Koh Pha Ngan

Getting to Koh Pha Ngan, or Koh Phangan (pronounced by most people as “koh pang-gan”, probably closer to “koh pah-ngahn”), was as easy as hopping on a songthaew to Big Buddha Pier and buying a ticket on the Haad Rin Queen for 200 b. The Haad Rin Queen runs four times per day, and the tickets are a set price. Don’t be tricked into buying a speedboat or any other type of conveyance, the Queen runs daily, without fail! Travel agencies will try to psych you out over getting to Haad Rin near the Full Moon time, saying you won’t find a way over if you don’t book in advance with them, etc. etc. Don’t listen.

Have Queen Will Travel

Arriving at Haad Rin Pier after a brisk hour spent clinging to the foremost railing, you disembark to find yourself in tourist central. And a different kind of tourism than Bangkok. Koh Phangan caters to those moneyed youths who consider themselves experimental or “hippy” and the place is chockablock with neon tanks, tees, swimsuits, fake-flower headbands. A popular emblazoning is “Same Same” on the front of the shirt, with “But Different” on the back. I finally accosted a young man about what his shirt meant. If you took it to mean, things are the same, but different, you were right! Although I still don’t understand why that’s a Koh Phangan thing. However, a few of the international crowd I met used it continuously, so maybe you have to be an ESL person to get it.

Rasta Bar

Continuing on, the whole feel of the place is psychedelic-neon vomit, and it’s a mass of international bros and girls; stumbling against traffic, breaking flip-flops, looking horribly sun-ravaged… Haad Rin is considered a must-see for the tourist crowd, as it’s here that the Full Moon Party happens, once a month. Haad Rin Nai is where you land, it means Sunset Beach, but it’s on Haad Rin Nok (Sunrise Beach) that the party’s at–the beach on the other side of the town. It’s walking, eg. stumbling distance from any venue in Haad Rin, and at night the streets are lined with bucket vendors, selling 200 b buckets of mixed drinks. Each vendor has his own name, scrawled on the front of his little box lined with sandcastle buckets and two-gulp bottles of Smirnoff. Oddly, some of these impromptu baristas also hold signs, declaiming things like, “I fuck midget retards”, and something equally offensive on the other.

Spirits

The beach itself is a warring blast of top-40 hits, with bigger bars offering bigger sound systems and consequently attracting more people. There are also amateur Thai male fire dancers strewn up and down the beach, attempting to twirl and toss flaming batons, and later in the night you can see flaming jump ropes. My favorite place on the beach is the perched on the far left, hugging the cliff. It’s known as the Mellow Mountain. The music is Psy-Trance, and the walls are painted in an actually well-done psychedelic mural. You can buy mushroom shakes here, but I’ve heard from most people that you should save your money and try elsewhere on the island.

Mellow Mountain

Speaking of drugs, this island is a weird haven for all kinds of them. You can buy mushroom shakes all over the island, with varying degrees of strength. I heard that the White Rabbit in Ban Tai offers an all right shake for 500-700 b. You can also find drugs at Stone Bar, in Haad Yuan–apparently sketchy–and at Eden (no good link), also in Haad Yuan, where they’re supposed to be “safe”. It seemed like everyone on the island had weed, and tons of it, so it must be easy to come by. Acid is 400 b per drop, supposedly strong, and MDMA is 700-800 b per tab, but don’t buy it from the locals because it’s “not clean”. If you’re after drugs, you’ll be able to find someone who knows where to get them, is the upshot of all of this. Foreigners come to sell; there was a tiny Japanese raver dude selling drugs where I was staying.

Speaking of where to stay, don’t stay in Haad Rin. I spent one night there, in a dormitory called The Gallery. That place was the pits. Downstairs, it was a cafe/bistro with WiFi, upstairs, it was a bunch of beds jammed together and a closet toilet. The AC only worked until you went to sleep, then it stopped working and you sweated to death. Honestly, the place looked like a slave galley. I booked at 150 b per night, but others there were paying 350 b for the privilege. The proprietress was overdrawn and scatter-brained, she upbraided her help and then tried to kiss your butt. Don’t come here.

Sincerity Water

Then, I camped by the ocean in a copse of trees between someone’s summer house and a clutch of bungalows. There was no one in the summer house, or this probably wouldn’t have been ok. I stayed one night, driving into town for food and WiFi on me ol’ motorbike (120 b per day–Kung Bikes [kung means shrimp]). I’d actually hooked up with a cool group from the Gallery, through our shared misery. We were all trying to find a better place to stay, and the Italians hit on it first. Someone had clued them into an excellent bungalow situation, and they had to rush out to make sure it was still available. I said I’d look for it later. Trying to find Mac Backpacker in the dark proved to be a challenge. But when I found it, I was blown away.

Low Tide

The place was at the end of a tiny unnamed road, findable only by the landmarks on my Koh Phangan tourist map (right before the gas station, after the 7/11 on the left). At the end of this road, on the right, sat a cozy little open-air reception area, replete with hammocks and a bookcase. Walking back, the main walk is lined with bungalows on two sides. Each bungalow is screened by an overgrowth of bougainvillea, plumeria, and some Thai creeper. Each bungalow has a hammock strung outside on the porch. Each bungalow is lifted on stilts, and features one big bed, with mosquito net, small shelf, and fan. No WiFi, no TV, no running water unless you walk up to the common bathrooms. The place was crammed with backpackers, the cool kind. I found my Italians, and begged leave to sleep in their hammock.

Mac Backpacker

Speaking of common bathrooms, have I mentioned squat toilets yet? This type of toilet is a feature of Thailand, especially the more rural areas. It looks like a bidet, or a urinal mounted in the floor. You stand with a foot on either grooved side and let it fly. Then, if you’re lucky enough to carry your own toilet paper, you dry yourself and throw the paper in the trash. If not, you shake dry and curse your own misfortune. If you have refuse of a more solid nature, there is a lightly pressurized hose mounted on the wall for your enjoyment. Once you’ve finished these ablutions, you fill a bowl from the tank or bucket standing by and dump bowl after bowl of water until the mass is gone. It’s polite to refill said bucket via the spigot placed above. You just turn it on and wait. Otherwise, for some soothing background noise, turn it on low and hear it gurgle as you work out that extra spicy green curry.

Cats on deck.

Squat toilets aren’t really so bad though, in my opinion. It’s tidier and better than wiping and re-wiping, and you don’t blow through toilet paper so fast. What I don’t like are literal “squat toilets”–toilets in which the lid and tank have been removed, leaving only a basin. You know you don’t want to sit on it, because there’s no real accountability concerning aim, as the entire bathroom can just be hosed down. This seat is usually wet, accordingly, and you have to yank your pants down far enough to get your legs a bit around the basin, so in the end you’re awkwardly poised, trying to push your pants out of the way, not touch the rim, not pee down your thigh, or back-spatter on yourself from not being far enough over the bowl, and actually go. The bathroom is humid, and smelly depending on where you are. You’re probably also trying not to breathe. And you forgot your toilet paper. And you’re sweating. You want to put your hand on the wall behind or beside you for stability, but you fear the worst. These are the worst kind of toilets.

So back to the awesome bungalows. They’re located at a place called Mac Backpacker, across the street from Mac Bay. You can’t book in advance, your only chance of securing a spot in this highly sought after community is to show up and be at the top of the list. After sleeping on the porch, I decided this was the place for me. The price is 150 b for the bungalow, regardless of how many people stay. If you have five people staying, you’re paying $1 a night for this oasis. I waited for an hour at the reception desk, in front of a sign proclaiming, “FULL. We have NO idea where you can find a room. No booking here. Good luck.” As luck would have it, after about five minutes, a man came up to the desk asking if I’d seen the owener, and one-two-three he tells me he’s checking out today and that I can have his bungalow! I thought it was a done deal. I sat around to wait until he decided to check out, whilst several other parties meandered through, each one making me more nervous than the last.

Mac Backpacker Jungle

Eventually he did leave, at which point I approached the proprietress, Melanie, and asked about his room. She seemed surprised, and told me she had two people in line ahead of me, but perhaps the sight of my crumbling face convinced her otherwise, and she gave me the “1 minute” index finger. She wandered around a bit, checking outside, talking on the phone, then she came back and told me that she couldn’t get ahold of the girls who had been waiting, and the guys had just left, so it was mine if I could make it look like I hadn’t just rolled up. SCORE! I jumped right on it. Number 5 was more perfect than I could have imagined, a literal bower, with a heavy screen of foliage in front, and the only point of access through a hedge down the way. I had also taken the opportunity while waiting to begin a book from the lending library.

So begin my time on the Island of the Lotus Eaters. Because that’s what Mac Backpacker is. A haven for like-minded travelers, expats, and chillsters to just hang out. During the day, I’d get up, ride my motorbike or walk over the half mile to the restaurant that served Khao Tom (you know I gots to have my rice porridge. Daily.), wander back, read my book, do some yoga, hang out with friends, talk about lunch, have coffee, read more, sit in the hammock, talk about going to the beach, read more, decide to go to Thongsala–5 km down the road–to my favorite internet spot, Khunpen Restaurant (hot coffee, 30 b, tastes like espresso, comes with milk), walk around Panthip Market (just an empty square), bad time to come, no good food carts, motorbike back, stop by the old lady on the side of the road’s tarp shack of miscellaneous goods, buy a big knife, headphones, and some hair pretties for a couple bucks, stop by the fried chicken stand conveniently located in front of where I buy my morning porridge, wheedle as much fried chicken, sticky rice, and deep fried garlic as I can out of the stern countenanced man who works there, back to the bungalow, eat the chicken, keep it away from the hoards of friendly kitties, meet up with friends, go to the beach, read more, sun goes down, walk home, do I need more water?, motorbike to Big C, buy the daily pastries that have gone on sale (corn puff, anyone? 6 b), come home, read more, apply bug spray, apply more bugspray, light anti-mosquito incense coil, put down mosquito net, read more, sleep before 10.

Mismatched Shrines

This is what I did, every day. Sometimes I’d mix it up, go to Thongsala in the morning for some Patongo–fried dough xs for my Khao Tom. Then I’d have to get some Khanom Krok from the old lady in front of the mechanic’s shop. And a snowcone. Sometimes I’d go to other beaches, on the other side of the island. The best beach, in my opinion, is Ao Thong Nai Pan Yai, on the east side of the island. The water is so clear, no coral or seaweed, just a few tiny stinging jellies. You can reach it by motorbike or car, but the road is under construction and some is unpaved. I managed to pop a tire with a screw on the way back, and had to beg a ride to the repair shop. I thought the driver of the truck quite gallant, even going so far as to tie down the bike, until we reached Ban Tai and he said, “Don’t say thank you; pay me!” I only had 100 b, so that’s what he got. He wanted 300. And it turned out his truck was already full of people, Westerners and locals alike. I’m really not sure what I stumbled into, but at least I got into town.

Then I had to deal with the repair shop, who spoke English as well as I spoke Thai. No, it was not possible to just patch the hole, it required a new tire. It would cost 800 b. Well, I didn’t know if it would be cheaper to call the rental company and tell them the tire was busted and see what happened, or to just pay the bill and see if I could get some money knocked off at the end from ol’ Kung. I decided to pay, and shop was generous enough to lend me a bike so I could go get money from an ATM. I also scored a 50 b discount (woo, woo). I’m not sure what kind of deal I got, but in the end it didn’t help me much. When I tried to return the bike before I left the island, the guy started pointing to some dings and scratches, but I showed him the rear tire and we figured it was cool.

Dead Dog

But, back to best beaches, the best beach of all was definitely Haad Yuan. It’s reachable only by taxi boat or by a 4-wheel Indiana Jones ride. I walked over from Haad Thian, where I had been enjoying Guy’s Bar, and it was perfect. It has a deep, heavy surf, unlike most of the island, but the floor is still sandy, instead of cut-your-feet coral. The only people there are either staying at the Eden bungalows, or at the yoga camp at Haad Thian. Speaking of Guy’s Bar, that place is dope! It’s spoken of more as a thing than as a location, for example, Guy’s Bar is happening tonight! Guy’s Bar starts Friday night, pumping out Big Beat House all night long. It’s free to go, disregarding the 300 b taxi fare (one way, ugh). This goes until the afternoon of the next day, at which point everyone who doesn’t want to go home straggles down the hill to Eden, which begins it’s own thing at Saturday noon.

Candy.

A group of us decided to wake up at 3:30AM to take one of the last taxis to Guy’s Bar around 4, for a friend’s birthday. It is extremely hard to wake up in the early morning and go dance, even if it’s the coolest party/bar/thing you’ve ever been to. No coffee, no nothing. By mid-morning, I was ready for sleep. I staggered down to the beach, past the yoga retreat, up a stone staircase, down a stone staircase, past Eden, past Stone Bar, had breakfast at the Bamboo Hut (not bad prices, good food, and amazing scenery–right on the ocean), and eventually slumped into a sun chair on the beach at Big Blue and fell asleep. Until it started raining. Then I switched out clothes for swimsuit and had an amazing time getting bowled over by the waves.

A not-so-amazing time I had was at the Full Moon Party. My expectations were low to begin with, seeing the crowd it drew, but it was even duller than I imagined. We showed up around 12 midnight. It’s supposedly free, but I had to pay 100 b to get onto the beach–ostensibly the money goes to pay the people who pick up afterwards. I can support that. There were several different stages, each offering a raised platform for dancing. The one we gravitated towards was playing Industrial Techno, and it wasn’t bad, but the place was full of drunk people (which I wasn’t) and drugged people (also not) and so without even caffeine to aid me I felt, well, tired. I didn’t have a crazy rave outfit and I wasn’t out of my head, so it was just another party at that point. A party filled with lost shoes and worrying about where you’re putting your feet.

Haad Rin

The entire shoreline was dudes peeing in the water. I felt better walking through the break than on land, but with every warm wave I knew I was being laved with urine. I trudged back and forth, back and forth; determined to remain until sunrise. I had left my German friend at the Mellow Mountain, I returned to find him standing outside with a glazed expression. When I asked him a question, he answered in German, and when I laughingly told him so, he said, also in German, “Ahhh *face palm* I’m speaking in German! Why am I speaking in German?” and continued to try to talk to me in German. I assumed he was just tired, and was having trouble remembering his English, but I kept an eye on him, as for the rest of the night he simply stood wherever we were standing, and when addressed, turned silently to the speaker, then turned back to stare at the sea.

He.

Early in the morning, a huge scaffolding was lit on fire, spelling out, “Full Moon Party Koh Phangan”. Soon after the flames were out, people began scaling the construction, clinging shakily to the greasy bars. I myself had a go, until I was nailed with sand balls by the Thais telling me to get down. There were vendors selling cut fruit and meat sticks at exorbitant prices; for some reason a kindly Thai man with such kept giving me free BBQ pork sticks. Who was I to decline? I love pork sticks!

Finally, the sun rose. As the giant orange ball drifted up from the grey sea, a scene of devastation was revealed. The shore was littered with broken flip flops, discarded buckets, clothing, and cigarettes. People feeling the dregs of their drugs were frolicking with blown-out pupils in the sea, tripping over their own garb.

Anti.

At this point, I was ready for breakfast. I dragged everyone to my favorite local joint, a place I call Green Awning. It’s on a dirt road that shortcuts the longer main road into Haad Rin. It’s covered by a green tarp awning. I wish I could give better directions, as this is my favorite place to eat on the island, besides the fried chicken man. If you go before 9:30AM, you can get Joke (Chinese style khao tom), with chicken, egg, and toppings. The only thing missing is patongo, but it’s only 40 b for the whole shebang and the lady is super nice. I went every day when I was near Haad Rin, and she always laughed at me and asked if I’d come for the Khao Tom. You can also get a variety of local dishes, should you miss the joke cut-off, and I can assure you that the Thai Curry (pronounced Gang Pet) and the Green Curry (Gang Kee-Ew-Wan) are exceptionally good. It usually comes out to 80 b for curry and rice, but you get a heaping bowl and plate of same, and you won’t want to eat again for awhile.

Bird.

Anyways, back to my friend, it turned out he got rufied by a beer seller. Apparently that’s a common scam–rufie a tourist and then follow him or her discreetly and wait until they’re dazed and alone, then jack ’em. He says the last thing he remembers is buying a beer and the woman refusing to sell him a large, unopened beer, instead offering him a smaller, pre-opened one. The rest of the night is gone, with a brief memory of the sunrise. When he woke at home in the afternoon, he had no memory of how he got there (on the back of another friend’s motorbike, mumbling in German the whole way), and had rediscovered his English vocabulary. A situation that could have gone so much worse for someone solo, and one to be aware of if you plan to buy drinks on the scene!

Siem Reap

So, upon the realization that my Thai visa was about to expire, I rushed for the Cambodian border, upon the instructions of this site. It’s quite accurate, but the timing was very close. Turning in the motorbike in time to catch the ferry at 11:30AM was a close shave, but manageable. Upon reaching the mainland, however, I began encountering difficulties in locating a songthaew to take me to the ferry pier in Na Thon. I’d mapped it prior, it was about 15km, so I knew if worst came to worst I could walk, but as I staggered down the side of the road in the blazing sun, hailing each songthaew that passed, and being greeted with a friendly (and mocking?) wave as they flew by began to grow wearisome. To this day, I’m still not sure why not one songthaew would stop on the stretch of Hwy 3170 between the Big Buddha pier and the pier at Bo Phut. Eventually, I trudged out to Hwy 3169 and a songthaew grabbed me there. Even then, I had to wait about 20 minutes for one to show up. That’s like an anti-miracle. Those dang songthaews are usually two per minute at any other time.

Giant Mantis

So, I made it to the bus station. But, I hadn’t pre-printed my ticket, as I wanted to see whether I could simply show my e-version of the bus ticket to the driver. So i whipped out (ha, as if, more like dredged up) my laptop and the driver whipped out the ticket that had been sent from Bangkok in my name. Woohoo, good to go. In other news, the bathroom at the bus station is excellent–clean, and offering showers, toilets, several sinks and a long mirror. Got on the bus, bus went to the ferry pier, got off the bus, bought a ferry ticket, got on the ferry, landed on the other side (Don Sak), got back on the bus, and passed out. Woke up for some spicy noodle soup at a bus stop eatery–no problems this time. Woke in the morning to the bus driver barking, “Hey, you; leave!” and was promptly shunted from the vehicle. Staggered into the bus terminal at 6:30AM and excised my laptop once again to check how to get to the Chaloklum metro station. It looked walkable–just through some park. Totally doable! Repack, and set out.

Kids on Motorcycles.

Crossing under the freeway, I came upon a joke seller amongst a group of construction workers, and in the spirit of breakfast we supped together. I then realized the fence directly in front of me encircled the very park I was meant to cross. It looked huge. I circumambulated the perimeter for a bit without seeing an entrance, then gave it up and hauled myself over it–backpack and all. A cute young couple on a motorbike sped by laughing and pointing. I’m sure I deserved it. Trekking through the gardens of the park, I wished I was in a place to better enjoy it. The foliage was neatly labeled in Thai, English, and Latin, but I couldn’t be bothered to note it. My backpack was weighing ever more heavily upon my sweaty back, and I needed a restroom.

Handy Bathroom Information:

Bathroom in Thai is “Hong Nam”. To ask whether there is a bathroom, say, “Mee hong nam mai?”. To ask where the bathrooms are, say, “Hong nam you tee nai?”.

After the helpful ministrations of a young military man, I was ready to continue my journey. I had to cross through one more park, and then walk along the fence line for a bit before I stumbled upon the Chaloklum metro stop, conveniently located inside the park. Inside it was cool and clean, and I sat in the corner on the floor for a while to collect my wits. Onlookers glanced quickly, then looked away. I eventually hopped the train, and came out at the Hua Lamphong train station. Recognizing that the train to Aranyaprathet (the closest Thai town to Cambodia) runs at 6AM, I had planned to simply squat in the train station overnight. As I looked around me, this seemed to be a less feasible reality. I asked the lady at the information desk which bus I could take to get to Tesco (so I could use the fee-free Aeon ATM), and she told me 113. I waited at what I hoped was the bus station, ardently turning away tuk-tuks, and eagerly hopped on the bus when it arrived.

Stone Fishing.

The ticket collector came around after a time, and I asked how much the ticket was. At this point, communication devolved. I could not for the life of me understand what he was saying. I offered him 20b, it seemed fair for a bus ride, but he kept repeating “20b, 20b”. I didn’t have another 20b. Then strangers became involved. A man who had been repeatedly asking me at the bus station, “Where you from? Lady! Where you from?” moved into the seat across from me and took up the call again. Passengers began asking where I was going. “Tesco,” I cried, “I’m going to Tesco!”. At the climax of that situation, the bus stopped, I looked out the window and, blessings be, saw Tesco across the street. I hurriedly left, and determined to walk back if it killed me.

Cave of Wonders.

As it turned out, the Aeon ATM in this Tesco did charge a service fee, which really ground me up, considering the trial it had been to come. I did get some more V-Fit 7-rice milk, which is what I pretty much live for, and some fried chicken and sticky rice (Tesco makes great food). Having regathered my strength, I set off for home, wandering here, wandering there, asking always the way to Hua Lamphong. It seemed much further on foot, but at least the sun had dropped below the buildings. I finally came back to the station, and put up at a coffee shop across the street. The girls asked where I was going, where I was staying, and when they heard I was planning on staying the night in Hua Lamphong, put their foot down. I had searched nearby hostels, etc. online, but had found only upscale results, running much higher than I wanted to pay. The girls told me about a cheap place right behind that very location, for $2 per night. Sold.

Rococo.

I had to pay when I checked in (it ended up being $3), but there was an elevator, and clean towels, and an ensuite bathroom. It was cool and clean and had a fan. Much nicer than other hostels I’ve been in. It’s called The Station Hotel and I recommend it to any traveler coming to or going from BKK by train.

Got some khaotom to-go for the ride, got on the train, and fell asleep in a variety of yoga-istic positions. When I awoke around 11:30AM, we were about an hour out, and my hair was coated with train smoke and travel dust. The train has glass windows the slide up or down, slatted wooden shutters, and fans. You’re going to want that window open. Arriving in Aranyaprathet, I was approached by a tuk-tuk driver and actually wanted a ride. He took me to the bank (didn’t get enough money out of the ATM, dumb), and then to Poipet, leaving me near the border for 40b.

Siesta.

Getting into Cambodia is like trying to get into the U.S. from Mexico. You have to pass through a variety of stations, wait in lines, be sweaty, and pay fees, plus everyone is in uniform and means business. I had read online ahead of time that a common scam is to get tourists to buy visas before the border, claiming that it must be purchased before, or that you have to get them at such-and-such a place, so I proceeded to the border, heedless of the calls. I met two other tourist sets who had been scammed in such a way, once I got to Siem Reap, one set for $30 and one for $50! Be on your guard, everything you need can be purchased AT THE BORDER for $20. You should also be traveling with some mini photos of yourself, as many visas request those. I don’t have any yet, so I paid a 100b fine. Then lines, lines, lines. Finally, I got to the other side.

Anti.

A helpful young man escorted me to the tourist shuttle going to the bus station, then, upon arriving, showed me which bus to buy a ticket for, and where to change money. Then he asked for “a little something” for the help. I only had $2, but he didn’t seem displeased. Then I was on the bus again. I fell asleep until we jounced into the bus station outside of Siem Reap. From this potholed dirt road you take a tuk-tuk to your final destination in Siem Reap. My tuk-tuk driver was very helpful, and drove me first to the well-regarded hostel The Garden Village Guest House. Being quite popular, as I’ve mentioned, it was full up. He then directed me to another hostel, this one in the heart of Siem Reap, I Win Hostel. I only had large bills, and he couldn’t break a $10, so he said he would come back to take me to the Floating Village on Thonle Sap at 3:30PM the next day, and that I could pay him then.

I was grateful then to climb the 3 flights of stairs to the sweaty garret filled with bunkbeds. I took a shower, felt revived, and went out to see the town.

Meats.

Directly behind my hostel was a small market, comprised of very overpriced tourist items, etc. Passing through there, and across a canal, one comes to the Siem Reap “Night Market” : a city block of tourist stuff, encircling an inner food market patroned by locals; flanked on one side by the infamous Pub Street and on the other by tuk-tuk drivers and snack cart pushers. This market undergoes a radical change between day and night time purveyors. During the day, the perimeter of the market sells household supplies–literally, anything anyone would need for their house, including building supplies. There are a few tourist shops, but mostly jewelry and things that remain in cases or displayed in a certain way. After about 6PM, these household shops have all disappeared, to be replaced by shops selling the same Khmer dresses, pashminas, kramas, “Aladdin” pants, shorts, at prices dependent on the proprietors individual aims.

Did I mention the dress code in Cambodia? As whimsical and lax as Thailand is, so, oppositely, is Cambodia conservative and incongruous. 98% of Cambodians wear long sleeves and pants, all the time. There are varying styles to this. I could actually discourse long on the nature of Khmer fashion–it’s very iconic! In general, young men are much more neatly dressed than anywhere else I’ve seen–IN THE WORLD. They wear nattily fitted jeans, or dark khaki culottes, and button downs, with flip-flops. Young females have two apparel options : the long-sleeved, skinny jean style, or the “pajama” style. This entails a matching top and bottom set, usually in a bright floral pattern, with narrow legs and a buttoning front. It looks just like a pair of funky pajamas. This is also paired with flip-flops. Women of an age wear a Khmer skirt–a wrap skirt with a Cambodian print–and a 3/4 button down or long-sleeved shirt. All school children wear uniforms; the most common being a navy bottom and light button-down top. The girls all look like something out of a Hiyao Miyazaki film : bell-shaped skirts, doubled up on the back of bicycles or motorbikes.

Anyhow, you look like a boob if you go out in anything shorter-sleeved than a t-shirt, or shorter than knee-length. So I elected to grab a couple baggy pants. $3 a pop, I figured I could leave them somewhere if they didn’t work out. The girl I bought them from was vivacious and friendly, like most Cambodians I’ve met. She also taught me how to say, “No bean sprouts!” Or literally, “I have no need for those bean sprouts”. This unfortunate phrase was occasioned by my finding the perfect breakfast place just meters away from my hostel. It served borbor, the Khmer equivalent of khaotom, and even had those little doughnut things I like. But! Khmer-style borbor has bean sprouts in it! And I didn’t know! And I hate beansprouts in soup, glug.

Speaking of new gustatory experiences, Cambodians put other mysterious things in the otherwise unassuming rice porridge, such as offal. Buying some borbor on the street, I arrived home to find some exciting kidneys? veins? liver? in my bowl. I’m not sure how to decline these things, but the taste sort of blends when it’s all together and sliced thin.

Market.

Siem Reap is a funny place, kind of a big-little town. The streets are dusty and poorly paved, and a few hundred meters outside of the city center you will find yourself on a dirt road surrounded by stilt houses and children laughing, calling, “Hello! Hi! What’s your name!”. A canal runs through town, and along it are mansions that look like they’ve survived French colonialism. Classical parks grace the sides of the canal, and frangipani drops blossoms along the street.

Temple Road.

Then there’s the shantytown aspect. Corrugated tin houses, stirred only by the wings of flies; pregnant dogs panting in the heat, skeletally thin; begging children (always girls), naked kids dredging the canal for miniature clams and waterweeds to sell, shaved-headed old women with eyes that don’t see straight, hands held in front of them; land mine victims. Children playing in a construction site while their fathers work behind them. Men pulling carts taller than themselves in lieu of a cow or horse. Young girls asking if you want a massage. Women trying desperately to sell you a pair of pants, or some cut pineapple. “What you pay?” they call, as you try to run away, “How much you pay?”. Don’t look interested in anything, or the proprietress will try her hardest to sell it to you. If you get out once, don’t go back that way, or they’ll remember you and get you again.

Sleepy.

Aside from that sadness, there are excellent, fun aspects of Siem Reap; not limited to $1 a day bicycle rentals, the Angkor temples, how nice everybody is, the excellent Khmer taste in music, the delicious food, and the free tea at meals. Street food and lodging are cheaper here than in Thailand, and people everywhere will approach you to meet you, just because they’re interested in you. Expect to be treated with extreme frankness; Cambodians don’t pull any punches when it comes to personal appearance or any embarrassing thing you might do. They’ll openly ask you if your piercings hurt, or if you have any injury, they want to know what happened. They’ll also tell you that your nose is big (every nose is big compared to Khmer noses), that such-and-such a size won’t fit you; and if you’re near a group of Khmer women, you can be sure they’re talking about you, and yes, laughing at you. Sometimes they even laugh at you for being too polite. But it’s not just you! They often laugh at each other, and regularly play tricks and tease one another. Cambodians are always smiling, and usually laughing. Don’t be fooled by that smile though, sometimes it serves to hide their true feelings of fear, embarrassment, or uncertainty–Cambodia is a face-saving culture.

Lucky.

I generally make a little wai to each person I meet (in Khmer these are called Som Pas) or see. Most people seem to think it’s cute, or nice, but I’ve had women tell me that I shouldn’t som pas to them, they are “too low”, so there’s more to the story, but I don’t know it yet.

Indie 2.

I know you’re all wondering about Angkor Wat. Well, to me, this is just one part of the experience, not the whole reason for visiting. You can get a day pass to the Angkor temples for twenty bones, or you can pop $40 for a three-day pass. If you have the time, I’d recommend the latter. I got up before sunrise to ride my bike to the temples–my favorite borbor place wasn’t even open yet–and was passed the whole way by like-minded tourists in tuktuks. Everyone crowded around the first pool at the temple to watch the sunrise, but I went on to find the highest point–the Bayon. Unfortunately, you can’t get into this until 7:50AM. Shucks. But the sunrises and sunsets here are nothing to get excited about: a gradual coloration of a grey haze.

Predawn.

Yes, the stonework and sheer immensity were breathtaking; yes, it’s impossible to believe the length of time necessary to complete such a work; yes, it’s very, very hot and you didn’t bring any water and you’re on a bike, trudging from temple to temple (there are a gang of them); yes, there are at least three steep staircases per temple; yes, some of the temples are crammed with tourists.

Ta Prohm.

There are so many temples, you will certainly enjoy yourself more if you only take on a select few per day. The ride isn’t bad from Siem Reap to Angkor Wat–about 5 miles. Then you can ride the short circuit or the long one, don’t ask me the distance. The short one is less than 10 miles I’d say, the long one is supposed to be 32 km. If you’re not getting off and on your bike every five minutes to look at temples, you’ll enjoy the ride, the temples you do choose to see, and the day. My favorite temple was definitely Ta Prohm, or the Tree Complex. It has been majorly reconstructed, but is not yet complete. The trees growing all over and around give the temple an additional otherwordly/anime feel, like Laputa of Castle in the Sky.

Compelled.

The good news is, you can probably lurk onto a tour group in your language, if you don’t want to pay for one, as I heard Cambodian guides speaking Russian, German, Mandarin, Japanese, and French, not to mention English. You will also see a ton of monkeys! They are relatively fearless, and you can get quite close, but watch your food! They will snatch it right up, be it a health bar or a bag of sliced pineapple.

Sorry I skimped on the Angkor descriptions, but what I remember most is being hot and thirsty. To make up for this, I have included a selection of the kadgillion photos I took. Enjoy!

Đà Nẵng

I had read previously on Seat61 that trains in Viet Nam are plentiful and cheap. I love trains, and decided to investigate. There are varying degrees of luxury on Vietnamese trains, ranging from slatted wooden seats, with open windows and fans, to air-conditioned “soft sleepers”. There are mid-range seats as well, air-conditioned hard seats, and soft seats, but the price jumps up accordingly. I figured I could tough out a hard seat; after all, I’d been 6 hours on a (to my mind) hard-seated train in Thailand to the Cambodian border. I checked the train charts: the train to Da Nang left Saigon at 12:20, and reached Da Nang at 7. I can handle 7 hard hours, I thought.

Hard Seats.

I should mention that I’d collected a fellow traveler by this time: Olivier, a French-Canadian on his first tour abroad. We met at the ill-starred Budget Hostel, and he declared his desire to adjourn to Da Nang as well, and so we went. We purchased our tickets, and boarded the train. Around 7PM, I thought I heard the conductor say, “Da Nang!”, so we prepared to disembark. However, when the train stopped, the station was discovered not to be Da Nang at all. For a few hours, I’d had a sick feeling growing in the pit of my stomach due to my laissez-faire attitude towards train times. I recalled belatedly that times in Asia are almost without fail in what we call military time. After our attempted flight from the train, and upon hearing that we were heading for Da Nang, the conductor broke into laughter, and told us we would reach Da Nang at 7…in the morning. Whoops!

Pond.

Olivier, looking at me with a horrified face: “You mean…we have to stay on this train all night?” Our butts were already sore from seven hours of travel, we had exhausted our food stores, drank our water; in short, we were screwed. The benches are about a meter long, short-bodied Viets can lie in an almost comfortable fetal position on them without poking their heads into the aisle. I cannot. In the end, I ended up sleeping upright, with my legs extended under the next seat. Olivier laid on his back, with his crossed legs propped against the wall. His torso alone took up the entire length of the seat.

Dragonfruit.

In Viet Nam, I’ve noticed any foreigner exudes a peculiar attractant to the Vietnamese peoples. Not long after my embarrassing revelation on the train, a young man approached Olivier, seated himself beside him, and began speaking companionably with him. This young man, Trung, spoke with him for several hours, and when he left to sleep, said he would find us again in the morning. When we rolled into Da Nang, he escorted us from the train, and said he would take us to a cheap guesthouse nearby. I offered to carry a taped styrofoam box he was struggling with, and noticed, over the course of the journey to the guesthouse, that it felt as though something was trying to climb out of it. “Are there crabs in here?” I asked Trung. He looked confused. “Lobster?”. Nothing. “Animals?” His face brightened. “Yes, animals!” I felt like I was holding the box that held the monster cat in Mousehunt; every so often it lurched fore or aft and the skittering of crustacean appendages could be detected along the inside of the box walls.

Morning Light.

The guesthouse he brought us to was down an alley, where else, but it was clean, and offered two beds, a bathroom, a T.V. and a fan at 150,000 VND/night. It was called Ha Chau Nha Nghi–good luck finding it. Even in the city, no one knew it. At night, a dessert vendor encamped near the entrance; in the morning, a woman selling Bahn Mi Loc sat in the alley itself. The alley connected with numerous other alleys, and one could travel the city without ever putting foot on a major street (a smart move, if one knew one’s way).

Alley.

I didn’t do much during my stay in Da Nang; a lot of wandering the city and eating. I could tell you all the tasty things to try, though! There’s a delicious bakery on Ly Thai To Rd that I bought tartlets from every single day. I’ll give you the name when the internet works better. Updated: I hope this is the right one. There is a horrible one on the opposite side. They speak no English, but like I said, I’m pretty good at food ordering and paying. The options are passion fruit, chocolate, lemon brie (not sure on this one, just going by taste), pineapple, strawberry cream (not good), and egg. There is also a rude and not delicious bakery on the same road, beware! However, it’s on the left side, as one walks towards the beach, and the good bakery is on the right a little further.

Da Nang Traffic.

Try some new fruits. Dragonfruit is a large, ovoid, pink fruit, with green tipped tentacles. Inside the fruit is sweet, white, with a mealy texture and small black seeds. Rambutan is a small coral-shelled fruit, covered in inch-long bright green hairs. Inside, the fruit is similar in texture to lychee, with a taste similar to herbal tea. Guavas are green like Granny Smith apples when unripe, and gradually shade to a light green, perhaps with a touch of pink when ready to be eaten. They are bumpy, and about the size of a grapefruit. The flesh is milky, with the soft, slippery texture of ripe mango. Not a strong taste, but the rind is reminiscent of eucalyptus. Longans come in little brown spheres, with a thin, hard case. Inside, the flesh is translucent and hard, just like rambutans and lychees. The taste is similar to rambutans, but with a much stronger flavor. Sweet and herbal. Rose apples are shaped like pears, but with deep grooves in their sides, and ruby-shaded. The flesh is light, with almost no flavor, and crisp. Passionfruit looks like a small rugby ball, hard, and must be cut open. Inside, the edible portion looks like snot. It is a brilliant acid green, filled with small seeds much like tomato seeds. It is delightfully sour, and lends its flavor to many enjoyable snacks in Viet Nam.

Dragonfruit.

I tried Chè of various flavors. Chè, says my little phrasebook, is sweetened gruel. Well, it’s not just that. Nobody just eats chè plain, as far as I can tell. One eats Chè Xoa Xoa , sweet gruel, coconut milk, ice, and various gelatins and chewies. This can be had for 7,000 dong, or 20,000, if you get stiffed on a main road. There’s a delicious yogurt made from condensed milk, but I’ll have to double-check the name. Update: It’s Sữa chua. Bún is simply rice noodles, and you can get an assortment of toppings, such as grilled meat (Thịt Nướng), fish (Cá), pork sausage (Chả), and fried spring rolls (I forget this one, maybe chả nem?). It will come with greens, usually including the dreaded Fish Mint (rau giấp cá) so tell them you don’t want it, if it offends you. When I order almost anything, it’s with the added request, “không rau giấp cá va giá đỗ”–no Fish Mint and beansprouts. It’s pronounced “Kum Rao Yee-ap Kha vah Yee-ah Dao”, if you take your meals as I do.

Offering.

One day, I decided to go to the historic city of Hội An. This is the one day it has rained in Viet Nam. We hailed a bus–they go all day long from Da Nang to Hội An and back–and got on. The female bus conductor told us the fare was 50,000 dong. This isn’t true. She even got the other bus passengers to agree with her. The true passage is 20,000 dong, but as a foreigner you’ll almost certainly be charged 30,000. Just hand them 30,000 dong and be done with it. So the day started off on a bad foot. It was pouring rain when we reached Hoi An an hour later. I bought a poncho, and we set off to find the center of town. It’s about a half-mile walk from the bus station to the center of town, or maybe a bit more. Don’t take a motorcycle taxi unless you’re in a hurry; they won’t take you for less than 10,000 VND, but it’s not worth even that.

River View.

Walking down Hai Ba Trung, we came upon a bike renter. There was something of a kerfuffle when it was discovered we weren’t boarding in town, but it was overcome by our rapid proffer of 20,000 dong. $1 per day for a nice bike is, as I’ve mentioned before, highly equitable. On the bus we had made the acquaintance of a young Swedish woman. How pleased we both were, to find semi-kindred in the diaspora! She joined our gang, and we peddled away towards the Ancient City.

Lanterns.

You have to buy a pass to go into any historical area; 120,000 VND gives you entry to five places, or more if you’re not caught going in. I was always caught. The others made it out with a score of unused tickets. I had read a guide to Hoi An the morning of, in which a woman offered her opinion on the available attractions, and had decided to go to the Tan Ky House, the Phuc Kien Assembly Hall, the Museum of Folk Culture, the Phung Hung House, and the “Evening Art Performance”. Unfortunately, the rain made all of us a little slow-moving, and two of us reached only three of these places. The Phuc Kien Assembly Hall is definitely worth a visit, it’s beautiful and relatively unpopulated. The Tan Ky House is a waste of a ticket, you see only the reception room. The Museum of Folk Culture is great to see, you can get in and away without losing a ticket, and there’s not a sole inside besides you. Outside this building, there are what look like weaving demonstrations–surely during drier weather.

Moving Statue.

We never made it to the Evening Art Performance, although I’m told it takes place “to the right of the An Hoi bridge, near the cao lầu stands” at 7:30PM. Speaking of cao lầu, it is great. That statement seems feeble in describing the immense pleasure I have in eating it. The noodles are similar in form to fettucine, but thick, and made of some other grain. The broth is rich, and it is topped with pork, deep-fried pork skins, and greens. Even the greens are delicious!

Temple Ceiling.

Nearby the Central Market, where we had lunch, is a warehouse of smaller shops. It was here I attempted to have an Ao Dai made. Don’t do this. I was rushed through the choosing of a pattern, of cloth colors, and then rapidly fitted and told to return the next afternoon. I forgot to haggle, and agreed to a $45 outfit (NO NO NO). When I went to pay, I was sure I handed the lady a 500,000 dong bill I had been keeping at the bottom of my coin purse, but she ran out after us and caught us on the steps, claiming I had only handed her a 20. To this day, I don’t know what happened to my 500,000 dong. The woman swore up and down she didn’t have it, and the owner of the shop also, stating their Buddhist inclinations as proof of her honesty. Anyhow, I should have given it up then, but I didn’t.

Metal Grate.

Upon returning the next day, I was shown my new Ao Dai. Where’s the collar I wanted? Then the tailor woman became defensive. “You say, 1-color! I make 1-color. I ask you, you say, no 2-color, 1-color; cheaper!” Where I had assumed the part that was shown in the picture to be two colors would simply be made in one color, she had removed the part altogether, leaving a plain V-Neck color. The Ao Dai fit imperfectly, and I was crushed. The owner came up to me as I drifted sadly out, telling me that she had spoken to the seamstress, and telling her that she must fix it if I was unhappy, but the seamstress was adamant, claiming I had told her it was to be made this way. She extended sincere apologies on behalf of the outcome, of both the dress and the lost money. She seemed truly unhappy, but then so was I.

Door.

Reaching Da Nang again, after an hour bus ride in the opposite direction, I went for a walk to see if I could find a seamstress to append a collar to my sadly-lacking Ao Dai. I was led by a silk seller to a tailor in an alley, but through a young woman neighbor I was told she was unable to change it, but could make a new one for 400,000 VND, and have it ready in two days. I agreed, still cherishing a hope of the perfect Ao Dai. Instead of choosing from the book of patterns, having previously drawn an account of what I wanted the appended collar to look like on the Ao Dai I had, the young girl told me the seamstress claimed she could make my new Ao Dai with such a collar. So I acquiesced to the second attempt on my fancy-collared Ao Dai, and signified the colors I would like. It seemed shady to not come back for a second fitting, but they assured me everything would be perfect.

Empty Lot.

The next day, I found an Ao Dai maker who agreed to take in my first Ao Dai, at least giving it a proper fit. Everywhere I wore it, people smiled, said, “Dep, dep!” and “Ao Dai Viet Nam”. Even our young friend from the train, Trung, said it made him so happy to see a foreigner wearing traditional Vietnamese Ao Dai, and that he thought it was beautiful. However, in my heart of hearts, I was unsatisfied, and eagerly awaited my new one.

Baby Deer.

I returned the evening we were to leave for Dong Hoi to collect my new Ao Dai. When they brought it over, my smile fell off. There was no collar whatever! The seamstress hadn’t understood my injunction, it appeared, and had made the Ao Dai off-the-shoulder. It was in a brazen gold, with bright tangerine pants–not the demure sand and soft coral combo I had envisioned. Even beyond that, it was almost intolerably tight. It was well-made, but wore like a second skin. I felt like a prostitute.

Portal.

The owner of the shop, looked at the Ao Dai, looked at me, and asked what I thought of it. “It’s beautiful,” I said, “but it’s not what I wanted”. She and the other seamstress had a rapid back-and-forth, and the owner turned back to me and said, “She did not understand what you wanted, and she says she’ll make you the Ao Dai you want for free”. Alas, I was leaving! But what a generous offer! I would try again there, if I but had the time. Trinh is the name: 332/1 Le Duan, Da Nang. I wore it home, and again compliments flew from every quarter, but under my genial smile, my heart was breaking. What a fool!

Look Right.

When you order an Ao Dai, just take it exactly as it looks in the pattern book.

One night we went to karaoke with Trung and some of his friends. The karaoke house offered some English selections, and we had a great time belting old favorites, and mangling new ones. The room came with an assortment of drinks, sort of like the mini-bar in a hotel–you drink, you buy. How much could it possibly be, we wondered. The answer is: a lot. We each ended up paying about $12, because all of Trung’s friends left early, and we didn’t want him to pay. I had one Red Bull and a lychee soda. It was horrifying. But the karaoke memories will remain unscathed. It was an hilarious night. The French-Canadian rendition of “Roxanne” had me crying with laughter, and Emilie and I can really duet an ABBA song. To our very great surprise, Trung had the voice of an angel, or a J-Pop star. I have never heard anyone karaoke like that.

Karaoke.

Odds and Ends: you can buy a new set of prescription glasses here, ready in half an hour, for $18. I wanted some, but I’d hemorrhaged enough cash. The beach is beautiful, but you’re only allowed to enter the water at specific points, demarcated by floating flag lines, and if you go in other places, you’ll be chased down by a life guard. Don’t try to send a package here, the rates are disgusting. On Saturday and Sunday, the Dragon Bridge (you can’t miss it) shoots flame and water vapor at 9PM. Also, almost every bridge in Da Nang is decorated in some way with rainbow lights. Truly a beautiful sight at night.

Dragon Bridge.

There is a gorgeous temple, called a pagoda by our friend Trung, dedicated to Guanyin, with an enormous statue to the same overlooking the city. There are statues of the Chinese Zodiac in the facing garden, and the entire thing is perched atop a high hill. We went by night, and the soft sound of the shore and the crickets drifted on the breeze with the dark smell of incense and closing flowers. It would be hard not to be quiet and respectful in such a place.

Hidden Statue.

Đồng Hới

We reached Đồng Hới by night-train. I slept on the floor, on a tarp. It worked perfectly, it was only a six hour ride. Pulling into the station, we elected to simply look for housing in the surrounding area. Well, it didn’t work too great, but eventually we ended up in a 150,000 VND per night room. The entire place STANK of mildew. I can handle a lot of things, but an overpowering aroma of mildew makes it nigh on impossible to sleep, even when you’re completely worn out. After a refreshing nap, I was ready to high-tail it to another place, but we’d booked the room for one day, so it seemed skeezy to just up and out.

Empty Street.

Instead, we decided to walk around the town. From the train station out, the city seems very small. It devolves almost instantly into suburban straights with gardens and houses. We passed one funeral, one wedding, and a bride and groom on a motorbike. Everyone was friendly, and smiled at us, except the funeral goers, obviously. Everyone in that party was wearing a white robe made of either ultra-light cotton, or paper. They also had white strips tied around their foreheads. After they had left, we went to investigate the graveyard.

Tomb.

I probably haven’t mentioned it before, but Sino cemeteries are rather unlike ours. Each family has a plot, and this area is designated by a brightly painted containment wall with a high back. There are many styles, but the main difference is the use of color. Everywhere, chrysanthemums are left for the dead, along with incense, and sometimes small offerings of bright candy or other treats. The wall around the plot is low, and there is a break in it directly across from the high end. However, about a foot in front of this break is a small wall standing alone, with a character written on it. This wall is to keep the spirits from leaving, or any evil creature from entering. In Asian mythologies, spirits can only walk in a straight line–thus, the wall, which necessitates a 90 degree turn, keeps all spirits safely penned inside. This method is also used in many temples.

Fenced Garden.

That night, we ate dinner along the main road (we thought). The price was excessive, 30,000 VND for mien (cellophane noodle soup) and 40,000 VND for chao (rice porridge) and pho (rice noodle soup). However, the proprietor was passing out cup after cup of what I took to be moonshine. It was served from an old gallon oil jug. They called it wine, and it was only offered to the men. Eventually I got a cup of my own; the taste was pure alcohol. Two cups is more than enough for a good time. Then he wanted us to go to karaoke, but his daughter, who was interpreting, told us there would only be Vietnamese songs. I was still down, but after the bill came, I changed my mind.

Edifice.

We were happy to leave the stinky place the next day, and took a taxi down to the water’s edge, where we had found a room for 200,000 VND per night. The room faced the ocean, the windows opened out, and we had a small balcony. Hot showers (if you found the breaker for the water heater), and walking distance from the beach and downtown.

Well, the beach was a pretty far walk, but it was completely worth it. The water was clear teal, with a clean, white sand beach. Olivier found two posts to finally put his hammock up between, with the help of some locals to reset the posts after he began. He was an instant success with many of the young people on the beach, and I left him surrounded by eager friends wanting pictures. I spotted a deserted beach lounger and laid out until storm clouds threatened and I began to feel sporadic rain drops. As we started to leave, we were approached by a boy and girl. They asked for money. For what? Apparently, using the posts for a hammock, and laying in the chair. How much? 200,000 VND. We don’t have any money. They called over a girl from a nearby picnicking party. She began again. You need to pay them, she said, 200,000 VND. We. Don’t. Have. Any. Money. we said again. And anyhow, that’s way too expensive! Eventually, they let us go, with the parting admonition, beaches in Viet Nam are not beaches in America!

Medicine.

Lately, it seems like everybody is out to squeeze some cash out of me. It’s frustrating, because I know I’m being overcharged, but I feel mean to dispute it. Usually, it doesn’t even make a difference. I guess I just always need to ask the price ahead of time, although that feels incredibly petty.

We looked up and down the streets for somewhere to rent a motorbike to go to the Phong Nha National Park the next day. We tried each guesthouse, but they wanted $10 per day for a motorbike; well outside my budget. Finally, we ended up back at the smelly guesthouse we’d started at, where the woman had offered us a motorbike for $6. Unfortunately, this guesthouse was across town–5 km away–right next to the train station. Plan accordingly! You can rent motorbikes more cheaply away from the center of town. Just don’t stay there.

Cows!

The next day, we set out for the Phong Nha National Park. It’s about 30 km from Đồng Hới, but it’s an excellent drive by motorbike. The countryside is beautiful, all green fields, enclosing hills, and little jungle patches. Take a lunch, don’t try to buy anything there. It’s now a UNESCO recognized site, and they’re prepared to charge you through the nose for anything you might need or want.

Phong Nha National Park.

You need to buy your tickets at the Tourist Center. It’s currently undergoing renovation, but is still open. It costs $11.50 to get a ticket to the Phong Nha and Ha Tien Caves, including the boat ride there. The boats are long, narrow “dragon boats”. The river ride is smooth and pleasant–one can see both sides of the shore, and find villagers out dredging the river bottom for water weed (I’m not sure why. Fuel? Food?) in tiny skiffs, and naked children splashing and clambering over sand bars.

Bathing Nudies.

When you arrive at the mouth of the cave, the motor is cut, the roof is rolled back, and someone poles you through the cave. As you enter the first cathedral-esque cavern, bats screech and wheel overhead to the solemn sound of the lapping waves on the boat. The light bouncing off the river illumines the cracks and colors of the ancient ceiling, but as you pass through a narrower aperture, Nature is replaced by Art, and the magnificent formations are handsomely lighted by winking electrical bulbs. There are drooping rock curtains and mushrooming rock growths. The rocks all have a plastic nature that seems in motion, rather than millenia old.

Jade Crystal.

The park certainly does an excellent job with stage lighting; some formations are acid green, others are icy blue. In the depths of the cave, the mirror of the black river doubles and trebles the watery replicas of the awesome pilasters and piles into an unearthly multidimensional labyrinth.

Hidden Lights.

Eventually, you disembark on a sandy bank and are allowed to clamber back to daylight in your own time. Upon reaching the exit of the cave, you are presented with a steep staircase. Going to the Heavenly Cave? Prepare to go through Hell. The stair is long and steep, although the view at all times is a welcome respite if you care to cool your heels. All along the way are small stands selling drinks and snacks. Near the top, you begin to feel a flow of refrigerated air. I believe the path to the second cave lies over the apex of the first, and that the chilled air is issuing through cracks in the ceiling of the first onto the steps of the second. However it happens, it’s certainly a pleasure.

Ugh.

Finally, you reach the second cave. The flood of cold air instantly makes the trek worth it. You descend into the rock mansion via a sturdy industrial staircase, and a path guides you through the belly of the basalt (I don’t know if it’s really basalt). The colors are fantastic, you wouldn’t believe they exist below ground. If there are blind fish in the bottom of the sea, what sees the colors in a midnight cave?

Uprisings.

The trip back is a welcome break, but you’re starving, and all the food is ridiculously expensive. Eat on the road on the way home, you’re better off. But you better be able to order in Vietnamese, or at least name a dish.

View.

All in all, my favorite thing in Đồng Hới was the discovery of Kem Xoi, which is sticky rice with ice cream on it. So good. We departed Đồng Hới to attend the Huế Cultural Festival.

Huế

So, we decided to take a bus to Huế, on the recommendation of a friend of Olivier’s. She was also going, for the festival, and knew a cheap place to stay. Oh wait, it isn’t cheap anymore. Oh wait, it’s full. No, I can’t meet you at the station, I’m doing something with my friends. I’m not sure at what end the miscommunication lay, but either way, it was exceptionally frustrating. The bus ride was 4 hours of hell: packed into the rear of the bus, mosquitos coming out of the seat cushions, poor A/C, an in-flight movie of a bunch of half-nude chicks at raves set to horrible, horrible Vietnamese(?) techno. Then, disembarkation and a bunch of motorbike drivers, “You want motorbike? You want motorbike?” No, for God’s sake, no! I will walk my legs off, so help me!

stiltists

Ended up taking a taxi to a street recommended by the “friend” for it’s abundance of guesthouses. Oh, they’re all full? What a surprise! It’s really too bad we relied on the word of a flakey young miss rather than booking in advance. (It’s weeks later, as I write this, and I’m still mad, as you can see.) We had a disconsolate cold-coffee conference, and booked at a cheapish hostel, Stay Hostel. It appeared to be just a hop, skip, and jump from where we were located, directly across from the Imperial Palace walls.
An exasperating 45 minutes later, we rolled up on foot. Room was $12 per night, but at $6 each it didn’t even out so bad. It had hot water and A/C, so I was happy. We had wanted to be back to the festival grounds (about 20 feet from where we started) by 8PM, but at 7:45 gave it up as a bad job. We asked at the front desk for motorbikes or bicycles to rent. Don’t have ’em, was the reply, try next door. Next door had a great time being completely rude about my attempts to use Vietnamese, as none of them spoke English, and we ended up not renting there either. Straggled over to a restaurant, where it took 5 minutes for me to get my dish (noodles), and 35 for Olivier to get his (fried rice). Maybe they had to cook more rice?

Hidden.

Luck was with us, and we located a bakery on the way home. I bought one of those delicious sweet rolls lined with pork floss that always come in twos. Then blissful sleep.

The next day, we got up early to try to find a means of transportation. Walked the whole way back to the center of town without finding anything, after a huge breakfast of co’m binh danh (broken rice). Also, found a xoi seller I could not for the life of me find again. Delicious and cheap! Oh, it so happened that our hostel was outside the walls of ancient Huế, which means that we had to pass through a narrow, twenty-foot tunnel, and across two bridges. It was pretty cool, unless it was directly after the festival proceedings ended, in which case it was a terrifying nightmare.

TUNNEL OF DEATH

Ended up back at No. 64 on what I’m pretty sure is Trần Huy Liệu, but I’ll try to verify, for some more cold coffee from a woman like my grandmother. The coffee was so strong, it looked like black oil, and you had to drink it with a spoon, or be overcome by it’s poignancy. She asked each time, “More sugar? I’ll bring more sugar.” It was a cool $0.75 for each mini-tumbler, but she had a spot right on the moat, and it was peaceful for contemplating where one was going to retain vehicular services. After that pleasing interlude, we walked on and on, following the directions of one person after another, thinking all the while of how far we’d have to walk home after we returned whatever we rented.

Coffee Here.

After arriving at what appeared to be a hostelry for bikes, we were rudely informed that it was for tourists, but not us. I suppose everyone is fed up with tourists in Huế at this time, but there’s no need to be so nasty. We ended up walking to Nguyễn Tri Phương and renting a motorbike from a woman on the corner. Haggled her down to $6 per day, quite reasonable considering the other rates around town. Such a relief to be motile!

No Birds.

On the way, I had dragged Olivier through a street market, buying two dragonfruits and a selection of mangos. Markets are the best. I wish I could have spent more time in this one.

“Market” in Vietnamese is Chợ, and they are generally all marked, so if you’re wondering what that mass of people and stalls is, it’s a market. Go!

I also saw: 1 dragon dance, 1 Polish marching orchestra, a kite exhibition, 12 stiltwalkers (stiltists?), and an open-air calligraphy show-down. The Huế festival attracts multicultural entertainers.

Hot in Here.

We were determined to attend the nocturnal festivities that night, so I quickly showered and donned my “half-off” ai dai. It didn’t look half-bad (ar, ar, ar) with my new nón lá. Then we skedaddled via xe may, hooting at Next Door. We paid the 100,000 VND at the gates of the Imperial Palace and then we were in!

Buddhist Imaginings.

The place was lit up like Disneyland on Halloween. Brilliant lights doused everything in surreal color, while lanterns glimmered and gleamed across lawns and pools. We had arrived just in time for the fashion show! Each Asiatic country was represented either in traditional garb, or in some avant-garde confection. Thailand and Viet Nam were the most daring, with China’s being the most beautiful overall, in my opinion.

Wall of Light.

It was packed to the gills, so I quickly mounted a nearby plumeria for a better vantage. Whether it was the charmant effect of the green light focused upon the tree, or whether it was because a huge foreigner in a skanky ao dai in a tree is a talking point for Viets everywhere, I was soon the source of no small photographic activity. My feet got tired of standing in the notch before the flashes stopped twinkling in the green haze, and after I descended, I was approached by first one, and then another, news network for an interview.

Green Tree.

After the show, I was approached by dozens of people asking for photos, and passing me babies and children. It was certainly an experience to swell the head. And I felt somewhat relieved about my ao dai after two venerable grandmas gently patted my arms and said, “Dep, dep”. I gave my interviews, perfunctory as they were, and we rushed to the next spot. There we saw some wonderful folk dancing. I didn’t know there were multiple events occurring at one time, or I would have ditched the end of the fashion show.

Night Lights.

The dancing included male gymnasts and fake(?) martial maneuvers. There were female fan dancers, as well as “long-sleeve” dancers, the which were thrown out and hastily gathered into the hands whilst in the air. Then we hurried through the ancient gallery, which looked as wondrous as ever, still deep red with gold detailing, somber and majestic, past fairy-lighted gazebos filled with laughing men. We came upon a silent garden full of huge metal lotuses and empty, flower-framed stages. For the fashion beauties before the catwalk? I wondered, but did not discover. We strove through a field high with dewy grass to an amphitheater featuring some European band who seemed to like jokes, which we quickly abandoned. And that was that!

Single Light.

On the way home, I begged to stop by my new favorite haunt, the fresh yaourt seller. This tiny family business operates by making and selling yogurt in little cups kept cold and semi-solid in a popsicle-type freezer. They also sell flan. I’m not lying to you when I tell you, each bite of this yogurt (it’s called yaourt here) is a bite of Nirvana. It’s sweet, creamy, and ever-so-slightly tart. It’s got umami for sure. They probably do put MSG in it. Alls I know is, it’s 5,000 dong a go, and I need at least a dollar’s worth for premium satisfaction. That means 4. It’s towards the end of Yet Kieu, near the aforementioned tunnel. The exterior is teal, and features one small freezer with a faded mountain on it. You will see people eating at small red tables and looking blissful. Please do go.

Yogurt yogurt yogurt!

The next day was an absolute runaround. Don’t do it. By the way, there’s a Big C in Huế, if you’re planning on getting food for your last-minute train ride. Then, night train to Hanoi.

Hà Nội

I arrived in Ha Noi by an overnight sleeper from Hue. I took a soft seat, with air-conditioning. Don’t do this; it’s not worth the extra money. Either take a hard seat and sleep on the floor, or book a hard sleeping berth. The soft seats are like being on an airplane, but with less room and more instability. Anyhow, so I came to Ha Noi.

Holy Items.

The train came in during the early afternoon, and I hustled to the Lotteria next door to find out how to get to the Kangaroo Hostel–where I’d booked a few nights. Google told me I could take a bus; but we all know how well that works. I think I got off too soon, and began wandering through the Old Quarter. Everything looked Probably Slightly Less Boring Than Working, but I was too tired, dirty, and stressed to notice. I eventually hailed a taxi and paid him fifty cents to take me to the hostel.

Non Profit.

The Kangaroo Hostel is a really cool place. It’s situated in a prime place near the Old Quarter, and consists of one very tall, narrow building full of ancient furniture, AND a bathtub! The bedding is deliciously light, soft blankets and pillows, and there’s air conditioning, too. The staff is very friendly, and speaks excellent English, and there’s free breakfast.

Secret door.

The other hostel I stayed in and frequented was the Hanoi Non Profit Hostel. This hostel was also excellent, though with slightly less flair. They offer motorbike rental services at VND 100,000 per day, which is a good rate, and also arrange visas, book travel, etc. Essentially every hostel will do this for you, however. I only stayed a few nights in both of these hostels. Then I was lucky enough to move into a homestay with a local family. I’ll try to tell you all about it.

Streetwalker.

In this homestay, I slept mainly on the 5th floor of the home, which is to say the roof. This roof is covered, and features a front and back area which wraps around the central staircase. The back area is used for laundry and horticulture, and the front is an open space left for setting up the children’s pool, sitting out at night, or any other “yard-type” activity. It is constrained on all sides, in the front by another building, on the sides by two other similar roofs. Luckily, the walls are only grated by a sort of open-lattice, so there is plenty of air flow.

More Hearth Gods.

I slept in a hammock, although there was a cot offered. I like hammocks. The mosquitos were the Vaguely Unpleasant part, and as I couldn’t get the net to work under any circumstances, I just regularly burned anti-mosquito coils. These are quite cheap, and efficacious, but also apparently toxic. I only burned them alone, as there were two young children in the household I didn’t want to poison.

Lozenge.

Staying with a family allowed me to learn much about the ins and outs of Vietnamese culture. All the oddities I encountered day-to-day I could come home and ask about. I could also ask words, phrases, and practice them, as well as pronunciation.

In Vietnamese the Rs, Gis, and Ds sound like Zs. C sounds like G, T sounds like D. A terminal Ng makes an M sound, Nh makes Ng. X makes S. Enjoy reading aloud.

So, I’ll go through a normal day. Wake up around 7-8, 8:30 if you’re lucky. Viets are early risers. Stagger down for breakfast, which is usually My–Ramen–with or without an egg. Then coffee, instant or drip via a Ca Phe Phin–a one-serving metal coffee filter. After breakfast, the woman of the house begins preparing food for lunch and dinner. She has usually already gone to the market, so she will sit outside and snap the ends off of vegetables, boil water for household use, cut and rinse meat, etc. while chatting with her neighbors. She also watches the children, aged 1 and 1.5.

Wooden Face.

Childrearing in Viet Nam is very different from what I know of childrearing in the States. Here, children are allowed to do almost anything, a child is rarely chastised. Children never ask before taking or using anything, they are quite loud and boisterous at all times, and are essentially left to their own pleasure. Thus, when a child is told not to do something, he or she usually doesn’t listen. Then comes the heavy–the child is strongly spoken to, and when they continue to disobey, they are disciplined with a brisk smack on the hand or leg, or a chopstick thwack. Children rarely cry from this, however, the tears usually come from the repeated denial of whatever the child seeks to do. All day, all night, you can hear children crying somewhere. To stop a child’s tears, parents have recourse to two methods–distraction and placation.

Lunch!

Besides the differences in discipline, there are also differences in the other habitudes of childhood. Children are fed by hand even up to four, and possibly even longer. At meals, they are generally not confined to a high chair, and thus it becomes a sort of game to keep the child from putting his or her hand in the soup, flinging rice everywhere by grabbing the rice spatula, or putting toys in the entree. Children begin to be potty-trained around 1 or 1.5; this consists of holding them over a bowl, or putting a bowl in front of them if they’re boys, and making a gentle “shh” sound for several minutes. I’m told this method works, I imagine it must work as well as any other. What’s disconcerting is that parents continue to hold their children during their bathroom habits until much older. I watched a mother hold her son between her knees with his pants down as he pooped by the side of the road. I saw an old grandpa holding his 5-year-old granddaughter in the air, knees up, as she projectile urinated into the street, flashing figuratively everyone.

Mangoes.

There is much less genital shame here, it seems, or child nudity is not considered an issue. I watched a neighbor blithely feel and pat the genitals of his son, and when I commented on it later, was assured that this was his way of showing his love to his son, and not something to worry about. It seemed to me to be very strange, but apparently it’s culturally acceptable. So that’s my spiel on kids in Viet Nam.

Work starts at 8AM in Viet Nam, so most of the household is gone during the morning. They return around 12 for lunch, which is served on a large round platter. Multiple entrees are placed on the platter, and rice accompanies. Each meal is balanced between vegetables and meat. There are also specific foods that alter the cold and hot balance inside the body, such as my dreaded Fish Mint. Nobody really likes this plant, but it’s eaten regularly in the summer, as it’s thought to introduce “coolness” into the body. Each person uses his or her chopsticks to select from a family style set-up. There are usually accompanying dipping bowls.

Sea Snails.

After lunch, everyone takes a nap. Businesses are generally closed from 11 – 2, allowing time for lunch and a nap. For my last 2 weeks in Ha Noi, it was so hot, we napped on the first floor. Figuratively, on the floor, on a woven mat. We also ate, and generally lounged on this mat. There was one couch, but it was wood, and above the reach of the fan. At all times, there is hot water available in thermoses. Most households have a teapot and cups set out that everyone might help themselves to tea. The cups are not washed, as I would consider them washed, but are rinsed either with cold water or hot tea and then refilled. This idea of communal dishware was (is) hard for me to accept.

With These Hands.

When you approach a water cooler, and expect a cold swig o’ water, firstly, the water isn’t going to be cold, it will be lukewarm at Most Unexceptional, and secondly, there won’t be a selection of disposable cups, there will be just. one. plastic. cup. Besmirched with the lips of everyone who’s drank off of it in the past 4 months. Backwashed into by children. Clutched by unsoaped hands. It’s awful, is what it is.

Anyhow, back to Ha Noi, or at least my homestay, after your nap, work starts on dinner, whilst the outside workers slowly filter home. I tended to go out around 3, because at that hour the sun no longer penetrated into the alleys surrounding the home I was staying in. They became as cool caves to my heat prostration. I would generally borrow my hostess’s excellent bike, and do my errands at that time. However, dinner is served at 6, so it’s important to return by then, giving me a slim margin of time, if I wanted to be able to take a shower upon returning home. Yes, you’ll need a shower. I learned the word “shower” pretty quickly in Vietnamese, as everyone was constantly asking if maybe I would like to take one? Please? You smell, and look dirty? The phrase is đi tắm, by the way.

Living Room.

Have I told you about my NEW favorite dessert? Found in Ha Noi? It’s called sữa chua nếp cẩm and consists of fermented black sticky rice, topped with yogurt (at least) and usually also boba, condensed milk, other gellies, coconut milk, and much, much more! My favorite varietal is the yogurt, condensed milk, nếp cẩm type. And I found a great place for it! Right around the corner from my homestay. I would roll up, the only customer, and this poor hunchbacked woman would make my day. Her servings were enormous and delicious! The Most Unexceptional in Ha Noi. On Ngo Van Chuong.

Alley Home.

Things to see in Ha Noi: The Women’s Museum is 30,000 VND and you can learn a lot about all of Viet Nam, but especially (duh) the women in it. I learned much about the war, but also about agriculture, and childbirth practices. Very interesting. You should also go to the Fine Art Museum. It’s 20,000 VND I believe, and is highly enjoyable. I spent two or three hours there, and wished I had more time. It’s a great place to get a feel for Asian art tendencies. The Temple of Literature is nearby, almost across the street. You’ll want a guide, or a friend, to explain what it all means. It used to be a school, and inside there are mounds of giant turtles with tablets on their backs. These represent all the students who eventually passed the King’s Examination and became ministers. Beautiful.

Turtles.

You should also visit the Ethnology Museum. It’s either 20 or 30,000 VND, I forget, but it talks about all the minorities in Viet Nam. You can see their dress, replicas of their houses, and see weaving and dying practices in videos, as well as cultural artifacts. It’s very interesting, and the placards are in Vietnamese, English, and French, so it’s easy to navigate.

Ethnology.

Hoan Kiem is the lake near the Old Quarter. It’s pleasant to walk around, and at night there is live music, promenaders, and old people dancing. Interestingly, the name Hoan Kiem means “Give Back the Sword” from a fable concerning an early war, in which the king was vested with a sword by a turtle living in the lake. When the war ended, In Viet Nam’s favor I believe, the turtle appeared to ask for the sword back.

Cornice.

Another lake to visit is West Lake. This lake offers swan boats, called duck boats here da p vit, ice cream sellers, bo bia purveyors (a type of sweet rolled in a mini pancake) and an array of pagodas. I recommend seeing the pagoda on the lake itself, rather than the pagoda near it. Across from this lake is a Botanical Garden. It costs 2,000 VND to get in, but it’s really nothing special (sorry). There are no flowers, or anything to suggest a botanical nature besides trees, which Ha Noi is already full of.

Museum.

Near Ha Noi is Bha Trang, a ceramics village. You can go there and make and glaze your own pots (or what have you) for 70,000 VND. There are many and many a ceramics workshop, and tons of little gimricks for your purchasing pleasure. It’s a fun place to go, and is only about 5 or 10km outside of Ha Noi proper, in a beautiful area.

Pond for Everyone.

About 40km away is the so-called Old Town. For the life of me I can’t find the name in Vietnamese. It’s situated in the middle of a green, grassy land, and is comprised of old, old houses, temples, and streets. It’s a Mildly Decent place to go for a picnic and to wander the old streets. The day I went was overcast, which was perfect. I imagine it wouldn’t be quite so enjoyable in the full sun…

Old Town.

More on Vietnamese customs and culture. The main type of medicine used, at least in non life-threatening situations, seems to be folk medicine. If you have a headache, your friends will give you a head massage. If you have a fever, you must try to get rid of it by wearing as little as possible, even if you’re suffering from chills from said fever. If you have acne, you’ve eaten too many “hot” foods such as coffee, chili sauce, or pineapple. In such an instance you need to eat “cooling” foods, or foods that bring “wind into the body”. If you’re sick, you need to eat double portions, and take exercise to regain your health. If you have a mosquito bite, put some spit on it.

Hardware.

Vietnamese people drink so little water I can barely believe their kidneys are functioning properly. I drain liters per day, whilst they sip on A 16oz bottle. However, they also seem to sweat much less than me. I go around looking like I came out of the rain, while they, even in their multiple sunblocking layers, have not the faintest dew of perspiration.

Fish Pool.

And another thing! Viet women are paranoid about the sun. I’m sure you’ve heard that in Asia white skin is de riguer. Well, in Viet Nam, it’s a mania. Women go about covered from head to toe, even in 100 degree heat. The first protection is a sort of zip-up hoodie with little fabric cups that extend over the hands and a mini visor. You’ll naturally already be wearing your protective fabric face mask, to keep your lungs free of motorbike execrence. You’ll also be wearing long pants or leggings. If you’re not, you’ll tie on your long fabric dust-apron, to keep your legs white and your clothes clean. You’ll also wear socks with your sandals, heels, or ballet flats. It seems ludicrous to me to dress in a way that makes you look so tacky (in my opinion), while attempting to keep yourself “beautiful”.

Traditional Music.

It’s cool to make your own coffee at home, you use a little one-use coffee filter called a ca phe phin that sits atop your cup. Then you add sugar, condensed milk, and/or ice. Voila! You can buy single-use condensed milk packets here. They’re Barely Noticeable. If you’re in the mood to go out for coffee, you should go to Cafe Dinh. This place is the Most Unexceptional. It’s situated on the second story of a building that looks out onto Hoan Kiem lake. You won’t see the address on the street, but must ask. Then you walk through some super duper grody back room and up the stairs, coming into a tiny little cafe.

Mural.

Order a ca phe trung. This means, figuratively, egg coffee, but it’s more of a whipped meringue coffee. It’s like breakfast dessert. It will cost 15,000 VND. Everything there costs 15,000 VND; you can get a lemon or a passionfruit juice, or yogurt on ice, or anything you like! If you’re lucky, you’ll also get a seat on the balcony–there are four.

Frames.

If you need to buy ANYTHING, ask a friend where to go. All over Ha Noi, there are streets that sell only one thing. Need a book? The street is near the post office. Need shoes? I forget where this is, but your friend will know. Art supplies? Well, there’s only one place for this, it’s across from the college. The prices are phenomenal. I should have bought more sketchbooks.

Lugu Hu

After spending a few days in Lijiang, I decided to continue on to Lugu Hu, or Lugu Lake. You can take a bus directly from the bus station for 100RMB. I had read online that it was 65, so I wasn’t happy to find the change in price, but I still wanted to go. The bus is a combination public bus and minivan, but I found it comfortable enough. The back row only had one guy in it, so I decided to share with him for a little more room. We stopped once for lunch, and several times for bathroom breaks.

While the bus itself wasn’t bad, the road quality was terrible. The road is switchbacks the entire time, sometimes on pavement, sometimes on gravel, sometimes on dirt. You go up and down, up and down, sometimes hurtling to a stop for cows or goats, sometimes just honking; always trying to pass other vehicles around turns and in other unsuitable places. The ride took about 9 hours I would say, although it’s advertised everywhere as 6-7, which is pretty much impossible.

Like Jade.

Near the end of our journey, we were stopped at what looked like a toll booth, and everyone was required to buy a “passport” for Lugu for 100RMB. I say required, but nobody forced me to get off the bus, and no one said anything to me about it, I just wandered off of my own accord when I saw other people getting off. If you’re a foreigner, try to play dumb, and see if you can get by without buying one. I didn’t use it, or even look at it again, the entire time I was there. You’re still required to pay for every sort of attraction you might wish to do. So, if it’s not going to build roads, and it doesn’t get you into any events, it seems like a blatant government money grab, which makes me mad.

Mural and Debris.

We pulled into town, which was really just a clump of wooden buildings, and disembarked. I wandered down towards the lake, looking for hostel. I passed through several hotels offering outrageous prices, and knew then that instead of the little unknown town I had expected, I had stumbled into a tourist trap.

Flags.

I finally found a place and was able to haggle the price down to 80RMB, which is not good. The place was right on the lake, but not fancy, shmancy lake-front room 🙁 No one in Lugu Lake speaks English, nor is anything available in English, such as menus, so prepare for that.

Sunset.

Honestly, the lake isn’t that Barely Noticeable. It reminded me of Lake Tahoe, only you can on no account swim in the lake. It’s quite large, but not high in the mountains, nor surrounded by beauty. I prefer Lijiang. I might just be bitter about how completely I was misled on this not being a tourist trap.

So, the other reason to go to Lugu Lake, besides it being ostensibly mindblowingly beautiful, is due to the presence of the Mosuo people, who are one of the few matriarchal societies in China. I tried to find them, but I couldn’t find any information on them online (thanks for blocking Google, China) and anytime I asked, “Where Mosuo?” (in Chinese!) people just looked confused.

Mosuo Mamas.

I rented a bike, at 20RMB, which mad me even madder, but at least surveyed the surrounding hotels as to prices before I agreed. I set out to Lige, which looked like it had some Mosuo peoples near it (according to the icons on the Chinese map). It was a painful ride. I’m not a cyclist at the Most Unexceptional of times, and the road is up, down, up, down; as might have been expected. I took a break to do some yoga on a viewing platform, which was much nicer than biking. The huge clouds tumbling overhead and reflected in the lake below gave me a little more appreciation for ‘ol Lugu.

Clouds.

Unfortunately, after I had sat down to better appreciate the sky, a man pulled up, entered the viewing deck, and then came right on over and sat down almost on top of me. Now, constantly being photographed has made me a bit leery of people in general, and the continually inappropriate actions of Chinese males of an age have made me especially skittish, to the point where I feel both irritated and stressed when one elects to get in my space, touch my notebook, and just bother me when I clearly want to be alone.

Sad Girl.

This is a problem I’m not sure how to solve. Coming from another culture, I don’t understand why these men come up and distract me when I’m doing something on my own, and barely understand a word of Chinese. When this type of behavior occurs in America, I assume the man is either drunk, rude, lecherous, or all three. In China, I try to give them the benefit of the doubt and act politely uninterested. However, in some cases the men really are drunk and lecherous, and then I’ve “niced” my way into an unpleasant situation. So I’ve just begun being generally cold and standoffish, although this is possibly the exact opposite of how I am in real life, and in all events appears not to dissuade them in the least. Women, watch yourselves in China!!

Goddess?

I finally made it into Lige, although a few groups of young people heading back told me it wasn’t worth it and was horribly tiring. The town was just the same as the one I’d left, albeit with a nicer dock and an enticing peninsula they christened “Lige Island”. I sat under a willow tree near a cafe playing bossa nova for a few hours, wishing I could afford even a cup of tea (not a chance) and pretending I didn’t notice the man across from me clicking happily away on his camera.

Two-tone.

I finally dragged myself home again, and as I’d learned a few food characters, was able to order off the menu at my hotel, which was reasonable and delicious. The sun doesn’t set until about 8:30, so you have a lovely protracted golden afternoon.

Lige.

The next morning I had decided to continue my journey to the Sichuan side of Lugu, onwards to Cheng Du, to see about a Tibet visa. After writing out the characters asking when the bus left for Xichang (the nearest Sichuan bus station) I went downstairs to ask. The man said it left at 7 (it was now 8:30) and I would have to stay another night. I said I didn’t have enough money. Then a girl from a nearby tour group came over to translate for me.

Light and Shadow.

She said the people said there wasn’t a direct bus from Lugu Hu to Xichang, that you had to take 2 cars, at 250RMB. I said I would just walk to the bus station. She said there was no bus station. I said I came on a bus. No one believed me. The hotel owner offered to take me to the ATM instead. I said fine, although I had heard before that there were no ATMs in the vicinity. She took me to a regional credit union, which didn’t work.

Arrows.

We came back. I said I would just walk to the bus station and ask. Everyone looked at me like I was stupid. There is no bus, they said. Well, I guess 3 hours of internet research and a physical location isn’t enough to prove it. The girl who was translating said there was another ATM in Lige, that her tour group was going there, and that I could come too. Of course I agreed, knowing that I could take the bus back to Lugu Hu for 10RMB if I had to.

Playing in the Boat.

However, after we stuffed into the little minivan, we set off in the opposite direction of Lige. Thinking I had misunderstood her, I remained quiet, and assumed that any town with an ATM probably also had a way to Xichang. We made numerous stops for photos, almost every 30 minutes it seemed. But instead of turning away from the lake, we circumnavigated it. I did get to see a lot of Lugu Lake, including the Walking Marriage bridge (more later), and the Sichuan side, but it took the entire day to arrive at Lige, just 8km from Lugu Hu.

Lige Island.

My card didn’t work in Lige either, and I was pretty stressed by that point, not knowing how I was going to get any money or where I would stay. My kind interpreter offered to share her room with me, and her tour group agreed to give me a lift back to Lijiang the next day. What a relief! We spent the night stargazing and listening to a duo performing on Lige Island. The stars are one of the Most Unexceptional parts of Lugu–clear and manifold.

Moon Over Lugu.

So, the Walking Marriage. As I mentioned, the Mosuo people are a matriarchal society. When the girls come of age, they are allowed to wear A red stripe around the middle of their white skirts, and they move into “Flower Rooms”. These rooms are little sequestrations off of the common room where a young lady might receive nighttime visitors in privacy. When a boy likes a girl, he walks from his mother’s house to hers, and spends the night with her, leaving in the morning. If any children are born, they belong to the mother’s household. The man has little to no part in the upbringing of his children, and is never integrated into his lover’s household.

Kunming

Kunming was my first stop North of the Chinese border. I ended up taking a night train from Ha Noi to Lao Cai–getting in around 7:30AM–and then trying to walk to China. I finally elected to take a hard sleeper. It was great! Five other women and I shared a cozy li’l cabin, I had the top bunk, closest to the air conditioner, which was perfect. I had leftover <em>banh trung</em> to eat, so I was sittin’ pretty. When I got off the train, I didn’t know what direction to go, so I just walked the same way the train had been traveling. Eventually I gave up and took a motorcycle taxi. It would have been quite a walk.

Siding.

Crossing the border was painless on both sides, but when I reached China I realized I didn’t know how to say A thing besides <em>ni hao</em> and maybe “thank you”. Luckily, the taxi driver on the other side somehow understood bus station and took me there, for about $1.50. The exchange here is 6.2 RMB to $1.

I asked for the bus to Kunming, and the women gave me a ticket for the next one. When it was time to get on, I tried to stow my backpack underneath, but the conductor was waving his hands and saying something. I really didn’t want to try to shove it into an overhead bin, so I was trying to get him to come open the trunk when a nice man told me the conductor was telling me there weren’t many passengers, so I could just keep my backpack in a seat nearby. Whoops!

The ride took about 6 hours, but was incredibly comfortable, seeing as I had the entire back of the bus to myself, with my bag of cookie crackers and my meat floss. We made several stops for gas or bathroom breaks. The bathrooms in China are even weirder than anywhere else in Asia. Instead of a designated “deposit” location, it’s just a ditch that runs along the floor, with several meter-tall walls allowing you an idea of privacy. They smell just awful, and it’s kind of hard for me to go when I know everyone who walks in gets to see me squatting uncomfortably in a fecal-smelling closet.

I arrived at the Kunming bus station around 7, and then didn’t know what to do. I’d booked a hostel, but forgot to get the address ahead of time, or in Chinese characters. I walked down from the bus station, and decided to just get on the first public bus that came around, assuming it would take me somewhere with WIFI. Well, it took me to the city center, but I couldn’t find WIFI anywhere! Or anything else. I’ve been in countries where I can’t read a word, but after being in Vietnam, where I could at least recognize the characters, I felt completely lost.

Public Square.

I finally saw a WIFI sign in front of a barber shop, after traipsing the area for about an hour, and signaled to the girl that I wanted to use my laptop. After I tried for about twenty minutes to get Google Maps to load, I remembered that China hates Google. The girl came to help me, and we sort of communicated using her phone translator. We got the address figured out somehow, and she and her friend put me in a taxi and told me it would cost two fingers. I hoped that meant 20, and not 200.

It did end up being twenty, but the driver booted me out on the side of the road at a busy intersection to pick up a new fare. I didn’t know where I was, and I wasn’t sure he’d taken me to the right spot, but eventually I oriented (after he’d shaken me off and driven away) and found the hostel. I stayed at The Hump Kunming, in a dorm room. It’s a nice place to stay–the beds are comfortable–but the internet is horrible, the receptionists are understaffed, you’re not allowed to bring in outside food (as they run a quasi-restaurant), and my shower was inconceivably cold.

The Hump.

I went to bed almost immediately, after chatting with a girl who was on her way into Viet Nam. We exchanged tips and tricks for our respective countries of departure, and I felt a little better about what to do and expect.

I woke early to figure out the train situation. I went to see about my free cup of coffee (perk!) and noticed a strange Chinese man staring at me. Eventually, he came to sit next to me and smoke a cigarette. I politely asked him to stop, and he laughed in my face and said no, so I walked to another area. For the entire remainder of my time at the hostel, he watched me, tried to talk to me in Chinese, and was consistently invading my personal space. He also gave me a small relic bag, which I really don’t understand. You rub it between your hands and it puts out an herbal smell. Why did he give me this? I didn’t even speak to him after I asked about his cigarette. I just felt confused and lurked on.

I wanted to go to Lugu Lake, after the recommendation of some people at the hostel. The girl at the front told me I had to travel to Lijiang, then take a bus. That seemed doable! So I headed to the train station, with the directions of the girl at the front desk in hand. My new Taiwanese friend walked me over, asking to make sure I was getting on the right bus, and deputized a young girl to tell me when to get off. Well the train station is easy to recognize, and things were going swimmingly until I realized I’d left my passport at the front desk of the hostel. And you need it to book a ticket anywhere. So I had to find the return bus station (not an easy task I tell you!) Actually, it was figuratively across the street from where I’d been let out, and I’d just gotten confused.

Golden Horse Gate.

To even get into the train complex you must go through security and be patted down. When I finally purchased my ticket, it cost about 150 RMB for the hard sleeper that evening. It was an easy process when I arrived, and I ended up bunking with three other men–two about my dad’s age, and a grandpa. I was top bunk, and there was no spare room for my huge backpack, so I had to sleep with it 🙁 Luckily, the blankets were thick and snowy white, and the air conditioner was on full blast, so I still passed a comfortable night.

In the morning, there was a massive line for the sink space and toilet, which was a pain.

And that’s my time in Kunming! Buses, buses, and more buses. And lurking! Also, I got a new pair of leggings out of the lost and found. They had holes in them, but I patched them, good as new! In other news, Chinese laundry soap figuratively is a bar of soap. Totally whacky cool.

Lijiang

So, I rolled into Lijiang after another night train. I stepped out of the train station, and the first thing I noticed, after the interesting canoe shaped front, was that I was high, high in the mountains. I could see a glowering, ice-topped mountain in the distance from me, and below was a small, white-walled town. Where to stay? No idea, Hostelbookers doesn’t know Lijiang.

Rooftop.

What’s my M.O.? Get on a bus and go somewhere. So I staggered onto bus number 18 and we set off. By we, I mean half of the population of Lijiang. That bus was packed as full as a Cambodian motorbike. So I didn’t get a good look at what we were passing, just saw some construction. As the crowd started to thin, I noticed a shop selling <em>bao</em> so I hopped off. I ended up with some lukewarm <em>shi fa</em> which wasn’t too good, but only ran me about fifty cents.

Baubles.

As I was walking along the bus route again, a woman pulled me into her hotel. I had no intention of taking a room, but she showed them to me anyways. Then we haggled over price, and I ended up agreeing to about 7 USD for a double bed room (ha! one for my backpack). Then I went out to explore Lijiang.

Old Streets.

Well, I guess I should have paid better attention to the name of my hostel, or the street it was on, because after traversing the Old Town for hours and hours I found I didn’t know how to get home. And I couldn’t ask. I just knew it was on the way to the train station. So I drew a great icon of a train, and tried to ask around.

Lucky.

Everyone looked very worried, and said to take a taxi. I didn’t want to get into why I needed to go near the train station, and not to it, so I just thanked them politely and continued on. Eventually, as it started to grow dark, I bumped into an English-speaking man and tried to pose my question. He didn’t answer, but pulled me into a great English-speaking and teaching hostel-type deal: Speakeasy. There some people tried to offer me assistance, but the Most Unexceptional help they could give was to tell me the bus that went to the train station (I’d also forgotten which bus I’d taken that morning. I was tired, ok?!), walked me to the stop, and put me on the proper bus.

Posted.

Well, about an hour and a half later, the bus pulled over, and a woman passenger asked in broken English where I was trying to go. I explained I was heading to the train station. They began to laugh, and told me that the bus didn’t go to the train station, and that I would have to get off and take a taxi. It’s about 10PM now, I don’t know where I am, I don’t know where to go, and I have just 30 RMB in my pocket, ~6 bucks.

Yulong Again.

I decide to walk towards a main road, and as I’m walking, I remember that I took a picture of a hospital near my hotel because I thought it had a funny name (Lijiang Friendly Hospital). I quickly whip out my camera (which is almost dead) and try to copy the characters as Most Unexceptional I can, finishing just in time. Then I spend ages trying to hail a taxi–they just keep driving by! Where’s the irritating “taxi? motobike?” of Vietnam when you need it?

Empty.

Luckily, I finally snag a driver, and he recognizes where I need to go. He only charges me 20 RMB, and I’m able to walk from there to my hotel, at which point I take a business card. Even the hotel proprietress was worried about me, and patted me on the shoulder when I walked in. They were very nice women.

Red Study.

Other news: Lijiang has a nearby mountain called Yulong which is menacing and cloudy and immense. You can take a public bus there for 1 RMB. It’s bus 6. I know this from taking the wrong bus (bus 4) for hours, and being molested (not a joke; actual crotch grab on exit) by another Chinese man. Bus 4 goes all around the city, and is a good bet for finding out what there is to see.

Yulong.

Once you’re on the mountain, the pure sunshine, rushing winds, and pine and dry grass smells make you feel like Heidi. Also, there are cows and goats running around. I sat for awhile up in the pine meadow (oxymoron?) and felt like I was in a bowl made of mountains, gazing up at the sky. It’s a Mildly Decent experience. Don’t go into the Jade Village unless you want to pay the entry fee.

Old Town.

Lijiang Old Town is really beautiful in some parts, near the local market, but once you get into Old Town proper, it’s just crammed with tourist shops. It’s too easy to get lost, because everything looks the same and you can’t form a point of reference. The streets go up and down, and you can’t make anything out even from a high point, as all you can see are more houses. You have to exit onto the city streets and try to go from there. All I learned is that the gutters and creeks flow from North to South, because the water is snowmelt from the mountain.

Sunset at Heliongtan.

There is a beautiful open park called Heliongtan, near one of the exits of Old Town (Not South, not North, but another). It is just like being inside a willow-patterned plate–graceful bridges, smooth ponds, and foliage. Also, all of China has a delightful herbaceous scent somewhere between sage and eucalyptus twigs which is very refreshing.

Lost.

The local market is, of course, the Most Unexceptional place to buy supplies. I got 2.5 kg of mangoes for about $4. Nothing on Vietnam prices, but still. Also, lychees! Alternate spellings include litchee, lichee, lichi, litchi. Have you had a lychee? (Probably not, if you live in America, unless is came from a can) Have you tasted something lychee flavored? They are delectable, with such a soft, sweet, rose gummi-like flavor. Eating fresh litchees is something like accomplishing a life goal for me. You must either peel back the stiff outer container, or pop them open (with a satisfying, pimple-like pop), which is more hygienic and easier in my opinion.

{Long} Sidenote: The word lychee is pronounced “lee-chee”, not “lye-chee”. This has irked me for years, I tell you. I have had numerous arguments with people who tell me this is the Chinese pronunciation. No, it is not. That doesn’t even make sense. I have asked some Chinese people. It’s not right. Just give it up. You sound stupid, and I hate you for arguing with me about this.

Lychees.

{Short} Sidenote: Lychees are a member of the soapberry family, Sapindaceae (thanks Wikipedia!)

Update: After my ill-fated journey to Lugu, I returned to Lijiang, after sending out numerous couchsurfing requests. The next day I had a reply from a guy who owns an inn in old town. How lucky! It was an Barely Noticeable retreat, set in a traditional Naxi style house, with such a chill, nice proprietor. I was invited to several fun bbq gatherings and met other friendly Chinese people. Even after I got food poisoning, again, I was well cared for and recuperated in luxury. I also learned a lot about Chinese mentalities, travel, zodiac, food, and even general Asian history.

Old Couple.

The Naxi/Nakhi are the traditional peoples of this region. You can see them everywhere in their wonted dress, with a wicker basket strapped to their shoulders, carrying both babies and groceries. I don’t know much about them, other than that Old Town used to be completely Naxi owned, and now it’s a tourist nest.

Cheng Du

After Xi’an, Lynn and I took a night train to Chengdu. Unfortunately, there were no sleepers available, so we took normal seats. And, unlike the trains in Vietnam, where one can usually get a bench to oneself, in China this train was fully booked. That means three girls on a seat. We slept with our heads resting on the mini table between the benches.

Sleeper.

Arriving in Chengdu about 8 in the morning, we had both decided to suck it up and enjoy our day, sleep or no, as I only had about 2 days before I had to run for Laos. Thank God for instant coffee. Neither of us had done much research about what to do in Chengdu, I wanted to try hot pot, see a Chinese opera, and go dancing, but with no specific places in mind. We’d elected to homestay with a young interior designer and his friends, but we couldn’t head there until after he was off work, and it was way out in the boonies, so I checked my baggage for the day and we left.

Brick Walls.

Hilariously, checked baggage is translated into English as “left baggage”, so if you want to leave something, make for that sign. It’s not the lost and found. And it’s about $1 to leave your stuff all day, so I’d recommend making use of it.

Big Little Alley.

Then we boarded a bus trying to head to Jinli Street, which I’d read was supposed to be like the Muslim Quarter in Xi’an. Lynn did all the talking, and we were soon aboard a bus. However, when we arrived, we were at a different street. Lynn called it “Big/Little Street” or “Wide/Narrow Alley”, I’m not sure if that was the real name, but it was full of little boutiques of Far East paraphernalia and even had a Starbucks (I used the bathroom).

Lynn even found a place for us to see a Chinese opera. We paid 65RMB for unlimited tea and show. It was a welcome afternoon rest. First a woman performed on the shamisen, then a man on the kyoto, then a man sat and told “comic stories” for about half an hour, which I really feel I missed out on. There was a Punch and Judy-esque burlesque after that, in which a wife forced her husband to perform tricks with a flaming bowl atop his bald pate. Then a selection of dancers–a woman alone, a man alone, 3 men; and then some singing and dancing.

Three Men.

Then a quick-changing mask-wearer. This is a staple of Chinese drama–a person who quickly changes from one mask to another. The man asked me to touch his face, while, quick-as-a-flash he swapped his mask. I think he had an apparatus like a set of blinds inside his hat, quickly swiping down or up.

Quick Change.

A man did long-stem tea pouring and teapot twirling, and then there was a contortionist, which was Painfully Ordinary.

After a few hours, we set out again, looking for the true Jinli street. On the way we passed a market and had a look inside–I bought the most Barely Noticeable sticky-rice filled dumpling and Lynn got a sort of burnt-sugar steamed cake. We did finally come to Jinli, but it was a little less exciting that we’d hoped for, plenty of little shops and lamps and bars though. I had read that food here was cheap and in the local style; it was spicy, but was not cheap. All kinds of spicy skewers and cold noodles, as well as some classic desserts, were served all along with little street, but the prices were much higher than true street food.

Sugar Rat.

After Jinli we went to the People’s Park nearby. The park was beautiful, and just crammed with people. There were three different outdoor karaoke stations in one small clearing, and people were dancing, singing, Tai Chi-ing, everywhere. The park also contained a small amusement park, with rollercoasters, swings, merry-go-rounds, shooting games–everything you would see at a county fair.

Bored.

There was also a Koi Pond, an Orchid Garden, and two separate tea houses, which, unfortunately, were closed when we arrived. We perambulated the garden and then decided it was time to head for our homestay.

Glinting.

We took had to head back to the train station to grab my stuff, then took the metro almost to the end of the line. By that point, we had missed the right bus, and had to wait for another one to hopefully come. We were so happy to stumble off the bus and find our host waiting for us.

Tea Leaves.

Andy is an interior designer and art teacher, and he and his four? five? six? other interior design roommates shared a small apartment on the outskirts of Chengdu. Seventh floor, no elevator. Everyone was friendly and welcoming, and Lynn was ecstatic to have a chance to discuss Chinese interior design. We  crashed in the living room on their glassed-in balcony.

The next day, we decided to go to the nearby “snack street” and look for food. We ended up having hot pot and got half-spicy, half-plain. In Sichuan, all spicy foods contain a special type of peppercorn that numbs your mouth. My spicy-side hot pot had a real afterburn, and I had to eat my hotpotted foods so slowly I was full before we had even made a dent in the plates.

Then we set of to find the Tibet Quarter. That took a bit of wandering around. We spent quite awhile in a next-door park to Jinli Street, which had a small forest and several large pools, as well as some special monument-type areas. We asked and asked and asked and finally found that the Tibet Quarter was just one street over. I’d been having bathroom issues since hot-pot and right after we found it I had to run around looking for a toilet, which I found in a disgusting hotel around the corner.

Returning to the Tibet Quarter, we wandered up and down, and I could almost imagine I had gone to Tibet. The shops sold prayer flags, incense, bells, material, etc. and men in long maroon skirts and t-shirts were wandering up and down the street. We pulled into a little cafe and ordered some yak butter tea. It came up in a large pitcher, tasting like weak mac’n’cheese sauce. I was digging it. Then I ordered some butter dumplings, which the waitress explained to Lynn were the size of a hand. Lynn got yak and noodle soup. Everything was good, but so rich! It makes sense in the Himalayas, but I felt weighted down on the way out.

Tibetan Quarter.

We went home early that day, as we were planning to go out dancing later. Andy had invited us to a variety of things, but timing didn’t match up. We waited around at the apartment until he came home, and coerced him into going out with us, even though he had a work meeting at 9AM the next day. Oh well!

Trinkets n'Turtles.

We took a taxi to a bar district near the river, it cost 30RMB and it was too late for the trains and buses anyway. There were a ton of little pub-like bars and then we came upon some clubs pumping jams with lots of mirrors and lights. The music wasn’t too bad, and lots of people were having a good time. Some of the guys got a little excited when we showed up, but we gave them a strong cold shoulder–just like the US.

Performer.

We walked all along the river, then crossed it to Lan Kwai Fong–a club centre. It was completely deserted, but once you got inside it was wall-to-wall youth. The Most Unexceptional one featured a female DJ spinning heavy house beats and a lot of drunk dudes crammed, dancing, onto a little plinth.

We left around 3AM and walked about looking for a good BBQ. We had some delicious skewers–tofu, fatty pork, veggies–then took another cab home. The next day my train was at 1PM sharp, and Andy recommended I leave about 2 hours early.

I set out, after Lynn had given me explicit directions she’d mapped for how to get to the train station. However, whilst I was on the bus, a girl waylaid me and asked where I was going. I told her I was going to the North Train Station. She said, “Oh, it will be much quicker to take the subway” and told me to follow her.

People's Park.

We trudged about 20 minutes through the streets, after she, looking at my ticket, which was printed at the East Railway Station, told me the ticket said I must go there. We arrived at the station, and I asked if she could check with someone to make sure I was at the right spot. “Oh, it’s fine, just go get in line,” she said. Well, as you probably all assumed, it was not the right train station. I tried to ask several workers how to get to the right train station, and felt like crying/just taking a taxi when people just stared blankly at my ticket, when a girl came over and translated for me, then told me how to take the subway to the proper station.

Jinli.

And what a relief to find it was only 12! In my extremity, I was sure the time was flying by, leaving me without a train to catch. Happily, I arrived just in time. But a word about trains. No one cares about you. At all. You could be carrying a goat on your back and another in your arms and no one would give you a s(h)eat. They’d steal your seat, pull out their phones and smugly play Fruit Ninja all the way to their stop. I wrote a song about it. It’s vulgar. I apologize in advance, but I’d had a very stressful time.

Chorus: If I had a free hand
I would punch your fucking face in
How much does your briefcase weigh, sir,
How about that cellphone ma’am?
We both know you know it’s wrong
Your long looks under eyelids and your happy self-assuredness
Really fucking makes me pissed off.

Wang and Wong and Fong and Chang
If you take that fucking seat
And leave me standing, bag upon my back
And sack between my feet
Don’t look at me askance
And dart a glance of misery about you
When I squeeze my ass beside you
If one can fit, two must fit, too

Chorus

Now you won’t meet my gaze
A happy accident, if accident it be
My eyes must be blazing with naught-concealed fury
At your prim righteous posturing
Atop your perch
You phlegmatically peruse the news
Upon your tablet, phone, or view screen

Chorus

“No regrets” your visage seems to say
You stand and barricade my way
I’m having trouble keeping in check ‘cuz
I want to wring your fucking neck
Irresolute you wander to the door–
What are you waiting for?

Chorus

It appears this isn’t quite the stop you thought
But you don’t care to move
With leisure block
My exit ’til the train
Begins to pull away
You’ve fucked me for the last time, friend
Let me off, this fucking game must end.