A Very Cat Ba Christmas

The xe om ride to the Hue train station marked the beginning of a continuous twenty hour period of travel, in which we utilized six different modes of transportation. It's true - the overnight extravaganza from Hue to Cat Ba city took us by: moto --> 12 hour train --> taxi --> bus --> minibus --> speedboat --> minibus

We would have felt more like James Bond had we not endured half hour intervals of awaiting the train or bus here and there. Or perhaps if some paragliding or jumping off of a helicopter was involved. Alas, we made it to Cat Ba on Christmas eve, snagged simple accommodations with a fantastic view of the harbor and took in the overall quietness of the island. There is something about Cat Ba city, a friend recently mentioned, that feels like a small Florida beach town. It happens to be pock-marked by women selling strings of "pearls" and tiny shells shamed into the likeness of owls or similar oddities. There is the inevitable food mark up, and a small but pervasively growing skyline of bright, skinny and awkwardly tall guesthouses. However, there is also - everywhere outside the town itself - the beauty of the simple island and surrounding bays. While we were there, it seemed that half of the businesses were closed up for the chilly season and we couldn't have been happier with this. Happy low-key holidays to us.

For Christmas day itself, we decided to rent a moto and zip around the island, exploring, stopping for prettiness and enjoying the practically vehicle-free roads (a real gem of an oddity in Southeast Asia). We did exactly this, but it was intervals of zip inside of relaxing cruising, as the island itself is quite small and we would have been all done by noon had we zipped entirely. There are just a few roads that lead over to one port, past some caves and the national park, or along the coast. We made it to the north side of the island and parked the bike just in time to watch a young man's moto tip over under the weight of that mornings sea harvest. Thanks to Eli, he got it balanced again and was able to take off without anything collapsing. Since we didn't spy him on the road back, we assume all went reasonably well. The dock where that mini-drama unfolded was the point of a fairly picturesque and standard view of the magical bay from shore. Small basket boats with lacquered bottoms were rowed by little women in big hats, large boats lazily made their way somewhere, and the undulating hills of the islands in the distance faded gradually to a misty grey. Everything from the barnacles on the boat ramp to the silence was enthralling for more than a few moments.


On the ride home later in the day, we stopped at a stalactite cave where a ten year old boy was our guide, armed with two clunky torches and no fear of the dark. Pitch black, warm and filled with bats it was, well, a cave. Yet, still fun to romp around with a sweet little friend for ten minutes - and a real roadside attraction steal a little more than $2 for the two of us.


The views from every angle and shore are basically full of local fishermen (or fisherwomen, hosting small children in their boats), folks combing for crabs, oysters or mussels in the low-tides and various goodies drying out in the late afternoon sun. All accompanied by incredible quiet.


The next day was the real adventure treat we gave ourselves for the holiday. An all day excursion into Lan Ha bay, the morning and afternoon full of sea kayaking and lunch on the boat. Others in the group did the same or spent the day rock climbing, as this is the main place for that in Vietnam - in better weather you can even deep solo, which is to climb up a cliff and jump into the sea! Neither of us has ever sea kayaked, though it was fairly similar to a lake, as the bay itself is incredibly calm aside from the ripples created by the larger tour boats or liners sweeping by from time to time. We were set on exploring a cave, but were only able to find some coves. Not a problem, since the coves were possibly more interesting - the ecosystem inside was lush, host to tropical birds and protected from the lives and happenings outside the arches. Amazingly, there are many small floating houses and fishing set-ups throughout most of the bay and along the edge of the islands. Guard dogs, surprisingly, abound on these floating villages and hearing barking while floating mid-sea with nothing but water and sheer cliffs rising above you is mildly surreal. Equally so is the fact that these folks, mainly men, live and work out here for weeks or months at a time, as we gathered from our Vietnamese guide. To have the open space around you be a deep void of water must be a strange mix of freedom and half-imprisonment. At least, that is how I felt viewing it all.



Some chilly beach trips, relaxed town market excursions and a hotpot experience rounded our island adventuring out. As per the recommendation of the organization we went kayaking with, we got our hotpot on at Mr. Zoom's, an unassuming place under some tarps in a row of Com-Pho-Thit Cho (rice-pho-dog meat, no kidding) restaurants on a back street in town. A good sign of freshness is when your shrimp leaps off the table behind you and is found later under foot - which is exactly what happened to Eli. Luckily, a kind woman gave us a brief lesson on appropriate hot pot orderliness and behavior, or else we would have been a hot mess. (sorry, I couldn't resist)


Though we were tempted to stay a few more days and enjoy more of the pace, the ebb and flow, and quiet, we departed towards Hanoi a few days before the new year in hopes of wrangling a sense of the city prior to any wild celebrations. The same transportation hustle, minus the train, ferried us towards the capital with relative seamlessness. The complexities of reaching and leaving Cat Ba only add to its being a special place to spend some time, a reward at the end of the game and a token to keep close when things seem all too accessible.

Tuk-tuk Clubbing

You never really know what you're going to get when you hire a moto tuk-tuk around Cambodia. The other night we got in this nice quiet little one to get back to our guesthouse and, once on the road, the driver decided it was time to GO. Anyone who has spent any time in Southeast Asia knows being in the traffic on the roads is, in some sense of the word, a party. He just took it to a new level: color changing strobe-light, traditional style painting up front, and a subwoofer beneath our seat:

Location:Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Entering the Kingdom of Cambodia

Cambodia: Land of friendly people, two seasons (hot, hot/wet), fried insects, Angkor Wat, and, unfortunately, the some of the worst recent history in the world. I can mention all that off the top of my head now because we've been here for almost two weeks already, but I'll save some of the details for a future post in the interest of keeping this somewhat chronological.

We arrived by bus on November 22 to the unscrupulous, scam-trap border town of Poipet and, despite getting through the visa and border crossing process hassle free, were harangued into the hands of "government tourist agents" (there's no government tourist office in Cambodia) from the minute we crossed out of Thailand all the way to Siem Reap. That's not to say we got scammed - after all, we arrived having paid no more than we should have for any part of it - but they did do their best to get us to eat and stay with their sponsored guesthouses and restaurants. Having read up on it beforehand, we departed their services and headed straight for our pre-booked guesthouse by moto tuk-tuk in the warm darkness.

I'd be lying if I said that it wasn't a bit of a rough start in Cambodia, but for every experience like that that we've had on this trip, there have been far more endearing points and Siem Reap (and Cambodia as a whole) have been no different.

Siem Reap is home to Angkor Wat. Technically, the ancient temples are a few kilometers outside of town, but the city clearly exists to serve the temples' draw - in the past probably locally, now via tourism. The main center of town revolves around several square blocks of restaurant, markets (day and night), pubs, food carts and guesthouses. We perused the market stalls, tried the local specialty: fish amok, shared some good (and funny) conversations and food* with the ever friendly and helpful crew running our guesthouse, chased down the street vendor selling delicious grilled rice cakes stuffed with some sort of greens, and of course, explored the ruins for the better part of three days.

It's true, what you read, about their grandiose scale. Temple after temple, monument after monument...all spread over kilometer after kilometer, most of them are in the 1000 year old range and were built to both impress and to honor by several generations of kings. The massive and dense sandstone architecture with all of the bas-reliefs and ornamental carvings serves as an impressive reminder of the capabilities of these ancient societies.

Below is nature taking over some of the ruins at Ta Prohm (a highlight for us and probably most, given the added natural beauty of the trees taking hold), some of the carvings on one of the long hall walls at Angkor Wat, and a crumbling, straight-out-of-ancient-Greece former library at Preah Khan.

I say we spent the better part of three days at the temples because, while we had a three day pass, our sunrise bike ride to Angkor Wat on day three ended early thanks to my not feeling so well. We did manage, however, to power through to the top of the world's largest religious structure, Angkor Wat, before calling it a day. I'd post a nice picture of that here, but since I already used that one up top, I'll instead show a self portrait of us trying to sum up the feeling of clambering around ancient ruins with a mass of other tourists while feeling...well, crappy.

It started out nothing too serious, mind you...just a little queasiness and a fever. The next day, however, the fever had climbed to 103° and Casey decided it was time for me to visit a doctor. Cue a moto tuk-tuk to the quietest (and really quite nice) facilities at the mind-easingly named Royal Angkor International Hospital where, an hour later, a couple of tests revealed it all to be nothing more than that medieval favorite: amoebic dysentery. To be honest, my developed-world brain didn't realize that still existed, but three, antibiotic filled days later I was back on track and we were on our way to Phnom Penh. In our back pockets (but at the front of our minds) was one more real life experience proving to us both that while not every place will (or can) be our favorite and some might be downright difficult, there's something of value everywhere we've been - it just takes a little extra patience sometimes.


* In one particularly worthwhile moment, Ti, the manager at our guesthouse, invited Casey to share in some of the grilled fish dinner he and one of the employees were having for dinner. It proved a welcome break in the tourism veneer and a valuable bonding moment in a place where people like us seem to come and go so quickly that nobody tries too hard to bond. This kind of grounding experience, in absence, has provided some of the hardest moments of our trip, so in places we know nobody (read: Cambodia), they are doubly appreciated.

Location:Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The Rhino Quest And The Little Adventures

Nepal is nothing if not one big adventure. This was true for us from the moment we left the airport, hurtling through the dark and the rain on foreign streets while shopkeepers looked on and the hotel hawker who'd jumped in our cab babbled endlessly. It was true as we wandered the Kathmandu streets the first few days, dodging motorbikes, cars, pedestrians and dogs, while also trying to ingest the massive amount of sensory input. And it was true on the seven hour bus ride to Chitwan that took us along the edge of 500 meter cliffs overlooking a river while our driver played chicken with each oncoming vehicle. But the moment it all came into clear focus was the day after we reached the farm and Padam, a trained jungle guide, had us, our co-volunteer Madalina, and three volunteers from the orphanage next door walking through thick brush and scrawny trees while the thunderous (truly) sound of a seven year old wild rhino passed us unseen.

What to do? Keep tracking it until you can see it, of course, but if it runs at you (at 40km/hr), run perpendicular. We only saw it briefly and partially covered that first day, but less than two weeks later were back in the jungle with another group staring down into a pond where some of our co-volunteers had just witnessed two of them fighting. After one of them lumbered off away from us, this one got out to sun itself and, seemingly, pose for a photo op before wandering off as well:

There's something kind of incredible (not to mention humbling) about being just another animal in the forest around such huge and powerful creatures. The day before departing the farm we were treated to the rare opportunity of seeing three baby rhinos up close - an experience entirely different, but no less magical than the above, given that they're still wild. All three were orphans and are left to roam the jungle during the day, but are being helped along during their early years to survive without their parents. When I say up close I refer to the feeling of their leathery armor under our hands and the goo trying to escape their nostrils smudging into my shoes.

In writing about adventures, it must be noted that transportation around the country is an adventure in itself. I mentioned the cliffs and the games of chicken, but there is also the loud Nepali pop music on the bus speakers, the goats and people riding on top, and the overselling of pretty much every available inch of space. On the 3.5 hour drive from Chitwan to Pokhara, Casey and I had the chance to really contemplate the latter part of this as the 26 people in our 18 seat minibus looked on in amusement at her sitting on my lap; the lady next to us working her way through multiple barf bags, the guys next to us seeming genuinely worried for my future child producing capabilities. If I could've moved any part of me in any direction I would've grabbed the camera and taken a picture of the situation. Alas. This isn't entirely different from the day we met the above mentioned baby rhinos when 10 of us called this mighty steed our ride:

I also don't think I can discount the smallest of adventures we had - perhaps typical of any country where tall, very pale folks such as myself show up in remote and extremely rural villages - on our many walking trips to...pretty much anywhere. As we would pass any of the houses with kids it would usually go something like this:

Child: "HELLO!NAMASTE!" Us: "Hello! Namaste!" Child: "WHATISYOURNAME!" Us: "Casey/Eli. What is your name?" Child: "WHEREAREYOUGOING!WHATCOUNTRYAREYOUFROM!"

...and so on and so forth, sometimes including a request for chocolate (ridiculous not only for the obvious, but also the heat which, at around 100° F and somewhere in the 90% range for humidity, would have liquified any such delightful treat), other times granting us a new companion for the equivalent of a couple blocks as we made our way along the dirt road. At other times, the almost desperation for a social outlet or foreign friend was clear. Casey spent some time next to a millet field with a sassy thirteen year old that was not only keen to take pictures together, but also dramatically forceful in making sure her new friend didn't leave (even for dinner).

These bigger adventures are necessary as we travel. They speed up the pulse and change things up in exciting ways. But we've learned, if we didn't know already, that the smaller ones are equally necessary - slowing time down more and heightening our awareness of ourselves and others as we enter into these new communities and friendships, even if they only last a few blocks.

Location:Kathmandu, Nepal