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Vietnam – Part 3 (Driving to Saigon) December 5, 2011

Posted by jorkat in Ho Chi Min, Hoi An, Nha Trang.

One aspect of traveling in this part of the world that I was dreading prior to our departure was the notion of having to spend a couple hours every week in some dirty Laundromat watching our clothes get butchered by dated washers and dryers. I normally don’t mind doing laundry at home and even enjoy the act of folding laundry, but when you’re trying to see and do so much in such a relatively short period of time, doing laundry seems like a gigantic waste of time.

On the flip side, I was relishing the idea of never preparing our own food and never having to do dishes in any capacity. The extent of my responsibilities at meal time now include, ordering food, pouring my own beer in some restaurants (blasphemy!) and leaving money behind when we leave. It’s a dream come true even if some of the food is less than stellar sometimes.

As for the laundry issue, it hasn’t been a problem. So far, everywhere we’ve gone (Thailand, Laos & Vietnam) have offered a plethora of laundry services from some interesting characters. They all charge by the kilo and up until now we’ve never paid more than $8 combined to have all of laundry done in less than 24 hours. Sure, we’ll probably end up throwing out most of these clothes when we get home but we didn’t bring any of our nice stuff anyway. Without a doubt, this unexpected service has definitely been the most underrated perk of our trip.

Please allow me to regale you with an example to prove my point. While we were in Hoi An, less than 10 seconds after emerging from our hotel one morning with our laundry bags slung over our shoulder, a woman came running over to us shouting “Laundry! Laundry!” We were determined to find a service in the area but didn’t expect it to find us so quickly. She quoted us a fair price, pulled out a scale and measured it on the spot, and informed us that it would be ready by 5pm. After exchanging a quick “why the hell not?” glance with Katie, we turned over the better part of our wardrobes to a complete stranger who’s only discernible skill set appeared to be shouting “Laundry!” and operating a scale.

Sure enough, after a full day of shopping and wandering about the city, we picked up our clean, nicely folded garments just after 5 pm. Total time spent doing laundry that day: 2 minutes. Then we rented bicycles from the same lady for a dollar. You have to admire her entrepreneurial spirit. God, I love this place.

I also love Vietnam and Laos in particular because their respective currencies don’t appear to have any coins, at least none that I was ever given (Note: I was given coins in Vietnam on our last day but I’m going to pretend it didn’t happen). I’m a pocket minimalist which means that I try to avoid having anything in my pockets with the exception of cash, debit and credit cards. I don’t even carry a wallet anymore. It’s glorious. Part of me is actually not looking forward to having a blackberry again as that will take up valuable pocket space, but I think I can make an exception. The idea of carrying around loonies and toonies (how do you spell Toonies? Twonies? Toony’s?) again when we get home is going to be paramount to hell on Earth.

Speaking of currency, forget about the US Dollar, Heineken has become my new benchmark for measuring different currencies against one another. It also serves as an indication of the overall expected cost and quality of a particular establishment. Since many restaurants post their menus outside, it’s often the first item I look for. “30,000 dong (less than $2) for a Heineken, that’s outrageous! Let’s find another place.” We’ll then walk another 5-10 feet and sample another menu. “18,000 dong (less than $1), now that’s more like it. This place sounds delicious!”

Don’t worry though, I’m sampling plenty of the local beers as well. My expanding waist line can attest to that.

Now back to your regularly schedule blog post.

The two previous marathon bus rides we’ve taken so far had occurred at night. So we were looking forward to taking one during the day and seeing the impressive coast line but still dismayed at the prospects of spending 10 hours on a bus. For those of you who aren’t aware, we started our trip in Hanoi which is the largest major city in the North. We purchased a 5-stop bus ticket for the paltry sum of $45 each which included several overnight sleeper buses and the ability to disembark whenever we pleased. As described in previous posts, we decided to check out Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang, Muine and finish in Ho Chi Minh (Saigon). This final leg of the trip would take us from Nha Trang to Saigon as we opted not to stop in Muine for the sake of time. Despite no AC it was a rather enjoyable experience as we still had a sleeper bus and the seats were the longest ones so far, meaning I could stretch out completely and enjoy the scenery while listening to my iPod. Katie may disagree with my previous statement as she’s a major detractor of not having AC when you’re told you would and it is 45 degrees outside. No bathroom either – WOOHOO! Here are some pictures taken along the way.

Bus Ride to Saigon Video

This is the third Asian country we’ve visited in the past year that has recovered from the ravages of an international conflict during the last 75 years that culminated in significant casualties and major damage to the infrastructure and a nation’s psyche. We lived in Korea, visited Japan and Hiroshima in particular and now the most recent, Vietnam.

One of our first tours was to the Cu Chi Tunnels which is a popular tourist experience that allows visitors to walk through the same jungle that lay claim to some of the bloodiest battles of this lengthy conflict. An elaborate series of tunnels built underground by the Vietnamese to live in and ambush the allied forces during the war is one of the most popular features along with other traps and weaponry on display. It was impressive in one sense and a somber reminder of the horrors that humanity inflicts on one another. These tunnels stretched for hundreds of kilometers and were built using nothing but a small hand held back-ho and a basket for the dirt. They also built several levels and had different rooms for various functions. It was a full blown underground society that gave them a distinct home field advantage in an unconventional war. The Vietnamese didn’t have access to the same type of weapons and firepower as the Americans and their allies but they made up for it using a series of simple unsophisticated weaponry and traps.

Seeing some of these weapons and traps and walking through the jungle where they were implemented just 35 years ago was surreal. Throw in the occasional round of fire from AK-47’s and M16’s at the nearby shooting range and it would make just about anyone feel uneasy. One of the older gentlemen in our group was actually a former GI who served for the US in Vietnam and was visiting for the first time since the bloody conflict. I can only imagine the range of emotions that he was experiencing as he walked the grounds and listened to the minor remnants of anti-American propaganda.

The real hero on this day though was my beautiful wife Katie. When it came time to lower yourself down into one of the actual tunnels used by the Vietnamese, she finally volunteered after I persisted for a number of minutes. The look on her face as she slowly slipped into the small rectangle in the ground says it all.

Once you got down into the dark tunnel, it was only a big enough space to crawl on your hands and knees.  It was dark and there were several directions to choose from. Katie became a little unsettled when the guys in front of her expressed some uncertainty over where to go. Throw some bats into the mix and a small section which forced her to crawl through on her stomach and you can understand why Katie was a little flustered after emerging from the 15 meter trek underground. I really really wanted to go but someone had to take pictures and the tour had to continue (Note from Katie: my husband is a pussy).

There was another tunnel later in the tour that had been made bigger for the larger tourists that came through every day. It was 100 meters from the start until a series of rooms, but you had the option to use a side exit about 15 meters in which we happily took advantage of. Our tour group was rather large and wasn’t moving very fast through the tunnel so the idea of being in such a small confined space with people in front and behind you and nowhere to go in virtual darkness was less than appealing.

I don’t know how they managed to live this way for such an extended period of time, not to mention the actual construction and logistics of building such a complicated network of tunnels under the scepter of war going on all around you. People spent days, weeks , months underground digging non-stop and would crawl for kilometers to reach certain destinations. Our tour guide informed us that if we continued on in the tunnel we were in for 7km, that it would reach the Saigon River. 15 meters was enough for me.

Some of the more memorable aspects of this experience that will forever stay with me included the pride and resourcefulness that the Vietnamese displayed then and now. They recovered undetonated bombs and leftover arms and artillery from the Americans and turned them into weapons of their own; the measures and countermeasures that each side took to defeat the enemy, such as the Americans bombing the Vietnamese rice paddies with fast-growing fertilizer to compromise their food production. Even today, you can see the green grass all around which the Vietnamese refer to “American grass”; and finally the notion that this conflict took place only 35 years ago and the progress that has been made between all parties involved. Americans are free to visit and travel throughout the country despite being hailed as imperialist forces not long ago. It gives me hope that other conflicts around the world will eventually enjoy similar outcomes.

Here’s some other pictures from some of the other “highlights” from the tour, including the room that we watched a 20 minute propaganda movie from 1967 that didn’t paint the Americans in a very nice light.

I’ve already written about the hectic traffic and incessant honking that can be overwhelming upon arrival. But after having spent over 10 days here now traveling across the country and seeing various cities and towns, I’ve noticed some subtle nuances to their perceived unorthodox driving etiquette. Honking actually seems proactive which seems counterintuitive since there’s so much of it going on around us. When you honk back home, people notice immediately and almost always take it personally. It’s an effective tool to quickly get someone’s attention but people often take it as an insult or a challenge of their driving ability. It doesn’t exactly work like that here. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Honking almost seems like a courtesy that people use to warn those around them of their presence. It’s also used when a larger vehicle is coming through thick traffic consisting of nothing but scooters to warn them to get out of the way, to which they usually oblige. I often laugh at people who honk in traffic out of frustration as if the sound of their horn will magically part the sea of bumper-to-bumper traffic ahead, but here people will respond to the horn as best they can and move accordingly to allow the flow of traffic to continue. You’d think that people would grow immune to the never ending honking and would render it ineffective, but that isn’t the case. It’s seems loud, chaotic and dangerous, which it is, but it works as long as everyone abides by the same set of unofficial rules. It works so well, that Katie and I don’t even bat an eye when we need to get somewhere and the most efficient and affordable means is by scooter.

The Reunification palace ticket office was closing in less than 15 minutes and we needed to get there as soon as possible. $2 and 10 minutes later and we were inside the palace gates with time to spare.

Scooter Ride in Saigon Video

The honking and traffic volume in these videos don’t do it justice, especially during rush hour, but it at least gives you an idea.

After a full and efficient day spent touring some of Saigon’s famous sights, we were tired an eager to spend a relaxing evening over a nice dinner on our final night in Vietnam. Our entire trip from north to south has gone extremely smoothly without any major inconveniences or hassles and we’ve both acknowledged that it’s one of our favourite countries thus far. With only a few dong (vietnamese currency) left in my pocket, I went to an ATM at a large HSBC branch right next to this church, the Notre-Dame Cathedral (Note: it was Easter Sunday).

My debit card has been a little uncooperative at times on the trip. Back in Laos I was given my cash and the screen went back to the main menu so I walked away after a brief pause as something didn’t seem right. That’s because every other ATM I’ve ever used dispenses the card and receipt prior to giving up the cash. The next morning I realized that I never got my card back and Katie went back to the machine with slim hopes that the card would somehow still be there (note: I decided to shower). By some crazy coincidence the company that services the machine just happened to show up and Katie was able to get the card back without incident. My shower was warm and refreshing so everyone was happy. This time we weren’t so lucky.

After following the usual procedure the screen froze when I input the amount and remained that way despite repeatedly pushing the cancel button. After a few minutes the screen eventually went blank and the machine indicated that it was temporarily out-of-service. Awesome. There was a security guard present but he didn’t work directly for the bank and didn’t have access to the machines. He was able to put me in contact with customer service who informed me that it was Sunday and he couldn’t dispatch anyone that day and I could pick up my card later that week at a different branch. I had the equivalent of about $10 in my pocket and we were supposed to board a bus en route to Cambodia at 8am the next day. There’s nothing quite like that helpless feeling of being in a foreign place with no access to money and no control of a particular situation. Yes, I could have taken a cash advance on my credit card, but that would have been too easy and I wasn’t about to give RBC the benefit of service fees and high interest charges because their crappy debit card screwed me.

Fortunately we were able to postpone our bus ticket until 1pm. We had a cheap dinner and retired to our rooms early and I was at the branch by 8am to process the necessary paperwork to retrieve my card. I wish this story sounded cooler and that we had to sell a stolen scooter or rob a street vendor or something, but I got my card back by 8:30am and was back at the hotel by 9. The moral of the story is that Vietnam sucks and we’re never coming back here ever again.

That is until I want some more cheap suits, cheap Heineken and psychotic scooter rides. Fare the well Vietnam. You were everything we could have asked for, and more.

Vietnam – Part 2 (Hue, Hoi An and Nha Trang) December 19, 2010

Posted by jorkat in Uncategorized.

As I alluded to at the tail end of my previous post, the 15 hour bus ride ended up being tolerable at best. The best way I can describe the pods we were in would be to imagine a decent sized coffin with a reclining feature. Throw in a dirty blanket and pillow and that’s pretty much it. There’s a chance I may have acquired bed bugs or some sort of rash on my leg from the blanket, but aside from that we survived.

We disembarked the bus in Hue to our first rainy day after over 3 weeks of traveling. Fortunately we arranged for a pickup from our hotel and didn’t have to deal with the swarm of taxi drivers looking for business from naïve travelers. The only downside was that our pickup was a guy on a scooter. I’m not sure if he was planning on trying to squeeze both of us on board or simply wanted to see if we showed up, but once he saw our two big and two small backpacks, he called for backup. At least I thought he did at first as he couldn’t speak English and used a series of hand signals before taking off with my wife on his bike while I stood there wondering if I would ever see her again. Fortunately, my faith in a complete stranger who we had just met on the other side of the world paid off, and the other driver arrived a few minutes later. This guy balanced my large backpack between his legs while I sat on the back with the small backpack eagerly anticipating my life flashing before my eyes. I wouldn’t be disappointed. Hue is a much smaller town so there wasn’t nearly as much traffic, but there were more than enough cars, scooters and obstacles to make the ride interesting. Factor in a moderate rainfall and you’d think he might exercise some caution to ensure that his customer arrived safely at the hotel. You would think that.

The rain didn’t let up all day so we didn’t get to see some of the famous sights in Hue, which was once the capital of Vietnam and still considered by some as the unofficial cultural capital. It was also one of the most heavily bombed areas during the war but thanks to Mother Nature and modern technology, we decided to take a well deserved day off and watch TV on our laptop. This was also the best wi-fi signal we’d had since our travels began and we wanted to capitalize on the opportunity to catch up on our TV shows and my blog posts. So yeah, Hue was awesome.

We could have stayed an extra day but both Katie and I had been looking forward to our next destination for some time. A mere three hour bus ride away, Hoi An is famous for having over 200 different tailors who make custom clothing. They can make pretty much anything as long as you can describe it in detail or provide a picture. The only negotiable item is the quality of the fabric and how soon you need the garment. I must admit that I was skeptical going in as I was pessimistic about the quality of fabric and craftsmanship, especially when the turnaround time is so fast.

With so many options to choose from, the hardest part is just finding a reputable shop to ensure that you’re going to get a quality garment. From what I saw, there definitely was some variance in the quality of the fabrics from place to place, and this was reflected in the price quoted. I was intent on getting some suits made and I didn’t want to skimp on price for something subpar that would fall apart in 6 months. I had done some research beforehand and came across what ended up being the biggest tailor in town, with 3 separate locations. Almost all the reviews online were positive and pointed out that you might pay a bit more, but that you’ll be pleased with the results.

Less than 48 hours after first stepping into the store and 3 fittings later, I couldn’t be more satisfied. The entire experience  was very enjoyable and if I had to describe the results with only 4 letters, they would definitely be P-I-M-P.

Out of curiosity and for the sake of comparison, Katie and I also had some other clothes made at a much smaller tailor a few stores down from the first place. It was run by two young ladies, one of which did a very convincing sales pitch, not unlike any of the other places. After some debate we decided to have another suit and some dresses made for Katie. The price for the suit was lower than what I paid at the first place, but the quality of the fabric seemed just as good, if not better. Our only concern was timing as they told us that it wouldn’t be ready until the morning that we were leaving whereas I would have 3 fittings for my other 2 suits during that same time frame. The suit ended up being ok and Katie’s dresses looked great but the quality of service, attention to detail and professionalism at the first place made the premium we paid more than worth it.

After spending most of our first day doing reconnaissance and educating ourselves on the area and process, we got fitted for our first round of clothing and spent the rest of the evening exploring the city on foot.

Hoi An is a charming little riverside town famed for its architecture, its quiet, narrow streets and its history as a merchant trading post. As the citizens of the town grew richer from trading with China, Japan and the rest of Southeast Asia, they spent their money on building attractive houses and pagodas. It is now one of the most popular tourist destinations in Vietnam, and rightfully so. It’s very concentrated and easy to navigate, the atmosphere is relaxed and most importantly, the tailors.

Despite the high numbers of tourists, Hoi An manages to retain its charm – perhaps many of them stay hidden away inside the many hotels and resorts that line the streets. The main evidence is the number of shops and tailors littered throughout the central core, but somehow this doesn’t detract too much from the overall atmosphere.

Most of all though you can find a lot of pleasure in strolling around the quiet streets (as motorbikes and cars are banned from many of them), sitting quietly by the river, visiting museums and merchants houses and generally taking life at a slower pace than you might elsewhere in the country.

Our second day was dominated by the second round of fittings and shopping around to find some more places for Katie to get some dresses and other items made. The sheer volume of different shops and options on display is very intimidating so it’s hard to find a place you’re comfortable with when you know there’s so many others within range.

A few dresses, jackets, ties and dress shirts later, we were shopped out for the day and decided to rent some bicycles. Much like Hue, the traffic isn’t nearly as dense as in the major cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh (Saigon). Don’t let that fool you though, as it’s far from a leisurely pedal through the park. There’s still incessant honking from all types of vehicles which is the hardest thing to get used to. You have to constantly remind yourself that they aren’t honking because you’re doing something wrong, they’re simply alerting you of their presence. Next time you’re out for a spin, try honking every time you pass someone and then imagine if everyone was doing that at once. It doesn’t sound very appealing but it seems to work and becomes background noise once you’re exposed to it long enough. Noise pollution at its very finest.

Our bike ride ended up being one of our highlights of the entire trip. There was enough chaos around us that you had to remain alert and not let your mind wander off, but we were going slowly enough that we could soak in the sights and see more of the city pass us by. The beach was only 3 km’s away so we went straight there and enjoyed a nice long leisurely stroll as the sun slowly set on another rewarding day.

Our final day in Hoi An was spent trying to cope with the heat and humidity as we scrambled from shop to shop for final fittings and to pick everything up. With just over an hour to spare before our departure, we got to the post office and shipped everything home. Mission accomplished, although it was hard spending the better part of three days shopping for new clothes and then sending them away knowing you won’t see them for a few months. I felt like I was just getting to know them and now it’s over. Parting is such sweet sorrow.

We enjoyed (tolerated) our first bus ride so much that we decided to do it again from Hoi An to Nha Trang. I let my guard down and expected the same bus hoping for similar seats on the left side of the bus which were bigger (you could actually role over!). Of course, the bus was a slightly different design that had more beds than our first bus, and thus less room to maneuver in our coffins.

Thanks Hoi An. You’ve given us some fond memories which I know I’ll appreciate even more next time I go to buy a suit back in Canada. Off the rack for 5 times the price – Hooray! You’ve also given us something else to look forward to when we finally get home. Yeah, yeah, family, friends, I get it…but what I’ll really be looking forward to is my first opportunity to suit up.

Yes, you just read 1500 words about us shopping for clothes.

Hold on, I’m not done.

Traveling full-time is harder than it seems. We were both pretty wiped out after our aforementioned 3 days of shopping along with a 12-hour overnight bus ride. So we decided that we needed a well-deserved break from our travels. We needed a vacation from our holiday (?).

We couldn’t have chosen a better place for said relaxation than the city of Nha Trang. Our bus rolled into town right on schedule at the crack of 6am and thanks to our hotel pickup we were in our rooms just down the street by 6:15am. After a quick shower and some unpacking, we were in our bathing suits headed for the beach. Darren, Kirsten et al had already visited Nha Trang and recommended a beach club called La Louisiane Brewhouse. After a quiet 15 minute walk along the beach side boardwalk, we arrived and were immediately impressed. By this time it was just after 7am and we weren’t sure if it was even open yet. Much to our delight an employee came out to greet and seat us for a poolside breakfast.

We were finished breakfast by 8am and found a nice spot under a large bamboo umbrella with two comfortable beach recliners. I won’t bore you with the details of the rest of the day, mostly because there aren’t any.  Between 8am and 5pm, I didn’t leave this position unless it was to use the washroom, go for a swim or have a massage.

Oh, I also took a moment to take some pictures of this spectacular beach.

I would highly recommend Nha Trang and the beach in particular to anyone looking to travel to this part of the world for a relaxing vacation. You can book a hotel for $10 per day and literally just sleep there while enjoying very affordable beach clubs like La Louisiane. We lived in the lap of luxury for under $50 per day.

The town itself was fun to explore as well. I’ve come to the conclusion that my favourite cities that we’ve visited are usually the smaller ones which have a distinct laid-back atmosphere. These cities often provide a more accurate glimpse into the lives of the local population and give you a good feel for their culture and how they go about their lives. Nha Trang fit this description perfectly as despite having pockets of foreign influence and the obvious tourist destinations (La Louisiane), we felt like we were entrenched in an authentic little (but quickly expanding) Vietnamese town. There was a brand new Sheraton that had just opened and construction on several other large hotel chains were well under way so it’s clear that the secret is out on this small beach front city of under 400,000 people. I’ve been debating the merits of places that were off the beaten path succumbing to the lure of tourist dollars, but I’ll save that for another post of its own.

We enjoyed our first day in Nha Trang so much that we decided to make it a two-day vacation from our travels. On our second night after another long and uneventful day at the beach we decided to sample some of the local seafood. I used to despise all seafood until just a few years ago but since then, have taking quite a liking to it under the right circumstances. So ordering it in a restaurant in Vietnam was a bold move for yours truly, so I decided to go big. After surveying the display of fresh seafood to choose from I decided to go with the lobster.

It was a wise decision. Special thanks to the garlic and butter for all of their contributions.

On our way to dinner we were amazed by the amount of people out and about. It was a Friday night, but the streets were packed compared to the night before.

We assumed that this was just a typical Friday night until we emerged from the restaurant to find the streets even busier. There also seemed to be a celebratory mood in the air which made sense as soon as the fireworks began and everyone started to lose their minds. I don’t think these people see fireworks all that often.

We still aren’t exactly sure what the occasion was but we suspect it had something to do with acknowledging the anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. When I took this picture of Katie in front of what we assumed was city hall, it never occurred to us that the dates on the large banner said April 2, 1975 – 2010.

The reason for the oversight was that we had witnessed what seemed like an impromptu parade through the streets of Hoi An on March 28th which indicated that it was the 35th Anniversary that day. From the brief research I conducted which consisted of me typing “Vietnam War” into Wikipedia, it seems as though the war didn’t officially end until the end of April, so the only thing we can deduct from all this is that perhaps these dates mark the takeover or victory of the northern forces of these particular cities which culminated with the fall of Saigon towards the end of the month. I welcome any reader with knowledge of the subject to enlighten us, but for now I’m going to assume that we’re on a 35th anniversary tour of Vietnam.

Today is April 3rd, 2010 and we’re back on the bus for a 10-hour drive to Ho Chi Minh (formerly Saigon). I have a feeling some more fireworks and parades may be in store.

I leave you today with one last video which shows the same intersection featured in all the previous videos immediately after the fireworks ended. Enjoy.

Stay tuned for Vietnam – Part 3.

Vietnam – Part 1 (Hanoi and Ha Long Bay) November 4, 2010

Posted by jorkat in Ha Long Bay, Hanoi.

There’s nothing quite like the range of emotions you experience when arriving in a foreign country for the first time. Especially now as we travel from place to place and deal with the same range of feelings and similar challenges with unique outcomes in every country we arrive in. The best way I could describe it is “bittersweet nervous anticipation”.

The fear of the unknown combined with the sadness of leaving somewhere you have just become accustomed to and usually enjoyed, coupled with the excitement and adrenaline rush of venturing somewhere new poses an interesting dichotomy. Yup, that’s right. I said dichotomy.

You don’t know the language. You have a new currency to deal with. You have to figure out how to get from the airport to your hotel without getting hosed by a con artist. And all of this on top of the usual traveling headaches (luggage, customs, etc.). Sometimes it takes a few hours, sometimes it might take a day or so, but sooner than later it all becomes worth it. Usually after you find your hotel and start to explore the surrounding neighborhood or find that first cool restaurant just a few blocks away. You become one with your surroundings and wonder why you were ever apprehensive about visiting such a cool place. Just when you become completely comfortable you have to pack up and repeat the entire process all over again. Lather, rinse, repeat. Yup, that’s right. I just used a shampoo analogy.

Never has this range of emotions been more relevant for us than with our arrival in Vietnam. We had just become accustomed to life in Laos and said goodbye to close friends. Our flight from Vientiane to Hanoi was delayed and we had to wait longer than expected for our Visa’s to be processed in Vietnam. We found a mini-bus which would take us to the city centre and were the last to board even though every seat was taken. Katie got stuck next to a larger gentleman with questionable personal hygiene, and I had half a butt-cheek on the edge of a seat for the hour long drive to our hotel.

This might sound like I’m complaining, but I’m not. When you travel full-time, you grow thick skin and realize that these unexpected turn of events and perceived frustrations are all part of the experience. They make you appreciate the final destination that much more, especially when put your bags down, find that nearby restaurant and savor a $1.25 Heineken while enjoying the best spring rolls we’ve ever tasted. Whoever said it’s not about the destination, it’s all about the journey clearly hasn’t traveled in Southeast Asia.

Back to the ride from the airport. Holy $hitballs. Every person we’ve encountered along our travels and even friends from back home have warned us about the scooters. No matter how much you hear it, it still doesn’t prepare you for what it’s actually like.

No lanes. No stop signs. Few traffic lights. Some large intersections with dense traffic coming from all directions and no one directing anything. Some roundabouts where it’s not clear which direction you’re supposed to go in. It’s organized chaos. Cars, scooters, buses all came within inches of our mini-bus and no one would even flinch.

The only rules of the road that I was able to decipher were that you should honk when passing another larger vehicle to warn them of your presence. Rear-view mirrors and turning signals appear to be strictly cosmetic additions to vehicles here as they are rarely used. I also think the largest vehicle with the loudest horn has the right of way in all situations and everyone else must yield or stop. If you’re one of those people who gets pissed off when someone behind you honks as soon as the light turns green, then you might want to eliminate “Driving in Vietnam” from your bucket list.

Walking across the street is whole other experience in itself. The rule of thumb which we read about and heard from fellow travelers was to walk slowly out into traffic and establish eye contact with the drivers headed at you. If they can see you, they will drive around you, and when I say “drive around you”, I mean narrowly miss you by a few inches without slowing down. Within a few days, we were walking out into thick traffic after a brief glance in both directions as if we had be doing it our whole lives. Ignoring the incessant honking is the hardest part. You have to tune them out unless they’re within a 10-yard radius around you in which case you may want to pay attention. I’m also pleased to announce that we managed to break the Mulloskey’s record of going more than 2.5 seconds while walking through the heart of Hanoi without hearing a vehicle honk. In the interest of full disclosure I should acknowledge that it was on a slightly less crowded side street, so there were only a few hundred scooters in the vicinity, but we managed to count an entire 5 seconds between honks. It was pure bliss.

Speaking of noise pollution, I f%#&ing hate roosters, especially the ones that have no concept of time. For some reason, there was one living on the roof of our hotel in downtown Hanoi. We were fortunate enough to be on the top floor (Penthouse baby!) which meant that we got to walk up 4 floors of stairs to get to our room and had a front row seat for the roosters enchanting 3am performance. He performs nightly and tickets are only 2 for $17. Maybe urban Asian roosters are the rejects that couldn’t keep their mouths shut until sunrise and were unable to land a plum job on a farm. Just a theory.

Somewhere in Thailand or Laos we both acquired a parasite or some sort of bacterial infection that caused our food to make unexpected and inconvenient appearances after being consumed. Thanks to our trusty travel guide, we were able to locate a Korea-Vietnam Clinic that was within walking distance from our hotel. Despite having been away from Korea for less than a month and having only lived there for a year, I felt like we were going home. The clinic was clean and easy to navigate. The doctor and nurses spoke English and provided medication and proper documentation for us to claim these expenses with our health insurance coverage. We were in an out in under an hour and feeling better within a day or so. My only regret was that our Korean doctor wasn’t nearly as excited about my ability to speak broken Korean or the fact that we had lived there nearly as much as I was.

Me: Anyong Haseyo (said while bowing and clenching bowels)

Him: So what seems to be the problem? (in perfect English)

Me: Well it seems…like everything on my inside wants to be on my outside. Hey, did I mention that we lived in Korea?

Him: Is your wife pregnant? If not, take these.

Me: Kamsa Hamnida (Thank you in Korean said with veiled disappointment while being escorted out)

Traffic, scooters and stomach viruses aside, Vietnam had quickly gone from the country where that war happened to one of the favourite destinations in Southeast Asia thus far. And not just because of the couture, but we’ll get to that later. On our way back from the clinic we made an unexpected discovery. After having visited so many temples in the past year I almost forgot what the picture below was called when we ran into it less than a block from our hotel.

After two fairly uneventful days exploring Hanoi and the various bathrooms throughout the city, we boarded a bus for Ha Long Bay, a must-see tourist attraction and vying to become one of the 7 Wonders of the World. We were part of a tour group that would travel together on a 3-hour bus trip to the coast where we would board a Junk Boat that would take us around the Bay and be our home for the next 24 hours.

We made two very interesting discoveries before we had even arrived at Ha Long Bay.

1) You may want to sit down before reading this. They have basil and garlic flavoured Pringles. I know, I was as shocked as you are. We made this discovery at a rest stop en route to Ha Long Bay and I’m still angry about it. How the hell are these not available to North America? Shame on you Frito Lay or whoever owns that stupid chip company which I’m too lazy to look up. This is an outrage.

2) I have grey facial hair. Katie made this discovery on the bus ride as well. This wasn’t nearly as traumatic as the Pringles thing but it didn’t help. Not a great 3-hour stretch for yours truly. Anyway, back to our voyage…

A lot of people prefer to avoid organized tours when traveling and I tend to agree with them to some degree. We avoided being herded around like cattle for our trip to the Great Wall in Beijing and it was probably the best decision we made that entire trip. But sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith and trust that you’re going to have a good experience. Ha Long Bay has become such a major tourist attraction with so many junk boats and travel companies servicing tourists, that it’s hard to go wrong. As long as you do some research and ask the right questions, you’ll be fine in most cases. The biggest variable that you can’t control is what the people in your tour group will be like. Much like my overall traveling mantra of keeping expectations low, I assume everyone in our group will be a pompous windbag or a whiny bitch. So far, we’ve been pleasantly surprised almost every time, especially on this particular trip.

There were some whiners in the larger group on our bus who were questioning every detail of what our guides were attempting to explain and flummoxed when they said that the group would be split into two and be on separate boats (they wanted to ensure that they were on the BETTER boat?). I calmly pointed out that I was pretty sure they were going to the same place and that there were hundreds of similar-type boats in the bay. To make a long story short we ended up in separate boats from the complainer and ours WAS better, both in terms of the actual vessel and the quality of people aboard. A few people on our boat even acknowledged after the fact that they were relieved not to be with Cranky McWhinealot.

Our eclectic  group included  a pair of older gentlemen (Bob & Terry) who were old friends and were traveling with a Vietnamese professor who they had befriended years ago. It turns out that Terry had actually served in the Vietnam war along with the Vietnamese professor. Needless to say, it was pretty amazing to hear some perspective from men who served on opposite sides of a conflict that happened before I was born and were now returning to the site of said conflict as friends. Both Bob & Terry were very engaging and made an effort to include everyone and learn a little bit about them. It brought the whole group together and created an ideal atmosphere for this kind of adventure. Our group also included two girls and a guy from Montreal, two Brits, two young American guys, an Aussie couple, a Dutch couple and the Stanford Researcher from California. A pretty unique group to say the least. Throw in a crew of 4-6 Vietnamese who love Karaoke and we were bound to rock the night away until the wee hours of 10:30pm(?). Here are some pictures from an unforgettable 24 hour excursion. As you’ll see, our accommodations were the nicest we’d experienced thus far. I even got a hot shower out of it…Katie wasn’t so lucky.

After most of the older folk retired to their sleeping quarters for the evening, the crew cranked up some karaoke. Everyone was a little shy at first, but it was nothing that some reasonably priced beverages couldn’t help overcome. Highlights included a 5’2″ vietnamese crew member singing in extremely broken English and doing eccentric pelvic thrusts which I was quick to mimic. I also sang a stirring rendition of Zombie by the Cranberries which ended up receiving the high score of the evening. When we finally called it a night and got back to our room, we fully expected it to be sometime after midnight, maybe even 1am. It was 10:30pm.

As I alluded to earlier, the whole point of the trip was to see Ha Long Bay. It was a little cold and overcast so you can only imagine how breathtaking the surroundings would be on a warm clear day. I highly recommend doing a Google Images search for “Ha Long Bay” or just click here.

(Editor’s note: Someone actually lives on that small floating raft at the bottom of the last picture)

We also did some kayaking and visited some nearby caves which were an obvious tourist trap but still worth seeing in person. These pictures really don’t do them justice.

It looks like I’m going to have to break up our Vietnam Post into two or three parts, but before I bring this one to a close I just wanted to share a few brief observations.

-To the lovely women of Vietnam, welcome to the Top 3! I’ve been amazed at the buzz created from the disclosure of my previous rankings. No one has actually said or written anything to me, but I know people are talking. I expect to be receiving quite a few angry emails from our female Japanese readers who’ve been bumped to 4th place. And for the record, Katie has given her input and signed off on the current standings.

-Vietnam is the first Asian country we’ve visited which uses most the characters from our alphabet along with a variety of unique accents, some of which were surely influenced by the French.

I actually wrote a significant portion of this post on the 13 hour overnight bus ride from Hanoi to Hue. As usual, I expected the worst on our way to the bus station not knowing what a sleeper bus in Vietnam would look like. I was relieved to discover that it was much better than anticipated (or so I thought at first) and I guess the best way to describe it would be “tolerable”. I wrote this paragraph about two hours into the drive so I might be singing a different tune in the morning and at the beginning of my next post.

Stay tuned for Part 2 which I’ll hopefully finish before 2011.

Laos – Part 2 (Vang Vieng) September 3, 2010

Posted by jorkat in Vang Vieng.

Click here for Part 1 of our trip to Laos.

After our 5 hour “VIP” bus ride from Luang Prabang turned unto 7.5 hours thanks to multiple stops to service the engine and broken air conditioning, we finally arrived in Vang Vieng.

Vang Vieng is small, very raw and full of tourists who weren’t alive for the fall of the Berlin wall. It’s like Spring Break in Daytona beach with European accents. It’s also experiencing unprecedented development. What used to be a super secret backpacking destination is quickly catching on amongst a wider demographic of travelers, but still mainly young and budget conscious. There were more new small hotels and guest houses being built in the area than we could count.

The main attraction is the tubing experience and after a few days there, it’s easy to understand why. If I had come here 10 years ago, I may not have ever left. I would love to know about how this phenomenon started, as it’s caught on quickly and is going to grow unbelievably fast. Basically, you rent a tube from one of the 2 or 3 places in the main village. Then they pile you on the tuk tuk (see above picture of driver asleep in tuk tuk), and I mean literally “pile” and transport everyone to the starting point about 10 minutes away. There’s a tube launching point but you can get in or out whenever or wherever you want.  We quickly realized that many people don’t even have tubes. There are bars lined on both sides of the river with trapezes and zip-lines and use these gimmicks along with the promise of free shots and drinks if you stop at their bar. They wheel in potential clients in tubes by lobbing partially filled water-bottles attached to a long rope, and try to land it next to your tube for you to grab on and get pulled in. If you aren’t paying attention and attempt to relax as you let the gentle current float you down the river, you’re guaranteed to be startled by one of these bottles landing right next to you. I made a comment to a few people that the guys throwing these things must have some great stories about hitting drunk, unsuspecting tubers square in the face.

“How was work today honey?”

“Not bad. I reeled in at least 45 drunk tubers to the bar and hit 2 in the face, one of them had a bloody nose! It was awesome.”

Once you get past the initial 5-7 bars, it becomes much more serene and peaceful with only the occasional bar along the way. After an hour or so, you arrive at what is called the “Last Bar.” We stopped in and met an Aussie and a Brit who were buddies and ended up spending time with them on and off for the rest of our time in Vang Vieng. One of them named Tom was from Perth and had flown there for a 3-day long weekend. Seems crazy until you start to do the math and realize that it’s only a 5-hour flight and the cost of partying in VV pales in comparison to the cost of living/partying in Australia. I fully endorsed Tom’s decision.

The one aspect of this whole experience that I couldn’t get over was the incredible contrast between our overly-litigious society and this care-free, no liability paradise. It was like a McDonald’s playland…on steroids…with drugs and booze…and no rules whatsoever. I can’t recall a single incident where someone in a position of authority told someone else that they weren’t allowed to do something. Wanna do 17 shots of jagermeister and then dangle by your legs from a trapeze over shallow water? – GO FOR IT. If suing for spilling hot coffee on yourself in North America is the standard, then the Vang Vieng equivalent would be throwing hot coffee on each other for fun. That’s not a bad idea actually.

Wanna see what happens when you’re feeling old and insecure and want to justify your presence amongst a flock of adolescents?

It was either that or getting a tattoo. I stand by my decision and I’m pleased to announce that I used Advil for the first time for pain that was non-alcohol (hungover) related. Plus, my street cred went through the roof after that landing. (I don’t know what that means, but it’s how everyone here was talking).

Here’s a bruise on my lower back which Katie discovered over 3 days after my near-death plunge.

Another obvious lure for young open-minded travelers is  restaurants that offer “happy shakes”, “brownies”, and “weed joints” on their menus. I don’t pretend to know what any of those things are as I spent most of the meal working on my Sudoku puzzle and complaining about my back pain.

I came across this video that someone put together about the Vang Vieng tubing experience and had to include it here for everyone to get a better idea of what this place is like. It really captures the essence and atmosphere of this truly special place.

In some of these restaurants they have TV’s set-up and play one of two TV shows on an endless loop. Friends or Family Guy. Either Laos people love it or they assume we do too. Europeans like it because many of them learned English from watching it back home. Or whoever started this bizarre trend just happened to have a Friends DVD on hand and played it in their restaurant one day, only to have flocks of stoned young tourists become fixated on the screen, and started ordering copious amounts of food. Every surrounding restaurant immediately followed suit until some brave soul managed to procure a copy of a “Family Guy” DVD. I’m sure there are stoners who still recount the story from that first fateful Family Guy viewing. As weird as it might seem, you can’t argue with the results. We plowed through at least 5 episodes of Friends at our first dinner together shortly after our arrival. I still can’t believe Rachel accepted Joey’s unintentional marriage proposal. She just had Ross’s baby!?!

After saying goodbye to Kirsten, Nils, Darren, Waan & Kevin in Thailand, our schedules worked out and we managed to cross paths again in Vang Vieng for one last night together in Asia. We went back to the tubing area again, only this time without tubes and did some bar hopping and serious people watching.

We then enjoyed our last meal together and celebrated Obama’s historic healthcare legislation getting through the house. Darren and Kevin were ecstatic. After the celebrations subsided, we proceeded to a bar along the river called Jaidee’s where I proceeded to be anti-social and play pool with strangers for most of the evening while Darren, Kirsten and Katie reminisced together about our last year together. I heard the conversation was great and managed to stop by for this last picture. I met an Asian couple from Winnipeg though so I think I made the right choice.

Darren and Kirsten have been like family to us this past year and we’ve learned a lot about ourselves from each other’s company. Having Waan and his brother Kevin with us at the end made our time together even better. I will miss them all dearly and I’m looking forward to making the trip down to Virginia to see my first Division 1 college football game, and taking Darren to his first hockey game in DC to see Ovechkin and the Capitals at the Verizon Centre. That is if he ever comes back to the US.

Our time in Vang Vieng came to an end on March 23rd as we boarded another “VIP” for a 4 hour bus ride to the capital of Laos – Vientiane. Remember Tom the Aussie from Perth? Well, he was on our bus which departed at 10am and had a flight back to Perth at 4:10pm. We ended up arriving in Vientiane at 3:10pm (over an hour late) and Tom didn’t think he was going to make his flight. I guess we’ll never know. As you can see, not having a watch or keeping track of what day it is here, doesn’t really matter.  What’s the point if no one else is?  Schedules are used as loose guidelines and you should always assume that any trip you’re taking is going to encounter unexpected delays. That’s just the way it is here and I couldn’t care less.

Katie and I were pretty worn out from our time in Vang Vieng and didn’t’ explore Vientiane much as we wanted to be well rested for our arrival at our next destination – Vietnam.

If you’re interested in seeing what an orgasm looks like in print, I highly encourage you to read Sean Mullin’s account of his time in Vang Vieng, here and here.

Laos – Part 1 (Luang Prabang) August 11, 2010

Posted by jorkat in Luang Prabang.

One of the things I love about traveling is losing track of time. Sometimes we’ll go days without knowing what day it is and the only reason we have to keep track is to occasionally figure out when we’re leaving for our next destination. Neither of us have watches and of course, no cell phones. It’s a nice feeling getting lost in a foreign city or village without a care in the world, and no time commitments or responsibilities. You eat when you’re hungry and you sleep when you’re tired. That’s it. This lifestyle is especially welcome in a place like Luang Prabang.

Out of all the places we’ve planned on visiting over the past year or so, I knew by far the least about Laos. Nestled in between Thailand and Vietnam, it’s one of the poorest countries we’ve ever visited with someone making $100 US per month being considered “middle class”. It’s also the most heavily bombed country in the world as it was caught in the crossfire of the Vietnam War and was used as a testing ground for all sorts of weaponry and ordinance by the US Army.

War and poverty aside, it’s one of the most scenic and laid back places in Southeast Asia. The locals lead a very simple lifestyle and welcome tourists with open arms. It has become somewhat commercialized in the past 5-10 years to attract tourists, but it’s really only the 3 or 4 main streets in the heart of this small village that have become littered with guest houses, restaurants and other creature comforts that allow visitors to enjoy affordable accommodations in a serene atmosphere. Once you venture outside of this small concentrated area, the real Luang Prabang can be seen in its truest form. Families living in bamboo huts that double as small stores and their primary source of income. People trying to make ends meet by living off the land, and working together with friends and neighbors to survive. It might sound dire from an outside perspective, but the perceived mood of the local population seemed relatively upbeat.

Thanks to its geographic proximity, Thailand plays an influential role in its culture and cuisine. There are various markets that operate daily and cater to both tourists and locals. The night bazaar is set-up along the main street every single day from 6pm to 10pm and consists of locals setting up booths and laying out a variety of handicrafts, clothing, and souvenirs hoping to make any kind of sale. I’m sure there are times when they will spend over  an hour setting up for the evening and barely have someone stop to look at something, let alone make a purchase. Many of them will have babies and small children with them, mostly because they have nowhere else to go, but also as props to garner sympathy from deep-pocketed tourists. Regardless of their situation, one thing I will give them credit for is not being pushy. Out of all the markets we’ve visited in Asia so far, this one was the most relaxing and enjoyable. A far cry from the hassling, haggling and even physical abuse you can expect in places like China or Thailand. In Laos, they welcome you with a hello or “Sabaidee” and a smile, and wait for you to select an item and inquire about price. It’s the way every shopping experience should be everywhere in the world, including North America.

(Photos courtesy of Mulloskey’s Adventures Abroad)

Luang Prabang also has a distinctly European feel and not just because of the number of tourists. Laos used to be a French colony and the impact of their influence can be seen and felt in various aspects of their society including the architecture and food.

Our first meal shortly after arriving in the evening was a fresh baguette from a street vendor with grilled chicken, tomatoes, cucumber, onion and mayo. It was a dollar. It wouldn’t be the last baguette we’d enjoy over our 5 day stay. This was my first salami sandwich since leaving Canada and it was sublime.

Later on that evening, we wandered about the streets and watched the town close down in time for its nightly curfew. Everything closes at 11-11:30pm, with no exceptions. Dancing is only permitted in 2 night clubs which close at 11:30pm sharp. As a result, Luang Prabang does seem to attract a much older and less boisterous kind of tourist, which was fine by us given the fact that we felt like Senior Citizens in Thailand and were headed for the polar opposite party town of Vang Vieng.

Buddhism plays a very prominent role in Laos society as every male must be educated and serve as a Monk for a certain period of time, much like military service in other countries. Once your time is served you may continue to serve as a Monk or return to your life outside the monastery. As a result, there are Monk’s, monastery’s and wat’s (temple’s) everywhere you turn. In fact, I’m pleased to announce that Monk’s have now supplanted laundry as Katie’s newfound obsession and target of the most photo-ops.  Her head almost exploded when she saw Monk laundry.

Our visit to any Asian city wouldn’t be complete without our token temple visit. Unlike most of our other visits this one happened somewhat by accident and we were quite pleased with the results. I’d like to recount this story using a photo-essay of pictures taken in sequence as we explored some of the backstreets of Luang Prabang.

“Hey, look at that wat (temple) at the top of that mountain. Wanna check it out?”

“We’re getting closer. Maybe we should get some water as I have a feeling there’s going to be some stairs involved.”

“Yup, there’s stairs alright.”

“Lots of stairs.”

“138 stairs down and only 190 to go. Oh, and we get to pay an admission fee after already walking up this far. Brilliant bastards. There’s no way I was shelling out a whopping $2 for exercise if they’d been selling tickets at street level.”

“We made it.”

“It’s too bad that it’s so smokey out, all I can smell is campfire in the air. I wonder what this view would look like on a clear day outside of dry season.”

(courtesy of Google Images)

“Here’s a rooster.”

The End.

One aspect of this leg of the trip that we’d been looking forward to in particular, was the treasure hunt that our friends the Mulloskey’s had prepared for us when they visited Laos back in January. Having known that we would be visiting within a couple months, they stashed a secret note for us to find somewhere in the city. They then provided a video which they posted on YouTube and sent to us along with some simple instructions to point us in the right direction. Here’s the video they provided us with from back in January 2010.

Fast forward to our trip to Laos in March 2010 where we intentionally stayed at the same guest house as them on our first night, and set out the next morning to find the secret message. It didn’t take too long.

As a big fan of Sean Mullin and The Shawshank Redemption, the message couldn’t have been more appropriate. Here’s what it said.

“Sometimes it makes me sad, though… Andy being gone. I have to remind myself that some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice. But still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they’re gone. I guess I just miss my friend.” Thanks Mullin.

The other obvious highlight of this trip was another elephant trek. The one we had done in Thailand only lasted about an hour or so and was intended to be part of a tour package that included 8 other people. This experience was dedicated strictly to riding elephants, learning how they are trained, feeding and bathing them. Believe it or not, elephants eat a lot. Like non-stop. I’ve learned that one of the basic tenets of Buddhism is cause and effect. You can’t have one without the other. As for elephants, if eating is the cause, guess what the effect was? I’ll give you a hint. It’s greenish-brown, weighs more than a newborn and made its first of several appearances without warning less than 15 feet away. I don’t know what child birth looks like, but this had to be pretty close.

Here’s a monkey who likes to play with himself and doesn’t like women.

Some of our best experiences while traveling occur when we’re simply wandering around the town with no particular destination in mind. After discovering this small monument completely at the far end of town, which designates the area as a joint co-operative between France and Laos as a Unesco Heritage site.

This is was what initially caught our attention and lead us further into the bush where we came upon what we refer to as Bamboo Bridge. See if you can guess why.

We had to pay $0.50 to put our lives in danger and risk crossing this rickety bamboo bridge. Katie was reluctant at first but I had already paid admission for 2 and was halfway across before her protest could be acknowledged. Being the trooper that she is, she wasn’t far behind.

On our way home from Bamboo Bridge we purchased some local artwork to adorn the walls of our new home in Toronto. The irony is that the framing of these fine authentic pieces will cost 10x more than the actual art itself.

My favorite Southeast Asian beer thus far. No official rankings have been prepared. Stay tuned.

I can’t believe I’m saying this but I actually miss the Trans-Canada highway and 401. I wrote this entire post on our laptop on the bus ride from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng. We actually splurged and paid an extra $1.50 to take the VIP bus which made the ride slightly more tolerable, but there was rarely a straight away of more than a couple hundred yards. The extremely narrow two-way road wound its way endlessly up and down around very tight turns with no barriers separating ourselves from the steep cliffs only meters away. The trip lasted for 5 hours. I couldn’t decide what was more likely; a head-on collision with an oncoming vehicle coming around a tight corner, or driver error leading to our bus doing somersaults down a cliff. Both were definetly in play. I’m in no position to criticize as I have often been known to make record time when driving, but this guy was clearly trying to break his previous best. The hard turns and squeaky brakes were nerve-wracking to say the least.

If you’re reading this, I’m pleased to inform you that we did in fact survive and arrived safely in Vang Vieng for the second leg of our trip across Laos.

For some additional insight, stories and some spectacular pictures from Luang Prabang, check out the Mulloskey posts here and here.

Chiang Mai (Thailand – Part 3) May 13, 2010

Posted by jorkat in Chiang Mai.

With all due respect to the spectacular islands and beaches, Chiang Mai is officially my favourite city in Thailand. Coming in, the only thing I knew about it was that you could ride elephants there. I left thoroughly impressed and would highly recommend it to anyone willing to make the trek north to experience a much different part of Thailand.

Chiang Mai was much more laid back and unassuming with all the makings of an authentic thai experience, combined with a vibrant dose of tourists, temples and holistic food/medicine.

Just getting there was an experience in itself. Katie had booked us a “first class” cabin on an overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai that was supposed to take 14 hours. It left Bangkok at 7:30pm and was scheduled to arrive in Chiang Mai shortly after 9:30am the next morning. As I’ve mentioned previously, I don’t have high expectations when it comes to traveling or our accommodations, even if it says “first class.” As you’ll see from the pictures and video, my instincts couldn’t have been more acute.

Despite being 3.5 hours late, the ride was tolerable and we did manage to get some sleep. We slowly walked out of the train station being hounded (but not as badly as Bangkok) by cab drivers. I ignored anyone who came near us until we found the tourist centre to get some idea of where we were relative to our hotel. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from our brief travels, it’s trust no one, no matter how good the deal might seem until you get a seemingly objective opinion of what you’re trying to accomplish. Luckily, as we emerged from the station, I noticed a small Thai gentleman holding a sign that read “Algate, Katie”. Apparently our reservation included a pickup but since Katie had booked it the day before and didn’t’ receive the response identifying this service until after the fact. We shared our transport with a young couple from the Czech Republic in which I dazzled them with my knowledge of Czech hockey players, not much was said after that.

Once we were settled, we set out to explore the city. One of the first things you quickly notice is that the city is small and very concentrated. The town has just over 200,000 people and has a moat that was built around the city from when it first broke ground. This section is called the old city and has since expanded outside its original roots.

It’s a great city to just walk around and explore. Lots of temples (my favourite!) and very tourist friendly. The only temple we actually visited turned out to be one of the nicest we had visited so far. It was called Wat Phra Singh and was actually a school for Monks. There were plenty of young Monks or Novices as they’re called before officially joining the Monk-hood(?). I was tempted to engage some of the younger ones in conversation but wasn’t sure how to approach them. What would I ask? “Uhh…what do you like better, Playstation or XBox?”

They also had signs strewn all over the property with random words of wisdom. Here are a few of our favourites:

One of the main reasons we wanted to visit Chiang Mai was because of their famous jungle treks. It’s the main lure for tourists to this part of Thailand and the competition amongst the hotels and travel agencies is pretty fierce. After doing some research and speaking with friends who had done similar excursions, we opted for a 2-day/1 night excursion. The package included riding elephants, and a 5-hour hike through the jungle to an authentic Thai village high in the hills where we would spend the night. It also included white water rafting, an English-speaking guide and all meals being provided as well.

We ended up in a solid group of 10 people that were all under the age of 35 and had good representation from parts of Europe and North America. We had 2 Americans, 4 Brits, 2 French women and of course us, the Canucks. It was a solid group and everyone got along nicely.

Let’s start with the elephants shall we…

As you can see from the video, the elephants appear to be quite happy but some of the people in our group were less than thrilled with how one of the Mahout (elephant trainers) treated some of them.

One of the first things we noticed when we first “boarded” our elephant was how much  our trainer was communicating verbally with the elephant. My first instinct was “Wow, he’s one with the elephant. They have such a special bond!”, whereas the cynic in me was thinking, I bet this guy has bluetooth and is chatting on his cell phone. Guess which one it was?

After our elephant experience we had lunch and started off on our trek up to the mountain village. The only downside of doing a trek like this at this time of year is that for some reason the locals burn parts of the forest as they believe that they need to kill off the existing vegetation as it somehow makes the soil more fertile and replenishes the nutrients in the plants and soil, or something like that. Our tour guide who explained this to me wasn’t exactly David Suzuki.

As a result, a thin layer of smoke hung in the air and could be smelled at all times. At night, you could see small fires throughout the hillside. The thing that struck me was how they managed to contain these fires when everything, and I mean everything is so dry.

After a fairly treacherous 5-hour trek uphill with the temperature in the mid-30’s, we arrived at our village and settled in to our “hotel”. It was literally a bamboo hut on stilts and each step you took felt like you were going to fall through the floor and plummet to your death. Katie and I indulged in a 4-hand massage from some of the locals and sat back to enjoy a beer and the scenery.

After a nice meal prepared by our tour guide and some of the locals, we sat around and enjoyed a presentation by some of the children from the village.

What was little more than just a group of children screaming inaudibly in Thai was still fun to watch as they had clearly practiced this song and routine for some time. The best part was at the end when a hat was placed in front of our group in order for us to donate any spare change we might have. Sure enough, everyone obliged but the only currency I had that was less than $20 CAD was a 500 Korean won coin which I threw into the hat. Once all the donations were made all the children huddled around the hat and conducted a coin draft based on seniority. As a big fan of any kind of draft, I was touched by this small act of fairness and wondered which poor little kid would get stuck with a coin that he/she surely wouldn’t recognize. Little did they know that it was probably worth more than all of the others combined.

Just before bed our guide left us with one more piece of information that wasn’t advertised in any of the pamphlets. Don’t be alarmed if you wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of the occasional rooster. Now take that last sentence and replace the word “occasional” with the words “hundreds of” and you get a more accurate representation of what the hours of 3 through 7am sounded like in our hut. It was an orchestra of roosters without a conductor and every single person in our hut laid wide awake wondering if they were ever going to stop. They finally did, shortly after we got up for breakfast.

After breakfast and less than 5 hours sleep on the ground of a bamboo hut, we went White Water Rafting which despite the low water level was very entertaining. We finished our tour with a lazy ride down the river on bamboo rafts before boarding our bus back to Chiang Mai in time for dinner and a nice hot shower.

The next day we were quite sore from our trek through the jungle so we needed something to soothe our aching muscles. What you’re about to read is something I’ve been preparing myself to write for days. I’ve had countless ideas and jokes running through my head so I hope it lives up to my expectations, which it won’t.

As I mentioned before, the only thing I knew about our trip to Chiang Mai was that we would see elephants. That’s it, that’s all. When you’re planning a trip of this scale, sometimes you just have to rely on the advice of others and as I’ve mentioned before, Katie and I are the perfect team. I manage the overall finances and macro-travel plans, and she’s in charge of the micro-travel plans (ie. booking hotels/hostels, identifying cool sights and destinations, etc.).

I admit that I do remember reading in our travel guide about a women’s prison, but the description clearly didn’t provide enough detail or do it justice as it wasn’t a top priority for either of us. One afternoon we were in the process of booking our flights to Laos at a travel agency when two females entered and asked directions to the women’s prison. As luck would have it, it was only 2 blocks away.

We had nothing else to do so we decided to check it out. Turns out that it has a full restaurant  and a massage parlor that is operated by the prison. Both are open to the public and the inmates who are in their last 6-months of their term can work there to accrue wages which they receive upon their release. Brilliant!

Did I mention it was a prison full of thai females?

There wasn’t much action as we first approached so we decided to circle the property which occupied an entire city block to get a better feel for what we were about to jump into. The entire time, all I kept thinking about was a particular episode of Seinfeld in which George dates an inmate at a women’s prison. Here’s an excerpt from that episode which coined a term that I would go on to use many times that day…

GEORGE: Fantastic day! Fantastic!

JERRY: What happened?

GEORGE: Well, first, I’m brushing my teeth and this piece of apple-skin, that must have been lodged in there for days, comes loose.

JERRY: Fantastic.

GEORGE: Then, I’m at The Foundation…

JERRY: You’re still doing that?

GEORGE: Sometimes, once in a while.

JERRY: When you feel guilty.

GEORGE: No, occasionally I’ll forget to let the machine pick up. Anyway, they made this large donation to a women’s prison, and I get to go down there and check it out.

KRAMER: That’s caged heat.

GEORGE: Yeah-hah!

That’s all I kept thinking about as we slowly walking around the prison. Caged heat. I was gonna get a rub down from a female prison inmate – Caged heat baby, Yeah-hah!

She was flipping me around and bending me in ways I didn’t think were possible. Things were creaking and cracking and the whole time, all I could think was “I wonder what she did?”. It was probably something lame like mail fraud, but in my mind it was a triple-homicide. A crime of passion that devastated the entire community. This woman might snap my neck any second now…

Unfortunately, it ended being one of the best massages I’ve ever had and we left after the hour was up without incident. I wanted to stick around in case a towel fight broke out in the showers but that area is restricted to inmates only. Stupid prison rules.

So yeah, we rode elephants in the jungle, visited a school for Monks, and got massages at a women’s prison. Not a bad way to pass a few days in my new favourite city in Thailand, Chiang Mai.

24 Hours in Bangkok (Thailand – Part 2) April 8, 2010

Posted by jorkat in Bangkok.

We suffered our first flight delay in Koh Samui after over a year of somewhat uninterrupted travel. Fortunately, it was in an outdoor terminal and it was over 30 degrees outside – Hooray! The flight was from Samui to Bangkok and would last only 45 minutes or so but the delay ended up being over 2.5 hours. However, it did give me a chance to finish writing my first Thailand blog post and catch up on email as they had Wifi throughout the waiting area.

The most frustrating aspect of the delay was that it was cutting into our already limited time in Bangkok. We had heard from a variety of sources that we wouldn’t need/want more than a day or so in Bangkok so we had already booked our train tickets to Chiang Mai for the following evening. As I sit here in the Bangkok train station writing this almost exactly 24 hours since our arrival, I couldn’t agree more.

Sorry about that. What I think was the Thai national anthem just erupted over the loud speakers at the crack of 6pm and everyone in the station immediately rose to their feet in unison. I was a little late in joining them but was happy to oblige. Here’s a picture from where we were sitting before the sudden display of patriotism.

I’m emotionally and psychologically exhausted. Bangkok can be a very fun and exciting place but it takes some time to get your bearings and adjust to their way of life. If someone asked me to define Bangkok from a tourists perspective in 5 words or less, the following words would immediately come to mind.

Bargaining. Scams. Carbon Emissions. Dirty/Cheap. Ok, that’s six words but I couldn’t decide between dirty and cheap. These don’t exactly paint a pretty picture so let me elaborate a little on our experience and attempt to explain my rationale for these unflattering adjectives. Despite their negative connotation, I wouldn’t have wanted our experience to be any different.

I felt like I was constantly on guard to keep us safe, avoid getting swindled by con artists, and had to negotiate for almost everything knowing full well that my opponent was trying to screw me because I’m a naïve foreigner. The irony is that I was constantly doing the math in my head to convert their currency into Canadian dollars and would often be haggling over less than a dollar. This is what they do though and we are big fat dollar signs in their eyes so the price quoted is always well above market. We lost a couple minor battles early on, but I’m pleased with our overall performance and feel like we fared quite well, relatively speaking.

Southeast Asia and Bangkok in particular are famous for a mode of transportation called “Tuk Tuk’s”.

They’re everywhere. Drivers sit on every street corner, particularly in the tourist areas and will offer a lift to almost everyone walking by. If you’re a tourist they’ll always quote you an exorbitant price at first hoping that you’re one of the only people in Asia that hasn’t read a Lonely Planet. If you’re patient and willing to negotiate, you can get just about anywhere in the city limits for a couple bucks. As you’ll see from this video, it’s a great way to see the city if you don’t mind near death experiences combined with the carbon monoxide from the exhaust of thousands of tuk tuk’s which might kill you sooner.

Our trusty Lonely Planet Travel Guide recommended five things that everyone should experience during a short trip to Bangkok. Despite a somewhat rocky start to our day (which I’ll discuss at the end of this post), we managed to do four of them with the fifth being an hour outside the city limits.

1. We wandered all over the infamous Khao san Road and did some serious people watching. I haven’t learned much Thai but I’m pretty sure the literal translation of “Khao san” means “drunk people making bad decisions”. I’m not sure who’s seedier, the sketchy tourists in search of bargains and other forms of gratification to satisfy their appetites, or the locals trying to make a buck by any means possible.

A bunch of guys along Khao san kept challenging me to ping pong matches on the street after it got dark even though there didn’t’ appear to be any tables around. They were always very discreet as they quietly approached us on the street, and I must concede that I was very tempted to accept their advances. But I hadn’t played since last August in Hong Kong and didn’t want to embarrass myself so I politely declined. Seemed like nice guys though.

Katie and I have sampled foot and body massages in almost every country we’ve visited so far but the foot massage on the street next to Khao san was the best one yet. Only $6.00 for one hour in a comfy chair on the sidewalk, with live music playing in the background. Khao san also had an impressive collection of cheap t-shirts and street vendors every 20 feet selling pad thai for less than a dollar.

2. The river ferry along the Chao Phraya River was the second must-see sight that we visited that day. It’s just like a bus on water, costs 30 cents and got us from the top of the city to the bottom faster than any tuk tuk could have.

3. The Sky Train. This sounded cooler than it actually was. Nothing to write home about.  Just an above ground subway which gives decent views of the city core. Definitely a nice eco-friendly alternative to a Tuk Tuk though.

4. One of the helpful tips in our guide cautioned us to be weary of any smooth talking strangers who offered to help you, particularly if they told you that something was closed and offered to take you somewhere else. So what happened when we showed up to our fourth must-see attraction (the Grand Palace) and were told by a smooth talking stranger that it was closed until noon because the Monks were praying?

Me: “Well golly, we’ve got pockets full of money and plenty of time to waste, what do you recommend that we do?”

That wasn’t exactly what I said but it feels like that in retrospect. The guy was dressed in plain clothes, spoke excellent English and starting rhyming off cities in Canada as soon as he saw the flag on our bag. He told us it was closed until noon but since it was just past 10am we could come back in a couple hours. He also informed us about the dress code further cementing his perceived legitimacy.

He then pulled out a map and showed us three other temples/shrines within the area that we could visit in the meantime. We had two hours to kill so why not? He then pointed out that the Tuk Tuk drivers wearing dark blue vests are employed by the government and won’t try and scam you like all the others. For only 60,000 baht ($2) one of these legitimate drivers would take us to these three other venues and have us back here by noon. Wow, this guy is the best!

Now, we were aware of a similar situation in which our friends had gone on such an excursion in Bangkok and ended up being taken to a variety of tailors, markets, jewelers, etc. against their will. What happens is that these shops pay the Tuk Tuk drivers to bring unassuming tourists to their stores. As a result, we clearly said to our smooth talker and our actual driver, “No other stops”, to which they agreed.

As promised, we were taken to our first destination and were quite pleased with the experience. It was a buddhist temple with excellent views of the city called “The Golden Mount”.

After leaving the temple we immediately found our driver and hoped aboard eager to visit our next attraction. He then informed us that he had to go to the bathroom and would be right back. Hmm, he just sat waiting for almost an hour and now he has to use the bathroom? Our Tuk Tuk also happened to be strategically placed in front of some random guy sitting in a chair on the side of the road who immediately engaged in conversation. After exchanging the usual pleasantries, he starts talking about this wonderful tailor where you can get cheap custom suits. We knew right then and there where our next destination was. Sure enough when our driver returned and we hit the road, he informed us that we would be making a quick stop and that we wouldn’t have to buy anything. We tersely objected at which point he stopped and got out on his hands and knees begging us to spend 5 minutes at this tailor. He explained how he doesn’t make any money and that they would pay for his gas if we at least visited the shop. We agreed as long as it was the only stop that wasn’t a temple or shrine that we initially agreed to.

I was pissed, mostly at myself, as it had finally dawned on me that everything that had happened over the last hour or so had been by design and we had walked right into it. The Grand Palace being closed, the smooth talking stranger and the random guy in the chair were all a perfectly crafted scheme. At this point I wasn’t exactly in the mood to be hounded by some tailor to buy some crappy suits. Just as we were about to sit down and listen to his pitch, Katie shot me a glance and whispered, “might as well have some fun with this.” She couldn’t have been more right.

I had to spend 5 minutes there anyway and was planning on buying some cheap suits in Vietnam so why not educate myself on the materials and process. I started hammering him with questions about design, fit, materials, pricing, lining, etc. I expressed genuine interest in all of the most expensive fabrics and marvelled at how I could get such high quality craftsmanship at such a low price. I could see the wheels turning in this guy’s head as he tried to refrain from looking too excited.

Once the mandatory 5 minutes were up and I had finished milking him for info, I asked him how long it would take to make a few of these fine garments. Here’s how the exchange went:

Me: How long does it take?

Him: When do you leave?

Me: In 4 hours.

Him: …

Me: Yeah, our train leaves for Chiang Mai at 6pm. Didn’t I mention that?

Him: (Flustered) Time isn’t your problem, it’s ours. We could have them ready for you by then. Or you could pick them up when you come back.

Me: You just said that a good suit takes multiple fittings and that your shop prides itself on its craftsmanship and attention to detail. Surely you can’t prepare such a high quality suit in such a limited time frame. We weren’t planning on coming back to Bangkok either so picking them later isn’t an option

Him: …

Me: I tell you what, you’ve been very helpful today and I really want to buy some suits from you, but I’m just not comfortable rushing through such a detailed process that you take so much pride in. Why don’t you give me your card and if we come back to Bangkok sometime, we will definitely come back.

Him: (Dejected) …Ok, let me get you my card.

JorKat – 1, Tailor – 0. We left the store with a hop in our step as if we’d won one for the dumb tourists. The thrill from this small victory didn’t last long though. As soon as we boarded our Tuk Tuk, our driver started trying to sell us on just one more place he wanted to take us. No F&%$ing way. He pulled over and did the whole begging thing again but we flatly refused. After trying to reason with him unsuccessfully for a few minutes we finally just got out and walked away. We hadn’t paid the 60,000 baht yet so no money was lost and we did still get to visit the first beautiful temple.

We quickly figured out where we were on a map, hailed another driver and got a ride back to a different entrance to the Grand Palace which was wide open and had never been closed in the first place. A valuable lesson learned with less than an hour of our valuable time wasted. Fortunately, our experience in the Grand Palace made it all worthwhile.

For alternative commentary on a recent Bangkok experience and some more breathtaking pictures of the Grand Palace, check out the Mulloskey blog here.

Thailand – Part 1 March 30, 2010

Posted by jorkat in Koh Phangan, Koh Samui.

After scrambling to reach our connecting flight in Bangkok on time, we arrived at our initial destination of Koh Samui. Aside from that, the only real stress we had to deal with all day was trying not to spill our beers (yes, plural) in the warm refreshing water.

Koh Samui is the largest island in Thailand. Formerly, a backpackers haven before becoming very commercialized.  It still has some of the nicest beaches and an eclectic mix of tourists and locals.

We started off our trip with Darren and Kirsten who had their respective brothers from back home along with them. This was Darren’s fourth trip to Samui as he met his girlfriend here the first time he visited.  He has taken every opportunity to go back and see her. This obviously worked out well for us as Darren was familiar with the territory and having Waan (his girlfriend) with us was an ever greater asset. Everything was a little bit cheaper and we didn’t have to deal with any language barriers or locals taking advantage of tourists. Waan is 5 foot nothing and less than 100 pounds but nobody messes with us when she steps forward. I told Darren the other night that it would be ideal if he had a girlfriend in every country we were visiting to make our lives a little easier, and the experience more authentic. He liked the idea and said he would get back to me.

One thing I wasn’t prepared for was being around so many caucasian’s again. There are tons of tourists here and for the most part, they are of European decent, which means two things. Lots of speedo’s, and no longer being able to openly comment about other people as they might be able to understand English. We took this for granted in Korea and most parts of Asia. If some old guy with a funny hat was staring at us on the subway in Seoul, I could turn to Katie and say aloud “I’m having a staring contest with that fossil in the stupid hat”, and he would be none the wiser. Now, I have to whisper when some guy in a thong walks by on the beach, “Psst…did you see that guys balls?”

As expected, everything is cheap. Dinner for seven on the beach was less than $100 CAD including copious amounts of beer. The only downside to everything being so affordable is that you don’t think twice when buying something. Imagine the dilemma I faced when I ordered my first vodka-Red Bull and was asked “glass or bucket?” This was the easiest and worst decision I made on Day 1.

I’m also pleased to announce that Thai women have easily jumped to number two in my hottest women of Asia standings, trailing only the Koreans. I knew they were going to be a contender, and it’s still early so they could still supplant the Koreans for top spot. But I wanted to see them in person and spend some more time here before passing final judgment. As you can see, I take these ratings very seriously.

Highlights from Day 2 in Samui included $8 massages, lying down, and three Heineken’s for under $5. On our last night in Samui we went to one of their famous Cabaret shows. Darren had attended the same show on a previous visit and hadn’t stopped talking about one of the performers. Commonly referred to as “Lady-Boys”, Webster’s dictionary defines them as…well, they aren’t actually in the dictionary but if you can’t figure out what they are from the name, this picture should help.

Below is Darren’s favorite and may or may not be mine as well. I wrote this sentence at least four different ways before settling on that one and immediately had a cold shower. Just three guys out for a night on the town.

Check out the meat-hooks on that chick…er, dude…um, let’s just move on.

There was a variety of beaches we wanted to visit in Samui, so on Waan’s recommendation we decided to rent a small jeep instead of taking cabs everywhere. Being the only one who could drive standard, I volunteered to drive a vehicle for the first time in over a year. This might not seem like a big deal until you realize that the wheel is on the other side and therefore I would be shifting with my wrong hand. No problem, I was up for the challenge and looking forward to having the lives of 5 other people on board in my hands. Oh yeah, they also drive on the left side of the road and have no such thing as street signs, lanes, or what I like to call “rules”. It’s a freaking free-for-all with scooters buzzing all around and passing you on both sides while oncoming cars veer into your lane to pass cars and scooters in their way. A little intimidating at first, but once I got the hang of it, I was in heaven. Not sure if my passengers shared the same sentiment.

As one would expect when renting a car, I brought my driver’s license with me to the rental place in order for them to process the paperwork and give them piece of mind that I was a licensed driver in another country. The license never left my pocket, but they did show me how to use the air conditioning.

Here are some pictures from the other beaches we visited including Crystal Bay and Lamai. The Mojito’s at Lamai were staggeringly delicious.

As planned, we spent three nights in Koh Samui before taking a ferry to the island of Koh Phangan for a couple of days. Darren, Waan and his brother Kevin joined us for this leg of the trip while Kirsten and her brother, Nils headed for a separate island, Koh Tao.

Koh Phangan is a much smaller island than Koh Samui and has a much more laid back atmosphere. We stayed in a small rustic bungalow right on a small beach. The beach wasn’t as nice as we had hoped but we were able to visit the other nearby beaches and spend some time with Darren, Kevin, and Waan who were staying on the much nicer, Haad Yao Beach.

I wasn’t petrified enough from driving a jeep in Samui so we decided to rent a scooter in Koh Phangan. My experience on motorized vehicles outside of cars is limited and when I say limited, I mean none, zero, nada. Fortunately, they have an extensive training program that involves me giving them money and them handing me the keys. After a few minor hiccups, I managed to get the hang of it.

Much like the Thai women, I’ve quickly become a huge fan of the Thai cuisine. My past exposure hadn’t been much aside from the occasional fast food and homemade Pad Thai, so I was anxious to venture outside my comfort zone and add some new dishes to my repertoire. After playing it safe on this first morning and ordering a western breakfast and immediately regretting it after seeing Darren’s Pad Thai Goong (prawn), I vowed that it was going to be nothing but Thai for every meal henceforth.  It was a decision I would not regret.

Back in Korea, I remember asking my kids what kind of food they had for breakfast. After receiving mostly blank stares I managed to coax some answers out of them and the responses were surprising, at the time. They ate the same types of food for breakfast as they would for lunch and dinner. This struck me as odd at first until I thought about it some more and discussed with others. It seems as though westerners are the only people/species on the planet that have a more defined type of cuisine for one meal that differs from the other two meals of the day. Think about it. Do you think Lions have second thoughts before hunting a gazelle because it’s more of a breakfast food? Anyway, my point is that I was all over eating almost any type of Thai food regardless of the meal or time of day. Now, I won’t be eating filet mignon for breakfast any time soon, but I think this is also a testament to overall quality of Thai food as I now consider it #2 in my international cuisine rankings behind only the Italians.

Yes, it was quite a week for Thailand. Both the women and food have emerged from nowhere to #2 status in my prestigious “Hottest Women of Asia” and “World Cuisine” rankings. I will not confirm nor deny if an actual spreadsheet exists.

Now I know what most of you are thinking. How come we haven’t heard any stories about Jordan racing? Has he retired? Is he out of shape?

Well I’m pleased to report that I am grossly out of shape but I haven’t officially retired from competitive drunk white dude racing. I don’t know when it started but in the past few years, I’ve developed an affinity for racing people on foot when I have had a couple drinks in me. It got to the point where I was challenging complete strangers in bars when none of our friends would oblige. Fortunately, I’ve been able to reign in my obsession and focus on finding worthy opponents to challenge under the right circumstances.

Ever since Darren crushed my spirits at 3am on the streets of Seoul back in late 2009, I’ve been dying for a rematch.

With his brother now visiting, I knew this would be a prime opportunity to instigate a little sibling rivalry and make fools of ourselves in public. The trash talk reached epic levels over our first few days, but as time progressed I became worried that it was all talk and that no one would actually take action. Finally, on our last night together in Koh Phangan, with a long stretch of empty beach sitting right in front of us, I challenged Kevin to a duel. Darren was reluctant to participate at first, partially because I think he was afraid of losing his crown and partially because he thought we’d look like idiots in front of his Thai girlfriend. Both were valid points. However, once he saw by how little Kevin defeated me in the first heat, he immediately wanted in on the action.

Darren won the first race comfortably, but kudos to Kevin for his effort at the finish line. There was some debate over the grade of the beach and which lane had the advantage so we did the race again and had them switch lanes. At this point, I had completely lost interest in racing myself and was now fully invested in inciting a brotherly brawl.

Kevin ended up winning the second race by a considerable margin and it was on. The much younger and mouthier Kevin was now brimming with confidence and thought he could beat Darren in the slower lane. In a shocking upset that could be heard up and down Haad Yao beach, Kevin emerged victorious in the rubber match, much to Darren’s and my chagrin as I had been backing him for days.

Some would say that Kevin was the big winner that night, and he probably was, until he got back to his room and realized he would be sleeping alone in his little single bed. Congratulations to both brothers on a fine showing and for both demonstrating nothing but class in victory and defeat. I’m still convinced, as is Darren that he would win on a proper asphalt track with running shoes.

On our last night in Koh Phangan, Katie and I came to back to our bungalow after spending the day at Haad Yao and watched the sunset on our beach. We then enjoyed a nice quiet dinner and caught up on email before packing for an early morning departure back to Koh Samui en route to Bangkok.

I haven’t made as much of an effort as I typically have in other countries to learn at least some of the language, mostly because Thai is just so damn hard. We’ve also been spoiled having Waan to translate everything and help us with our pronunciations. The following video captures an impromptu Thai lesson at dinner one night including the only sentence I learned, “chow fart pad fuk” which means “I eat green pumpkins in the morning”.

Stay tuned for Thailand – Part 2 which will feature our 24 hour experience in Bangkok.

Saying Goodbye March 4, 2010

Posted by jorkat in Seoul.

Back on New Year’s Eve 2007, Katie and I stood in a friends kitchen a few minutes before the stroke of midnight. As the clock turned to 2008 I told Katie that we should go for it. We should uproot our lives, sell everything and live abroad for all of 2009. After Katie finished accusing me of being drunk and slurring nonsense, I managed to convince her that I was serious and agreed to revist the topic in the morning (read: afternoon). From that moment on, we started planning for this journey and made good on our goal to move our lives overseas.

Katie had actually been wanting to do this for years. Ever since we started living vicariously through the Mulloskey blog and discussing their adventures almost nightly over dinner. After months of internal debate, I started to give it serious thought and decided this was the best time in our lives to do this.

Back in December 2007 a few days before my fateful proclamation on NYE, I had gone for lunch and beers with a close friend. We both acknowledged that we were comfortable with the direction our lives were headed, but that we wanted more. We both wanted to see more of the world and were prepared to make major changes to make it happen. We had different motivations and knew that sacrifices would have to be made, but the calling to do some different and drastic was too strong. I will never forget that day, but mostly because it’s the same day that I bought a sick Tom Brady jersey at a boxing day sale.

From my perspective, I wanted to do this for a number of reasons. As I mentioned in the inaugural post on this blog almost of year ago to this day, I wanted to embark on this journey as a tribute to my brother who always wanted to travel the world in search of knowledge and enlightenment. I also wanted the ultimate bonding experience with my wife. If we can handle living and traveling in a foreign land, after everything we’ve overcome in our personal lives, our marriage would be stronger than ever. We were both young enough to still be bold, adventurous and in my case, somewhat reckless. But we were also old enough to appreciate how lucky we are to have this opportunity to travel together. To realize what a gift something as simple as the English language can be and the places it can take you. To experience and appreciate the freedom of not being tied down by a mortgage or lease payments, or children. To live frugally and not even have a cell phone. Holy $hit I miss my blackberry.

Saying goodbye to our kids and Korea has been easier than expected. Mostly because we’re now on vacation for the next 3 months and we’ll be visiting 15 different countries across Asia and Europe. But also because we were able to establish contact with some of the parents and will hopefully be able to maintain communication as our kids grow older. I’ve already exchanged emails with one of my favorite students’ mother and had a nice conversation with her father on the last day of class. He was grateful for the impact I’ve had on her life and would make best efforts to remain in touch through the years. I hope one day we can visit Korea again, or even better, they visit Canada and I can see what kind of person Jessica has become.

Here’s a picture taken from the first day of class…

…and one from our last day of class together.

Another aspect of Korea we will miss and have been meaning to write about since our arrival is something called “Matchy-matchy”. Korean couples love to buy matching outfits and wear them in public as a display of their devotion to one another. It’s not just matching shirts either. Just like everything else, when Koreans do something, they go balls out. We’re talking hats, socks, underwear, pants, jackets. You name the item and I’m pretty sure you can buy a “couple-set”.

Add matchy-matchy to the list of things I will miss about Korea. While we’re here, why don’t we take a quick look at some of the other things we’ll miss about Korea and looking forward to when we get home.

Things I will miss: No sales tax. No tipping. Drinking anywhere. No last call. Cheap baseball. Everything always being open. $5 haircuts in complete silence. $2 beers. Waking up at 8:40am and arriving at work by 9:20am. Airports and public transport in Asia. Being a minor celebrity and stared at in public. $25 dinners for two. Yelling at waiters and not being considered rude or ringing a bell to get their attention. Sour cream. Mart drinking. Having food on your table as soon as sit down in a restaurant. Not having a cell phone.

Things I’m looking forward to back home: Filet mignon on the BBQ. Hearing people call it a BBQ instead of a grill. The cottage. Cheap golf. Our bed. Family and friends. HNIC on Saturday night instead of Sunday morning. Not being stared at in public. Football all day Sunday instead of 7am on Monday. A dryer. Fresh towels from the dryer. Larger napkins. Urinals that flush when I’m done. Driving a car. Golfing. Playing hockey. My blackberry. Being back in the country with the most gold medals and best hockey players in the world.

Speaking of the Olympics, I’ve been thinking about these games and who would be on the hockey team since it was announced that Vancouver would be getting the games back in 2003. I made a pact with my friend Josh that we would attend the Gold Medal game no matter what, but with him in Europe and us in Asia, it wasn’t meant to be. Maybe we can push back the pact for the Gold Medal game to Sochi 2014. When weighing the pros and cons of coming to live in Asia, not going to Vancouver for the Olympics was a major con. In retrospect I don’t regret the decision whatsoever as we now have our own unique story of where we were when Crosby scored the golden goal.

Here is some video from inside Canada Hockey Place by a friend of mine who intentionally scheduled a stop over in Vancouver, en route to Montreal from Hong Kong in case Canada made the final. When everything fell into place he was also fortunate enough to have a client with an extra ticket for him. I hate him.

This first one is from the pre-game when Canada first comes on to the ice.

This one is from shortly after the first goal by Toews to make it 1-0 Canada.

It was also pretty cool being in a foreign country when the Olympics are being held, not to mention when they’re in your native land. Anytime we tell someone that we’re from Canada now, their immediate response is “Vancouver?” For anyone who paid close attention to the games, Korea actually fared quite nicely. They finished 7th in overall medals and 5th in gold medals awarded. They are a short track juggernaut, but they also garnered some attention on the world stage thanks to their new national hero – Kim, Yu-Na.

I haven’t been this into figure skating in my life, nor will I likely ever be again, but the entire country shut down for her short program and free skates and she didn’t disappoint. She makes more money from endorsements than any other Korean in history and that number is likely to increase from the rumored $8 million per year she was making prior to the Olympics. Her face is everywhere and rightfully so. She skated perfectly in both programs with the weight of a very proud country on her shoulders. You could tell that the moment that her record-setting performance was over, the sense of relief that overcame her. Not bad for a 19-year old.

Every hockey game that Canada played was by far my highlight of the Olympics. But Kim, Yu-Na and Joannie Rochette’s performances weren’t as far behind as you would think.

I’ll leave everyone with one final video that was taken just a couple weeks ago. I think it’s a fitting way to say goodbye to Korea and acknowledge how much fun we had here. This exhibit was set-up as a promotion for Korea’s bid for Seoul to host the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. We ran right into it on our way to dinner and Mullin and I didn’t think twice about stopping to give it a whirl.

The sound of the goalie almost being decapitated attracted quite a crowd. They told me not to shoot so hard or raise the puck. Mullin never got a chance to try as they immediately shut down the exhibit.

Thanks for the memories Korea. This isn’t goodbye, it’s see you later.

Japan Mailbag – Part 2 February 11, 2010

Posted by jorkat in Hiroshima, Kobe, Kyoto, Nara, Tokyo.

Since announcing that we would be spending a week in Japan during the Christmas Holidays (Dec. 26th – Jan. 1st), we’ve been bombarded with questions about our trip. I’ve responded to some of those questions directly, but I figured I would share some of them here, along with my answers. Please keep in mind, everything you’re about to read came from actual e-mails sent in by our readers.

Click here for Part 1.

8) Did you experience any cool sporting events? – Mike in Ottawa

No. We had some time to kill on New Year’s Day before leaving for the airport so we took a short local train ride to the Tokyo Dome. We had gone almost an entire week in Japan without any exposure to sports and I was starting to get the shakes. The only prescription was a trip to the home park of the Japanese equivalent of the Yankess, the Yomiuri Giants.

Nothing to really write home about. Reminds me of another large blob of concrete with no character formally known as the Sky Dome. I just wanted an excuse to show footage of this home run that David Ortiz hit there over 5 years ago. Watch the replays at the end of the clip to appreciate what his does to this 3-0 fastball.

I’m pretty sure he got all of it.

9) What was the public transportation like? – Darren in Seoul

First class. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Asians do airports and public transportation like nobody’s business. When people ask us what our favourite thing about Asia is, this will invariably be our answer. And the temples.

A few weeks before our trip we took advantage of an offer for foreign tourists for something called a Japan Rail Pass. We paid a flat fee of approximately $300 CAD and had full access for one week to every train on the JR line throughout all of Japan. This included all the highspeed trains (with the exception of the super highspeed Nozomi) between cities and most of the local trains within these cities as well. It can be confusing at first differentiating between the different types of train lines and how they all fit together, but once you figure it out, you’ll never need a taxi again. We actually didn’t take one taxi throughout our entire trip as the starting fare for your typical cab is $15-20 CAD.

Another nice feature of the JR Pass was that we felt like rock stars bypassing lines in every train terminal. We simply had to flash our fancy train pass at any gate and we walked right through without hesitation.

As for the highspeed trains themselves, they were pretty sweet. The thing that immediately jumped out at me was that they weren’t brand new. They didn’t look old or dated by any stretch of the imagination, but there was noticeable wear. I find this surprising because they have clearly been in service for 5-10 years and are still considered the benchmark by which other countries are designing their rail infrastructure and are still operating at peak efficiency.

Even though we didn’t have access to the fastest train (the Nozomi) and had to settle for the second fastest train (the Hikari), it wasn’t exactly a major downgrade. We were still able to travel from Tokyo to Hiroshima (680km) or Tokyo to Kyoto (520km) in under 4 hours and 2.5 hours respectively. Can you imagine taking a train from Toronto to Montreal in less than 3 hours? Or Toronto to New York in approximately 4 hours?

Now forget about the speed. Even more impressive was the efficiency. The entire system was like clockwork. We had to transfer from one train to the other in Osaka and were given a 6 minute grace period between our train’s arrival and the next train departing. When the ticket agent who provided our tickets explained this to us, he seemed as if it was perfectly feasible so I didn’t question him. Sure enough, we rolled into Osaka right on the time printed on the ticket, calmly walked off the train, down the stairs to the main terminal, checked the information board to see what track our next train was boarding on, and were in our seats with time to spare. Try that next time you’re traveling with Via or Amtrak.

Did I mention the extensive leg room and a ridiculous reclining seat?

After settling in for our 4 hour trip to Hiroshima, this was the first thing I noticed shortly after pulling out of Tokyo station. I tried to wake Katie from the coma she had lapsed into to no avail.

Yup, Mount Fuji.

10) How was the food and what was your favourite meal? – Lauren in Montreal

On our third night in Kyoto after spending most of the day in nearby Nara, we decided to take a half hour train ride to Kobe.  We wanted to sample its signature dish for which the city is named – Kobe beef (insert link about Kobe beef). Or maybe the beef is named after the city. Who cares? I’m getting hungry just thinking about it.

Now I love me a good steak, and I’m not afraid to pay for quality. But I must admit that I was a little worried that the hype and expectations that accompanied the $130 per person price tag would not be met.

We arrived in Kobe around 4pm and were greeted by the first bad weather that we encountered all week. It was raining and we didn’t have umbrella’s. We found the restaurant that our travel guide had highly recommended and made the reservation for 6:30pm. We spent the next 2 hours having beers on a covered patio and debating the merits of spending such a absurd amount of money for a slab of meat.

It was arguably the best decision we made during the entire trip.

The restaurant was called Wakkoqu and was your typical tempenyaki style restaurant, which means that the grill is right in front of you and the chef prepares your meal while you observe or in our case, salivate.

Kobe beef refers to beef from the black Tajima-ushi breed of Wagyu cattle, raised according to strict traditional Japanese standards. It’s renowned for its flavour, tenderness, and fatty well-marbled texture.

The roast beef and salmon appetizers weren’t bad either.

Best money we spent on our trip and worth every cent, er..yen. Fortunately the hefty price tag also included a side of vegetables, rice and a 19th century Korean slave.

The other culinary highlight of our trip was our sushi experience. We targeted a restaurant called Pintokona in the popular Roppongi Hills district that combines the convenience of a conveyor belt and microchipped dishes. Every plate in the circulation is embedded with a chip to indicate when the sushi has been in rotation too long and calculate your bill when finished. The plates are also colour coded to identify their price according to a menu provided. You simply stack your plates as they accumulate and when you’re finished a server comes by with a scanner that looks like a pricing gun to compute your total. It’s genius.

Anytime you can incorporate conveyor belts and microchips into a dining experience, you’re going to leave the restaurant satisfied. Add roast beef, tuna, and salmon to the equation and I’m pretty sure you could split the atom. Physics joke! Hey-ooo!

11) Did you see any funny signs? – Dana in Hong Kong

Beware of 7 foot tall soldiers with alien children.

12) Did you see any Geisha’s? – Rob in Vancouver

No, but we saw lots of deer.

On our third day in Kyoto we took a day trip to Nara. Known as the first capital of Japan, Nara is one of the most rewarding destinations in the country. With eight Unesco World Heritage Sites, Nara is second only to Kyoto as a repository of Japan’s cultural legacy. The centrepiece is, of course Diabutsu, or Great Buddha, which rivals Mount Fuji and Kyoto’s Golden Pavillion as Japan’s single most impressive sight. The Great Buddha is housed in Todai-ji, a soaring temple that presides in Nara-koen, a park filled with fascinating sights that lends itself to strolling amid the greenery and over 1200 deer.

Daibutsu-den Hall is the largest wooden building in the world. Unbelievably, the present structure, rebuilt in 1709, is a mere two-thirds the size of the original. Needless to say, there was no smoking in this building. Inside is Nara’s star attraction, the Great Buddha.

It’s one of the largest bronze figures in the world and was originally cast in 746. The present statue, recast in the Edo period (1603-1868), stands just over 16m high and consists of 437 tonnes of bronze and 130kg of gold.

Here’s some video and commentary from a very special guest.

This wasn’t the only temple we visited in Nara. Heck, it wasn’t even the only temple we visited in that particular park. We’ve visited so many temples over the past year, that while watching the season premiere of Lost a few days ago, I innocently asked Katie if we had visited the temple featured on the show yet. Due to inappropriate content, I’m unable to share her response, but I can tell you that the first word rhymed with “muck” and the second word is the opposite of “on”.

13) What did you do on New Year’s? – Tim in Toronto

Geronimo’s in the famous Roppongi District.

Katie’s brother Tim, who frequents Japan for business on occasion recommended this bar to us. Initially we didn’t intend to go there but once we arrived in Roppongi, it was one of the first bars we found.

Upon entering, we immediately understood why Tim was a fan. It’s Tokyo’s version of our favourite bar in Toronto, the Underground Garage. A very small intimate bar with lots of character. By the time we arrived, it was already starting to fill up but we managed to find a nice little table tucked away in the corner. We spent most of the evening enjoying each other’s company and reminiscing about our wonderful trip while making fun of the other drunk patrons (mostly young foreigners). We savoured every drop of our $15 drinks and tried to ignore the thick layer of smoke forming all around us  (They still have smoking in bars and restaurants and even smoking cars on trains).

It wasn’t a typical New Year’s for us compared to what we’re accustomed to, but we wouldn’t have had it any other way.

14) Any other cool pics leftover to share with us? – Katie in Brooklin