Southeast Asia by Benjie Baskin
South East Asia
It’s been that time again! The oh-so-cherished annual retirement! Not exactly sure how long this year’s run will be, but after a grueling 55 hr journey home starting from Hanoi, Vietnam to Bangkok, Thailand to Tapei, Taiwan to Los Angeles, to New York, and finally arriving in Fort Lauderdale, I’m going to kick back here in the Keys and catch my breath for a bit before dashing off to Mexico. Been a little under the weather as well, keeping my fears of malaria and swine flu readably available.
This September, I flew back to see Asia. Cruising the familiar road of unfamiliar destinations. This trip started out special, as I flew to Thailand with my two brothers and met up with my pop. We never have too many opportunities to hang together, so it was nice. After some time in Pattaya we all headed back to Bangkok. Here, we hit the massive temples, the king’s palace, and sipped cocktails on the 83rd floor of the Baiyoke Hotel, but the chaos of Bangkok starts to get to you after only a few days. My older brother and I trekked north to the thriving city of Chiang Mai. Thai cooking courses, jungle treks, and white water rafting kept us plenty busy. Northern Thailand greatly differs from the south, with a more laid back atmosphere nestled in mountainous terrain. My last visit to Thailand, a few years ago, consisted mostly of the picturesque islands and party atmosphere of the southern islands. The north offers far more culture, cooler temps, and phenomenal food.
My trip into Laos was basically a last minute decision (literally an hour before departure). I was hoping to go to Burma (Myanmar), but had all sorts of problems trying to get in. With an authoritarian military regime that reads every email (Hotmail and Yahoo are even illegal) and outlaws any gathering of 5 or more people, Laos was sounding better and better. The trip however, was exhausting. One day bus ride to the border of Chaing Khong, followed by a two day adventure down the mighty Mekong River before arriving at the beautiful, Unesco protected, and world-heritage city of Laung Prabang. I had the good fortune of meeting a really good crew of Brits, Dutch, Canadians, German, and Danes, and one other American on the journey, and we all teamed together. We hit the bars, food stalls, and markets, but managed to get out of the city for side excursions that all turned out to be a blast as well. A hike through lush jungle (in which Laos’ boast tigers, bears, elephants, and 167 species of snakes) didn’t spook out any crazy wild beast, but it offered amazing views of the city adjacent to the river. And as we waited the return of our boatman who took us across the river, adorable Laotian children entertained us entertaining them! A trip to the astonishing Tat Kuang Si waterfalls and wading pools the following day refreshed and awed us with its massive falls and cool turquoise waters. Laos has been beautiful!
When I was on my way to the Thai/Laotian border, a friend told me he had heard Americans weren’t allowed in Laos. Completely untrue, but after the “Secret Wars” that occurred from 1963 to 1974, in an attempt to deter the north Vietnamese; the guy’s story sounded believable. 30% of those bombs never exploded (known as uxo’s-unexploded ordinances) and to this day still present a tremendous danger throughout the northeast. Eerily, these 5 foot long, defused uxo’s decorate some of these northern villages, serving as entrance ways, vases, and even stilts for homes.
The Laos people have been a treat. It is illegal for a Laotian to have romantic relations with a foreigner. Unlike some areas in Thailand, you’re not harassed by “ladies of the night”, and the men don’t aggressively try to sale you any piece of “authentic” junk they can find. So, strolls down the streets can actually be relaxing. With the average income in Laos less than $1500 (U.S.)/year, and minimum wage at about $300/year I have been quite surprised by the friendliness and happiness everyone seems to possess. It always amazes me that it so often seems those with the least seems the most content and willing to share what they have.
“The crew” departed Laung Prabang and headed south to the lush, monolithic mountains of Vang Vieng. Here, the Nam Sang River slices through the jungle-clad limestone cliffs and has become a tubing paradise. I think half the visitors to Laos come here to “tube” down this makeshift-bar-laced stretch of probably two miles where backpackers party on the river all day, and the bars all night. Two days tubing here was enough! Over half of our group sustained considerable injuries. The scenery and spectacular views from the river were amazing, and we all had a social blast!!! But even three weeks later, I have still not completely recuperated.
From here, the gang was now going to journey to Vietnam. I chose to follow. Along the way required a pit stop at the pitiful town of Phonsavan, where waiting for a Vietnamese visa, we were helplessly held captive for four days. Unfortunately, I believe I stayed here in this hell hole longer than I had anywhere else on the trip. But, having arrived just before the weekend, we simply had to wait for the visas and depart on a Tuesday morning.
A good 15-20 hours of buses and night trains, we arrived in the northern Vietnamese capital of Hanoi. We scored on a beautiful guesthouse ($2/night) that was merely blocks away from the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” where presidential nominee John McCain was imprisoned and tortured. Hanoi is alive. Scooters and bikes weave amongst one another in every possible direction. Simply walking around the city and trying various grub was extremely entertaining. Couldn’t tell you what half of it was, but damn it was good. Just walking around in northern Vietnam offers a humbling and mysterious experience for a post-war American.
Quickly shifting through countries, keeping track of all the different currencies becomes quite challenging and mind boggling. For instance, the Thai baht exchanges for about 33 per $1. Then, hopping into Laos, the Lao kip exchanges for about 8,465 per $1. The currency exchange from Vietnamese dong to U.S. dollar is about 17,400 to $1. With only $56 exchanged, you’re a Vietnamese millionaire. It also gets quite overwhelming and intimidating when you’re quoted 128,000 dong for a meal and drinks!
The crew quickly made our way to Halong Bay….land of 3,000 islands stretching from the Gulf of Tonkin, and another Unesco world heritage-site. Our trip includes two days cruising around the islands, exploring caves, kayaking, swimming and sleeping on the boat, and one night sleeping on the island of Cat Ba. With our crew still intact, the trip was a predictable blast! Soaking up the sun in such a scenic cruise ceded to rocking out to various iPods in the evening.
On the afternoon of the 23rd of October, I checked my email at the only place on the island with computers. To my utmost surprise, I had threatening emails from China Airlines (the carrier that I had reservations with between L.A. and Bangkok) over the past three days. They had decided to change my itinerary from the 27th to the 25th at 8 am. I was on a small island in north Vietnam!!!!! 600 miles from my departure city of Bangkok!!! My final day in Vietnam (and basically my Asian leg of my 2009 retirement) was spent leaping from buses, taxis, and planes in order to get me to Bangkok around midnight the morning of my departure. No explanation from them, and as of today, no compensation.
I had to miss out on the snake village where you eat the beating heart and drink the (thought to be medicinal) blood. I wasn’t able to bid farewell to my seemingly lifelong buddies of actually only two weeks. Never got to try dog. Etc, etc. I could go on for days. But anyhow, 55 hours of travel has me now recuperating and strategizing my trip to Mexico then Texas.
“What a wonderful world!”