Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Thailand 2016 Day 10. My 35-hour return trip

Four am and I am getting ready to leave Thailand. I will definitely miss this fabulous country and its kind people. People often ask me which is my favorite country, and after dividing it by continents I usually put Vietnam at the top, but Thailand is a very close second. Vietnam is crazy and anything you do is an adventure. Thailand, on the other hand, is just as exotic but everything is easy. It is beautiful, inexpensive, and in a day or two you feel part of the culture. No wonder so many expats have chosen Thailand as the place to live, particularly if you are on a budget. I can see myself living here, and then traveling to the rest of Asia to get the adrenaline flowing.

My flight actually departed at 7 am, and after that I did what DJ has referred to as the Indiana Jones maps. A red arrow from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, a new arrow from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur, and then to Ho Chi Minh City, and then to Seoul, and finally across the Pacific to San Francisco (I am not there yet, but that is where I will end). In total I will have 35 hours of travel, including a 10-hour layover in Seoul (which is where I am writing this last entry).

Incheon is the airport of Seoul, and for many reasons is my all time favorite airport. First of all, it is common for Korean airlines to “encourage” you to spend a few hours here, so you take the opportunity to see something of Korea. To further facilitate this introduction, the airport runs free tourist tours that last 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 hours. I took the 5-hour tour to downtown, which included a visit to one of the old, posh neighborhoods, and then a visit to the central market, where we had free time to browse, shop and eat. Of course this implied exchanging a new batch of money (1 US dollar = 1,100 Korean wan), and the eternal quandary on how much to exchange. I wish I had exchanged a bit more, because I saw some cool things in the market, but there is no point regretting a missed shopping opportunity. Lunch was … OK I guess. Our guide had recommended sea weed rice and veggie rolls (actually quite good) and bimbimbap, which is a kind of rice and multi-produce salad combo that was a little too vegetarian for my taste.

Seoul is of course a large, modern, and very organized city. It has beautiful views, but the inhabitants remind me more of the folks in Singapore or Germany, than of the crazies in Vietnam or Mexico. Everything is spotless, people cross the street only when allowed, and everything carries the threat of draconian fines. But they are happy and prosperous, so who can argue with that? (Also, note that Seoul is very close to the border with North Korea, so if certain fat coo-coo decides to shoot a missile, this is the first place that is going to get it (but nobody seems to be particularly paranoid about it).  

The second reason why Incheon is my favorite airport is that they have free showers! For delicious 30 minutes you have a well appointed bathroom all for yourself (and after 24 hours of travel I definitely needed a shower). I am now in clean clothes, waiting for the 10-hour flight to San Francisco. I should try to sleep, but the temptation to watch movies for 10 hours straight may be too hard to beat. My last little bit of R&R before the craziness of the next semester starts!


Thailand 2016 Day 9. The last day

Today was my last day and of course I am running low on money. I had not thought much about it because here there are money exchange kiosks all over the place. Ah, but today is Sunday so none of them are open. Rats!

OK, so I have like 650 baht, which I believe should be enough for breakfast, dinner, and the taxi to the airport. However, that means I have to fill the day with free stuff. OK, walking aimlessly around costs absolutely nothing, so I spent 110 baht in breakfast and then walked to the Ping River people watching around the area of China Town. I found a bookstore, so I spent a good time browsing, and then asked for a Thai bookstore and spent a goodly amount of time there selecting a book for Ronnie (90 baht), so one of these days he can proudly display his international collection of kiddy books.

By midday I felt the time had come to return my scooter to the place I had rented it from. And not a moment too soon, because the engine was beginning to sound a little ragged after my 1,300 km trek (nothing that a tune up could not put aright, so I have no qualms in my conscience). On the way back I did resist the temptation of visiting the dozen of temples that I passed when going back to my hotel, and once there changed into my swimming shorts, grabbed a book from the hotel’s bookshelf, and spent a couple of hours reading in and by the pool. I was totally relaxed. And then I went inside and the nice girl at the reception informed me that the taxi to the airport was going to cost 350 baht, because 5 am is still considered as night duty, and she would have to collect them right away to make the reservation. Damn. Let’s see 650 minus 110 minus 90 minus 350 left me with exactly 100 baht for dinner. I was going to have to be very careful if I wanted dinner tonight.

The moment you know you don’t have money for food is exactly the moment when a terrible hunger gets hold of you. I tried to hang in there, quenching my hunger with tall glasses of water, but to no avail. Finally at 6 pm I couldn’t hold any longer and went hunting for food. I figured my best bet was one of the hole-in-the-wall Thai eateries, where the cook has the pots out for the inspection of whoever feels like lifting the lids. I did exactly that and saw what looked like a tasty stew, and was delighted to know that a bowl would only be 30 baht, but then of course you have to have steamed rice with that, and the specialty of the places seemed to be spicy green papaya salad (one of my absolute favorite Thai dishes) so I had one of those as well. Half way through the meal I had a panic attack, thinking what I would have to do if the tab came to more than 100 baht. Would they accept a few dollars to make up for the deficit? Or maybe I would have to leave my watch as security while I went to beg for a few baht in the street? Well, none of these draconian measures were needed, because the total came to 70 baht. Never has a meal had a better aftertaste!

Thailand 2016 Day 8. Dances With Elephants

It is raining. One of those moderate rains that could go on for hours. But no stinkin’ rain is going to stop me from going to the Thai Elephant Conservation Center. So I donned my poncho and backtracked the 40 km to the elephant place. It turns out I was not the only one headed that way; a big truck passed me on the way there, with an elephant taking a ride to The Elephant Hospital. Have you seen a dog enjoying the breeze out of the open window of a car? Well, the same was true for this particular elephant, who was enjoying extending its trunk unto the wind, and flapping his ears in total ecstasy.

Of course I got to the center quite early, so I had the honor of seeing a handful of elephants feeding. Did you know that an Asian elephant needs between 200 and 300 kg of varied grasses, vegetables, and fruits every single day? I am not sure how many elephants are at the conservation center, but I am going to guess about 50, so we are talking about 10 tons of food every day, or about 20 of the little Toyota trucks that I saw driving around piled up with corn, sugar cane, and squash.

After a while several of the elephants, and their mahouts (drivers), came out to greet the few tourists that had collected. There were a couple of large males (you know because they have tusks), any number of females, and at least four little ones. I bought a bundle of sugar cane sticks, which even the little ones crunched in a single bite (elephants have only four molars, two on top and two in the bottom, but they are massive and can easily crunch a measly sugar cane stick). Following the feeding the elephants headed for the water to take a bath. The little ones, like Ronaldito, simply plunged in, completely submerging themselves over and over again. The big guys went at it more slowly, letting their mahouts scrub and massage them, but eventually they too plunged their heads in the water with great gusto. Once everyone was nice and clean they played for a while, trumpeting, showering themselves with their trunks, or taking long drinks. Another interesting factoid about Asian elephants is that they drink about 200 liters per day (African elephants live in much drier climates, so they drink even larger volumes, although they may not necessarily get their fill every day).

We were then treated to a show, where the elephants showed how easily they can drag big logs, and how a well-trained elephant can delicately lift some of the logs, and working with a buddy stack the logs in piles. One of the goals of the Conservation Center is to train young elephants for transportation and logging duty. A trained elephant goes for about 500,000 bahts (about US$ 15,000), just about the price of a truck, so I suspect they don’t get a lot of inquiries.

At some point they asked for a volunteer, so I raised my hand and was chosen to hold the basket into which one of the elephants threw basketballs. I really had to be on my toes, because although the balls came with considerable force, I had to “readjust” the position of the basket to make sure I caught every shot. I was rewarded with two ears of corn to feed the distinguished athlete. They did a couple more tricks to show their incredible precision and care, for example by carefully placing a hat on the head of their mahout, and then did something that totally blew me out of the water: Three easels were brought, each with a blank canvas, and three of the elephants came, took paint brushes in their trunks, and proceeded to draw the most amazing pictures: A pair of elephants in a vast prairie, resting from the blazing sun under a tree with red and yellow blossoms; a plant with red flowers; and another elephant browsing the foliage from a tall tree. What a wonderful display of coordination and memory.

I then went to visit The Elephant Hospital, where farmers can bring their elephants to be treated free of charge. The idea is that, by providing free medical care, farmers come and in the end the overall wellbeing of the Thai elephant benefits. An elephant can live 60 years, but many die much younger because of malnutrition, abuse, lack of veterinary attention, or landmines (I was surprised about the latter, but apparently there was unrest in the 60’s and 70’s and landmines were left behind after the cessation of hostilities). I saw the elephant from the road, being rectally examined by a vet and getting an enema. I should mention here that the whole conservation center, including the hospital, are sponsored by the royal family.

Having satisfied my desire to see and learn about elephants I made my way back to Chiang Mai, where I have found a comfortable 5th-floor hotel room, to make my preparations for the trip back home. I still have all day tomorrow to do stuff, but at this point I have no further plans and may spend the day vegetating or visiting temples. I am highly satisfied with what I have done so far :) 

Thailand 2016 Day 7. Phrae to Lamphun

I left my low class accommodation as early as I could, which put me on the street just shy of 7 am. I have already complained about how nothing is open at 7 am, except for the 7-Eleven and a few market stalls, so I made a bare bones breakfast and sat to wait for something to open. I had two visits I wanted to make, the Pratubjai House and the Vongburi House. Both are listed as being an example of rich houses in North Thailand, and I was curious to see how the other 1% lives. Eventually I learned that they live in enormous houses just because they can, just like some of the farmers in the Central Valley. The Pratjubai House was built out of teak wood between 1972 and 1977; by that time teak trees had been logged practically out of existence, so the owner—Mr. Kitja Chaivannacoopt—simply bought a few old houses, tore them down, and used the teak to build his monstrosity. The house is huge, but it is dark because teak is a dark wood, and the 9 bedrooms, 6 bathrooms, and 5 living rooms are crammed with all the stuff the Chaivannacoopt’s accumulated in a lifetime (a timely reminder that I have to get rid of a lot of my accumulated stuff). No, I was not impressed.

The Vongburi house was somewhat different. Also very large, but built in 1987 in a European gingerbread style with much lighter tones. This was the home of the lords of Phrae, and basically consisted of a huge rectangular living room, out of which protruded many small rooms (a little like my own home), two of which were bedrooms, one was the hunting room, another was the reading room, a small one was where the lord and the missus must have seated for tea, and so on. It also has a lot of stuff, but the inhabitants of the house were a bit more selective on the items they collected. I could live on a house like this.

I was not in the best of moods when I finally got on my way, partly because of the crummy hotel, because I had wasted too much time looking at two old houses, because my ant bite was itching, and because there was a drizzle that made the day feel dour. My plan was to make it to Lampang, and from there go visit the Thai Elephant Conservation Center. I like elephants, so that should cheer me up. Unfortunately the cards were stacked against me, and I got sidetracked first by a sign that promised some caves, and then another that promised to get me to the Lampang Volcano. I think Thais are wonderful people, but they have an evil streak in them that leads them to lure you away from the beaten path with prominent street signs, and once you are in the sticks they “forget” to mark the key intersection and you end in the middle of nowhere. “Oops!”

It was 3 pm by the time I made it to the Elephant Center, and by that time the elephants had already been fed and bathed, and were making their preparations to go to bed. Rats! OK, so I will have to come back tomorrow, but where am I going to sleep. The friendly guys at the center suggested the Riverside Guest House in “Lampo”, which I interpreted as being Lamphun, a good 40 km away and on the other side of a major mountain pass. I was just over the pass when I pondered if “Lampo” could have been their way of saying Lampang, which was by now 30 km the other way. I kept going, but hated those last 35 km as I felt I was simply going to have to undo them tomorrow morning.

I finally got to Lamphun, tired and grumpy, hoping against hope to find the Riverside Guest House. Well, I did find the river, but drew a total blank on the Riverside Guest House. I was getting ready to plunge into the town to look for a hotel, predicting it would be another roach hotel, when like a mirage this little hotel materialized by the river. It was perfect: clean, comfortable, and reasonably priced. The Good Lord looks after us fools after all. After a refreshing pause I went for a peaceful walk along the river, and on my way back I found that farther downstream there was a walking market. Oh, my luck had certainly taken a turn for the best. The market was colorful, not overly crowded, and there were all sorts of good things to eat. I found several stalls selling crickets, grubs, and big roaches, but since I didn’t have anyone to gross out I passed on the insects in favor or a crab dumpling that was totally yummy.

By the hotel there was a small, inviting restaurant, so I decided to treat myself to a good meal. The menu didn’t have pictures, but had English subtitles and a section entitled “We Recommend”. Now, that is something I wish all restaurants did, for then you know you are getting the best of the house. From this select list I chose Ho-Chen Village, which happened to be the most expensive menu item, at US$ 5. Wonder what it will be . . . with great ceremony my waitress brought a small clay brazier filled with glowing coals, atop which sat a bubbling pot of soup. She also brought a big platter of herbs, raw vegetables, mushrooms, and uncooked rice noodles, and a separate platter with thinly sliced beef, pork, tofu, mushrooms, shrimp, calamari, fish, and chicken livers. It was a Thai raclette! You take a little bit of this, and a little bit of that, and dump it in the bubbling soup, wait for a couple of minutes, and then scoop it into your small bowl (at which time someone else would fix his/her own bowl of goodies, and so on). Since I was alone, I set small submenus of “seafood with tofu”, or “beef with mushrooms” or “chicken livers with noodles”. It was a real fun way to enjoy Thai food :) The day, after all, was a fine one indeed.

Thailand 2016 Day 6. From Pha Yao to Phrae

Not much to report. Pha Yao has a beautiful lakeshore but little else, so after riding up and down the town I decided to head east for a short distance and then follow minor roads south. The day was beautiful, the landscape was gorgeous, and at times I felt I was riding through the French countryside. Add to this the feeling of owning the whole road and you can well understand my satisfaction with the ride. I should add here that honking the claxon is practically unknown here in Thailand, so you can really get high on the landscape and the breeze.

I did stop at a Wildlife Refuge and went for a walk hoping to see tigers and elephants, but the only wildlife I experienced was an ant that bit me on the arm (and wildlife refuge or not I smashed her into a pulp at the same time I hopped in pain).

I have rediscovered the joy of stopping at 7-Eleven here in Asia. You can actually live out of 7-Elevens because they carry hot food, but my current addiction is to their iced coffee, which is only 14 baht (about 35 cents US). Besides, stopping at each 7-Eleven gives me a good excuse to stretch and break the ride into manageable segments.

Eventually I got to Phrae, which I wanted to visit because in the past it was the heart of the teak wood trade, and it is reputed to have very nice architecture. From what I have seen so far the old city must have been tiny, surrounded by the traditional wall, but around it has grown a rather nondescript town of dubious merit. I finally found a hotel, but it is definitely several notches down from any other hotel I have stayed in Thailand. I can only hope there are no bed bugs to make my sleep miserable.

Thailand 2016 Day 5. The Golden Triangle

It has always puzzled me why it is that museums are not open at 7 am. Don’t the tourism authorities realize that daylight is burning?

So I had to wait until 8:30 am for the National Museum in Chiang Saen to open. Fortunately I had sacrified two of my socks (the ones with holes) as towels to clean my motor bike, and by the time the museum opened it was back to its sleek condition.

A very fine museum it is, although when they call it “national” they are of course referring to the time when Chiang Saen was a city state. The museum has a small but interesting collection of Mesolithic and Neolithic implements, and a great collection of stellae documenting the history of the city. A suitable number of artifacts from the 12th to the 18th century are displayed, and then the tenor of the exposition changes to become more ethnographic, with an excellent collection of textiles and every day implements from the many mountain tribes from the surrounding area.

I had vowed not to visit another temple, but I couldn’t resist the ruins of Wat Pa Sak, where besides the foundations of a very large temple complex there is a fabulous chedi still standing. It is all brick work, and hence quite different from the gold and silver temples I have seen so far, but clearly was a grandiose structure in its time. And then there is more of the city wall to follow, and then there is another temple, and then … basta! Clearly I could spend the whole day here, going from one archaeologic site to the other.

My next stop was the epicenter of the Golden Triangle; that is, the point where Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos come together. It is the beautiful confluence of the Mekong and Nam Ruak Rivers but its main claim to fame is its checkered past as one of the main producing areas for opium and heroine. There is no real town here, but its dark history is commemorated by two museums: The House of Opium and the Hall of Opium. The first one is the brain child of a tourist shop and is a little bit dinky. Still, it has samples of the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum (sorry, Californians, but our golden poppy is not even in the Papaver family), which is a big, purple flower, which after a few days discards its petals and leaves behind a seed pod the size of a lime. The opium-bearing sap is produced by cutting slits lengthwise on the pod, out of which oozes a white sap. The sap is left to harden overnight, and the following morning the brown dried sap is scraped with a curved knife and new slits are cut in. After a dozen slits have been cut the pod is left to dry, and a few hundred seeds are collected from each for planting the following year (the poppy seeds have no opium in them, so those of you that pretend getting high on poppy seed muffins can cut it out).

The scrapings of sap (a tiny fraction of a gram each) are compacted together in the from of 1 kg bricks, with each farmer being able to produce about one brick per acre. The bricks are brought to market, and that is where the fun begins. In the old times the bricks were dissolved in hot water, and filtered through cloth several times. Once clean of impurities the opium soup would be boiled down to form a thick gum, which then rolled into balls and be ready for distribution. At the place of consumption little pieces of the gum would be rolled into a small, pellet size ball, ignited in a small burner, dropped in the bowl of a pipe, and the vapors would be inhaled by the addict, who would typically be laying on his side, with his heels up his buttocks (seems undignified to me, but apparently that was the accepted practice). The small museum ends with an amazing display of scrapers and pipes, and a “tribute” to one of the last drug lords of Thailand, who was still hard at his trade in the 1970’s.

The second museum is called The Hall of Opium, and is the brainchild of the Princess Mother (deceased), who made it a mission to free her people of the addiction to opium (and its derivative heroine). It is a dazzling museum, which you enter through a tunnel where eerie music plays as you pass scenes of the type you would expect at The Gates of Hell. With wonderful displays you are taken through the history of opium (from the Mediterranean to Samarkand to India to China to southeast Asia), the Opium Wars between China and England, the medicinal uses of opium and its derivatives (morphine, laudanum, and heroine), and the nightmarish world of addiction. With remarkable candor the museum retells the story of the exploitation of opium by Thailand for income purposes (the Tax Board was once called the Excise and Opium Board, when 20% of the national income came from the opium trade) until the 1970’s, when Thailand joined the rest of the civilized world by outlawing opium. This is where the Princess Mother (i.e., the mother of the current king) comes in: Aware that the tribes of the north had relied on opium as their sole cash crop, she made sure that extension services were available to help these tribes to diversify their agricultural base, and work hard to provide schools, health facilities, education, and opportunities for the mountain tribes.

Today Myanmar is still an important source of opium gum, with minor quantities being produced by Thailand and Laos (and Mexico, for that matter). The main producer, however, is Afghanistan, which surprised me very much. I cannot imagine a greater difference of climate between the luscious mountains of north Thailand and the bare, rocky canyons of Afghanistan, but Papaver somniferum seems to be a very hardy plant, and as long as there is a rainy season for the initial stages of growth, it does not seem to mind a dry maturation stage. But enough about opium. It was time for me to abandon the highlands and head south, in search for new adventures.

It was a hard slog south. I thought to stop in Chiang Rai, but I had already been there, so I pushed forward the Pha Yao, which turned out to be a pretty town by the shore of large lake that reminded me very much of Chapala or Yuriria in central Mexico. I got here about 6 pm, just in time to book a room in a nice hotel, go for a sunset walk along the lake shore, and eat a very fine catfish dinner.

Thailand 2016 Day 4. From Chiang Rai to Chiang Saen (are all towns here named Chiang something?)

After a very good night spent at Ben Guesthouse, which encompasses two beautiful wood buildings) I went for a spin around the city. The travel guide unenthusiastically listed two museums and any number of temples, but to tell you the truth I am about templed out. But the city is a pleasant one, so I twisted and turned without any plan, until I found myself on route 1173, heading east, and that decided the direction I was to follow for the next couple of days. Today the goal is to go to Chiang Khong, where one can cross into Laos, and from there to Chiang Saen, also at the border between Thailand and Laos.

I traversed the beautiful Waterford Valley, with enormously extensive rice paddy fields, when passing about a kilometer from a small hill from the corner of my eye I caught a sign announcing the …. Forest Park. I blew past it but over the next few hundred meters I tried to reconstruct the part I had missed and came up with the Teak Forest Park. Really? A forest of teak trees? Now, that I had to see, so I made a U-turn and plunged into a narrow concrete alley that after 100 m gave way to a dirt track. At this point I should have turned around, but my curiosity was aroused and I just had to keep going, until I found myself in a mire of mud. I proceeded as cautiously as I could, but at some point I lost my equilibrium and my scooter tipped. I barely had time to put down my foot and avoid a complete tip over, but my whole side was bathed in mud as I tried to place my center of gravity under the scooter and tip it upright. Oh, what a mess. My beautiful scooter was now caked with mud on the right side, not to say anything about my feet and right hand. I did make it to the park, which was a very pretty forest but without a miserable teak tree, and successfully crossed the mire on the way back without mishap, but I felt the most stupid rider on the road (and many expressions of mirth from bystanders did nothing to improve my spirits).

Chiang Khong was nothing special, except perhaps that this is where I first encountered serious mountains and a road in the process of being reconstructed. The mountains are fabulously green, and under the rays of the sun they glimmered like emeralds. Rice is here replaced by corn as the main crop, but in the recent past these mountain valleys were big producers of Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy.

Chiang Saen, in contrast, turned out to be quite the precious jewel. First of all I met my old friend, the Mekong River! Yes, the same river that forms a delta at the latitude of Saigon is here an enormously wide river with a lively barge traffic, and no, it does not originate in Cambodia but in the south of Chine, and at this location forms the boundary between Thailand and Laos. I am really surprised that this enormous river does not take a shortcut to the Gulf of Thailand, but rather flows south parallel to the coast all the way to Saigon. I bet it is controlled by a tectonic rift, pretty much the way the Rhine River is in Germany. I need to research this idea further.

The second surprise is that Chiang Saen has a fair amount of history. Going back to the 7th century, the city was its own kingdom, which at various times pledged loyalty to the Thai state to the south or Burma to the south. Today you can see about half of the brick ramparts that protected the city, the moat, and foundations of temples or public buildings scattered throughout the town. The city has a small museum that I shall visit tomorrow, any number of temples (which I will not be visiting tomorrow), and a promenade along the Mekong that is a real treat. I had a delicious dinner of shiitake mushrooms and spicy fried catfish salad on a restaurant overlooking the river, pondering about the many stories this old river could tell.

Thailand 2016 Day 3. From Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai

I woke up with the clear plan of motoring the 200 km between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, which is way up in the north portion of the country. Everybody knows I am not faint of heart, but I am neither a glutton for punishment, so the prospect of 200 km of narrow, winding mountain roads was not necessarily a happy one. Somewhere I had read that driving a scooter in the mountains was not advisable, largely because car drivers were reckless. All bunk! Highway 118 is a perfectly modern highway, with two lanes for much of the way, and Thai drivers are some of the most cautious and considerate Asian drivers I have known.

I did, indeed, had a great time scootering through the mountains, and only once was forced to stop because of rain (twice actually, but I will tell you about it later on). Based on a visit to the Jade Buddha temple I had ascertained that there has to be a paleo-subduction zone somewhere in the country, but what little I saw in the outcrops along the road were folded sedimentary rocks, which based on their slight metamorphism I would assign to the Paleozoic. One of the outcrops had a thick, black, thinly-laminated slate in which I would definitely expect to find graptolites.

On the subject of geologic wonders, somewhere near Wiang Pa Pao I found a small tourist development about a series of geysers. The two main ones were continuous geysers (an oddity, as most geysers spout for a few minutes and then have to recharge before they spout again). The others were really bubbling pools of hot water, where the enterprising locals cook hen eggs, quail eggs, and bamboo shoots to sell to the tourists. I bought a bag of about six bamboo shoots, each the size of a small corn ear. The merchant lady promptly peeled and spliced them for me, and I had half of them for lunch and another half for dinner. I had lunch at a small roadside restaurant about an hour later, and following the old tradition of pointing I ordered a bowl of rice and a delicious fish stew with vegetables. The only problem was that the dish was brutally spicy, and by the time I had finished with my meal I was on the verge of tears.

Fifteen kilometers shy of Chiang Rai I spotted a snowy white temple and decided to stop and take a look. It turned out to be a large complex, still in the process of construction, and it left me absolutely speechless. It was a modern sculpturing extravaganza, with ugly dwarfs, dragons, and diabolical beings, executed with the touch of a master, overloading the façade and spires of several temples, with every edge scintillating like pure silver on a base of pure white. On closer inspection I realized that the silver was nothing else than thin strips of mirrors, cleverly inset into the stucco of the walls. To enhance the silver motif, the faithful are encouraged to place their wishes in thin silvery pendants that are hung on every available surface. The overall effect is terrific.

Five kilometers short of reaching the city center the skies opened and I was treated to the most intense monsoon rain you can imagine. Fortunately I had put on my poncho after the visit to the White Temple, and I had sought refuge in a gas station as soon as it started to rain, but over the next hour I stared in disbelief as at least 2 inches of rain came down in torrents. All things considered, so far I have been very lucky with the weather, but now see that my truce with the elements could be a very tenuous one.

Thailand 2016 Day 2. Around Chiang Mai

I picked up one of those tourist booklets that are chocked with ads for fancy hotels and restaurants, among which you now and then find a piece of good advice. In my case that came as four suggested routes out of Chiang Mai that would take you to see some of the good stuff. I decided to do the route up to Doi-Pui, the mountain that rises to the northwest of the city, where the Suthep-Pui National Park is located. It was a short ride of perhaps 20 km that I ended at the royal palace of Buhbing, where the royal couple has created a beautiful garden that would be the envy of any horticulturist (the palace buildings themselves are not open to the public). Of particular note is the rose collection, which includes several hundreds of varieties.

Note to future travelers: Here, as in all the temples, no shorts are allowed, and women are not permitted to show cleavage. Pack pants that extend below the knee (or a sarong for women) and a regular t-shirt and you should be fine.

From there I dropped to one of the paths of the national park, which after a short walk brought me to the temple of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, whose long name was only surpassed by the 300 steep steps that bring you up to the main terrace. By know I am a bit fed up with visiting temples, particularly when they are atop a very long and steep staircase, but I have promised I am going to be a good tourist, so I trudged up the stairs together with a hundred other tourists. When I finally got up there, caught my breath, and entered through the narrow door I was … flabbergasted! The main courtyard is occupied by a very large chedi or conical pyramid of pure, glimmering gold! Around it are giant bells, parasols, and many statues of Buddha, all of shining gold. Maybe it is only gold leaf, or perhaps the best gold color paint I have ever seen, but the overall effect is that you have come into immediate contact with the sun, which I am sure would be music to the ears of the monks who designed it.

On the way down I made a couple of stops. The first one was to the zoo, which I would grade as above average. It is a very large piece of Thai jungle, where most animals have large paddocks, and where humans have many opportunities to play. I took the hop-on hop-off tram (and was very glad about it), but decided I did not need to pay extra for seeing the pandas or the aquarium. Instead I concentrated on the Asian animals (tiger, rhinoceros, elephants, orangutan, gibbons, and an amazing variety of tortoises, turtles, crocodiles, and smaller reptiles). I am positive Ronaldito will enjoy the zoo very much when Faby and DJ come to vacation in Chiang Mai.

My second big detour was at the University of Chiang Mai, which has a huge campus on the northwest corner of the city. It is a very open campus with big, modern buildings, gardens, native vegetation, and dorms. I did find the Department of Geological Sciences, which is easy to spot because of the models of dinosaurs that decorate its gardens. I stopped and looked around, but nobody was there and they didn’t have colorful posters on exhibit (I was hoping for a geologic map of Thailand but it was not to be). I did find that they have a masters program in petroleum geophysics, from which I have to infer that Thailand has petroleum resources (its neighbor to the south, Malaysia, is a petroleum producer, so in as much as they share the back-arc basin of the Indonesian arc, Thailand must have good offshore resources in the Gulf of Thailand).

My third and final stop was at the History Museum of Chiang Mai, which unfortunately was undergoing renovation in the ground floor, so only the first floor exhibition was accessible. It was OK, but a bit disorganized, so you jumped from the kings of Chiang Mai, to the former Lau inhabitants, to the introduction of Buddhism from India first and then from Ceylon, and into the first evidences of Homo erectus in northern Thailand. To make things even more confusing (at least to me), all dates were given as Buddha’s Era. In this calendar, 1841 AD is the same as 2384 BE, and 2016 AD is 2559 BE. On another historical note I left pending, I looked into what happened to Thailand during World War II, and learned that at that time a military coup took place, and the military dictator collaborated with the Japanese by allowing them to use Thai ports and airports for the war of the Pacific. The story goes that this dictator was ready to declare war to the United States, but the Thai ambassador to the US was a patriot and refused to deliver the declaration of war, so at the end Thailand was not considered one of the defeated nations and suffered no major repercussions for its role in the great war.

Once back in town I parked my scooter and headed for the Sunday market, which is a giant handcrafts and food market that extends along the middle of the old town. The place was crowded just enough to make it interesting, but not crazy packed in typical Asian style (once again a feather on the cap of this charming city, which offers the tourist the best of the Asian culture without its less desirable collateral damage). The choices for food were mind boggling; I held back as long as I could, and at the end had a green papaya salad that was to die for.

Thailand 2016 Day 1. Around Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is the ultimate tourist paradise. It is a city of a good size, but doesn’t have the crazy traffic of a typical Asian city. Furthermore, every other business is devoted to tourism: Guest houses, restaurants, Thai language schools, Thai cooking schools, Thai massage parlors, and travel agencies that offer tours to play with elephants, trekking, dirt road biking, temple sightseeing, boat rides, and of course scooter rentals. No need to plan ahead, because as soon as you arrive you are surrounded by an atmosphere of welcome and care. And all seems dirt cheap once you translate it to US dollars! You can have a great breakfast for US$ 3, and a two course dinner with a giant beer for less than US$ 10 (and of course Thai food is fantastic!). I have adopted myself to a family restaurant where Mom prepares the veggies and meet, son cooks with international flare, and Dad and daughter serve and invite passer-bys to come and taste excellent dishes. I had breakfast there, and when I came back for dinner I was received as a member of the family J

I decided to devote the day to becoming familiar with my surroundings, sightseeing on foot, and finding a good outfit to rent a scooter from. My hotel is just outside of the square of the old city, which in the past had been surrounded by a brick wall, had four distinctive city gates, bastions on each corner of the square, and a moat around the whole thing. The moat lake, city gates, and corner bastions are still there, but the city walls are long gone.

North Thailand was, historically, a melting pot where the cultures of Burma (now Myanmar), and Laos to the north melded with the Siam people of the south, and where the land was claimed by either of the main players. The Lua people, a minority group from Laos, are credited with first settling the alluvial fan of the Ping River, where Chain Mai is now located, sometime before 1200 AD. The area then became the bone of discord between Laos and Siam, and kings from one or the other ruled until 1550 AD, when the Burmese occupied the area (which by this time was known as Lanna. The period between 1200 and 1550 AD is considered a Golden Age, when Buddhism arrived from Laos, and language and literature flourished. Lanna was under Burmese control for two centuries, from 1550 to 1775 AD, after which Siam conquered the area and established it as a subordinate state. The new Lanna prospered under Siam rule, serving as the hub of trade between the Gulf of Thailand to the south, and the Andaman Sea (Indian Ocean) to the west. Eventually, after 1932, the administrative reform of the government in Bangkok established Chiang Mai as a province of the Kingdom of Siam. (I have no idea of what happened to Siam during World War II, but I don’t think the Japanese ever invaded the kingdom.)

All these enticing tidbits of history I cobbled up from my visit to two excellent museums: The Chiang Mai Historical Center, and the Lanna Folklife Museum. The latter is really more of an ethnography museum, with many samples of the costumes, beautiful weavings, and ways of the rural people of Chiang Mai province. Later in the day I discovered there is also a History Museum, which I will have to visit tomorrow.

I also visited over a dozen Buddhist temples (the city is reputed to have a few hundreds), which are absolutely breathtaking. Thais take their Buddhism very seriously, and lavish their temples with beautiful carvings, very complex stucco reliefs, and abundant gold leaf. Also, being a Saturday, the temples had many of the faithful visit them, and refreshment and treats provided by the local ladies group. Monks were all over the place, mostly with their nose stuck into their cell phones checking their Facebook. Proper decorum is important to this folk, so western women are “invited” not to wear shorts or tank tops (long sarongs are available for rent at some of the main temples), and all are expected to take off their shoes at the door (rats, today was the day I was wearing socks with holes in them!).  

Eventually I became tired of being a pedestrian, and went and rented a scooter. It cost me 3,200 bath (about US$100) for 8 days, which is about what I paid in Vietnam, so I am happy. Using my new wheels I went hunting for a good map of the country, which I eventually found in a bookstore hidden in a side street, and will tomorrow go for my first rural outing. I also got a Lonely Planet guide, and will do my best to see everything there is to see in the next week. Moving through the city is a piece of cake since everybody speaks some English and there are guest houses everywhere. We will see if that holds true for the countryside.

Vietnam 2016 Day 8. Goodbye Saigon, hello Chiang Mai

I was on the road by 5 am, which gave me a comfortable 3 hours to go through the last 40 km and make it by the airport at 8 am, where I was going to wait for Thien or one of his buddies to pick up the scooter. I was happy about my decision about a hotel, because I saw only one other on the way, and that almost as I was entering Saigon. But I am getting ahead of myself. As I traversed the last few kilometers more and more scooters were joining the flow, so by the time I approached Saigon I was already surrounded by a mass of humanity. And a good thing it was, too, for one of the many pointed to my rear wheel with alarm. I had been feeling the scooter was unsteady, and I now discovered that it was because the rear tire had gone flat. Rats! It was 6:30 am, and I had some time to spare, but where was I going to find a place to fix the flat. Bless the hard working soul of the Vietnamese people, for in the little neighborhood I drove into the local scooter repair man was already hard at work! It took him but a minute to pull out a nasty sliver of metal from the tire and plug the hole with a cold sticky strip. I was back on the game, having lost less than 20 minutes in the repair.

But 20 minutes at 7 am make a huge difference in the scooter traffic in Saigon, so once again I was a minnow swimming in the maelstrom that was entering Saigon. So I did what any good tourist should do. I asked how to get to the airport, and found one of those wonderful people who, faced with giving complex instructions to a foreigner who obviously was not familiar with the city simply said “follow me” and took me half way there. A second good Samaritan repeated the “follow me” directive and by 7:30 am I was entering the airport. I thought I had made it clear with Thien that we were going to meet in front of the parking structure (it was very obvious where the waiting area was, for a good dozen of scooters were waiting for arriving relatives), but no Thien. At 8:30 am I gave up, parked the scooter in section F3, first floor, placed the parking card and some money in the compartment under the seat, and hid the key along the back edge of the seat, and hurried to check in for my flight to Thailand. I did send a What’s App message to Thien giving him the details (which he later acknowledged), and finally had the chance to relax, spend my last million in good airport food, and reflect on my Vietnam experience.

I don’t want to sound unappreciative, but I have to say I enjoyed North Vietnam and itsy bitsy better than I did South Vietnam. The people were, of course, wonderful. But the south seems to be lagging behind the north in development, reconstruction, and preservation of their history. Is this the result of the north being the victorious party in the Vietnam War? Maybe. Or maybe it is just an artifact of history, the north being closer to the culture of China than the south, just as north Italy is closer to the culture of continental Europe than the south. In any case, I bid adieu with a grateful heart to my sisters and brothers of Vietnam, who once again made feel welcome and graciously put up with my foreign ways. I love them, and their country, and look forward to coming back sometime soon.

Once aboard the plane I followed the route Saigon to Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok to Chiang Mai (and that took the whole day), without missing a single step, which I consider pretty miraculous (and now have to hope I can do the same flawless hopping on my way back). Once in Chiang Mai I exchanged some dollars (1 US dollar = 32 Thai bath), and paid US$ 5 for a taxi to bring me from the airport to my hotel. My first surprise was to find that here they drive on the wrong side of the street, just like the Brits do. The second surprise is that I had landed on the day Her Majesty Queen Sirikit is celebrating her 84th birthday. She married His Majesty King Bhuimbol in 1950, just a week before the latter ascended to the throne, so the royal couple have ruled Thailand for 66 years now, and are both going strong (His Majesty is at least five years older than Her Majesty, so he is scratching the mature age of 90). Both are beloved by the people of Thailand, so the fact that the Queen’s birthday was celebrated today is a big deal. My third surprise was to found that Chiang Mai is not a little town, but a regular and quite handsome city. I know I am going to like it here!

Rats! I forgot my Saigon ball cap in the plane :( I will have to buy myself a Thailand cap at the first opportunity.

Vietnam 2016 Day 7. Mui Ne to (almost) Ho Chi Minh City

I take back what I said about Mui Ne yesterday. It is actually a good size town that extends mostly beyond the place I stayed, and seems to have a goodly number of shops and places to eat. I took advantage of one of the latter to have an exotic breakfast of sautéed frog and fruits of the season.

I followed the coast to Mount Be, where I took a detour to surround the mountain. I had heard there was a temple up there with a monumental statue of a reclining Buddha, but the few roofs I saw were way up there. Imagine my pleasant surprise when quite a distance away I saw a Visitors Center with a funicular! I gladly paid the fee of US$ 9, got on the funicular and quite enjoyed the ride up nearly 1,000 m. Once I got there, I was disappointed to see the temple was still in construction (with modern concrete and rebar). There were a couple of side prayer areas with some nice statues, but I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that everything was way too recent to really count as a tourist sight. I did go up to see the reclining Buddha, which at 49 meters (150 ft) long is indeed impressive. This is the image of Buddha after reaching Nirvana, and his face totally reflects the peace of mind he had reached. The Buddha was designed in the 1950’s and was actually built in the 60’s, and I am going to guess it is made out of concrete. Again, a bit recent to my taste.

By the time I got down from the mountain it was already 1:30 pm, and I had a lot of ground to cover, so I pressed my scooter to its top speed (around 30 miles per hour) and started devouring miles. My high speed experience was marred by this car that I swear was going about 25 mph in the open road! So I pass him, right? Ah, then he figures he has to speed up, just enough to pass me, and then slows down. I am of course fuming, so I pass him again, and … Let’s just say that after an hour of this game I was ready to scream.

The road along the coast is very pretty, and I can only wish I had more time to poke along it, but I have to be at the Saigon Airport at 8 am tomorrow, and the coast is just a bit far to cover the distance in the morning. I thus decided to go find a hotel somewhere within 40 km from Saigon. I had chosen a small road from the coast to Saigon, figuring it would be a quiet way to get to the city. Ha! It was the road from hell! Big loud trucks spewing diesel fumes, enormous buses careening between lanes and blasting their horns, the odd clueless car, and lots and lots of scooters. All the bonhomie and relaxation I had collected on my trip down the coast went up in diesel fumes.

I did find a hotel, right by the side of the road, and tomorrow I will wake up early in the morning to make my final approach to Saigon airport. I am now suffering the “end of a trip blues”, where vehicle has to be returned, the last few dongs spent (at the end it appears I was a bit too frugal, and still have 800,000 dongs to get rid of), check in for my flight, and then wait and wait and wait. But I am going into a further adventure, so I am pretty sure that the blues will be over as soon as I board the next flight :)

Vietnam 2016 Day 6. The slow way to Mui Ne

Today was a totally lazy day, in which I drove no more than a 100 km. Too bad, because that means tomorrow I will have to go about 150 km, but I had a late start and was not very motivated to cruise at high speed. Rather I enjoyed the sights along the brand new road between Phan Ri and Mui Ne. It is a beautiful coast, and in some places it looks like you could be the only person in a 10-mile stretch of the beach.

The most memorable part of this leg of the trip was a vast sand dune field that extended for good 25 km. I think the case can be done for this being a very old sand dune field, because it has a distinctive stratigraphy. The younger deposits are the standard cream or even white color, but they rest over several hundred feet of older, slightly consolidated bright brick orange (or brick red) deposits. The orange/red color is undoubtedly linked to a coating of iron oxide around the individual grains, a feature that has long be debated by geologists. The way I learnt it at school, red beds were thought to be signs of arid climate. Not so, argued another group of geologists, because the sands of Arabia are cream colored, not red; rather, they suggested that red beds, like laterites, indicate warm humid climate. But the young active dunes in Vietnam are cream/white in color, and nowadays Vietnam is the poster child for warm and humid. Maybe I am just behind in my sedimentology, so I am going to give the job of researching this subject to my students in Sedimentary Rocks this coming fall semester.

Whatever the answer, I believe the red sand dunes were formed under a different climatic regime than what we enjoy now. Perhaps the results, at low latitudes, of the Pleistocene Ice Age?

I eventually made it to Mui Ne, which is getting ready to become the next resort destination. At least six large resorts have been built north of the town, and although they didn’t look like they were crawling with guests, they look pleasant enough. Mui Ne is not like Puerto Vallarta, however, but a little town with a couple of modest restaurants (in one of which I had an excellent lunch of shrimp and pineapple stir-fry, and vegetables and seafood stir-fry) and a couple of scooter repair shops.

I was thinking that the resorts would ruin the accommodations market for us individual travelers, but I actually found a great place to stay, by the beach and at the very reasonable price of US$ 15. And so I slept the afternoon away swinging on a hammock, sipping a whisky with soda, and listening to the sound of the waves.

Vietnam 2016 Day 5. Dalat to the coast

Today was a short, beautiful scootering day. Just before I left my hotel I was pondering if I should wear my poncho, as there was a low cloud cover, but I decided against it and that was the correct decision. The day turned nice and sunny, just about perfect in temperature, and I pondered why I had been so concerned about the equatorial heat. Of course I was coming down from the mountains, but how much can the climate change over a few kilometers?

The landscape was beautiful, mantled in green, and gliding along in my scooter was a real joy.

I have not mentioned much about the geology of Vietnam, largely because everything is covered by greenery and there is little to see. In the odd bare roadcut, however, I have seen deeply weathered plutonic rocks with knockers of remarkably fresh granite (a reminder to geologists that hard rock found in a drill core might not be the sound footing we would like). Around Dalat I also saw some pretty healthy vesicular basalts that make me suspect of Neogene volcanism, even though I am not aware of active volcanism in Vietnam. In another outcrop I saw a nice tilted sequence of redbeds, so clearly there has been tectonic deformation in the geologic past (add to that the thick limestone sequences of North Vietnam). Finally, as I approached the coast I found a healthy and rather extensive batholith. Clearly this land has many hidden geologic wonders.

Going back a little, after happily driving for a couple of hours I cam to a very steep mountain front, and in less than 10 km dropped a good 1,000 m in elevation unto the coastal plain (similar to the way one drops off the Mexican altiplano from Perote to Jalapa and beyond), and my balmy temperature suddenly gave way to a furnace-like heat.

Grand total I covered about 100 km before I made it to the coast at Phan Rang, although I had to go a bit farther south to Ca Na before I found a suitable hotel. I was surprised when I found myself at 1:30 pm sitting in the veranda of my small bungalow, surveying my little kingdom of sand beach and ocean. What am I supposed to do with myself? Is this what people call relaxing?

Vietnam 2016 Day 4. Dalat

The morning was cold and overcast, but I was not going to be deterred from exploring my surroundings. Dalat is a typical mountain city, in that it spreads over ridges and valleys in a maze of contouring roads, just about perfect for going up and down in my scooter. It is a funny combination of big villas in the French style, tall houses built helter skelter, grand and boutique hotels, and shops. Eventually I discovered that besides the touristy front there is a good size village where “normal” people live, work, study, and play. It also has a nice university, imposing government buildings, and several large parks. The crowning jewel is a large man-made lake that provides a great backdrop for the European skyline of the city (the communications tower is shaped like the Eiffel Tower, so if you ignore the odd pagoda you could imagine yourself in the suburbs of Paris).

As I was cruising around the lake I noticed two colorful and futuristic buildings, which turned out to be a Big C shopping center. Big C is a perfectly modern supermarket that I had also encountered in north Vietnam, and among its associated small shops I found a bookstore where I was finally able to find a good Vietnam road map. 

I feel I have been remise at visiting tourist spots, which I inconsiderately blame on the lack of English signs. One difference between northern and southern Vietnam is that in the north signs are in Chinese script, Roman script, and English. Here in the south, however, they favor Vietnamese written in Roman script (with all sorts of accent marks and dashes to indicate subtle variations in the words), but rarely do you see a sign in English. Is this because they feel they have made enough of a concession by dropping the Chinese script, or a backlash to the American occupation? In any case, it makes it really hard to distinguish between a museum, a military post, or a school, so it is difficult to just drop by as a tourist. There are plenty of Buddhist temples and Catholic churches, but most of them have closed gates and do not look very welcoming. I must mention, however, a temple with an enormous gilded statue of Buddha that you can easily see from different vantage points in the city, which also included some beautiful wood carvings of Phoenix birds.

There are also three or four theme parks that are apparently very popular with visitors. I looked over the Flower Garden, but hesitated about visiting The Valley of Love (a theme park that caters to loving couples) or the kids parks. Where is Ronaldito when I need him?

Half of my sightseeing had been done under a steady rainfall, so by noon I was ready to throw in the (wet) towel. Fortunately I took a wrong turn and soon found myself out of the city, in a relatively lonely mountain road. I figured I could follow it for a few kilometers to “see what was on the other side”, and eventually found myself in a valley of great beauty, where vast extensions were dedicated to the growing of coffee. It turned out to be land inhabited by one of the minority ethnic groups, the Lat, who besides coffee are known for the quality of their weaving and other handcrafts. I managed to get a good lunch out of them as well.

Vietnam 2016 Day 3. Saigon to Dalat

It took a little motivation for me to jump out of bed and to get ready to leave my comfortable bed for the uncertainties of getting out of Saigon and going into the country. It is sometimes difficult to get out of large, sprawling cities, and I didn’t have even a decent map. The guy at the desk was of no help whatsoever, telling me that I would never make it to Dalat in a motorbike (later he confessed that he had never been there himself) and then giving me the most confusing set of instructions on how to get out of the city (imagine trying to explain how to get out of Los Angeles without using freeways and you will have an idea of my plight). But by now I had been emboldened by my knowledge of the place, so ignoring his instructions I just got to the river and followed it to the northeast. My good luck held, and I found myself in an almost direct route to Vietnam’s Highway 1, which is trafficky but is the best way of heading toward Hanoi.

The first leg, between Saigon and Long Khahn, was tiresome and no fun, but then I saw a sign (miracle of miracles) for Dalat and the smaller road was a lot more pleasant to follow. I quickly remembered that scooters have but one traffic rule: Thou shalt not hit anyone or anything. In a way is a perfect rule, because as long as we all follow it there can be no discord. It is bit disconcerting, however, because people will cut directly across your path, or join the road without even turning their heads, confident on the fact that you will do whatever you need to do to comply with the one rule of the road. Unfortunately cars and trucks have their own rule of might is right, and they throw themselves at the swarm of scooters expecting them to part as the ocean parted for Moses.

I have much regretted not having a good map. It would do me no good as far as road names or numbers, as these conveniences are never represented on road signs, but it would be helpful to identify the towns I went through, just as a double check that I was on the correct road. Overall I had about 350 km to cover, and after about 200 km I got to the town of Tan Phu, where I stopped to have lunch. I looked carefully and stopped at a diner that was full of people, confident that the food would be good there. Unfortunately I chose a very Vietnamese place, where the menu had no pretty pictures and the waitress had no idea on how to deal with a foreigner. My attempts to sign that she should bring me whatever was good were getting me nowhere, when a gentleman popped out of the neighboring table, proceeded to ask me what I was in the mood for, and then ordered me a delicious lunch with a dumpling soup with okra, deep fried fish morsels, veggies, and rice. He even instructed me on the right way to eat the fish, ordered me a beer, and wished me a pleasant trip before returning to his friends. People here are so nice!

The weather had been perfect, overcast and with a moderate breeze. As I approached the mountains, however, the clouds became more menacing and I thought it would be wise to put on my poncho. A few moments later the sky opened and a torrential downpour blotted all vision. I had to pull to the side of the road, by a house whose small veranda offered a minimum of protection. The people of the house invited me cordially in to sit at their little table to have some tea. I could see they were very eager to talk with me, but again the language barrier was working against us. Then a young couple showed up, again looking for shelter from the rain, and we pretty soon had a party going, with much laughter and splashing of tea.

I finally made it to Dalat at about 6 pm. I plan to spend tomorrow here, so I will have a chance of describing it in detail, but let me tell you that this mountain town was established by the French, as a holiday place to escape the heat of Saigon, and that it was spared during the wars by all parties to provide a bit of respite to whoever was in control at any given time. Today it is a pretty tourist town, with all sorts of hotels and restaurants. Two years ago, when I visited north Vietnam, I had found a similar town, but that was in January and the town was deserted, giving me the creepy feeling that I was the only survivor of nuclear Armageddon. Not this time. Dalat is full of people, light, and music, and I very much enjoyed walking around the market place before retiring for the night.

Vietnam 2016 Day 2. The Mekong Delta

The problem of being a millionaire is that you get used to spend like one. I have been here but a measly two days and I have already gone through almost half of my fortune! For example, today I spent a cool quarter million in a day-long tour of the Mekong Delta. It was a justified expense on two counts. First, the Mekong Delta is a geologic wonder, and as a geologist I had to pay a visit to such a famous geologic feature. Second, a quarter million dong is about US$13, so it was a bargain that was hard to pass.

At 8 o’clock I was one of the first to be picked up, and by 8:30 am we had a full mini-bus of adventurers and were heading southwest from the city into the heart of the delta (I must remind you that a delta is a constructional pile of sediment a river builds as it encounters the ocean; in contrast, when the effects of tide and salinity extend far inland what you get is an estuary. The so-called California “Delta” is in reality the California Estuary). The Mekong River originates in the highlands of Cambodia, where it picks up millions of tons of silt and clay that give it a characteristic chocolate color and consistency, and as it enters the Sea of Vietnam it dumps all that load to form an anastomosing series of channels and fertile islands and floodplains. We saw evidence of this fertility as we drove the brand new highway between Ho Chi Minh City and Tien Giang and saw hectare after hectare of emerald rice fields.

For some reason farmers are convinced that the water-saturated muck has to be plowed, preferably with the assistance of a water buffalo, after which the rice is planted by throwing like darts the small plants grown in trays. After that one should be able to sit back ans watch the small plants grow; oh no, the fields have to be weeded every day, and in these modern types pests have to be kept under control by spraying. So you are on the fields all day long, communing with your ancestors. Indeed, because the ground is water-logged, the dearly departed cannot be placed in a tomb, but are interred in above-ground vaults or small chapels that dot the surface of the fields.

Eventually we made it to the small town of Cai Lay, and from there to the small port of Cai Be, where we transferred from our mini-bus to a very wobbly long boat, which was going to take us around one of the main channels of the Mekong. It is a big river, and I had flashbacks to the Nile, the Mississippi, and (in a different scale) the Amazon. We turned into one of the small channels to see the river boats where folks live while they conduct business; a family or two come down the river in their houseboat, and park here for a week or two while they negotiate the sale of their merchandise. In order to let the buyers know what they have to offer they erect a pole and hang a sample of the produce to the top (say a handful of sweet potatoes or a bunch of onions). Once their load is sold they pick up anchor and motor up river to tend their fields. Farther down the river we stopped at a long boat where three smiling Vietnamese ladies were doing a killing selling fresh fruit to the tourists. I couldn’t resist and bought a dragon fruit, which they quickly peeled, sliced, and presented to me on a plate with a toothpick. Dragon fruit looks like a flower from another planet, is a very pretty magenta color, and when sliced looks a bit like a kiwi; it is very good.

Back to the main river, we crossed into one of the big islands, and spent our time there doing the thing that all tours do: We got to a place, watched a demonstration on how something was done, and then were invited to buy the particular handcraft. This time we had a passable time because the demos were interesting and we had no big shoppers in the group. So we saw a demo on apiculture, on how to pop rice (you use very hot black sand and then sieve the sand out of the popped rice), and how to make rice paper candy and coconut milk candy. Lunch was a simple affair, but a good chance for small groups to meet each other (my own group had young women from Brazil, Cameroon, and Martinique, and a guy from Germany and myself. It was fun.

After lunch I borrowed a bike and explored a small portion of the island taking advantage of the small gravel and concrete paths built by the residents. I have to admire the pluck of these people, who spend their whole lives among mud, and give them lots of credit for the profusion of flowers, fruit trees, and greener with which they adorn their homes. Some of the homes are actually quite nice (but built on mud against biblical advice), and can be bought for something like US$ 5,000!

The grand finale was a music show, where we listened to several songs that were so well acted that we had no problem following the plot. Even our guide took part in the show!

Once we got back to Saigon we were dropped off at the Ben Thanh Market, which is Saigon’s answer to the Great Bazaar of Istambul, or La Merced in Mexico City. Fun and colorful, but unfortunately they started to close just as I was beginning to enjoy myself. Odd, since trade was brisk and a pouring rain was keeping all inside. The answer was the night market, which was being set up at that very moment, even under the torrential rain. The night market is an Asian tradition that takes over several streets, and where young people go to shop and be seen until the wee hours of the morning. I have had my share of excitement, however, so I think I will enjoy the rain under my brand new umbrella and call it a night. 

Vietnam 2016 Day 1. Slightly lost in Saigon

After a nice Vietnamese breakfast, and a couple of back and forth messages, I finally got my scooter and was ready to explore Saigon. My first task was to become reacquainted with the craziness of scooter riding. As I was swerving to avoid colliding with pregnant mothers, little old ladies, and whole families precariously mounted on speeding scooters, I couldn’t help but think on the beautiful coordination one sees in a hive of bees or a school of anchovies. The same would be true of a gaggle of Vietnamese going to work, were it not for the fact that clumsy little me was right in their middle, gumming up the whole works. But what is well learnt is never truly forgotten, and after a few close calls I regained my legendary scooter-riding ability. At some point an older couple riding a scooter stopped by my side and asked me where I was from. “Mexico”, I replied. “That is what my husband thought”, answered the woman (probably based on the boldness of my scooter moves). “And how long have you been in Vietnam” asked he. “Just a day”, said I. “And you are already riding a scooter in Saigon?”, he exclaimed, with a real sense of awe in his voice. Fortunately the traffic got going at that very moment, and I was able to leave him wondering what the traffic was like in Mexico City.

My first stop was the Museum of History, which is OK but not grandiose. Relatively simple displays take you through the presence of Homo erectus in the Mekong Delta as far back as half a million years ago, the bronze age in a basically agricultural setting, and from then on to the Chinese invasion in 179 BC and the many dynasties that followed (with or without Chinese ties). One of the golden moments was that of the Champa culture (200 to 1600 AD) of southern Vietnam, in which the arts flourished and pottery reached a high degree of refinement. The second half of the museum was devoted to a hodge podge of displays about the peoples of southern Asia, largely based on personal collections that have been gifted to the museum. A highlight was the water puppet theater, which I had seen in one of the museums in Hanoi a couple of years ago. I will tell you more about it later, but for now will say that a day care was doing a visit to the museum, and the little kids had a great time seeing the dragons come out of the water, or the fish frolicking in front of the fishermen.

Next I wanted to visit the Women’s Museum, but I got there just in time for the midday siesta (11:30 am to 1:30 pm) and had to come back later. I used the time to meander around town in my scooter, getting lost and finding myself again as I slowly developed a mental map of the downtown area. Saigon is a bit crazy, but nothing like Hanoi, and I soon started recognizing parks and major intersections. Just then it started to rain, and I had to find emergency shelter in a sports complex that also serves as the neighborhood conservatory. People come to learn to play an instrument, or to participate in one of the very popular ballroom dancing classes. While I was there a group of about 30 adults was working on the intricacies of rumba and cha-cha-cha, following with gusto the beat marked by the instructor. Also at this complex was the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater, which was much touted as being the best in the country. OK, I thought, now I know what I can do later in the day.

A little farther I got caught by yet another squall, and I thought this was the perfet opportunity to stop for lunch. I dove into the covered garage of what looked like a nice restaurant, parked the scooter, and found that my bad luck had landed me in a health bar, where the beautiful people can load on fruit smoothies, yoghurt, and the latest health grains. With a heavy heart I had to settle for a watermelon juice and a healthy sounding baguette sandwich, for which I paid the outrageous amount of 120,000 dong!

I should at this point clarify that here I am a millionaire! I visited the ATM on arrival at the airport and walked away with a cool 6,000,000 dong, at a rate of exchange of 1 US dollar for 20,000 dong. The thing is, prices are generally very cheap in Vietnam, so a little money generally goes a long way. Still, a scrawny lunch for 120,000 dong is highway robbery, but with the rain it is hard to go stall hopping like I would rather go.

I did get back to the Southern Vietnamese Women’s Museum, with which I was very impressed. The first floor has displays of the dresses and regalia used by Vietnamese women in the many ethnic groups found throughout the country (something like 50 distinct ethnic groups), as well as of the arts of pottery, weaving, dying, and reed weaving practiced by women. The second floor was devoted to the crucial roles women played in the two armed conflicts faced by modern Vietnam: the French and American invasions. Women not only stepped in to do Rosie the Riveter kind of work, but were also the core of the logistics operations, combatants, and leaders of the civil resistance movement. The tasks of moving ammunition and supply through jungle paths fell on the capable shoulders of young tough women, but the number of middle-aged and older women depicted on the photographs was notable. The “hero mothers” organized the people on the town, walked defiantly at the front of peace marches, demonstrated fearlessly in front of the armed forces of occupation, and overall maintained alive the pride and self-determination of the Vietnamese people. I was very impressed by this museum.

I finished the day with a performance at the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater, where I was indeed treated to a highly polished version of this popular Vietnamese entertainment. The funny thing is that the stories told were for the most part the same I had seen at the simpler performance at the museum! I wonder if it isn’t the same puppeteers who run both shows. In the professional version, however, you have an orchestra of six musicians who double as narrators, actors, and peanut gallery to the antics of the puppets, and that makes a world of difference. The puppets pop out of a pool of water that stands in front of a set pagoda, manipulated from behind the reed mats that close the pagoda’s entrance. What is amazing is the incredible range of motions they can achieve: dragons jump out of the water spraying the audience, fisherrmen chase after frolicking fish, three boats of 8 rowers each have a race in front of an amazed audience, and the local prince takes a leisurely boat ride across the pond accompanied by an amazing retinue of courtiers and musicians. At the end the whole crew comes behind the mats, and you wonder how a dozen people managed to fit and maneuver their puppets in such a reduced space. 

Vietnam 2016 Days -10 to 0. Preparations

When at 3 pm Frank, the driller, gave up his efforts to free the bit of the well he was drilling, and declared that we would have to pull all 120 ft of auger, I felt like swearing. We had started at 6 am, and by now the day was sweltering and we were facing another three hours of hard, hot work (well, the drillers were going to work hard, while I was going to dehydrate slowly under the 106ºF heat “witnessing” the whole operation). The County had been directed to install 8 monitoring wells, and I had been very happy to offer my services as the registered geologist in charge, but it had meant staying in the Central Valley for the whole month of July, which in principle was against my travel religion. Now it became all too clear why I avoid the Central Valley of California in the summer. I had been working under the sun for days on end, and this mishap was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Short of heat stroke, my mind wandered through my plans for the late summer: A week traveling on a scooter through south Vietnam, and 12 more days reconnoitering north Thailand, also astride a scooter. Yes, I realize that I would be heading for the equatorial rain forest, and that it is the monsoon season there, but at this point the idea of a torrential rain was most welcome (we will see if I feel so optimistic by the end of my 20-day trip to southeast Asia!).

I flew Asiana Airlines, with the expected stop in Seoul, and landed in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) at 11 pm of August 4. It was an uneventful but very long trip during which I slept for very long hours (all that accumulated tiredness served me well this time) This time I broke down, and paid a US$75 fee to be received at the airport, be given VIP assistance with the arrival procedures, and be driven to my hotel (I probably paid too much, but for once I didn’t feel like spending two hours at the airport figuring things out). The ride through Saigon took a good time, and I was able to become reacquainted with Vietnamese traffic while somebody else drove; it was very nice.

If all goes as planned, early tomorrow morning my scooter will be delivered to me at the hotel and El Diablo will ride again!

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Jamaica 2016 Day 11. The last day

It is a bit sad, but all good things must come to an end. Today was the day in which I had to ride back to Negril, to return my valiant scooter, so I enjoyed the ride there, knowing that it was my last fling. I got to Negril at about 9:30 am and, since I had until 12 noon to return the scooter I pushed past the town into a long stretch of coast dotted with small guesthouses, restaurants, and bars, all shaded by big trees and a general feeling of lassitude. This is exactly the setting in which I imagine a relaxing Caribbean vacation should be spent (of course, you all know I don’t do relaxing, so I would have been out of my mind if I had to spend more than a couple of days here.

Pushing even farther I approached the point farthest west in the island, from where reportedly one can see that best sunsets. I guess I will have to forego this experience until the next time I come.

The return of the motorcycle went without a hitch, although the owner expressed disbelief when I told him I had been as far as Port Antonio (he would have had a heart attack if I had told him I had gone all around the island, with a few mountain crossings to boot). So I got my deposit back, and all of a sudden I have money again (but now I have two US$100 bills, which is about the same as having no money at all, since nobody can break such big bills).

Fortunately I had saved a few Jamaican dollars, which were enough to get me back to Mo Bay, and to buy the makings of dinner. No more restaurant meals for me!

The walk back to the villa was extremely painful. The sun was blazing like I had not experience it blaze since I had arrived in Jamaica, and there was not a lick of wind. I hate being a pedestrian L

Tomorrow at around 10 am my host Future will drive me to the airport, and from there I will first go to Florida and from there to San Antonio, where I should be landing at about 8:30 pm. I will then take the bus to downtown, to catch the 11 pm bus from San Antonio to Monterrey, where I should arrive around 6:30 am of the following day. I will then take a taxi to the airport, to rent a car, and from there will drive two hours to Monclova, where if I am lucky I will arrive before noon. Grand total it will take me about 24 hours of continuous travel, and I can tell you I am not looking forward to it.

I do take with me a happy memory of Jamaica and its people. They are a bit crazy, but they eat well, have fun, and seem to be doing generally OK.


Jamaica 2016 Day 10. Ocho Rios to Mo Bay

The problem of waking up so early in the morning is that once you are ready to go and start your touristic visits everybody else is still asleep. I wanted to visit the Museum of Reggae Music, in one of the older shopping malls, but I had quite a lot of trouble finding the mall, largely because there was no one to ask for directions, and the ones I asked were not quite sure where the place was. Finally one of the motorcycle cops (we call them constables here) told me to follow him and delivered me at the door of the place. I had past it before! Yes, but it is an older mall and the sign is definitely subdued. The whole place was deserted, so I felt like a wraith as I walked its empty walkways, not finding the touted museum. I finally met someone who sadly informed me that the museum no longer existed and, no, she had no idea if it had reopened elsewhere. So I will have to remain ignorant about the truth behind reggae and the Rastafarians.

Driving through Ochi (as we locals call Ocho Rios) I somehow got on the road to Kingston and discovered a particularly pretty stretch of mountain road. It is locally called Fern Gully, and although ferns are not particularly prominent it has a certain magic to it. It is a very narrow gully (road wide) walled by vertical cliffs of hard limestone, and the temperature inside it must be at least 10 degrees lower than in the outside. My little scooter groaned as I drove up the gully, but on the way down made a passable impression of a Ducati negotiating the sharp bends in the road. Great fun!

Ochi plays an important role in the economy of Jamaica because it is the destination of the cruise ships that ply the Caribbean. In order to serve this transient population many attractions have been developed to pluck the visiting tourists of their cash, 20 dollars at a time. Perhaps the most notable of these attractions are the Dunn’s River waterfalls, which are now the centerpiece of a beautiful, relaxing park. I was one of the first ones to get there, so I had a chance to walk through the park when, all of a sudden, 500 tourists arrived all at once, creating a pandemonium among the numerous guides. The high point of this experience is to hold hands in a row of maybe 50 people, and to walk up the falls, stumbling from pool to pool. I got my feet wet, but decided not to participate in the group experience, which might had been fun in solitude but seemed a production line with the horde of tourists.

The road to Mo Bay was mostly ground that I had covered on my second day, so I don’t need to repeat it here. I got back to my villa in Mo Bay at about 3 pm, only to find the place deserted. Since I didn’t have a reservation for the night I didn’t quite wanted to get settled, but I changed into my swimming suit and enjoyed the pool until, an hour later, my host Future came back, together with former lodger Ida, who had just gotten back from Negril. It was nice to see my old friends and feel back at home.

For dinner I went back to the fish restaurant by the water’s edge, where I dined like a king, but where I realized that I was running out of Jamaican currency (the common struggle of running out of money at the end, when you don’t want to get more money for fear that you will end with a lot of money frozen in a foreign currency that you cannot exchange anywhere). Fortunately here you always have the option of paying in dollars, so I put one US$20 bill and two bills of JA$100 on the table, in time for a gust of wind to pick them up and blow them toward the water! Fortunately I managed to rescue the US$20 and one of the JA$100 before they fell on the bay, but the other JA$100 was blown far out to sea, no doubt as some sort of tax to the local spirits.