As the city (and entire country) begins its slow shutdown for the New Year's celebration, being the Chinese New Year to bring in the Water Dragon, we thought we'd give you a couple of shots of life here. Here, as has probably caught your attention if your browser allows viewing of animated gif images, is the intersection immediately outside our hotel. What you're seeing (but not hearing) is the on-coming traffic at a stop light starting to creep into the cross traffic that still has the green light! The on-coming traffic (from the left) begins to push the cross traffic out of the way in anticipation of their green light. Add to that constant horns blaring and you have a tiny insight into how annoying this city is for everyone trying to go somewhere.
We arrived in Hanoi and one of my first thoughts was, I could've died in this country and probably would have had it not been for getting a high number in the federal draft lottery that meant not ever going to 'Nam. Now it's a thriving city with capitalism blossoming everywhere and a currency with even more zeros to manage. We're here for the next nine days, so hopefully we'll find something to do and rave about. You know how much we loved to rave, don't you?
But this time around I wasn't sent so much as simply arrived after many hours of waiting for the place to show up. While not as busy as Bali with its nefarious mopeds everywhere, there's a sense of excitement in the air with Chinese New Year coming up. Here, a guy on a moped carts an orange tree perched on his little seat. These orange trees are everywhere and a reminder of the up-coming Tet celebrations, which is the Chinese New Year.
We're here in Lao where it's a nice combination of being less touristy and more backpacky. Still, there is a lot of catering to the westerners who make their way here. Our place now, Our Dream Resort and Spa, is fully booked everyday after being open only a few months in a tight market with a lot of competition. Much of that success is likely due to the effusive and effervescent Evelyn, who we met at the airport in Chiang Mai and was greeting and guiding us long before we arrived by private car with the owner. We're now back to having breakfasts prepared for us, served with Lao coffee that would wake up an army of corpses. Here Shirl found a stand-in for Chakra during breakfast while Evelyn talks up a storm of care-takingness with us. (Credit her as well for getting us a duvet, electric tea kettle, fruit basket, teas, and of course the cat.) Click the image to see it larger.
Last night we had the Lao version of fondue, in which we put pieces of fish onto the cooking surface of what looks like a Mexican hat made out of aluminum, while the vegetables cooked in the "brim" in the broth. The food and vegetables are generally still safe here, but we've been warned to enjoy it now because Vietnam is not on par with the belly bug problem.
It's nice to be out and moving again, exploring a new area as we make our way around this country that has only had been isolated relative to the usual tourist trails.
There are many monks in this little town. As we were sitting at a café on day, I took this photo of a monk passing by. "That's it, pal, keep walking! It's my chocolate cake. Mine!" Did he actually notice? Was he resisting secretly temptation? We will never know.
Today, it rained and rained and I decided to take a panorama from the porch of our room. This and other panos are in the Panos section (click on the image to view it larger).
We've really enjoyed our time here and are sad to say good-bye. There's a new pensée here for anyone who wants to read Rowan's thoughts on how we're learning to travel (or maybe, to be more accurate: not travel). But for now, here are some photos of some events we've enjoyed, experiences we've had, and serendipitous items of note. (Click on small images to enlarge; use arrow keys to move around the enlarged image.)
First off, we must return to Shirl's birthday, which was officially on December 16th. Rowan was somewhat anxious because, well, gifts were small and resources limited. However, he found the Chiangmai Playhouse for an evening's entertainment. They came through with many fun song and dance numbers that entertained us to bits. Rowan had set-up the evening to be a birthday celebration but by the time we had seen the last act and exited from the restrooms, it seemed as though not much was going to be done by the Playhouse, despite a cryptic note from the reservation fellow that they had been told of her birthday.
But boy were we ever wrong! When we came out, we had to exit back down the stairs. There, waiting for us, specifically for Shirl (photos 1, 2, and 3 below), was the entire cast waiting to sing Happy Birthday to Shirl! Wow. It was stunning and remarkable. One of the key cast members walked up to Shirl with a cake and candle (photo 4) and presented it to her for her birthday wish (photo 5). I don't think something that incredible could happen in the United States (at least, not without a lot of money and planning). That was really the high point of the month. We were both floored at their generosity.
We've already done an entry for the little Christmas celebration we had, so let's skip to the next fun and unique thing we discovered. A few nights before New Year's Eve, Rowan noticed a lot of lights in the sky, floating upwards, as if multiple stars had exploded or there was an alien invasion imminent. We could not figure out what they were until we went out on New Year's Eve and discovered a couple actually lighting a Wish Lantern in the parking lot near a night club. They make these light-weight lanterns out of rice paper and bamboo, then put a little kerosene-soaked disk in the bottom. Once lit, it's a miniature hot air balloon that floats up with the wishes you've put into it. We discovered they just sell all the materials on the side of the road for anyone to buy for only 100 Baht or US$3.20 per lantern. It's delightful and makes the sky look incredible because thousands of people are doing the same thing all around the city. What a fun tradition.
We then walked over to a club where we'd been invited by some expat folks we'd met early on. The Thais like to party hardy and this place was so unbelievably loud that we couldn't take it for very long. But this picture of our good friend Steve shows a little of how packed and raucous the night was. It was fun for a while but we actually started to get nervous we were going to have some serious hearing loss, so we pooped out. Then again, that's what we always do on New Year's Eve anyway, so what else is new?
Speaking of expats…After we exited Bali, we started to notice that there were nearly no other foreigners traveling. On occasion, yes, the European or Australian or Canadian, but never other Americans and typically not anyone who you'd look at and say, "You're not from around here, are you?" (That is, white and speaking English.) Other parts of Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, even Singapore, kept us asking, Where the hell are all the backpackers? The couples taking a year off from school? The explorers? They are not to be found.
At least, until we got to Chiang Mai. That's when we discovered we're not alone here. Do expats and especially Americans looking to permanently drop out love it here. They are everywhere! It's like everyone who was traveling just decided to stop here and get a retirement visa. That's what they're doing folks. Retiring to Chiang Mai or at least, spending a remarkable amount of time here. So we finally met folks who had stories to tell and suggestions for where to go next. The picture on the right is a huge pot-luck breakfast we attended of a group we'll just call The Fellowship of Expats (to keep things anonymous) that had wonderful food and great folks. (This is why we'll miss this place!) And so tomorrow, January 11th, we're off to Luang Prabang, Lao (or Laos if you're older), for the next leg of The Big Trip. We'll update you on that and leave with one last thought.
One aspect that is different in each place we visit and something we're very aware of is how the cats are treated. Everywhere we go there are street cats. In Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia and Manila, Philippines, the cats have it rough. We typically would "adopt" some cats, which meant buying food and feeding them as best we could. Our house in Bali had its own cat, who we also fed but he did have a pretty good life overall. Singapore just didn't have street cats likely due to government programs to not let them multiply (although people did have them as pets). In Thailand it is very obvious the culture supports the cats, even if they live out on the street. They are usually not too afraid of people and are consistently well fed. People leave food out for them and I spotted this one black cat taking advantage of the offerings left out to have a chicken feast, once he could grab it safely. Many other times we've seen cats just hanging out with the locals, clearly enjoying their status. It's one of the many reasons why it's relaxing here. They love cats and that says a lot about the culture.
Well, we made it our Christmas in Chiang Mai today. First, see our Christmas "tree" (beatiful roses and gladioli) and presents and great brunch, mushroom omelette, prepared by Rowan
and then, the loot!
Now, in search of real Christmas decorations, here a little Xmas scene in the Aruntara Hotel, a stop on our walk around town
and their Christmas tree
Now, a trip to another hotel, the Rati-Lanna, which had a "green" Christmas tree
with individual wishes - here are the Morrigans'
and finally, we found a "real" dinner, back at the Aruntara Hotel, with incredible desserts:
Here is a close-up of Shirl's