Hong Kong

Flashy! Fun! Delicious.

We stayed in a shoebox hotel room on the 15th floor of a dilapidated highrise for $50/night. No matter, since we spent our days exploring Asia’s financial capital on foot, incline, and water.

At Victoria Peak, after an incline ride



My favorite building! Mong Kok neighborhood.


Skyline from SEVVA bar


My last night in Asia


…To Macau

The title of this blog created a mandate to visit Macau. I only had two days to spend between Hong Kong and Macau and nearly forsook the title of my blog in favor of more time in flashy HK.

Boy, am I glad I didn’t! Macau is a great little island, and it was a fun dose of Portugese colonial flavor (think cobblestones and faded yellow shuttered houses) mixed in with Chinese modernism (think ultraefficient buses and hyperconsumerism). Julia and I spent just a quick afternoon seeing the major sites–the unique site of the standing facade of St. Paul’s church, the hundreds of dazzling casinos (the world’s largest gambling center, far eclipsing Vegas in revenues), endless Rolex dealers, and beautiful people all around. We shared a plate of Brazilian rice and beans and listened in on a conversation in Portuguese about immigration woes. We drank some taro milk tea, shared a legendary egg tart, and hopped back on the ferry to HK in time for a swanky dinner downtown.

Macau, you’re cool. I’m glad you rhyme with Moscow, or I may have never visited you.

Buildings in Macau


Standing facade of St. Paul's Church


Macau casinos


Two hours in Macau

Dharavi Revisited

Several months ago, Eric and I visited the Dharavi slum in Mumbai. I wrote about the experience here. Today I noticed that CNN did a great video journalism piece on the slum and its plastics industry. I think the headline referring to Dharavi as a “model of urban sustainability” is overstated, but others may disagree. Click on the image below to take a look.

Blazing the Banana Pancake Trail: Phong Nha, Vietnam

Greetings from Phong Nha, Vietnam, about 35km west of the unassuming beach town of Dong Hoi. Historically, this area was known for its geography: it’s just an hour north of the DMZ, and was the site of heavy fighting in the Vietnam (American) War. But geology, too, is important here: Phong Nha is the site of a massive national park and cave system, home to a handful of the world’s most stunning caves. Despite the incredible tourist potential, the caves–nay, the entire region–seems completely neglected by tourists. But today I witnessed a sea change in the tides of tourism, initiated by none other than the Banana Pancake Trailblazers, Lonely Planet.

I’m staying at the Phong Nha Farmstay, a unique lodging run by an Australian-Vietnamese couple. The name is only somewhat accurate: The owners built the property to resemble an old French colonial farmhouse, but the place itself does not operate a farm. In the middle of friggin nowhere and opened just seven months ago, it’s as off-the-beaten-path as it gets in Vietnam. The huge, faux-farmhouse is set plop in the middle of hundreds of hectares of rice paddy and, yes, farms and has gained a quiet but steady following in the backpacker crowd. The place was buzzing but not full, and my newest travel buddy, Ailien, and I enjoyed a quiet sunset from a pair of hammocks on our first night.

The Phong Nha Farmstay

The Farmstay's front yard

I stepped in some mud. This became known as Paddy Foot.

Yesterday we hopped on the back of a pair of motorcycles, driven by a couple of local guys. I’d have rented one myself, but they didn’t have automatics, and pathetically, I can’t drive a manual transmission. (Yet. This is on my self-betterment list for 2012). We spent the entire day on the bikes, gazing dreamily as undulating, impossibly green rice paddies passed by; hugging turns around farmlands that stretched as far as our sunglassed eyes could see, waving enthusiastically to gaggles of children laughing and shouting “hello!!” at us; zipping around light bicycle and motorbike traffic and drinking in deserted highways lined with lush, tropical landscape all around. We were on Victory Highway #20 for much of the trip, which was built by the Viet Cong during the American War.

Entering the Phong Nha National Park

River running through Phong Nha National Park

Between mind-blowing landscape on the bike, we made a number of stops, including at Paradise Cave, discovered just two years ago. It’s Vietnam’s largest and most impressive cave. It’s 33 kilometers long, but the public can walk through just the first kilometer. And it was fabulous–I never dreamt of such an otherworldly landscape, with arching ceilings, mind-boggling stalagmites and stalactites, never-ending cavernous recesses and all-around sheer magnificence. It was mostly empty–there were maybe 30 or so Vietnamese tourists milling about, but the place felt deserted. (Could have been the 600 stone steps required to reach the mouth of the cave…).

Paradise Cave

Taking a break on the highway

In fact, deserted is a good word to use. There were basically no tourists–we saw one other Westerner all day–and the highways were all but empty. Only when we arrived back at the Farmstay we were reminded that we weren’t too far off the the Banana Pancake Trail after all. We took quick showers, as the hot water runs out fast, and settled in for an evening of socializing with our fellow farmstayers.

Sunset over the farm

And then–something amazing happening. It turns out the new edition of Lonely Planet Vietnam came out last week, and the Phong Nha Farmstay is in it. Ben, the Australian half of the ownership, burst into the room. Beer in one hand, newly pressed guidebook in the other, he announced in his loudest, drunkest voice that they’d made it. It was the first copy of the physical book he’d seen, and not only is the Farmstay in the book, it’s LP‘s “Top Choice” of lodging in these parts. And what’s more–this entire region of the country had just two paragraphs in the 2009 edition. This one has an entire chapter, complete with the newly mapped Paradise Cave, which hadn’t even been discovered when the last edition came out.

A word on the Farmstay. The farmstay was buzzing, but not full, and the vibe was low-key and, yes, a bit exclusive. You sort of got the feeling that you’d arrived at a club for the cool travelers–everyone had a motorbike, no plan, and an armful of moderately hardcore traveling stories. There were no rookies, and we preferred it that way. It was a good crowd, fun without being rowdy, an equal balance of young and old, and new friendships were made over drinks in the evening.

The LP listing will change much of that. Ben, despite his frat-boy beer-cheersing euphoria, had a look of knowing in his eyes as well, realizing what awaits him. He built this “farmhouse” with his hands, has a 16-month-old son, and will soon have many expectant LP-toting backpackers to please. His face showed equal parts pride and distress.

As Ben was rounding up the staff and guests to take a shot to celebrate the LP release, a van pulled up with four new arrivals. Ben hurried off, saying “Thor, are you Thor? Welcome to the Farm, man!” and enthusiastically greeting his new customers. As we all prepared for the shot again, the baby started crying, and Bich (his Vietnamese wife) quickly attended to him. Finally we got the shot off the ground, group picture and all.

Am I happy for Ben and Bich? Naturally. I understand it, too: Both Awamaki and The Big Idea are in their respective Lonely Planet guidebooks, and I get how important that kind of recognition is for business. I even understand how seeing one’s labor of love in print in the sacred LP is a form of validation. It’s exciting. But, as any traveler can attest, the LP cult is sort of out of control. In the last LP, this region goes basically unmentioned, and so goes basically deserted. Last week, the LP came out, and within months this entire region will change. Ben’s already tried spreading the word around to the sleepy cave-tour agencies in town, but, in his words, “they have no idea what this means.”

Ailien left today and I took a long bike ride to another cave, this one a water cave, to check it out. Again, deserted, and one other lone Westerner. This cave was mapped in 1990 and was known as the Cave of Teeth–though the “teeth,” or stagmites that guarded the entrance, were blown off by the US during the war. The Viet Cong used it as a hiding place.

Surreal landscape inside Phong Nha Cave--that's a sandy beach leading to the river!

I’m certainly glad that I got to experience this part of Vietnam before the onslaught of tourists arrive. It was a real highlight–maybe THE highlight of this country for me. No doubt I would recommend the caves and Farmstay to anyone willing to listen, but it saddens me to know that with increased numbers, some of the magic here will be lost. The LP effect is not unique to this place and, despite all travelers’ reluctance to adhere to the LP path, we all end up doing so to one extent or another. In that way, the LP path and the Banana Pancake Trail are inextricably linked–indeed, LP is the blazer (or is it paver?) of the Banana Pancake Trail. And sure–the beaten path is beaten for a reason. But one of the biggest joys of this trip has been escaping it and finding tranquility and true examples of everyday life in Asia. Phong Nha was one such experience, but won’t be for long.

Five Months

Wow, the last monthly check-in before it’s all over. Incredible.

Battambang. A real highlight to my trip to Cambodia, Battambang was a great place to spend a few days. Between the circus, winery, bamboo train and abundant Western breakfasts, I fell quickly into the small city’s charms.

Circus in Battambang

Thai Beaches. Ko Phi Phi. Railay. Minor islands in between. Just stunningly beautiful. Fruit salad, rock climbing, papaya salad, smoldering sunsets–I’ll go back any day.

Longtails at Railay

Sunset over West Railay

Rock Climbing in Railay

Chiang Mai. Still coming off of sleepy, low-key beach mode, I took my sweet time in Chiang Mai. I stayed in the Nimmanhaemin neighborhood, home to the Chiang Mai university and it’s cutely hip students. I stayed in the Chan Neung cafe/art space/hostel, a fun and funky hangout for the bohemian and fashionably intellectual. I spent my mornings sipping single-origin pour-over coffees, afternoons taking long walks and bike rides around the city, and evenings people-watching and chatting with students in outdoor restaurants.

Chan Neung Cafe, Art Space and Hostel

JoMa Cafe. This is so pathetic–I know. But JoMa cafe, a minor chain in Laos, was home to the best breakfast I’ve had on the trip so far. Homemade granola, homemade sour yogurt and tons of fresh fruit, alongside a big fat mug of deliciously dark coffee. Add that to a day-old, half-price pastry and we’re talking brunch to the max for under $5. I would dawdle over the pastry, using free wifi in a slow start to the day. Great news–they have a branch in Hanoi!

JoMa Cafe

Next month at this time, I’ll be in Pittsburgh. Thankfully, just a few days later I’ll scoot off to the Dominican Republic for a week to ease myself slooowly out of the traveling rhythm–wouldn’t want to rush back to real life too soon. And before the DR, I’ll spend a day in Philadelphia to formally apply for my Italian citizenship. Combine that with a few very exciting work gigs, a great house, wonderful friends and Pittsburgh in spring time… and the end of this trip isn’t the end of the world.

But I’m clinging to these last 3.5 weeks–Vietnam, let’s go!

Leaving Laos

That was Laos. It was a quick week-long breeze-through and to do the country any true justice I’d need to come back. It wasn’t as cheap as I thought it would be, especially in touristed areas. Though I stopped off in rural areas briefly, I only spent any considerable time in Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Vientiane.

Luang Prabang, then, evokes Indochina at its most elegant. It’s a lovely place to spend a few days. The Hmong people going about daily errands and the vibrant monk life in town–both elements of “realness”– assuaged my travelers’ guilt of being in a too-easy place in an otherwise desperately poor country.

Vang Vieng, by contrast, is irresponsible, immature tourism brought to its most hedonistic conclusion. The Lao people in town are unfriendly and opportunistic owing to the cheapness of the exchange of culture for cash. I felt a divide between traveler and local that I never felt so pronounced anywhere else on this trip. The bright Lao spirit, so evident in other areas, was absent here and replaced by corrupt officials and leering boys peddling drugs, prostitutes and looking for any way to scam a foreigner. A German woman staying at the farm rented a motorbike, which was promptly stolen. Her experience with the police was dodgy and bribe-fueled, leading her to wonder (and farm staff to suggest) that perhaps the police were behind the theft themselves. Vang Vieng had incredible natural appeal, but the wildlife–as Dennis called the tubers–have ruined it for the rest of us.

Vientiane recalls a port city of long ago, but dotted with chic cafes and expats scooting around on motorbikes at every intersection. It reminds me of Phnom Penh in the sheer number of international NGO headquarters sprinkled about. You can’t turn a corner without seeing the WHO offices next to USAID next to the World Bank. Vientiane is sleepy, but not for long. Riverfront buildings sell for nearly $1m and now that Vang Vieng put Laos on the Banana Pancake Trail, it seems that Vientiane is more “discovered” than ever.

The intervening countryside between destinations was poorer and more underdeveloped than I’d anticipated. Coming from Cambodia and especially Thailand, I’d become accustomed to a slightly more advanced Southeast Asia than the one presented in rural Laos. Unfortunately, Laos seems to exist in the shadow of its neighbors (China included), not as riders on their development coattails. Houses are wooden, earthen or concrete and the occasional McMansion pops up out of nowhere. But the roads are pathetic, infrastructure very low and education seems to be an afterthought. It was disappointing to see Laos, landlocked and unloved, struggling so clearly.

A high point was the farm. Mr. T employs a variety of seriously progressive permaculture techniques on his farm, which is clearly a labor of both love and conviction. Lao-educated, he worked in the Ministry of Agriculture for his entire career before retiring to build the organic farm he’d always dreamed of. Industrious, capable, intelligent and kind, Mr. T.’s organic mulberry farm is the kind of place that could truly help turn Laos around. I was encouraged and impressed by his, and his incredible team of staff and volunteers’, efforts.

Goodbye, lovely Laos. Thanks for being real–the good and the bad–and treating me as well as can be expected given the tubular circumstances. If I come back, I’ll be sure to steer as clear of Vang Vieng as your rocky roads will allow me.

A Day in Vientiane

Why not continue the series?

My day in Vientiane was really an evening in Vientiane. Dennis and I left Vang Vieng this morning on the local bus–$5 compared to the VIP $15–but it took us seven hours to cover 90 miles. Let me do the math on that for you–it’s an average of about 12 mph over rocky, rough road. I had four Lao people squeezed into the seat with me that was designed to accommodate two modestly sized bums. It was fine, but long and uncomfortable, smelling like shrimp paste and hearing the wails of a baby from the backseat. The dust from the road was unbearable and the entire bus was one big hacking coughing fit by the time we finally arrived in the city. Even the green plantlife along the “highway” was caked in thick layers of brown-red dust. And again–this is the national highway we’re talking about.

Finally, Dennis and I arrived in Vientiane. Then came hunting for a place to stay–we both wanted single rooms. He insisted on having in-room wifi (I don’t want to know why), and I didn’t care. Eventually, I ended up in a $5 dorm and he found his overpriced single down the street.

Vientiane is a real city, which I didn’t expect. The rest of Laos is so rural and underdeveloped that arriving here felt simultaneously disconcerting and comforting. Unfortunately, I won’t have much time to explore the sites and palaces and so on tomorrow since my flight to Saigon leaves at noon.

I noticed a small street stand serving Western and Lao food and figured it would be a good compromise. We sat down and chatted with the owner, an American who spent the past 25 years in Thailand and came to Laos in search of less commercialism. He made Dennis a ridiculously cheesy Philly cheesesteak. I opted for the cobb salad, which came with a fabulous Danish blue cheese sprinkled on top. For a cheap street stand, the quality was incredible–he makes his own mozzarella, tahini, hummus and other treats. It was a real find. We sat chatting with a few expats–the restaurant owner, a German working in development, a few Aussie miners exploring for copper and gold in the northern mountains of the country, and a few drifter Spaniards. Dennis asked many questions, eyes shining with excitement at the idea of relocating to Laos. I realized that Laos IS a place to set up shop–the more rural areas convinced me nobody in their right mind would live here by choice–but Vientiane does indeed draw an eclectic crowd.

Dennis endeared himself to me many times, but none quite as much as when the German hopped on his baby blue fixed-gear bicycle and pedaled away. Dennis turned to me and said “What do the kids call those?” and I looked at the bike, responding “A fixie?” Dennis nodded slowly, thinking, and then said, “And what do they call the kids who ride them?” A huge grin broke out on my face, and I took great pleasure in supplying the word–“Hipsters?” It was Dennis’s turn to grin, and he laughed aloud and drawled, “That’s a new term for me.”

Aww, Dennis. Tonight I heard more about his life–his 27 years as a heroin junkie, eight stints in rehab, childhood in Guam, dropping out of high school at 15,  adulthood in Texas, on-the-run years in Kentucky, and finally fleeing some debt and bad karma for Southeast Asia. He’s nuts, yes, but well-read, interesting and only half as kooky as he initially seems. We swapped info and I’ll be interested to hear what happens to him. We parted with a big hug.