Monday, September 26, 2005

I Lost My Hat

Some Road, Laos

While we were crossing Laos, our bus broke down and we spent a couple of hours on the side of the road playing chess (Jarah), trying not to get incinerated by the sun (Mike), and falling into ditches (Jason). Somewhere in this period I lost my floppy-brimmed, camo "boonie hat". I bought that hat in Lewistown, Montana many years ago while visiting some friends then collectively known as The Goat Children. I have long thought of it as a trophy from the voyage and made a point of bringing it along on any kind of outdoor adventure. My loyal companion of many years now lives alone by the side of some dusty Laotian road. It will be difficult to replace. I hate losing things.

Photo Album: Crossing Laos

Getting to Thailand from Vietnam was a pain in the ass. We had to cross through Laos.

Jarah's pirate impression is a must-see event.

Video Compression Blues

Cybercafe - Delhi, India

This is one for the video nerds...

The OC is shooting about 1 1-hour mini DV tape per week. Each tape contains about 13 gigs of data. I am trying (with little success) to come up with a data management strategy that achieves the following goals:
  1. Provides a secure backup of every bit ever shot.
  2. Provides access to a "decent" quality version of all footage while on the road.
  3. Limits the amount of stuff we have to carry around.
  4. Minimizes wear on the camera motors.
  5. Is "fast" and "convenient".
  6. Does not require me to buy expensive (> $50) software.

We have a folder of 100 DVD-Rs (4.7 G per disc) taking up most of the space in my bag. The idea is to use these to store a reduced-quality version of each tape and backup the data by posting the originals back to Fortress USA. I would like to maintain 1 tape / 1 disc parity. At an average rate of 1 tape per week, this should give us plenty of storage for 13 months with plenty to spare for other data sources (photos, completed video projects, blog entires, etc.).

So, the essential problem is:

How do I compress 13 G of video into 4.7 G of "decent" quality video "quickly" using only 2 G4 iBooks?

This question is proving more more difficult to answer than I had hoped.

Experiments show that my iBook does not have the processing power necessary to encode a 1 hour MPEG in an acceptable amount of time. Every attempt so far has taken at least 8 hours, with on-screen estimates of completion time usually hovering around the 24 hour mark. Lame. More simplistic efforts have had unexpectedly frustrating results. For example, using Final Cut Express to create a lower resolution (smaller) version of the raw video using an uncompressed codec results in a file that is the same size or larger than the original. Ugh. Utilities like gzip are out of the question because it takes almost as long to compress a large file as it does to encode an MPEG. Grrrr.

So, if there are any video encoding/compression experts out there, now is the time to pipe up. Please. The stack of tapes in my bag is starting to get out of control. Also, should something happen to said bag, we would lose all video to date.

Video Gallery: Muay Thai

Just a little sample from Bangkok.
One round of two 15-year olds beating each other up.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Dippin' and Divin'

Near Bangkok, Thailand

We are in a bus on our way to Bangkok. Soon, we will be at the airport, waiting for our flight to Delhi, India. Our stay in Thailand is at an end, and I am a little depressed. I really enjoyed my time here, and I feel like I only scratched the surface of all that is Thailand. I will definitely be coming back here again.

Koh Tao was the last stop in our tour of Thailand, and it was a little paradise. A tiny island off of the eastern coast of Thailand, Koh Tao was the perfect place to have an OC vacation. It wasn't really a cultural experience, as it's basically an island full of honkies, but it was sunny and relaxing. There were basically two things that took up my time on that little slice of "Thailand": SCUBA diving, and Muay Thai. Mike and I spent our days getting our Open Water Diver certifications, and at night, I would go to the other side of the island to learn how to kick stuff.

Our diving certification was a four-day course with Planet Scuba, which included lodging. Mike and I were given two bungalows near the main pier, where we stayed for five nights while we learned how to breathe underwater. They were very simple little wooden affairs, with four walls, a roof, a bed, and a bathroom. No hot water, no air conditioning, no flush toilet. Just the basics. But, they were $5/night, and right near the beach, so I've got no complaints.
In the mornings, we would wake up early, take a cold shower, and have some breakfast. We would meet our instructor either in the classroom, or at the office near the beach, depending on what we were doing that day. Then, we would spend a full eight hours doing the diving thang. Sometimes this meant some schoolwork: learning SCUBA theory, and taking quizzes. Sometimes, this meant going out to dive sites to put our theory into action.
I remember vividly doing a one-day diving discovery course in Cancun a couple of years ago with my siblings. It was a very enlightening experience, and it was what enticed me into getting my full certification during this trip. But, ultimately, it was just eye-candy. They strapped Jackie, Erik and I into some SCUBA gear, taught us enough to not kill ourselves, then took us on a short and shallow guided tour around the ocean floor. It was great visually, but I didn't really learn anything.
The four days of our Open Water training were a lot different. I actually felt like I knew what I was doing. Instead of just being some underwater voyeur, I was learning how to live and breathe underwater. I was learning how to control my buoyancy, and watch my gauges, and keep an eye out for my dive partner. And in an emergency, I now know how to safely extricate myself without blowing out a lung. All of these technical aspects I had no clue about before were an essential part of this training course, and made the experience that much more rewarding.
And, of course, the scenery was amazing as well. I couldn't possibly explain in a short blog article how cool it is to explore a reef 15 meters below the surface of the water. That world is so new and alien that you almost have to experience it yourself to understand. So, I'll just say that I'm really glad that we took this open water certification course and I'm very much looking forward to getting my advanced diving certification in Australia. Oh, and I swam with some grey reef sharks. That's it.

Ever since I started doing capoiera about a year-and-a-half ago, I've had a growing interest in learning a martial art. It's good exercise, and should synergize well with the gymnastics that I've already been doing. Plus, it would be nice to know that I could defend myself if the need arose. But, I've had a hard time choosing which martial art fit me the best. I had heard about Muay Thai before, and, after seeing it in action in Bangkok, I'm thinking that we may just be made for each other.
Everyday, after the SCUBA lessons, I would quickly rinse off, change, and head down to the local 7-11. There, I would catch a ride in a motorbike taxi for about 50 baht. I rode pillion while the driver sped us up a narrow paved road to Island Muay Thai, on the other side of Koh Tao. Once there, I changed into some boxing shorts, warmed up by jumping rope for about 15 minutes, stretched out, then had my hands wrapped up to start the wuppin'.
The first half of the lesson was spent on the bags, practicing the finer points of technique. This was where I learned some of the basics of Thai boxing with Dam. How to punch, elbow, kick and knee. Relative to the second half of the lesson, this part was a breeze.
The hard half was spent in the ring with a heavily padded man; usually Mark. He would present me with targets, and I would jab or kick where appropriate. In the later lessons, he would also start to kick back, and, in theory, I would block with a raised leg. In reality, I had a very hard time remembering to block correctly. My instinct was to block the kicks in a way that all of the instructors insured me would lead to a broken arm. It doesn't sound that hard, and I only had to go through five three-minute rounds, but it was tough. I don't think I ever made it all the way. Near the end of the rounds, I would be drenched in sweat, and it would be a struggle just to keep my hands in front of my face, never-mind trying to throw elbows with any force behind them.
It was hard work, but it was awesome. It had been a while since I had been able to get a good workout like that. Being on the road 24-7 makes it difficult to get any regular exercise. I feel like I got a good taste of the Thai boxing, and I likes it. Hopefully, I'll continue it once my trip is at an end.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Back to School

Nameless Internet Cafe - Koh Tao, Thailand

Today I breathed (brothe?) underwater for the first time. It was not the euphoric experience that I hoped for. Rather than wonder at the beauty of nature, I spent most of my time getting water out of my mask, checking gauges, watching others for instruction, trying to swim in 3D, and equalizing pressure in my ears. All of this nicely distracted from the core problem - that breathing underwater feels really weird. If I sit and think just about breathing, I can quickly convince myself that I am definitely going to die very soon. At one point in today's dive, this feeling was so intense that I made a break for the surface. It felt really silly explaining to one of the instructors that I made an unsafe ascent because "I just did not feel right". I will have to work on this breathing thing.

Terror aside, scuba school is fun. Today was day 2 of a 4 day course. We have a bit more classwork and several more dives to go before certification. It has been a long time since I had to read a textbook, study, and take quizzes. Throw in some spitballs and rhyming insults and we could be in elementary school again.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Vietnamese Food - Very Tasty

Golden Buffalo Hotel - Hanoi, Vietnam

I have gone on record before regarding my affection for Vietnamese food. Spending time here has only further warmed my feelings. Read on for a dish by dish account of notable grub.

* Pho - This is surely the national dish of Vietnam. It can be eaten for any meal and is never hard to find. It usually comes as a large bowl of broth filled with slices of beef, onions, scallions, rice noodles, and sometimes garlic. You also get a bowl of leaves (lettuce, basil, mint) and something spicy (chili sauce or oils or just plain chilis) to add as you see fit. There are variations that include chicken, beef tendon, tripe, and rare or well done beef. I have had most of them and never been unsatisfied.

* Com - This is the second most popular sign to see outside of a restaurant. It means "rice". The usual meal is tea, soup, and a plate of rice. The rice comes standard with some greens (usually a stringy, spinach-like plant) and any number of side dishes that you select (by pointing, in my case). Like pho, com is usually eaten seated on a small plastic chair at a small plastic table on the sidewalk or in an open shop front. It is not a formal affair. Com is always easy and often tasty.

* Eel - The first time I had eel in Vietnam, it was served breaded and fried pieces on a plate. The second time was not quite so simple. Our Mekong tour guide, Le, ordered an eel hotpot. The waitress brought out the usual gas burner and big dish of broth and set them simmering. I thought should would them bring out a plate of eel bits for us to cook up. Not so. After the water hit a boil, Le pulled an entire gutted eel (head, tail, and skin intact) out of the broth and started breaking it into sections. You eat the meat and skin right off the bone, then cast the spine aside. The whole thing was served with a plate of water lillies on the side that proved to be a yummy companion to the tasty eel flesh.

* Snake - This was more of a theatric than a culinary adventure. A large snake (not sure what kind - at least a meter long) was killed right in front of us. The blood and bile were drained into separate containers, mixed with strong rice liquor, and served up to drink. The still-beating heart was put in a small glass with a bit of liquor and given to the guest of honor (Jarah E in this case) to eat. We were then treated to a six (or so) course meal of snake-based dishes. The only notable bits among the dishes were the crispy fried snake skin and the spring rolls. Everything else was fairly mediocre. Our snake was chewy with an unusually slight flavor,

* Crocodile - We tried to get bull penis and testicles, but had to settle for croc. It was served as a hotpot with the uncooked meat and a pile of leaves (spinach?) on the side. We dumped in the meat a little at a time as it tends to get overcooked and quite chewy very quickly. To me, the crocodile tasted like chicken with a hint of fish. I am not sure I would seek it out again in particular, but I can recommend the restaurant, Highway 4 in Hanoi, with enthusiasm.

* Dog - An unfortunate terrier was served up in thin, barbecued slices and eaten with rice and a spicy/salty sauce. The meat is okay but each slice also had a healthy bit of fat and chewy skin attached. I could have done without the latter bits. Later on in the trip, we (Jarah and I) also had dog liver, but I do not want to discuss it. On the balance, I do not really care for dog.

* Cat - Jarah and I had a healthy section of cat at perhaps the dodgiest restaurant in Cat Ba City. It was served stir-fried in onions with a side of leaves and a lemon/salt/chili sauce. The cat flesh tasted like chewy beef and did not have anything in particular to recommend it. I think maybe the bit we got was overcooked.

* Fish - We ate a lot of fish in and around Hanlon (sp?) bay. The usual thing is to fry the entire gutted fish in oil and cut it into a number of sections equal to the number of eaters. Some lucky diner gets the section that includes the head. The fish itself is excellent. Eating it is somewhat more trick because of numerous small bones. As long as you are careful, Vietnamese fried fish makes for a very good meal - especially with cold beer. We also had a bit of a fish stew, but I think this was really fried fish dunked into a vegetable broth. In either case, it was also delicious.

* Coffee - The Vietnamese brew a strong cup of joe from domestic beans. I prefer mine with ice and condensed milk. The combination is a fatty-sweet mug of java with a characteristic and hard to describe taste (presumably from the indigenous beans). Coffee in Vietnam is consumed all day, but I find it best in the early morning.

* Mystery Meat - We had at least one meal containing some unidentified animal part. In the most memorable instances, guesses to the identity of the part varied from dog liver to cow heart to cat kidney to goat brain. Miscellaneous parts have a tendency to make me sick. This case was not an exception. Two spring rolls down to meals that end with uncertainty and an urge to vomit.

In general, Vietnamese food is fresh, delicious, and exotic. I love it and so will you. Unless you are stupid or something.

My Chiang Mai

Somewhere in Southern Thailand

I'm on the second leg of my trip now, about two hours away from Chumphon.

Chiang Mai was a much different experience from Bangkok, and I think it was more representative of the real Thailand. It's the second largest city in the country, but it has 1/40th the population of the capitol. Bangkok appears to be a unique cacophony in the otherwise relaxed surroundings of Thailand.
Ben and I arrived in Chiang Mai on the 14th of September, and I was immediately struck by how much simpler life seemed to be there. There were no towering skyscrapers to block the view of the forested mountains surrounding the city, and the streets weren't choked into impotence by an immovable pile of traffic. The weather was cooler and dryer, and even the tuk-tuks seemed quieter. It kind of reminded me of any sleepy city in the US northwest.
As much as I enjoyed Bangkok (which was a lot), it was nice to be in a city that was a little more "real".
Ben stayed for two days, before running back to Bangkok. During that time, we did some shopping around the night market, checked out the Tribal museum, shot some handguns, and were captured by a group of Thais eating dinner by the lake. We spent many hours sitting in a small hut next to that lake, eating noodles, drinking beer, and watching the sunset. By the time eight o'clock rolled around, Ben had to get going to catch his train, but everyone was a bit tipsy. Not wanting to miss his last few days in Bangkok, he put his faith in Boi, got on the bike, and sped away.
He made it to Bangkok.
I spent all of the next day with Nam Fon, a university student Ben and I had met our first night in Chiang Mai. We rented a motorbike, and struggled through the mountains around Chiang Mai. We checked out an old Buddhist Temple, the King's autumn home, a hill tribe village and some nice waterfalls. She even let me drive for a little bit. It was a surprisingly intimate and satisfying experience to ride around with two people on a motorbike like that. You quickly develop a sense of trust and comfort when you're doing an open-aired 50 km/hour up and down winding mountain roads. On the "wrong" side of the road, no less.

Spending so much time in southeast asia has really turned me on to the idea of owning a small motorbike. The visual of speeding through city streets with a girlfriend clinging to my back really appeals to me now.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

West side, Angkor Wuuut?!

Somewhere in Northern Thailand

I left Chiang Mai by train three hours ago, and I'm heading south towards Chumpon. I'll be there in about twenty hours. Once I arrive, I'll need to find a ferry to get my ass to Ko Tao, probably overnight, where I'll meet up with Mike. We should be starting our SCUBA training on the 20th.

Jarah, Ben and I landed in Cambodia in the afternoon of September 11 and took a taxi to Siem Reap proper, where we found our lodging and got a little rest. That night, we caught a buffet dinner and a show featuring apsara dancers. It is an interesting traditional Cambodian dance style that's been around for at least a thousand years. The next morning, we arranged a driver and a guide for forty bucks, and took off for the ruins.
The jungles around Siem Reap is full of old temples. We spent an entire day driving around with our guide, and we only saw a small portion of what the ancient capitol of the Khmer Kingdom had to offer. Of the sites that we saw, there were only three that we spent large amounts of time at: Bayon, Angkor Wat, and Ta Prohm.

Our first stop was Bayon, an old, crumbling temple inside the walls of Angkor Thom. It looked almost exactly like what I imagined ancient ruins would look like. It had the cracked, fallen columns and the sun-faded stone and the irregularly-shaped weather-stains all over. Our guide toured us around the broken temple, giving us little history lessons as we walked. We clambered over broken masonry while the Cambodian sky drenched us with short, unpredictable bursts of rain. The rocks were slippery, and the lighting was horrible. It was perfect.
Angkor Wat was pretty cool, too, but it lacked character. The sheer scale of the temple was definitely impressive, and the attention to detail was amazing in places, but it was just too "nice". Everything seemed well-organized and packaged for tourists. There were no piles of collapsed rock and no huge, crumbling cracks in the stonework. Everything was clean, and there had obviously been a lot of restoration done. As an example of ancient Khmer architecture, it was a masterpiece, but it didn't feel like ruins. It felt more like a big budget movie: lots of cool visuals, extremely polished, but not a lot of substance.
Our last stop was Ta Prohm, and it was the real winner. Like most of the temples in the Angkor area, Ta Prohm had been lost for a few centuries after the area was no longer being used as Cambodia's capitol. When it was re-discovered, the jungle had completely absorbed it. Trees had grown into the structures of the temple, their roots digging deeply into the stonework. Unlike most of the other temples, Ta Prohm could not be restored to it's unfettered state without destroying it. So, the temple was left mostly as it was found, with the jungle literally bursting out of its walls. Truckloads of atmosphere.

Our last night in Cambodia was spent eating chicken curry out of a coconut and watching a shadow puppet show.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Separation Anxiety

Bangkok to Trang Train - Thailand

The OC is dividing to conquer. Jason flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia with Ben G and Jarah E earlier today with an eye toward visiting Angkor Wat. Janelle and I are presently heading to the far south of Thailand to enjoy white sand and blue water and pump some cash into tsunamitized areas. The core OC personnel will likely not be reunited for 7 days. This is by far our longest period of separation since long before leaving LA at the end of May.

It has only been a few hours, but It already feels strange to not have Jason within taxi distance. It is not like we are married or a gay couple or business partners or anything. To be honest, I do not really even like Jason that much. Still, when you share almost every decision with someone (left or right? noodles or rice? cholera or typhoid?) for a couple of months, you can not help but miss their presence.

I reckon the best reason to take a trip around the world with a friend is so you can laugh over beers with somebody else not only about individual incidents, but also about the nuances and patterns of the entire journey. This week will be filled with experiences that are not shared and are therefore much more difficult to think about as episodes in a larger story. I would not be taking this trip if Jason was not taking it with me. I look forward to coming back together like Voltron sometime soon.


Bangkok, Thailand

Today, Jarah, Ben, and I are flying into Cambodia to check out Angkor Wat. After so many independent sources agreeing that it is indeed "the shit", it would be foolish not to have a look at the ruins while I'm here. Mike and Janelle have opted to skip the history lesson in favor of enjoying the perfect white beaches of southern Thailand.
So, the OC will be splitting up for a bit.
After a few days in Cambodia, we'll be flying back to Bangkok, where Ben and I will catch a train into northern Thailand, while Jarah will be flying home to do the "work" thing (I'll never understand these people). Ben and I will enjoy the more authentic side of Thailand for three-to-four in Chiang Mai before he has to run back to Bangkok and then home. I, on the other hand, will probably be taking the train nearly the full north-south length of Thailand to get down to Ko Tao island, where Mike and I are planning on meeting. Once there, we are going to be doing a four-day Open Water SCUBA training course, and gettin' ourselves a-certified. Both Australia and Egypt have some wonderful dives to enjoy, and we want to be prepared.


Saturday, September 10, 2005

SE Asia is Not All Bad

Nana Thai Hotel - Bangkok, Thailand

Despite the scamming travel agents, the heat, the broken buses, and the losses of consciousness, I still enjoyed our trip from Hue, Vietnam to Bangkok, Thailand.

The border crossing between Vietnam and Laos was very beautiful. The morning air in the hills is refreshingly cool and whisps of cloud and fog moved across the sky and sunk down into the valleys. It was quiet and calm despite the clamour of money-changers and the steady stream of traffic.

Even if the bus was a rusting piece of junk, it is how the locals travel. The other passengers seemed genuiniely surprised to find a couple of Westerners in their midst. Those that spoke a bit of English were eager to ask us questions. It is hard not to feel welcome when someone takes an interest in who you are.

The road through Laos was about as real as they get. We passed many small villages where people live without electricity and running water in stilt houses and very brown, very naked children run around freely. In between clusters of homes, there was nothing but lush green hills, small rivers, and rice paddies. Our "lunch stop" saw a horde of local women selling us rice balls and chicken-on-a-stick through open bus windows.

We had our first tuk-tuk ride in Savanakhet (Laos side of Thailand/Laos border). We gotta get these things in the US. Imagine a beast with the front of a motorcycle and the back of a diahatsu electric cart. Add a good bit of speed and some careening around pot-holed road. That's a tuk-tuk. Any other taxi is boring by comparison.

On the Thai side of the Mekong (which we crossed in a small local very), Jarah got an enthusiastic Thai language lesson from the staff at an open-air restaurant near the bus station. They were having a blast watching us foreigners muddle through the numbers and simple phrases. Their hospitable and educational welcome gave me a good feeling about the Land of Smiles.

So, while there were a few bits of unpleasantness, the journey across SE Asia did provide many moments that are memorable and did not involve anyone falling into a ditch.

Three The Hard Way, Take Three

Bangkok, Thailand

We were supposed to be in Laos for something like six hours. Just long enough for us to cross the country on a bus, then take the ferry across the Mekong. Theory is always nice.
In reality, we ended up staying in Laos for over twenty-four hours.

About two hours into our cramped, stinky, rumbling bus ride from the Laos-Vietnam border, the bus decided to crap out. Both Mike and I were sitting above the right-rear wheel-base when it started to fail. The grey, burnt-rubber smoke was barely seeping out of the bus' injury at first, and we stopped a few times to do some quick fixes. But, after the third stop, the smoke was really pouring out. About half of it was billowing into the bus, making it pretty hard to breath. So, we stopped the bus, and everyone got out while the bus driver and his assistants started the surgery.
I have never in my life seen such a half-assed attempt at auto-repair. The most obvious problem was they didn't have any of the tools they needed. Well, they had a crescent wrench. Other than that, they had to make do with manpower, mallets, large rocks, and a piece of the axle to do the needed repair work. The whole time, the wheel-well was surrounded by squatting passengers watching the bus-workers go at it, occasionally pointing and giving advice.
Not all of the passengers were wanna-be mechanics, though. Those that weren't helping with the repair-work were crawling into the foliage near the road, trying to find some protection from the ever-increasing afternoon heat. Jarah even managed to get some of them to join him in a game of Chinese chess.
After two hours in the blazing sun, the work was finally finished. They had successfully removed the broken disc-brake and replaced the tire. We would be running on one brake only, but at least we could make the trip without being choked to death by smoke. Everybody gratefully started to re-board the bus.

And that's when I fainted.

Clearly, it was heat exhaustion. I had been drinking plenty of water, and I was squatting in the slim ribbon of shade provided by the bus, so I thought I was fine. When I stood up to get on the bus, though, I got that familiar light-headed feeling. I remember leaning against the bus, waiting for it to go away. I also vaguely remember being very confused, and wondering why I was having such a difficult time walking.
When I came to, I was sitting in the nasty ditch by the side of the road. I was hip-deep in fetid slime-water, and I had no idea where I was. I vividly remember staring at a bus filled with very foreign-looking faces, all staring back at me, and being more confused than I've ever been in my life. Where they hell was I, who were all of these people, and why were they staring at me? Then, over the course of about 10 seconds, it all came back to me.

That bus looks familiar. Wait... I was supposed to be on a bus, right? Yeah. And the door was over there... yup. I was definitely on this bus. On the bus, and I'm in... Laos. OK. Oh! And the bus broke down, so we pulled off... And then I stood up... Fuck. I totally fainted. That's why everyone's staring at me. And I'm sitting in the nasty ditch water. Great.

It was pretty embarrassing getting back on the bus while a bunch of the Laotians around me giggled and pointed. I saw one of them doing a pantomime of my stumbling faint to his friend while I changed out of my cholera-drenched clothes. Oh, well. At least we were moving again.
The rest of the trip was thankfully uneventful, though even more uncomfortable than when I first boarded. Being ditch-filthy on a 100 degree bus through Laos is not really one of my fonder memories.
Eventually, we made it to Savanakhet. I really didn't feel like dealing with a border crossing that night, so we decided to save it for the next morning. Instead, we found a hotel, checked in, cleaned up, and went to have some dinner on a "floating restaurant".
Of course, we didn't find it, and ended up unprotected in a monsoon thunderstorm, with no taxis in sight, a few kilometers away from our hotel. But, relative to the trials of the previous few days, getting caught in the rain wasn't really a big problem.

The next morning, we made it to Thailand.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Made It To Bangkok

Ariston Hotel - Bangkok, Thailand

Just a quickie...

The OC + Jarah have arrived in Bangkok after 3 bus rides of varying quality. We met up with Janelle S and Ben G just hours ago and plan to spend a few days sampling the delights of the city before heading farther afield to take in the sites of the countryside and the famed Thai beaches.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Three The Hard Way, Take Two

Mukdahan, Thailand

When we were in Hanoi, we knew we were going to be crossing Laos to get into Thailand. So, even before we left for Cat Ba Island, we took a trip down to the Lao Consulate to get ourselves some travel visas. When we got to the consulate, it seemed kinda sketchy. There was no security; just two dudes in civilian dress lounging in plastic chairs. They pointed us to the visa office, which was a small room behind the stairs stocked with Lao candy for sale, and manned by one guy and 5 children. Literally. There were three desks back there, with five kids jumping and crawling all over them. The only adult was sitting behind the counter looking annoyed. When we asked about visas, he handed us some forms, which required some photos. When we mentioned that we didn't have any, he just shrugged, and said not to worry about it. We filled out our forms, handed over our passports, gave him some money, then left to grab lunch. We came back a couple of hours later, and he gave us our passports back with visas pasted in them. Despite the amateurish appearance of the whole consulate, the visas seemed fine.
But they weren't.
When we tried to cross the border into Laos, we were stopped and told that our visas were no good. Something about missing the proper stamp. So, we had to sit on a dirty bench, meters away from the border, waiting for some other border guy to come by to help rectify our visa issue. We sat there for half an hour before he showed up, grumpily snatched our passports from us, and stomped into his sad little office. After about five minutes, he came back out and told us that we would have to go back to Hanoi to get the visas re-stamped. Fuck that. We just bit the bullet, got the shit visa nullified, and paid too much money to get another Lao travel visa issued to us on the spot.
Finally, at nine o'clock in the morning, on September 5th, we crossed into Laos.
At the border, we were met by an unidentified lady who told us that she would take us to the bus we needed to get to Savanakhet, at no charge. OK. I had no idea if this women was affiliated in any way with the "company" that we bought our bus tickets from, but we had no paper tickets with us, nor any idea how to find the bus that we wanted. It was either go with her, or stand just inside the Laos border with our thumbs up our asses. With nothing more to lose, we followed our mysterious guide.
We jumped on some motorbike taxis and were sped away into the center of the little town to meet up with our newest bus. And, of course, by newest, I mean crappiest. This was by far the junkiest bus I had ever seen. Every piece of exposed metal had rust on it. Those pieces that weren't rusted were dented. The windows, many of which were broken, appeared to be made out of some sort of cheap, milky plastic. The seats inside were unevenly spaced and upholstered with cracking old vinyl. And they were extremely uncomfortable. After sitting in them for about half-an-hour, both my legs and my lower back started falling asleep. No sign of a nice sleeper bus here. Even our lady-guide betrayed a face of disgust when she first entered the bus that was to be our home for the next few hours.
Speaking of ladies, there were a whole gaggle of women near the border on both sides wandering around with big satchels of cash, trying to trade Lao Kip for Vietnamese Dong. As soon as we pulled out any amount of Dong, they would swarm all over us, offering the exact same exchange rate, whining at us in broken english. Our lady-guide was one of these exchange women. They even followed us into the bus. I've got a great picture of Jarah giving one of them the ol' stink-eye.
Eventually, the moving junk-pile heaved into first gear, and we were off, crumbling our way towards the other side of Laos. With any luck, we would be in Savanakhet in a few hours, then it would be just a short ferry-hop into Thailand.

We had no such luck.

Three The Hard Way, Take One

Mukdahan, Thailand

We's in Thailand. But it wasn't easy.

We started our little adventure in Hanoi, on the night of September 3rd. We had just celebrated Vietnam's independence the day before, and had spent all Saturday updating the website and organizing for our departure from the country.
We boarded the overnight train for Hue, and settled into our four-person cabin with a quiet Vietnamese man. The plan was to arrive in Hue early in the morning, and then immediately arrange the first bus we could find to Savanakhet, Laos, near the border of Thailand. From there, it would be a short ferry ride across the Mekong, and then a 10-hour train to Bangkok. Easy.
We made our first mistake ten minutes after we arrived in Hue. A short-sleeved man approached us as we were getting into our taxi and convinced us that he could arrange a nice sleeper bus ride to Savanakhet leaving from Hue that night at 6 p.m.. It seemed like a reasonable offer, the price was about right, and he had printed materials and nice pictures. So, we figured it was legit.
We spent the day in Hue walking around and seeing some of the tourists sites. The Flag Tower was impressive, and the ancient Citadel was cool, though not really that ancient. All in all, it was a fairly long day, and fucking hot. By the time we were done, I was sweaty, and tired, and eager for that sleeper bus to take us away, so I could get some well-deserved rest, and wake up across the river from Thailand. We met at the meeting place, ate a small meal, and were hustled away onto our minibus.
I thought the mini-bus would be taking us to the bus station, where we would board that nice-looking sleeper bus we saw in the brochure. Instead, our driver stopped at a truck stop/gas station, and told us that we would be waiting for the bus here. We should have realized then that we were getting hustled, but I didn't think much of it at the time. I was too tired to argue. After piddling around for about ten minutes, our bus rolled by, and we jumped on with our bags and were whisked away northwards, heading towards the Lao border.
But it wasn't a sleeper bus. It was a normal bus. Instead of making the overnight trip sleeping comfortably in a horizontal bed, we would have to sit in airplane-sized seats for the twelve hours it would take to get out of Vietnam and across to the other side of Laos. Not a big deal, I guess, but definitely not what we paid for. At this point, I felt like we had been cheated, but not enough to raise a big stink about it. Little did I know it was about to get worse.
The bus we were in stopped at about 8 p.m. at a little town called Dong Ha, a common jumping off point for buses crossing at the Lao Bao border. We were herded off the bus, and into a crappy little guest room, with our new hosts telling us that we couldn't cross into Laos tonight, as the border was closed. We would have to get up at five o'clock the next morning and get on a different mini-bus to cross the border. All three of us knew we were being scammed, but there was nothing we could do about it. We had already paid the money, and we were in the middle of nowhere, Vietnam, so we didn't have a lot of options. After a long discussion, we agreed to just roll with it and spend the night in Dong Ha. If worse came to worse, we could always just not go with them the next morning, and get some other transportation the rest of the way to Savanakhet.
That night, Jarah and I took a nighttime tour of the DMZ with a guide who used to be a member of the South Vietnamese Army during the end of the Vietnam war. We walked across the old Ben Hai bridge and took a frequently light-less tour of the Vinh Moc tunnels while they were ostensibly closed to the public. I thought I had missed my chance to visit the DMZ, so it was a nice surprise to be able to do so, even though it was in the process of being ripped off.
In the morning, we jumped into our jalopy of a mini-bus, and headed west towards the Lao border. It was a long trip; about twice as long as it should have been. Apparently, the mini-bus we were on was a sort of public transport, as we would stop every once in a while to pick up a passenger or drop another one off. Anyone who had the energy to flag the bus down was a potential customer. And so we made our way up the mountains that marked the border between Vietnam and Laos, eventually making it to the Lao Bao border crossing.

I thought we had gotten through the roughest of it, but our tests of strength had only just begun.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

New Video Clips

The OC in motion.

New Photo Albums II

Aw, yeah.

The 4th of July on Sept 2nd

Golden Bull Hotel - Hanoi, Vietnam

Yesterday was the 60th anniversary of Ho Chi Minh's declaration of Vietnamese independence - a speech that quoted directly from a similar American declaration. There was a big parade near Ho's masoleum at a surprisingly early hour. It seems that civic events kick off at the crack of dawn here. Needless to say, we were not out of bed in time for the official ceremony.

Jarah and I spent the better part of the morning getting together our costumes. In the spirit of Vietnamese patriotism, we went for a flag-heavy theme. With a little elbow grease and a judicious application of tape, we each attached 4 Vietnamese flags in a roughly symmetric formation atop some oh-so-local pointy straw hats. Matching yellow star t-shirts completed the outfit. I will link to one of the numerous pictures as soon as they are uploaded. Suffice to say, we looked like unusually dorky (but enthusiastic) Western tourists.

We spent most of the afternoon walking around looking for some sort of Independence Day celebration, eating, and drinking beer. It was not until the evening that things started to get going around Hoan Kiem Lake - the heart of Hanoi. There were several stages set up for musical acts, but it seems that the rapidly increasing number of people were largely drawn by the promise of a fireworks display later that night.

Our costuming efforts proved to be an even bigger hit than expected. Just about everyone that saw us gave some combination of a smile, a laugh, a hello, or a pat on the back. Lots of locals wanted to wear the hats, have their picture taken with us, or strike up a conversation. If we stopped walking for even a minute, we were quickly surrounded by people. I reckon they expected some sort of clown show and I did my best to oblige. It was easy to get a laugh, especially out of kids. They think everything that foreigners do is funny. Add a silly hat and you have a recipe for hilarity.

After awhile, all the attention went from fun to akward, to annoying. More and more people were piling into the streets around the lake and it was becoming increasingly difficult to move. Packs of young men were shoving their way through the crowd. The occasional brave soul would knock over my hat from behind. People were even grabbing my ass. I was sweating heavily, hot, and getting hotter. I found myself not returning smiles, shoving back, and threatening people out loud (in English). It was time to get some space. Much to my relief, we quickly got a bit away from the mob to where we could have a bottle of water and some personal space.

Jason and Jarah headed back into the fray to see the fireworks. I opted to go around the long way back to the hotel to avoid the crowds. I did not feel normal again until I ditched my sweat-drenched clothes and took a cold shower. It was a lot of fun clowning around in the steets, but I did not account for the effects of high heat and persistent and unescapable attention. The locals liked our attempt to bring a bit of July 4th to September 2nd, so I reckon it was a worthwhile outing. And best of all, we got our picture on page 4 of the "Quan doi nhan dan" newspaper - the mouthpiece of the Vietnamese Communist Party.

Chinese Food - Ingredients, Ruined

Rex Hotel - HCMC, Vietnam
Juice Cafe - HCMC, Vietnam
Golden Buffalo Hotel - Hanoi, Vietnam

Many people have been lucky enough to hear one of my trademark rants on the subject of my low esteem for Chinese cooking. The usual punchline to the lengthy diatribe is some variation on "Chinese cooking is the process of taking perfectly good ingredients and ruining them". Until recently, this statement was always made having had no exposure to Chinese food outside of the US. Having been so exposed, I feel that a refinement on the now-cliche thesis is in order.

Let us break this down by region and/or specialty dish of note:

Day-toDay Northern Grub - By Northern, I guess I really mean "Beijing". Citizens of the capital prefer their food oily and a variety of it. A typical meal consists of several main meat dishes, a few vegetable side dishes, and steamed white rice served family style. There is a good chance that something on the table will contain a >lot<>
  • Chicken Feet - This abomination is best described as culinary effluent. Seriously, China, what are you thinking? We had two varieties of feet. The straight-up fried kind made me want to puke like a Lloydie at Apache. The drowned in chili oil after being fried variety looked (and tasted) like it came out of the same Lloydie.
  • Stomach Lining - Not sure what kind of animal this came from. Maybe a cow. It makes little difference, though. It had a sickeningly rubbery texture and a taste reminiscent of oily goat. Ew, gross.
  • The Great Intestinal Wall of China - Once again, the zoological origin of this steaming heap of muck is a complete mystery. The intestine had a somewhat less intense goat oil taste than stomach, but made up for the deficit by adding a new and horrifying element of slime to the already described rubberyness. This may be the most unsatisfying thing I have ever consumed.
  • * Islamic Bread/Mutton Soup - A very grumpy woman gave us each a bowl and a big chunk of some kind of flatbread. The done thing was to crumble the bread into small pieces and store them in the bowl. Once we thought we were done, the lady came back and shouted at us to indicate that our bread pieces were not small enough. After a second round of crumbling, the lady returned once again and grudgingly accepted our work.

    She disappeared with all the bowls, returning 20 minutes later having cooked 'em up with a thick broth and big chunks of mutton. Although it is not much to look at, the results are very tasty. The bread pieces are a slightly chewy mush and the lamb has a strong fatty/peppery flavor. I ate my whole bowl and half of another.

    Unfortunately, the next day I suffered from enthusiastic toilet usage. If you like meaty soups and have some reading to catch up on, this is the meal for you. Side effects aside, it really is very nice.

    * Sichuan Vittles - Food from this Chinese province is supposed to be hot and zesty. Maybe restaurants went easy on us because we are from out of town, but I was not impressed by the heat and I am famously vulnerable to spicy food. On top of that, many dishes had a soapy taste that came up suddenly and stuck around for ages. i think it may have been cardamom pods. The highlight of our Sichuan eating was undoubtedly the local hotpot, but even that did not meet expectations. Lots of build up and little delivery led to disappointment.

    * Cantonese Eats - By the time we got to Hong Kong, I had severe esophageal ulcers, so I was not in a position to sample the full range of dining options. The rice, noodles, and wontons (especially the wontons) are really nice. I can say nothing really good nor bad about the cuisine of Canton. I hear it is comparatively nice, though.


    I propose several possible refinements to my original punchline.

    Chinese cooking is the process of:

    1. "taking substandard ingredients and further ruining them"

    2. "taking perfectly good ingredients and adding oil (and ruining them)"

    3. "obscuring the true object of cuisine - not poisoning diners"

    I reckon #1 is closest to my feelings. Suffice to say, I have not developed a great love for the food of China. And it is not for lack of trying.

    Thursday, September 01, 2005

    Same, same? Yeah, OK.

    Hanoi, Vietnam

    We're back, and tanned.
    Our trip to Cat Ba Island was a smashing success. The island is a small, quiet vacation spot a two-hour ferry ride away from Haiphong, Vietnam. It sports all of the karst scenery and coastal beauty of Ha Long City, but with only a fraction of the trappings of tourism. The costs were low, and the island was filled with distraction. A real OC winner.

    Our first morning on the island had us boarding a boat to leave, not to return for two days. We joined our boat captains Chi and Tu for a guided tour of Lan Ha Bay and Ha Long Bay aboard the Anh Tuan, an old wooden motorboat with peeling paint and a insolent engine. We were delayed for almost two hours before we even left the harbor, napping on the boat while our skippers repaired some malfunctioning piece of the motor. We spent the first day of the trip puttering around Ha Long Bay, passing through floating boat-villages, doing a little open-water swimming, and exploring a cave. There was a particularly cool part of the bay that was surrounded on all sides by karst hills. The only way to get into this little pseudo-lake was to take a rowboat through a natural tunnel beneath one of the hills. On the way out, we ditched the boat and swam through the tunnel, serenaded by bats above the water, and coral-munching fish below.
    That night, we pulled into a small, protected bay, ate a fresh fish dinner, and played a few friendly games of chinese chess before calling it a night. It was difficult to sleep that evening, though, with the sweltering heat, the sudden thunderstorm, and the loose anchorage that led to our constantly knocking into other boats. Oh, and the rats. Jarah and I were both harried by two Vietnamese jumping rats that night. Seriously. It was an experience.
    On the second day, we took it easy. We did a spot of swimming and boat-diving, ate some fish, and learned a bit more about chinese chess. With the combined might of three Caltech graduates, we were finally able to defeat Tu.
    We also dropped anchor at Monkey Island. I was fairly excited about the prospect of feeding some small, scampering monkeys bananas while they crawled all over me and tried to steal my sunglasses, but it was not to be. It turns out that this Island was a pretty horrendous tourist trap. We spent an hour or two killing time on the tiny beach, waiting for the monkeys to wake from their afternoon nap in the mountains and make their way down to the sand. But, by the time they did, the island was swarming with tourists. And the tourists' main interests seemed to be goading the monkeys by throwing water and sand at them, then running away. It was pretty lame. About half an hour after the monkeys appeared, we swam back to the boat, and motored for home.

    The next day, we rented some motorbikes, and took a self-guided land tour around Cat Ba Island. The first hour of the ride was tricky, as none of us had ridden a motorbike in a while (Mike had never ridden one before), and we had to get used to the throttling and gearing and shit. But, we persevered, and were soon screaming down the mountain roads of Cat Ba, going as fast as our little Honda Waves could manage.
    We stopped at an old cave, which was used by the NVA as a makeshift hospital back in the day. There was a huge concrete structure inside, which housed all of the men and officers and their numerous restrooms. The dripping, echoing portion between the roof of the concrete structure and the top of the cave was used as the actual hospital, and was chock full of creepy. With the claustrophobic surroundings, hanging bulbs, and dripping water, it very much reminded me of the atmosphere that games like Doom and Quake tried so hard to emulate.
    After the cave, we sped towards the Cat Ba National Park, and did some hiking. Climbing to the top of the peak was harder than I expected, but the view of the island around us once we got there was well worth it. There was a sweet rusting tower at the top, which creaked and swayed as we climbed it. It started raining once we got to the top, which made the descent even more muddy and treacherous than the climb, but we eventually made it down, sweaty and filthy.
    The rest of the day was spent taking the long way back to the hotel, riding our bikes along the western coast of the island, and enjoying the scenery.

    The next day, we said goodbye to Thao (our hotel lady), Chi, and Tu, and boarded the ferry back to the mainland. Our little vacation-within-a-vacation was over.