep her hair dry allowed Coco to stay seated throughout. Amy’s elephant refused to engage in such antics, instead preferring to spray her through its trunk. Unfortunately, the spraying behavior started before they reached the river resulting in a dust and elephant saliva bath, later to be rinsed with sprays of Mekong murk. The boys’ elephant was well behaved on all fronts much to their disappointment. Dad was happy to record the events from the bank.
My mom touched down in Hanoi this evening to join us for a month of traveling in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Coco is a seasoned traveler having joined both of her kids on their adventures starting with me in China in 1989 and followed by Ecuador, Malawi, Namibia, Botswana, Haiti and etc with Eva over the years. We’re looking forward to sharing the adventures across three generation. They started today with a visit to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum.
The front gate and a small section of the original Maison Centrale (Hoa Lo Prison) are still standing and now house a museum exhibiting the history of this prison perhaps best known in the US because John McCain spent some time there after being shot down during the Vietnam War. (The Vietnam War is here referred to as the American War to distinguish it from the preceding 80 years of conflict.) A new high-rise hotel has been built on the grounds of the demolished portion of the prison. It is not a Hilton.
As horrific as the treatment of US servicemen may have been (the Hoa Lo exhibits claim otherwise), one comes away from the museum with an appreciation of the length and intensity of the Vietnamese people’s struggle against foreign aggression. Built in the 1880s-1890s by the French, Hoa Lo was first used to house, and in some cases to execute by guillotine, Vietnamese insurgents. The prison was used in this capacity, mostly by the French, but also by the Japanese during World War II, until the mid-1950s. The prison’s relatively short period of use during the Vietnam War to house US POWs felt like a mere footnote in its long and gruesome history.
We spent the day enjoying a quintessential northern Vietnam experience: riding a junk through the karst gum drops protruding from Ha Long Bay. We’ve been on Cat Ba Island off the port of Haiphong for three days appreciating the off season in a place that apparently is a tourist hot spot when it’s warm and dry. Our first two days were overcast and rainy, so we spent them doing homework and hiking through the national park. Today’s forecast called for temps in the high 70s (the warmest we’ve seen so far) and a low chance of precipitation. The weather did not disappoint. We booked a day-long boat ride that included scenery, kayaking, a seafood lunch cooked aboard, and some swimming.
We took a cooking class this morning which consisted of a visit to the market for ingredients followed by instruction, cooking and eating. Green papaya salad, Hanoi spring rolls, and lemongrass chicken were on the menu.
The team took on the task under the professional tutelage of Master Chef Huang.
Amy Jo demonstrates her patented stuff, fold, roll n hold spring roll technique.