Tuesday, February 22, 2005


On December 26, 2004, a horrifying tsunami swept through the Indian Ocean, killing more than 200,000 people, and rendering 800,000 more homeless. In Thailand, one of the hardest hit areas was Khao Lak, where the churning water swept more than a kilometer inland with enough force to snap reinforced concrete beams. Entire swaths of land were flattened, and thousands of people died instantly. The people that survived have lost more than one can imagine. Their friends, homes, schools, businesses, and lives have been destroyed.

While many of the resorts in Khao Lak are simply gone, others are struggling to survive in a world where income is suddenly non-existent. Those that are left fear the second disaster – the economic hit from a completely decimated tourist season. As we enjoyed paradise on the busy eastern coast of Thailand, it seemed very clear that our tourist dollars were being spent in the wrong place. We needed to head west.

Despite reams of media coverage over the past six weeks, the first glimpse of Khao Lak takes your breath away. Everything is gone. Not damaged – gone. Where vast high-end resorts once stood, there is little more than sand and rubble. The lucky ones – those that drape across a small hill – lost only the beachfront infrastructure, while everything on the hillside remains miraculously untouched.

Upon our arrival, we met a saint of a man – Jan-Erik, from Sweden. He is in Khao Lak for at least a month, working six days a week, 10 hours a day, as a volunteer. Much to our surprise, he said his organization could use all the help it could get (surprising, because our research indicated that all of the aid organizations have no infrastructure for drop-in volunteers). So, the next morning, we got up early, made our way to the Tsunami Volunteer Center, and found ourselves a job. One of the many projects of the group is to refurbish all of the schools that were destroyed, so we joined a team building and painting furniture for schools.

The Tsunami Volunteer Center is a group consisting of men and women from all over the globe – the volunteers hail from over 30 different countries. The Volunteer Center is currently running a number of different projects, from ensuring the availability of clean drinking water, to rebuilding a monastery on an island offshore. It is, quite simply, a remarkable organization made up of amazingly caring people.

Our furniture is not going to win any awards for design or comfort. Yet, now there are tables and chairs for schoolchildren in Khao Lak. Although small, it is a step towards the resumption of normal life. We would have liked to stayed longer, but we were already scheduled to leave Thailand, and only had two days available for furniture building. Without question, these were two of the most rewarding days of our entire trip.

Click HERE to see the photos of Khao Lak and the Tsunami Volunteer Center.

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Monday, February 21, 2005

Phat Thai

Ever see sand as brilliant as freshly fallen snow? How about water so clear you can count every grain on the bottom of the sea floor? Or, a sky bluer than a peacock feather? If not, you need to go to Ko Pha Ngan off the east coast of Thailand.

Haad Yao beach on the northwest corner of Ko Pha Ngan is postcard beautiful. The dogs are friendly, the weather perfect, and the beach divine. We spent four days splashing in the incredibly clear water, and hanging out with a great group of German friends. Once again, a vacation from the vacation is a great, great concept.

Enjoy the Ko Pha Ngan Photo Gallery.

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Saturday, February 19, 2005

One Night In Bangkok

One night in Bangkok and the world's your oyster.
The bars are temples but the pearls ain't free.
You'll find a god in every golden cloister.
And if you're lucky then the god's a she.
I can feel an angel sliding up to me.

-Murray Head

The stage is dark, and the packed house waits with apprehension. As the stage lights emit a devilish glow, a famous American show tune fills the air. An elegant singer emerges from the darkness, her white sequined dress draping gracefully across the stage. As she begins to sing, the M.C. croons – “Welcome to the Calypso Cabaret!” For the next hour, dozens of beautiful performers dazzle the audience with a show that is part Broadway, part MTV, part Moulin Rouge, and part Vaudeville. Only this show has a twist. All of the performers are men.

Actually, Thailand has three sexes – men, women, and ka-thoey. Ka-thoey are born as boys, but grow up to become women. In the Western world, the term is transgender. Although the ka-thoey are looked upon as a cultural curiosity by foreigners, they are simply accepted by Thais as the “third sex.” Many blend into mainstream culture as everyday businesswomen, while others thrive in the entertainment industry.

The Calypso Cabaret is a Bangkok institution. Asian and Western tourists flock to see the show, filling the theatre twice a night, seven days a week. Marilyn Monroe and Tina Turner lead over 50 performers through a lively and thoroughly entertaining show. It is fascinating entertainment.

Of course, Bangkok has a myriad of other interesting sights as well: stunning temples, ornate palaces, fascinating museums, and humming outdoor markets. Sleek public transportation whisks riders around the city. Trendy restaurants sit next to modern art galleries. Although its reputation proceeds it, the “me-love-you-long-time” version has seen better days. Today’s Bangkok is an utterly modern and sophisticated city, and well worth a visit.

Enjoy the Bangkok Photo Gallery.

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Friday, February 18, 2005

Thai Style

Thailand has this traveling thing all figured out. The people are friendly, the food is grand, lodging is cheap and plentiful, and transportation is a snap. Culture, history, cuisine, beaches, mountains – Thailand has it all.

Although short on the beach quotient, Northern Thailand is strong in all other categories. We arrived in Chiang Mai, and immediately found that we were enjoying ourselves. Chiang Mai is a great city nestled up against the mountains, and dotted with ancient Wats. We spent a day at cooking school (I make a mean red curry now) and a day exploring the city, before heading up to Pai, a small town of incomparable beauty.

From Pai we did a two-day trek through the mountains to several small indigenous villages. The scenery was incredible, the flora and fauna amazing (especially the spiders) and our glimpse of traditional village life was fascinating. These hill tribes (the Lahu, Lisu, and Karen tribes) are traditional mountain tribes of Southeast Asia. Many have fled to Thailand to escape brutal oppression at the hands of the Burmese government. They have lived for centuries on nomadic agriculture of the slash and burn variety, and have never developed a written language. Their life is simple, they live in a paradise quite unlike the modern westernized world, and if you ask them, they are quite happy that way.

After our trek, we found a bungalow in Pai on the bank of a gorgeous river (complete with an incredible outdoor shower), and simply relaxed. The restaurant cantilevered out over the babbling water, and diners whiled away evenings eating amazing food, listening to cool music, and lounging on pillows looking at the fiery Thai sun set gently over the lush mountain peaks. Like I said – Thailand has this traveling thing nailed.

Enjoy the Northern Thailand Photo Gallery.

Enjoy the Northern Thailand movies:
Forest Floor Spiders.
Tree Spiders.
Handful of Spiders.
Spinning Leaf.
Village Life.

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Monday, February 14, 2005


Well, you asked for it, here it is. Many have written with questions regarding our day-to-day experiences on this trip. The mundane, everyday, and ordinary experiences. You want to know the basics of Third World traveling life? Ok, here you go.

1. Language: If you haven’t been here, you may be surprised to learn the far-reaching extent of the English language. We are constantly amazed at the extent and quality of spoken English. We always try to learn some of the local language for every country we visit, but it usually isn’t necessary for daily communication. Typically, we learn the very basics (hello, thank you, how much…etc.), but with the exception of China and Tibet, these phrases serve only as nice formalities. Most people we meet speak passable English; many are perfectly fluent. Take Poun, our favorite waiter in Cambodia. He spoke perfect English with a lovely British accent. In fact, we were betting on the number of years he had studied in London when he told us that he had never left Cambodia. Or, consider the man we met in a Vietnamese train station who was fluent in Vietnamese, English, Japanese, French, German, Spanish, and Laotian, and had passable Mandarin Chinese and Norwegian. As Americans who are fluent in no other language, we are damn impressed. When meeting local villagers, however, it is a different story. Here, communication breaks down to little more than facial expressions, hand motions, and breaking out the phrasebook to have a bare bones “conversation” about what your name is, where you are from, your family, etc. These interactions have been some of our most rewarding travel experiences. The hard part is that the written phrases in the phrasebook are not too helpful when the villager you are with has never learned to read.

2. Local Food: The take home message here is that the food is usually great. Not just good, but really and truly great. Yes, there are some really unfortunate meals, but far more often we are thrilled with the food. All of our meals are in restaurants or street food stalls (imagine eating out for more than four months straight). We always try to eat whatever the local food may be. In India it was almost always vegetarian, cheap, and mind-bogglingly delicious. In China it was typically fried vegetables and rice (although meat was available for the brave). Sri-Lanka was hit or miss, but when you hit it, the food was downright sensuous. Cambodian food is wonderful, and Thai food is, of course, amazing. Restaurants run the gamut from small hole-in-the-wall places to (on a rare special occasion) fancy hotel restaurants. In addition to the differences in food, different countries have different style restaurants. In Tibet, most of our meals were eaten huddled around a yak-dung stove in a semi-dark and smoky room. In India, we often ate vegetarian thali at big tables with dozens of locals. In Sri Lanka, we ate many of our meals on the pristine sand of a perfect beach. In Laos, we lounged on pillows to watch Hollywood movies and episodes of "Friends." Nearly every place we have been has had a proliferation of dirt-cheap food stalls. Some you wouldn’t touch for all the money in the world, while others serve absolutely delicious food for mere pennies. It’s a case-by-case decision; you can usually tell which ones are good and safe.

3. Western Food: It is ubiquitous. Except for some of the most remote parts of Tibet, not a day has gone by without an opportunity for us to eat pizza, spaghetti, pancakes, french fries…etc. Depending on your view, this is either a sad-commentary on the effect of Western travelers on local culture, or a godsend. About 90 percent of the time we are in the former camp, but every so often we break down. Although Western food options are common, there are a few things we miss: Lynn craves fresh cold milk, and I long for a good glass of real orange juice.

4. Western Products: Globalization is a frightening thing. I can’t remember a restaurant that didn’t serve Coke, Sprite, or some other American soft drink. We have seen McDonalds, KFC, Subway, Pizza Hut, Au Bon Pain, Burger King, and a myriad of other chains (albeit, most of these were exclusively in Bangkok). These franchises haven’t been that common in our travels, but every time we see one we are reminded how small the world has become.

5. Accommodation: We typically stay in small guesthouses. These can differ dramatically, and price is not always indicative of quality. We have stayed in really nice places for less than $10 a night. In Hong Kong, we stayed in a clean, uninteresting, and truly miniscule room for $34 a night. In most of Asia, $34 is a fortune. The nicest hotel we have had on this trip was in Udaipur, India for $14.49. At the other end of the spectrum, we paid $3.61 to spend a night on a dirt-floor in a school near Mount Everest in Tibet. The windowpanes were broken (i.e., it was freezing cold), the "blankets" were yak hides, and halfway through the night, one of the metal bedposts sank into the dirt floor forcing us to hang on or fall out of bed. When the sun finally came up, it was below freezing inside our room.

6. Bathrooms: Bathrooms in Asia run the gamut. Many bathrooms are western-style, but squat toilets and even outhouses are not uncommon in some countries. With hotel rooms and their bathrooms, you get what you pay for. More expensive rooms have attached baths, but many of the cheaper rooms do not. Cleanliness runs the gamut too. We have seen bathrooms that you would never consider entering, and others that are sleek, modern, and perfectly spotless. The low points are the Shanti Lodge in Agra, India, a bathroom that quite possibly has never been cleaned in the decades since the hotel was built, and Rongphu Monastery near Everest Base Camp, where the hole-in-the-floor outhouse had overflowed up through the hole and onto the floor (thankfully, it was so cold everything was frozen solid). The gauge of a good bathroom is whether it has toilet paper (bring your own), running water (50-50), soap (uncommon), and a way to dry your hands (extremely rare).

7. Getting Around: We have a couple of rules regarding third-world travel. (1) We never get on the back of a motorcycle; and (2) we avoid catching a ride in any three- or four-wheeled vehicle if possible. The fact of the matter is that driving conditions in Asia are certifiably insane. The roads are horrible, and filled with animals, bicyclists, vendors, pedestrians, potholes, and gobs of other cars, motorcycles, trucks, and busses, all in various states of disrepair. The drivers are no better - passing around blind corners, driving at night without headlights (they think it saves gasoline), and ignoring road rules are the norm. Also, for some reason, nearly every car we have seen in Asia has had its seatbelts removed. Thankfully, Asia has a wonderful system of trains, which we take as often as possible.

8. Laundry: Nearly all of the guesthouses we have been to in Asia offer one-day laundry service at a very affordable price. In some countries, this depends on the weather, as it takes longer to dry clothes when it is raining. We often take advantage of this amenity, but occasionally we end up doing laundry in a bathroom sink. Either way, our clothes get cleaned as often as we like.

9. Travel Day: When we are traveling to a new location, our day typically starts in a train station (night trains are great). Depending on the location, we either walk or take a taxi or tuk tuk (small three-wheeled autorickshaw -- common is Asia) from the train station to an area of guesthouses we have chosen from the guidebook. Upon arrival at the first guesthouse, we inquire to see if there is a room available, and if so, we go look at it. If the room is ok, we negotiate a price. If there is no availability, if the room isn’t acceptable, or if we can’t agree on a price, we head down the street to the next guesthouse and repeat the process. Most of the time, we secure a room quickly, but sometimes this can take several tries.

10. Bargaining: Nearly every purchase we make is subject to negotiation. In China, bargaining is a much-loved pastime enjoyed by all. Each side keeps a smiling face and they like to draw it out as long as possible, taking great pleasure in the giving and receiving of each offer. In Southeast Asia, on the other hand, bargaining is merely a gesture. Simply pausing a bit before agreeing to buy will often cause the vendor to come down to the "real" price almost immediately. In areas that have seen a lot of tourist volume, prices tend to be massively inflated and shrewd bargaining is required. You never have to worry about buying something for too little, because a vendor will never sell without some profit. At the same time, as a westerner, rich by local standards, the goal is not to get the cheapest price, but to find a price that makes both sides happy.

11. Touts: Touts are folks who have found a way to make a living by convincing travelers to visit a certain shop, guesthouse, or restaurant, typically owned by a friend or family member, for which they receive a commission. Far and away, the touts were most aggressive in India. At the train station in Jaipur, for example, the touts swarmed so aggressively that we actually needed to get assistance from a local policeman. In preparation for touts, we make a habit of studying a map and compass before disembarking so we can avoid them by striding confidently away in a direction far from other travelers. In less traveled areas, touts are a rarity.

12. The Bible: There is but one sacred book among backpackers: The Lonely Planet guidebook. We too carry a copy pertaining to (nearly) every country we visit. This book is worth its weight in gold when it supplies you with a much-needed map, points out something of interest well off the beaten track, or simply tells you what the going rate is for a tuk-tuk around the city. But the book can also miss the mark completely. We believe this is a function of its extreme popularity: once an establishment is listed favorably in "the book," it’s economic future is secured regardless of service. We therefore have gotten into the habit of staying at places specifically not listed in the book, and have thoroughly enjoyed departing from the backpacker circus.

Every country is unique. Customs, food, and culture differ dramatically from China to India to Vietnam, and these variations weave an amazing tapestry of human life. Nevertheless, we have come to the striking realization that people around the globe have more similarities than differences. Despite our many peculiarities, folks the world over are tied by a common human bond. We are, as they say in Asia, "same same, but different."

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Monday, February 07, 2005

Lao Mellow

Laos is a peaceful, laid-back paradise, with a penchant for beautiful countryside. It has soaring mountain peaks, verdant river valleys, deep dark caves, and a handful of picture perfect towns. It is a traveler’s paradise.

It hasn’t always been this way. Laos is still suffering the ravages of nearly 300 years of continuous warfare. As with Vietnam and Cambodia, the principle conflicts of the 20th century involved France and the United States. Between the independence war with from France, and the heavy U.S. B-52 strikes, Laos is the most bombed country, on a per capita basis, in the history of warfare.

Since 1980, foreign aid to Laos has skyrocketed, making up to 78% of the national budget in some years. Despite this, Laos remains one of the ten poorest countries in the world. Infant mortality is 91 out of 1,000 live births (four times higher than Thailand), and the ratio of citizens to trained physicians is 4,381 to one (Vietnam has a ratio of 2,298 to one). Although Laos espouses a 12-year public school system, three years of education is the national norm (teachers typically have about five years of schooling).

Despite these problems, and years of virtual isolation, Laos has slowly opened itself to the outside world. The first foreigners to arrive in the 1990s found a wonderfully preserved slice of old Southeast Asian culture, and little has changed for the travelers of today. The Lao way of life remains as it always has, slow and relaxed – the polar opposite of the noise, pollution, and crowds of Saigon and Bangkok. As a traveler to Laos, life slows as well. Days are spent lounging by a river, exploring beautiful temples, or playing in crystal clear waterfalls.

If you get the chance, visit Laos. Our guidebook calls it the “Highlight of Southeast Asia,” and based on our experience, we would have to agree.

Enjoy the Laos Photo Gallery.

Enjoy the video of Phet, a young tiger cub rescued from wildlife traders trying to illegally smuggle three tiger kittens over the Chinese border. Although her two brothers did not survive, Phet is doing well under the guidance of the local authorities and the Laos Tiger Rescue Project.

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Tuesday, February 01, 2005


Ancient legend has it that a great dragon once lived in the mountains of Northern Vietnam. One day, as it ran towards the coast, its flailing tail gouged out thousands of valleys and canyons, which filled with water as the dragon plunged headlong into the sea. The aftermath of this chaos was named Halong Bay.

Today, Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site; a 1,500 square kilometer preserve with over 3,000 rocky islands. We spent three days exploring this karst playground. Caves and beaches dot the rocky outcrops and we packed in as much exploring as possible. We spent a night on a boat and another on a beach, and we discovered the Bay’s mysterious corners by kayak. The geography is stunning, and our time was well spent. Even with the cold weather, this was the highlight of Vietnam.

Enjoy the Halong Bay Photo Gallery.

Enjoy the Halong Bay Videos:
Beach Dogs

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