Thailand: The Beginning


Traveling, much like lack of sleep, can do wild things to the mind. Even the most balanced and kempt person can find themselves altered by this crazy thing we call "travel." Between culture, jet lag, uncertainty, and the nomadic, hermit-crab lifestyle one finds themselves falling into while traveling; the mind goes through a vigorous test of character. When it all comes to a close and you find yourself understanding what the word "structure" means again, that is when all of the highs and lows come together as the glue to bind together an experience that stays with you wherever the rest of your life takes you.


Now that my somewhat sappy, philosophical ramble is out of the way, let's talk about why this blog is here. Emily and I wanted to keep an online account of our travels through Thailand, Southeast Asia, and wherever else we end up. This whole trip stemmed from the curiosity of teaching abroad and the urge to see a part of the world that is in a way, on the other end of the spectrum from Western Culture.


After taking a 13-week, online course, coupled with a 20+ hour teaching practicum, we received our TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) Certificates. Our college degrees in conjunction with these certificates give us the appropriate credentials to teach English in a foreign country in virtually any teaching category: Public, Private, Corporate, Language Schools, International Schools, Private Tutor, etc.


Having heard many great things about the country, we booked two one-way-tickets to Bangkok, Thailand for February 25, 2012. With the flight booked, the only thing we had planned was a two-night stay at a hotel close to the airport to figure out a slight plan for our holiday before we began to work. After a 17-hour flight to Shanghai, a 3-hour layover, and a 4 hour flight to Bangkok, we found ourselves through customs and on the Bangkok pavement at 3:45am on February 27th (2 days later for you non-Mathletes). This is when the adventure begins...

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Kon Tum and Hoi An




KON TUM:


             After Nha Trang, we took off into the Central Highlands of Vietnam. In developing countries it can sometimes be a bit difficult to veer off the established tourist trails. We wanted to go experience something relatively untouched and authentically Vietnamese, so we picked a remote town in the Central Highlands called Kon Tum (“Kon- Toom”) and asked the man who worked at our hotel if it was easy enough to get to from Nha Trang. He laughed. He made a few phone calls. He laughed again. He told us the only way to get there would be by local bus. His estimation of travel time was around 6 hours. We knew that was just him being optimistic, though. He helped us figure out our bus time and offered to call us a taxi and check us out of the hotel early the next morning.

We were up and out by 4:30 am to catch our “local bus” (dreaded 13-passenger van) by 5am. The first hour was fine: bumpy and noisy due to the incessant honking and beeping on any Vietnamese roadway, but there were only three of us passengers on the bus to start. So, Bob and I each laid down on a row of seats – which we conveniently had to ourselves – and got about a half hour of jolted, rough, nap-sleep before the next load of passengers piled in.

Now, we have experienced these kinds of minivans before in Thailand. As with most forms of public transit we’ve used in Southeast Asia, they set no passenger limits and turn not a soul away. It is a lovely idea that causes a lot of discomfort by traditional Western standards. The term “13-passenger van” is something that doesn’t exist to them - that is only how we would classify the vehicle and understand it based on our perceived limitations of space, seatbelts, comfort, and safety. Those rules and regulations don’t actually exist here in Vietnam though. It is a bus… a local bus to help local people get from one place to another. Period.

The van “fills up” (according to our silly Western perceptions) quite quickly after that glorious first hour of SPACE. After that, we reach thirteen people, and we’re all sitting very close to others on either side… but we continue to pull over and pick up more passengers along the way. Soon we’re at seventeen… then we get to twenty… and when we are squished and squeezed and packed in more than we can bare, we pull over again – surely this time it is to drop off some passengers though, right? Oh… no? We’re going to pick up a few more? Okay, just checking. By three hours in to the trip, we have packed twenty-five people into a 13 --- oops, I mean a limitless-number-of-passengers van. This is how it remained for the following six hours of our nine-hour journey from Nha Trang to Kon Tum.

If you’d like to know the percentage of travelers on this trip who get carsick, I’d have to confirm that it is at least 30% - maybe 40% if you count the babies.  A high enough percentage to require the van-man to carry a supply of his own plastic bags to hand out accordingly, and a high enough percentage to require pit-stop-puke-stops, where the van doors open, people scatter and promptly vomit. I’ll end the description of that portion of our trip right there, but it happened, and I didn’t like it.

Before I abandon the topic entirely, I want to give you some background information. This is a little-known fact that only a few people know about my deep, dark past: I have suffered from a fear of other people’s vomit since I can remember. You know the scene in Problem Child where the kids speed up the merry-go-round until everyone throws up? Or the one in Stand By Me with the pie-eating contest? Or maybe some of you even remember the scene in Life With Mikey (that Michael J. Fox movie) where the kid eats expired milk and then barfs? I hid behind the couch and made my Dad smell the milk before every bowl of cereal I ate for a couple weeks. As a result, (here comes the big confession) I have never been on a rollercoaster, to this very day, because I have always been afraid that somebody will be sick on, near, or around me.  It’s not even that I’m that afraid of the actual ride, just the small chance that I will have to interact with another person’s vomit. So. You may have drawn the conclusion that being trapped in a van with pukey people was really very hard for me. This marks the end of that most-likely-very-uncomfortable-to-read segment of my confession.

We stopped about halfway through the trip so people could eat (and/or puke). I did neither. I was angry – at the peak of my internal anxiety at this point: uncomfortable and cramped and pretty grossed out. I stood in the parking lot and crossed my arms and pouted and stared at Bob in disbelief (despite being smushed together and nearly morphed into Siamese twins for the past four hours, we hadn’t really spoken much). He just started chuckling and trying to hold back his complete amusement at the whole thing. How bizarre it was, how grumpy I was, how unbelievably insanely bad the road conditions were, and about the way that all of the weird sounds from different kinds of car, bus, and motorbike horns were echoing in our ears at all times. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he managed between stifled laughs, “but what else can we do?” He was right: I could either be mad and upset the rest of the trip when there was no way to change what was happening, or I could quickly spit out all of the weird things that were bothering me and just try to laugh.

After I got my frustrations off my chest, the rest of the trip was okay. Nothing was different except for my perception, which actually means everything was different. We were winding around these crazy mountain roads, looking down at forests and rivers and families of remarkably agile and playful buffalo and waterfalls and farms and Vietnam. We were in the bus with people who were all as smushed and crammed as we were, but nobody else was mad about it. There was no point in being mad about it.  

So that was the part where I tell you I got anxious and grouchy. I’m noticing that this is somewhat of a theme in my writing for this blog. I’m guessing you can all tell by now whether it’s me or Bob who is writing these entries simply based on whether there is an emotional reference to overcoming grouchiness or not. I can’t help it. I get overwhelmed by a lot of the things we do here. I do. But I still love it. I wouldn’t change any of it. I guess I actually like it, because then, when it’s over, I feel accomplished. I feel revived and stronger because I made it through some kind of challenge or feat. When I think about it now, I wouldn’t want to take a cushy tourist bus with TVs and free snacks to Kon Tum. The reality is that this is how people travel here. If you want to get to where you need to go, then you just have to suck it up. That’s all. Suck it up and it will be over in… nine hours.

Now I’ll finally start actually telling you about Kon Tum. The main things we did in Kon Tum were explore the markets and explore the surrounding villages. Since Kon Tum is a very authentic Vietnamese town not all that frequently visited for tourist purposes, we saw some interesting and real-deal market sights. The kinds of sights you might imagine to see in a small town in the middle of nowhere in Vietnam.

"What's that, Emily? A picture of a bunch of limes?" Nay! Those are oranges...


Crabs 'n Fish
Look at all these different eggs

Squiggly fish

Plaa yut! (that means "a lot of fish")
I call this one: Two Fish in a Bucket of Blood
That's a plastic bag full of brains (and other things)
This eel escaped from it's water tub and desperately tried to scurry down the street in this puddle
It got really far (on the ground to the left of Bob) before a passerby picked it up and plopped it back in the tub. As you can see, we were a little too confused to really know what to do with it.
These are cars seats. Really. They put them on the front of the motorbikes for their babies. That's safety.


That right there is a rat atop the trash. I think he died doing what he loved: being a rat in the trash.


Icy squids with crazy eyes




Ban Xeo - This is a delicious Vietnamese food filled with bean sprouts and shrimp. You wrap them in all sorts of leaves and dip them in that tasty sauce
And to answer the question I expect many of you are pondering: we did also see cat and dog offered at the market. I’m not really quite sure what else to say about that. Our cultures are different in a lot of regards - cuisine in particular. From what we have gathered, the consumption of dog meat is based on a desire for increased masculinity - similarly, the Vietnamese sometimes believe that drinking snake wine has the same effect. I had originally thought that maybe the consumption of dog meat was out of necessity, and in that case it was easier to try to understand. The idea that they are farmed in order to be fed to men in order to increase their masculinity, machismo, ego, or what-have-you is a little harder to swallow. I think the main difference that we have to understand is that the species itself is just viewed entirely differently depending on where you are. Sometimes when we describe how our domestic dog friends live with us in the States to people throughout Southeast Asia, they are appalled: You let the dogs in the HOUSE? They lick your FACE? They ride IN the car with you? Oftentimes they think we’re the odd ones.

The next day we explored the surrounding villages on motorbike. We drove through, admiring the mountainous landscape, surprising the locals with our presence, and enjoying a blindingly bright and beautiful day out in the sun. Each distinct village is marked by an A-framed structure, usually covered in thatch. We drove through a number of them, usually filled with children walking to or from school in packs, riding bicycles built for someone three times their size, or playing competitive games of tag while weaving between herds of cows and pigs and their young. Seeing the way that children and farm animals bring life, vibrancy, and entertainment to their villages is my favorite part of these kinds of rides.

Beautiful day!
This is the village A-Frame (and some cows and laundry)



These guys are pretty awesomely cute

as are these guys

and these guys, too. 


















Tag!
               Whilst in Vietnam, Bob and I found great entertainment in watching all of the various things that people manage to carry on the backs, fronts, and sides of their motorbikes. Bob made the analogy that sometimes the bikes look so over-the-top and ridiculous, that it feels like you are watching the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show of Motorbikes. There are a couple pictures posted below, but in addition to the photos you'll find here, I have to provide a short list of some of the other impressive feats we saw these vehicles transport: enormous Karaoke speakers, families of five, A REFRIGERATOR, numerous chicken cages and their chicken cargo, and a fellow traveler claims he once saw a cow on the back of a motorbike in Vietnam, but we can't exactly vouch for that (I don't doubt it, though).





Tow Truck
We ended our last day of exploration in Kon Tum with a trip to Eva Café – potentially one of my all-time favorite cafés in Vietnam, Thailand, or maybe even THE WORLD (so far). The whole place is one big, eccentric garden with hidden nooks, secret alcoves and tree-house-like hideouts. The staff suggests that you take a walk around the property and investigate before settling on a location to sit – once you finally make up your mind (it may take a while…there is a lot to see), they promptly come find you with a hot pot of tea. Vietnam serves a unique coffee-meringue type drink, which they refer to as “Egg Coffee.” It doesn’t sound great when you put it that way, but it is completely delicious and awesome, and this is where we tried it for the first time. We also had a really amazing spread of sautéed vegetables, soup, and other things I kind of forgot about specifically, but I recall them also being equally amazing. If you somehow, someway find yourself in Kon Tum, you have to promise to go to Eva Café. The man who owns it, designed it, and created it is has spent the better part of the last 20 years doing so. With an eye for art and attention to detail, he has crafted each area into its own masterpiece. He has taken great care to ensure that no matter where your eyes gaze, they fall on something beautiful or interesting. You can also inquire here about some really cool-sounding opportunities to do some off-the-beaten-path treks with this very friendly and eager-to-help man as your guide and new best friend.



Welcome to Eva Cafe / Garden 
Here is a plant growing out of some jorts

 



Egg Coffee



 HOI AN:

After a few days in Kon Tum we headed for a more well known destination: Hoi An. This called for another local bus journey to take us from Kon Tum to an hour or so north of Hoi An to a bus station in Danang. We wound up in Hoi An and checked into Vesper Homestay. The owners are two newlyweds expecting their first child. They are very sweet and welcoming and the place itself is spacious, clean and accommodating. It’s just a bit out of town, halfway between the downtown area and the beach – a great location no matter what your plan for the day is.

             The excitement had been established. We had heard from friends, travelers, and Internet websites abound that Hoi An was overall, a pretty fantastic place to see. As we cycled on in from “afar” (2 kilometers away), we gradually began to understand what all the hype was about. This place is cool. Some people may say it’s comparable to walking the streets in a movie set, or taking a stroll through a postcard (if that was ever a thing that was possible to do). Hoi An has been quaintly dubbed “Lantern Town,” as the whole river and streets surrounding the river are illuminated by countless lanterns each night. It’s really beautiful: the winding streets dotted by the colorful muted lights; the way the lanterns’ reflections scatter and undulate in the river as long tail boats slice through them; the cookie cutter shops and restaurants that the zoning laws have kept nearly completely uniform in their yellow stucco exteriors and gold-painted signs. I guess mentioning zoning laws in an attempt to depict the aesthetic perfection here takes away some of the romanticism of it, but it’s very striking how similar every place in the old quarter looks. It can be really confusing when you can’t tell the difference between a SCUBA dive shop and a restaurant. 




And Hoi An is CLEAN. Not only are there garbage cans, but there are also RECYCLING BINS on every street! Long forgotten are the days of carrying around that empty water bottle or scrap of plastic wrapper for hours as you look for a waste receptacle - they are everywhere! It was a nice and easy place to spend a few days.

We also went to the beach. On our bike ride there we got enthusiastically herded and waved to the side of the road by a rice farmer who wanted to show us his turf. We veered off the road down a dirt divider between rice paddies and he led us around pointing out rice-related and Buddhist things along the way. Then we went back on our way to the beach.




Snail and her little, pink, baby eggs




The beach was amazing. Although we had a beach adventure in Nha Trang not long before, we knew it would be all too soon before we were landlocked again – and so we had to take full advantage of our time by the South China Sea while we could. The waves were monsters - so big and so cool and so fun. It was an overcast, hazy day, so we nearly had the beach to ourselves (besides some diehard waiters and waitresses, scouring the beach for some customers). We goofed around in the waves for the better part of the afternoon, after which I was somehow simultaneously rejuvenated and exhausted – I think the ocean just does that to you.



That's us!


We had some great food in Hoi An. There are a number of places in the old quarter that came very highly recommended to us - per usual, we had to bypass most places that did not fall under the budget category, BUT we do know that these outstanding places exist in Hoi An, and they look to be pretty trendy and delicious. One place I have to mention is the Cargo Café. This place rules. We popped in twice during our stay in Hoi An for coffee and desserts at the end of the night. I am in despair writing about it now because I miss it tremendously: amazing white Vietnamese coffee (really amazing coffee), and the desserts! Holy smokes, the desserts were DELICIOUS. Go there, if you can. And tell me about everything you eat.

Dessert


Coffee


I Think You Like was also a nice spot to sit and enjoy some food and coffee - right around the corner from Vesper Homestay

I have to say that Hoi An is definitely the most pristinely perfected tourist destination that we came across in Vietnam. If you are planning a trip to Vietnam, I’d say it’s a must-see spot. It’s great because it’s easy and beautiful and fun. Of course, in the heart of these kinds of places you miss out on the true culture of the people – but that doesn’t mean that Vietnamese culture is absent in Hoi An – not at all; but it is a bit more smattered along the outskirts of town. I’d suggest making your trip a mixed up blend of the the artsy, the trendy, the fun, the posh and the local flair that Hoi An has to offer. Hop around a bit. Ride your bike from beach to beach and enjoy all the different aspects that are available to you here. It’s really a beautiful and comfortable place – a place we were very happy to spend a few days in.

Old woman chasing a cow out of her yard

Here I think she's shouting something like, "and don't come back!"

Fishing
Classy French Capri "Sonne"

Gratuitous Buffalo Photo Montage:

Buffalo Bob


Hey there, baby buffalo