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Stairs at Sea Level to Stairs on the Top of the World.

 

Salamat, Sooasday, Sawadi Ka, Sabai Dee, Xin Cao, Namaste, Hello

 

Bali was ocean, rain, friends, incense, temples, garbage, and stairs. Lombok was motorbikes, shells, beaches, Christmas, New Years, call to prayer, and Rupiah. Malaysia was friends, fun, love, Ringgit, and home. Cambodia was temples, Riel, silk screening, school, beautiful, and people. Thailand was family, friends, food, Baht, elephants, dogs, shopping, pancakes, and iced tea. Laos was zip lining, tree houses, movies, bookstore, Kip, waterfall, rest. Vietnam was cold, crazy, traffic, big, small, Dong, caves, markets, beach, bikes, fun. Nepal was beautiful, kind, lovely, kids, hiking, teahouses, Dal Baht, sick, hail, orphanage, henna, Rupee, loss.

I feel blessed for the privilege of taking this trip. South East Asia was more than I ever imagined. I learned and experienced diverse cultures, food, and animals. I got blessed by a Buddhist monk in Cambodia, I learned how to make Som Tam from a Thai grandmother, I walked through the jungle to find three old lady elephants, I zip lined to tree houses, I crossed a street in Hanoi, and I trekked in Nepal. I have seen and done incredible things. I am forever grateful.

Bali, Lombok, Cambodia, Thailand, and Nepal taught me to be kind and loving to all people, no matter your beliefs. Malaysia, Bali, Laos, and Vietnam taught me that friends are a treasure, and they make an experience one hundred times better than it already is. Seven countries in South East Asia taught me that language is important, and is so much fun to learn. My trip to South East Asia changed the way I see the world around me.

 

Terima Kasih, Akun, Kop Kun Ka, Kop Jai, Cam On, Dhanyabad, Thank You

Home away from Home

Our home away from home deserves a quick post.  The Mangelsdorfs have taken us in 4 times, always with love, laughter, generosity and comfort.

Max Lisa Lucas Ethan and Ana (M5) are friends from our time in South Africa.  The first year we were there, Lisa was pregnant with Ethan, the second year I was pregnant with Mia and wore all of Lisa’s maternity clothes.  They held Mia the day she was born.  They were like family then and they are absolutely family now.

Since South Africa they have lived and worked in Sumatra Indonesia and now Malaysia for the past 8 years.  M5 took a year off last school year and traveled the states visiting family and friends.  We were lucky to be one of their stops.  We talked long about traveling in Asia and through those discussions our four 4 four destination was decided.

We originally intended to spend only 1 week with M5 in Kuala Lumpur in January.  As it turns out KL is the little known center of the universe and all cheap flights go through KL.  So, we spent a week at the house in January, a few days in February, a week at spring break and a final night before we left this morning to fly home.

Lisa said that she thinks we could probably live together long term (in a bigger house) because we really understand each other’s crazy.  I agree and it will be hard not to pop in for a visit very soon.

We are so grateful for our time together, our time in a family home and so many laughs.

During our time together:

We had 3 adult nights out including roof top drinks with views of the towers and a secret entry speak easy for drinks.

We had Food Food and more Food – Nasi Kandar, chicken rice, Dumplings, Indian, Tapas and of course home cooking. We had chicken fish and Durian challenge in a down pour

I went to book club, the boys played basketball and soccer at the school, we saw Rogue One, visited the SPCA and children’s hospital.

We hiked in the jungle and were attacked by leeches (I’m not kidding and they are the most vile creature).  We visited a bamboo eco resort for water play.

We saw Lukas’s school performance of Hamilton (AMAZING)

We played many rounds of The Game (a version of charades) and were introduced to the fun group phone game Drawful.

Thank you Mangelsdorfs.  We love you and will miss you.

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Trekking, gritty and grand

Ten people – weary and cheery, some sick, some wet – crowded around the 55-gallon drum barrel stove.  The sad little fire inside was wet wood and fizzle; it kicked out a nearly useless combination of soot and meager heat.  Smoke billowed from unsealed cracks around the stovepipe.  I watched it collide with the ceiling to form an acrid upper layer to the room’s atmosphere,  Slowly, some seeped into the rafters above and an unseen exit.   Outside, nature was providing a cataclysmic concert – rat-a-tat hail like a snaredrum, deep rumbling base of thunder, an incessant applause of rain on tin roof. Every few moments the stage was lit up by a great flash of lighting.

Regardless, we huddled low and near to the stove, for physical comfort and companionship.  Our Nepalese hosts, Didi (sister) and her daughter bundled in thick sweaters of wool, spoke in soft, gentle voices of their lives in the mountains.  A couple wet, but cheery Germans sipped tea and debated carrying on in the storm.   Our guides, Bajendra, Rammesh and Uumesh, played cards, seemingly unfazed by our predicament – “take it as it comes” seems much the mentality of Himalayan trekking.

My arms were a little achy from carrying Mia the last kilometer or so due to increasing stomach pain.  I looked over at her, squeezed small under a thick blanket.  She was staring blankly into the space before the fire, looking a little better.  A good vomit will often help.  I was shivering, mostly from laziness at not putting on another layer, or was it my belly?  Uh oh.

“How are you doing?”  My question was not only for her, but also me, as my own stomach gurgled with anxiety, foreshadowing my evening entertainment.

“Um, a little better I think.”  She responded, with an admirably cheery tone.  I hoped my own was faking it at least as well.

Porter sat at a stool across from us, both knees drawn tightly to his chest, and a look of empathy in his eyes.  His gut was finally settling down, two days after his own vomit episode, though he still wasn’t eating.  Regardless, he had toughed out the day’s hike without complaint.  We were a little worried about Porter, he had no appetite, not even for snickers or trail bars.

BAM!  A strong flash of light in the corner of the room popped from the outlets.  We all leaped to our feet.

“Oh my god!” Bajendra exclaimed, hands to heart. He had felt the electric arc course through his body.  He checked if we were ok, then retreated deeper into the kitchen to give thanks for life.

Welcome to our low point at our high point in the Himalaya, in the village of Deurali, at nearly 3000 m elevation.  We were halfway through our six-day, 55-km trek.  At that moment, as I felt my own belly protest stirring, as I watched both my kids sick in a world where they could not (would not?) eat, as I knew we still needed to walk about 25 km out, I’m not sure if I’ve ever felt so far from home.

Yet, that is exactly part of the reason we went traveling.  To encounter difficulty and challenge. To be affected.  To come out the other side.  Oh yeah, also, to be wowed by people and places.  We were, we did.

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With our guides (Uumesh in back, Bajendra with Adidas shirt, Rammesh seated)

Day 1 – Pokhara to Ulleri (1,960 m)

On our first day, we awoke to the bane of the fair-weather hiker:  a low-slung cloud cover with a persistent drizzle that would bring joy only to a walrus.  We boarded the jeep, and stopped a few times to look for good old giant plastic bags.  Yet, in this part of the world where plastic is an apparently limitless resource, we could find only one decently strong bag.  The boy scouts would be unimpressed.

Off we drove into the clouds, literally.  At the top of the pass outside of Pokhara, we could not see fifteen feet in front of the truck.  Rammesh told us that he had once walked through this blind mist for four days straight.  No one was complaining yet, but faces showed concern.

As we descended into the village of Nayapul, where we were to start, the weather let up to just overcast skies.  We started our trek at 1,070 m (about 3,500 ft).  The beginning of the trail was a steady march upwards on roads, with only an occasional local truck passing us.  After several hours, we turned off the road onto a trekking only path and the pretty little village of Tikhedhungga.  Bajendra asked if we wanted to stay for the night, or push on up another 500 m climb (about 1,500 feet) to the village of Ulleri, which could offer mountain views if the weather broke.  The kids led the charge, “Let’s climb!”

Up we went.  Each wide step was paved by thick slate slabs, no doubt carved, carried and set by hand.  The sturdy path made the steps easy, but altitude can’t be paved away.  One step, two, five, ten, one-hundred, five-hundred, one-thousand, two-thousand, three-thousand….  3,781 steps up to Ulleri!

Bajendra suggested we take some breaks along the way, “take it easy, no rush.”  But Porter and Mia were on a mission.   Bajendra, rubbing his belly and slightly out of breath, told the kids that we had climbed the stairs in record time.

We stayed at a nice little tea house, with a simple two-bed room, plywood walls, real slate roof.  We took cold showers, as the electricity had been out for the last week.  Amy and I ate Dahl Bat, the Nepalese staple food.  A simple, but hearty dish of lentils, rice, a vegetable curry and some type of sour pickled relish.  It was good, filling and hot.  “Hots and Lots” as our friend Ant describes his favorite trail food.  Bajendra surprised us with a beautiful fresh fruit and nut plate, yum!

A thunderstorm moved in, but we were dry, warm, with full stomachs.  We played cards with headlamps, enjoying a good-sprited game of bullsh*t with the guides.  BS is a great game for learning numbers so we alternated Engish and Nepali.  (Tashi?) We went to bed around 9, tired and content.

Day 2 – Unintended layover in Ulleri (1,960 m).

04:00:00 am.  Porter woke me up, “Dad, I don’t feel good.”

4:00:10 AM – I searched frantically for my headlight in the dark.  No luck.

4:01:00 AM – Bleah!  Bleah!  Bleah!

4:05 until 4:30 AM – clean-up, and more stomach violence.

5:45 AM – a new day dawned bright and clear.  Annapurna sheared upwards through the blue sky.  We all gasped in wonder.

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Our view from the deck in Ulleri

We waited around in the morning, letting Porter finally sleep.  By 11, he still was in no condition to hike, so we decided to stay put.  We took turns wandering the steps through the village.  Even though the trek receives thousands of visitors each year, the locals were still engaging and cheery.  Especially if I started out greetings with a quick Nepalese pleasantry – “Namaste kati!”  (Greetings auntie!), peoples faces cracked open in smile and warmth.  I love cultures where people refer to each other by familial pronouns – sister, brother, uncle or auntie.  It just seems kind, embracing, respectful.

 

On day 2 we enjoyed a few new friends at the teahouse.  Michelle from Hong Kong and a young Nepalese doctor who strongly advised that we make Porter eat and then assess next steps for treatment.  I followed his advice and forced Porter to eat some rice and apples before bed then again later in the night.  The night ended with a foreboding ripper of a thunderstorm.  Our teahouse shook.

Day 3 – Ulleri up to Ghorepani (2,860 m)

We woke up again to blue skies, and Porter seemed much better.  He hadn’t eaten much, and still was not hungry, but he thought he could hike.  Fortunately after only a mile or so, we ran into a British family with two boys Porter’s age – Ollie (age 11) and Ben (age 10), and an older daughter, Emily (age 13).  Porter quickly found that these boys were good fun, and a bit “cheeky” (in a good way).  The family spent most of their school holidays traveling somewhere, usually in Asia, and their list of countries was impressive.  The boys hiked together, sharing stories of life.    At one point, Amy overheard Porter asking Ben what Tibet was like, if the Chinese rule could be felt, and if the people seemed free or not.  Ben had answers from experience.  Is our son gaining some world perspective?  Check that yes.

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We hiked quickly through beautiful forests and streams.  The trees were Oak and Rhodedendron.  The Rhodies were trees, not bushes, many over two hundred years old, and in the bloom of Spring.  Beautiful walking.  We arrived at our destination, Ghorepani, before noon.  We ate Dal Baht (well, Porter only pushed around his rice), then met up with the family (dad Mark and mom Sam), to look for some afternoon sport.  We found a basketball court, but no ball.  We found a store, and Mark asked about a ball, no chance up here.  So, he bought the next best thing – a plastic-wrapped roll of toilet paper.

Really?

Back to the court.  We created a game – NepaBall, kind of a cross between netball, basketball and ultimate frisbee, with some elements of rugby when the boys got a little fired up.  Basically, the game was to pass the ball (toilet paper roll) player to player, then try to score a basket.  If the ball was dropped, turnover.  It was, of course, absurd, and so by definition enthralling to boys age 9 to 11.  After falling behind 4-1, the three boys staged an amazing comeback under darkening skies and forced a “penalty free-throw shootoff.”  They won 4-3.  The victors went wild.  Christiano Ronaldo has not put on a greater display of braggadaccio victory dance than the one put on that afternoon.

After NepaBall, we all played some cards, the Brits suggested “Cheat,” of course a much more properly named game than Bullsh*t even though the rules are identical.  Good fun.

For dinner, we had the pizza, Porter gummed a bite or two of cheese-bread-sauce.  Amy ate Dal Bhat.  Dal Bhat Power – 24 hour as they say.  She claimed to enjoy it each time, savoring each variation – slightly different curry, pickle or even the traditional metal plate that it was served on.  I, on the other hand, craved a bit of variation.

The evening was beautiful with dynamic clouds and peakaboo mountain views.

 

Day 4 – Up to Poonhill (3210 m), down to Deurali (2990 m)

 

On day 4, we awoke early (4:30 AM), for an early one-hour hike up to Poonhill and a view of the sun rising over the Dhauligiri and Annapurna ranges.  We snaked up the 200 m climb in about 45 minutes, and experienced the joy of needing a down coat.  Delicious frosty air!  However, so did another 150 people or so.  Solo wilderness experience, this trek was not.  But no matter, we knew that coming in.  Plus, there’s something nice about being able to buy a cup of hot, masala tea in the mountains!

We enjoyed the views of sunrise, with Dhaulagiri (8,167 m) and Annapurna South (7,219m) dominating the horizons.  We lingered long up there, and eventually saw a side hill to hike out to and have some quiet solo time and hear the birds.

We hiked down, had breakfast, and got going towards our next destination of Tadopani around 9:30 AM.antonio,

Along the trail, we ran into a lovely man from Brazil, Antonio, on his way up to Annapurna base camp.  His face was filled with smile lines, and warm blacks-in-brown.  He was strong, powerfully built, but he walked with a slow, deliberate trail pace.  “I’ll get there, no hurry!”  He had no guide, no porter to carry his things.  Turns out he is 70 years old, a retired banker from Brazil.  His secret?  “vegetarian for twenty years, and two liters of home brew every day!”  Good idea I think.

By 10:30 AM, Mia’s stomach was tied in knots, and she couldn’t walk any further.  I carried her to Deurali, and laid her down on a bench while we ordered lunch.  I decided not to eat, as I felt something brewing down deep.

The thunderstorm hit an hour later.  My own journey of exodus began just after trying to stomach a spoonful or two of garlic soup around 7 PM.  Amy and Bajendra put us all to bed, Good night.

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Day 5 – Deurali to Ghandruk (1,940 m)

The morning dawned bright and blue, despite a tumultuous night.  I hadn’t slept a minute, neither had Amy.  Despite removing the upper 80% of my stomach fillings, I still felt an uneasy mass stuck lower in my system.  It protested its predicament, and I tried to give it freedom several times (“Never trust a fart!” was some advice I’ve heard about aging, that also applied to GI distress in a developing country).  Amy packed us up before 7, while I migrated back-and-forth between the outhouse and our room.  No exodus until later that morning though (and luckily while I was ready for it).

Despite the fact that Porter still hadn’t eaten, and Mia was empty bellied as well, we made the five hour hike in reasonable time, stopping for some enjoyable rock-stacking in a creek, and mountain gawking from the village of Tadopani.  From there, we could see Machapuchare, or Fishtail.  It has beautiful vertical relief, sweeping up to 6,947 m (22,793 ft) from the “low” surrounding foothills.  It’s summit is twin peaked, so the mountain appears like the end of a fish diving down towards the innards of the Earth.  It is considered a sacred mountain (where Shiva resides), and climbers are not allowed up.  Allegedly, it has never been climbed.  I hope that is true.

We hiked well, under blue skies all day.  We arrived in the charming mountain village of Ghandruk around mid-afternoon.  Ghandruk is beautiful – with homes, teahouses, temples, a school and a hospital all spilling across a terraced hillside.  The town is etched by a few stone pathways that wind between buildings and across slopes.  Despite being one of the most popular trekking stop-offs in the Himalaya, the people were gracious, friendly and inquisitive.  We loved it there.

The evening brought another kicker of a thunderstorm.  I still couldn’t eat, and neither could Mia and Porter.  But now at least, we were within an hours walk of a road, and only 4-5 hours from the end of our trek.

Day 6 – The hike back to Nayapul

Blue skies again, and what a view from Ghandruk!  Porter and I woke early, and decided to go explore the village.  We walked around and found a “German bakery” with french press coffee.  Halleluja, and bad stomach be damned!  We ordered a cinammon roll and a doughnut.  Both were a bit bready, but a welcome change in flavor.  We were both able to stash away a few Calories.  Plus, the views from our perch were tremendous.

An “Amma” waddled over to share our breakfast time with us.  “Namaste Amma!” I said.  That’s as much Nepali as I know, but it was enough.  She seemed appreciative and sat down at our table.  The owner brought her some tea and porridge.  She could not speak any English, but it didn’t matter.   She smiled, said a few things which I repeated poorly, and we hooted with laughter together.  Have I mentioned that I really grew to love the Nepalese people?

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We hiked up, and were back in Nayapul by mid-afternoon.  A lovely trip.  Since we’ve been back, I’ve had the chance to see several people’s photos of longer trips – the Annapurna Circuit, smaller peaks, and base camps.  I am already dreaming of seeing more of this place.

 

 

Nepal: an unexpected welcome

Four months ago, when we landed in Asia, people started talking to us about Nepal.  Whoa, Nepal you say?  That place-name carries a hint of the dreamy to my northwest Washington mountain-yearning ears.  We started looking into it.  

We had some some issues:  
Our bags were full of snorkeling masks, flip-flops and surf shorts, not sleeping bags, wool hats and gloves.  No matter, a few great people from the International School of Kuala Lumpur (ISKL) sorted us out with long underwear, down coats, gloves and hats.  Thanks Max, Lisa, Jasmine, Kevin, chad and Heidi!  

Unfortunately, we had waited too long to book flights, so prices were double what they were two months ago. Oops.  Oh well, thanks VISA!

We hadn’t researched where to go, but throughout SE Asia, we kept running into other travelers with Nepal connections.  Ant and Keri trekked in March, and gave us great on-the-ground reports.  We met Cailey and Rob, a wonderful US couple we met in the back of a taxi in Chiangmai, then again on the slow boat to Luang Prabang.  They are currently on the Everest base camp route for three months doing research on health effects at altitude.  They were inspirational in giving ideas about trekking regions.  

Several ISKL teachers had trekked with a company, Api Himal, that also does some good social work in Kathmandu.  I emailed Rajendra, the founder/owner/boss man, and together we settled on a plan – a seven day trek to Annapurna region (actually the “Poonhill trek”).  Since we were going to be in Nepal for 13 days, Rajendra also arranged some other activities for us, including an invitation to stay at his home/orphanage for two days before heading out on the trek.  Little did we know how amazing this would be.  

The flight in was stunning with wide views of the Himalaya, with Everest nearly at level with our plane. 

Himalayas in the clouds (from the plane

 

At the airport, Rajendra met us with a warm namaste, and deep smiles.  We drove the colorful streets of Kathmandu back towards his home, and second business, OCEAN Nepal, a non-profit orphanage.  His brief story is that he was working as a trekking guide, and decided (along with his wife, who is an incredibly vivacious, funny and beautiful woman), to do something for kids who come from difficult circumstances.  He started an orphanage, and used his trekking company to help support the orphanage – that is some smart eco-tourism/social work!       

Arriving at his home, Rajendra invited us to tea (I love masala tea!), and introduced us to several of the kids.  I was blown away by this group of confident, intelligent, funny young people.  The home has 8 boys and 8 girls, aged 6 to 19.  They seem to behave like one big family.  Older kids tutor the younger.  They kid around with each other and seem to generally love each other.  We ended up spending most of our Kathmandu time hanging out at the home.  The Nepalese kids spoke excellent English, and were eager to make new friends. I played guitar and chess, and was humbled in both accounts by teenagers. Porter jumped into lego-play with some of the younger boys.  Amy and our kids joined a bracelet-making group.  

We ate dinner with Rajendra and his family, where we were introduced to eating with one’s hands.  We had delicious rice-Dahl-cauliflower-and-potatos.  Even mia got into the spirit of hand eating.  This is for you Ana z!  



We had one down day in Kathmandu before leaving for our trek.  Luckliy for us, it coincided with the visit of a group from the American Community school of Abu Dabai.  Four teens and their parents were on a service trip to the orphanage.  We were able to join in the end-of-visit banquet, complete with a full dance party to a mix of western, Nepalese and Indian pop music.  So fun!


In one very short day, we’ve been moved by the big hearts of Nepalese people.  On to trekking!

Vietnam – sliding into love with a place

“Dad, check this out, it’s an underwater walkway!” called Porter.

His voice emerged from the darkness ahead, probing the mystery.  My thin headlamp beam could not find his body, but I could hear his eager sloshing.  At my feet, a few ripples lapped at the dirt floor, suggesting Porter’s movement.  I turned back towards Mia, and saw that she would need some coaxing.

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Porter, ahead, on the water walk way
“Come on!” I beckoned, “Just imagine you are Harry following Dumbledore to look for a Horcrux!”

“I know!  That’s why I don’t want to go!” she retorted, using explanation points to her own effect.

Amy and I removed our shoes, leaving Mia with an option to sit alone in a dark, wet cave or follow along.  In a huff, she began to peel off her socks.

We slid our toes and feet into the water, and onto the stone path six inches below the surface.  Eerily, the path was only a few feet wide, and the sides dropped off into dark depths.  The ceiling was uneven, and close to our skulls.  Porter was in the lead; we had no guide.  Perfect. We were finding our own adventures, exploring an alien world.  The cave didn’t go far, and wasn’t even that spectacular, but the day turned out to be a turning point in my attitude about Vietnam.  Discovering new places, encountering discomfort, pushing through are some of the reasons we love traveling.

For about two weeks up to this point, travel fatigue had been ruling our days – leaving us a grumpy troupe.  Our senses had been dulled, our enthusiasm muted by a crust of cynicism.  We were in a funk.  But we fought it – owned it, talked about it, wallowed in it, made fun of it.  Gradually, little adventures and, (especially) encounters with wonderful people, scrubbed away my malaise.  I found myself laughing more, and seeing further.  I found myself falling for Vietnam.

This post a sketch of a few of our encounters and experiences, and an excuse to post a bunch of photos.

Ninh Binh – climbing past industrial tourism.

After Hanoi, we traveled to Ninh Binh, a rural area of Northern Vietnam characterized by towering limestone karsts and rice paddies.  Also, we hoped, a place less touristy than the more famous Halong Bay.

We arrived to gray skies, and a town getting choked by tourism.  Resorts and hotels lined the river, and the air was filled with construction noises – new resorts and hotels.  On the streets, tourists walked and lingered in long trails and packs.  Groups of thirty and forty cyclists at a time pedaled by our guesthouse, waiting for a guide to tell them to turn left or right.  The main tourist attraction was a river boat ride, rowed by a (usually female) guide, often with her feet.  We had seen brochure images in Hanoi: a little wooden boat with a triangle-hatted captain, sliding along a peaceful ribbon of stream, cutting through green fields, backdropped by limestone karst.  Beautiful.

But, when we stood at the boat launch, with the tranquil river slipping away, the picture had been copy-and-pasted ad nauseam.  Boats streamed in and out non-stop, the nose of one boatload of tourists within smelling distance of the tail of the next.Big money was pushing the postcard Ninh Binh boat ride to the masses.   This was not our style.  Porter and I called it “industrial tourism.”

Our family didn’t stay in one of the fancy hotels, and we skipped out on the boat ride.  Instead, we rented motorbikes and scooted to a nearby cave system where we found the underwater pathway.  We hiked up a trail to a nice viewpoint where we could watch the ant-like stream of boats.  We stayed in a lovely homestay that looked about as appealing as a concrete block.  But the family running the place were anything but industrial – they were like bright red farmers market tomatoes in August.  The smiles of the grandma and grandpa who couldn’t speak any English but always found a snack or an extra glass to share tea made us feel welcome in Ninh Binh, a perfect antidote to industrial tourism.

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The Knight bus to Phong Nha-Ka Beng National Park

After Ninh Binh, we wanted to go about 500 km South to the huge cave systems of Phong Nha-Ka Beng National Park.  Most travelers in Vietnam (who didn’t have their own motorbikes), were taking “night busses.” Every good travel adventure must have a crazy bus story, just like every country musician must have a song about a dog and a truck.  This journey turned out to be ours.  Although we rode the night bus, we’ve since been calling it our Knight bus, after the wild purple vehicle from Harry Potter.  Our ride felt about as crazy, but real Knight busses are rarely driven by people as charming as Stan.

This bus system is intented for tourists, although many Vietnamese also choose night busses.  The busses are tall, with room to hold bunkbeds, three across.  Each “bed” is actually just a reclining seat, ergonomically designed to accommodate a 5’6″ person with size 8 feet perfectly.

At 9 pm, our bus pulled up.  There were two employees on the bus – a driver and assistant.  Their barking, stoccato commands quickly let us know told us these were a couple Mr. Angry Pants.

“You, over here!”  directing me to a bunk that was already occupied by a passenger’s bag.

“Kid, you go there!” telling Porter to go to the front while Amy and I were moving to the back.

Fortunately, there was also a Vietnamese tour guide who knew how to deal with the situation diplomatically.  He respectfully engaged the assistant like a matador dealing with an angry bull – a patient head nod, a few kind words back, a smile, and actions opposite the commands.  Along with the helpfulness of a few other travelers, we re-arranged the seats and were able to get beds near each other.  The bus lurched forward before anyone had settled in.

I levered myself into the small foot box, and laid my head back just beyond the headrest, and prepared for a night of no sleep.  Our ride was supposed to take 8 hours, but our driver must have been getting paid by the mile.  Because, he drove that bus like he was trying out for Fast and Furious.  We felt like we were strapped to the end of a windshield wiper in a proper Northwest downpour.   For the entire journey the bus swerved back-and-forth, sloshing us to either side of our seats.  Nobody slept until about 2 am, when our bodies finally grew sea legs.

We were supposed to arrive at Phong-Nha at 5 am, so when the interior lights switched on full blast at 3:30 am, we were a bit confused.  I checked my map.  Sure enough, we were in Phong Nha.  It was dark and misty outside.  The assistant ushered us off, leaving a small group of travelers befuddled, traumatized and huddled together, in a small mountain town, with nothing but a cool drizzle for shelter.

We stumbled down to our hotel, and around the back looking for a place to just rest out the remainder of the darkness.  We found some deck chairs around a pool area that were not totally wet.  So, we all curled up under cotton sarongs and waited for the light.  It took us the rest of the day to recover, and we barely mustered the energy to go for a 2 km run and moto ride to the river for drinks.

The next day, we got to explore the park, and the caves there.  WOW!  Amy and Porter have already described the Dark Cave well, so I won’t say much about that.  But the next day we went to Paradise Cave.  It was astounding.  I’ve included a few pictures.

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Hoi An

After the magic of Phong Nha, we caught an early morning bus ride to Hoi An, a small city in central Vietnam.  We arrived mid-morning, and were immediately surrounded by guesthouse owners and taxi drivers.  We typically don’t go with the first wave of service providers, preferring a little time and space before making any decisions.  But, one woman had a kind style.  She would give us a little sales pitch, then step back to let us think about it.  She spoke very good English, didn’t seem too pushy, and agreed to pay for half of our transport back to her homestay.  We decided to go have a look.

Once we agreed, we needed some transport.  No taxis around, just a few pushy motor scooter drivers, and the nice lady (also on her scooter).  We needed at least three.  I vaguely agreed to a price (how do you negotiate when you don’t know how far you have to go??!!), and off we went.  Here is a really great dad moment:  I jumped on the back of a scooter first, leading the charge, as men do.  Before I knew it, Amy and the kids were who-knows-where and “my guy” was flying through the traffic of Hoi An.  Nice work John, I had my bags and wallet, and had just left my wife and kids behind in somewhere, Vietnam, to ride with someone, to somewhere.  A bit unnerving.  Luckily, years ago I married well, and Amy sensibly made sure that the kids were tucked in behind the woman, and she had her driver stay in sight of the kids.

 

We arrived at the homestay, and found it to be simple and clean. The lady, named Dung (pronounced Yuom) ended up being one of our favorite people in Vietnam.  She let me know that I way over-paid to scooter drivers, but she paid half anyways.  Then she called them and gave them the what-for.  Yeah!

Dung was an incredibly lovely, hard-working and helpful host.  We loved her and her family.  Her kids, Mickey and Sophie, were outgoing darlings.  One day, Porter was doing homeschool, and Mickey showed interest in his work.  I gave her a couple math problems, which she enthusiastically got after.  She and Porter ended up in math races.  I told Porter that I wouldn’t share who won.

We loved Hoi An.  It is a medium-sized city, with small streets and quieter traffic.  It is a town of artisan and craftspeople – we visited tailors, woodcarvers, jewelers and of course, chefs.  Pretty much every day, Dung would give us a good tip on a place to visit or a food to try.  We grabbed bicycles (free to use from our homestay) and rode around town or the surrounding countryside.  We ate delicious Bahn Mi.  Porter and I carved a wood bowl by hand.  We had clothing tailored, and shoes cobbled.  We spent nearly a week, and on the last night Yuom made us a big dinner, to celebrate our friendship.

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A farewell to Vietnam

Our last stop in Vietnam was Jungle Beach, a quiet beach resort in South-central Vietnam.  It was a beautiful place – bamboo huts, a deserted beach, a jungle background and communal meals.  We met great people, who were traveling off the beaten path, no wonder we liked them:

Wendy, ziggy and Renault – a mom, son, and friend from France traveling for 3 months.  Ziggy and Porter had a good time playing in waves and sand together.  

Rico and Sophie – traveling partners from germany and Jamaica.  They were a blast and rico helped us for up a hemos ultimate on the. 

Mark and Nadia – traveling the length of Vietnam  by motorbike, from the north to the south.  Mark told great travel stories.  We enjoyed hiking up to a waterfall with them.  Then, at marks suggestion, porter he and I did some “boy stuff,” clamboring down the stream es instead of the trail.  Porter caught the spirit and suggested we go back via rock scrambling on the beach.  It look us one hour (rather than 10 minures on a road,  long, but awesome.

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We had arrived in Vietnam in a funk.  But gradually, our explorations, and encounters with wonderful people won us over.  It is a land with many faces, and with deep mystery.  Many parts seemed undecipherable to us: stories and images with clear purpose, but unknown meanings.  The traffic moved deliberately, but where?  Why is Mr. Angry Pants acting so angry?  What are all of those extra little accents and question marks on top of and below each letter in the language?  How do you say “beautiful?” or “delicious?”  Huh?  Again?  How far does this cave go back?  How do you eat this?  What do you think of Americans?

Every corner of Vietnam had a new, surprising view and voice.  It’s a vast, diverse country, filled with a sometimes intense, always vibrant, people.  A people eager to show off their beautiful landscape, a people eager to engage with a weary family, a people eager to make their mark on the world.  Vietnam, and the Vietnamese people, crept into our hearts.

 

 

The Dark Side of the Cave

I could see my ugliness reflected in the faces of my distraught and sinking children.  I was in danger of souring the day with no chance of recovery.  I could see it all happening and yet I could not stop myself.  Fueled by thriftiness, justice and the desire to be right, I picked a fight at the dark cave.

Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, Vietnam is home to massive wet and dry cave systems, one being the largest in the world.  Most of the caves are closed to the public and/or require a guide to enter, we opted to visit only the ones that allow self-touring.  It turns out that only one of two visited actually allowed self-touring.  It also turns out that we wish we had paid to do a more extensive tour, because the caves and jungle were amazing.

The first cave we decided to visit was the dark cave, because it advertised ziplining into the cave, cave exploration and a mud bath.  Believe it or not, this aspect of the adventure was what caught Mia’s eye.  She has a new found appreciation for mud after making mud sculptures and mucking waist deep in a lagoon at Railay beach in Thailand).

We arrived at the dark cave on motorbikes.  Motorbiking into the National park was an activity in itself.  Beautiful primary jungle, very little traffic, freedom of the road.   Mia and I always ride together because she doesn’t like to go fast and I have a comfort speed zone that is just too safe and slow for Porter.  We make a good team.  She navigates and waves at little kids, I drive and try not to get hit by a bus.  Mia and I kept losing our engine on the steep down hills but would just coast to the bottom and fire it up again. The road through the national park was spectacular.  I thought that I had been in the jungle before, but this was pristine, dense, lush jungle.  It feels as though you drink it in like a thick green smoothie.  I hoped that Mia and Porter might absorb some good green nutrients that have been so lacking from their white rice diet.

After arriving at the dark cave, the sign up woman at the entrance informed us that the kids would not be able to zipline due to being under 40kg and therefore we would have to kayak to the entrance instead.  This was the first annoyance.  I mildly argued that we had just done the world’s most extensive network of ziplines; we know how to do it, and pull ourselves across if needed.   Porter was especially chuffed not only because he likes to zip but he considers himself a bit of an expert post Gibbon Experience.  Porter has also been feeling generally ignored in Asia.  We call it “adored but ignored.”  Patted, pinched and pet but not really heard.  As I write this, I realize that the Gibbon Experience and Bees were two places that allowed Porter the freedom to learn and discover on his own, he was trusted with responsibility and his needs were heard.  They were also his two favorite experiences of the trip.

I got a little worked up about the no ziplinng and asked if there was a family discount since their rule precluded us all from ziplining.   She said no discount but the kids are half price.  I let it go, felt good about the kid price and knew that a safety rule is a safety rule and not likely to bend.  The sign up woman then waved Mia over to a measuring stick and informed us that she is too tall to get the kid price.  Too light for zipping, but too tall to be a kid.  WHAT?!?!?!?!

I boiled at the injustice.  I let every bit of Vietnam frustration rush to the surface.  I was going to punish this ticket person for my travel fatigue, my disappointment in the food, our encounters with Mr. Angry Pants, the difficult language, the cold weather, my untethered, homesick, and purposeless angst.

“How can she be treated like a child and not get child prices, that makes no sense!” We went back and forth several rounds, I was getting uglier by the minute, she was keeping her composure and a plastered smile, hoping that I would just go away.

Meanwhile, the kids were sinking as deeply into their negative moods as they were into their chairs.  Porter was verbalizing his dislike of this place and “what a rip off.”  We have been trying to limit how much we talk about bigger costs of things as Porter has developed a bit of a money worry while traveling.  His interest in the good deal has morphed into genuine concern that we are going to run out of money.  Even with this knowledge, I could not stop.   I told the kids that I was aware of how I was ruining the experience but it would be over soon and we would be a happy family once again and the cave would be GREAT! (clenched teeth),  BUCK UP everyone! (forced smile).

It is in my nature to be both a rule follower and a rule breaker.  John is always taken off guard when one or the other instinct pops up.   I may not want to jump the fence and face getting in “trouble” but I certainly don’t think that excessive entrance fees apply to me.  Needless to say, this was a rule worth breaking, destroying, obliterating and most definitely not worth following.  I was certain I could break this rule.

And so, I called in the Manager.  A short athletic type with the typical endearing outdoor-rec chummy humor.  His charms worked, I let up and he agreed to ask the “big boss.”

“I ask big boss,” he said, pointing upstairs, “I just little boss, little boss loose my job if I don’t follow rules.”

It’s hard to argue the case for Mia being small when she is nearly the height of most grown men – including the manager.  He was quite literally “the little boss.”   I’m not sure the call actually happened, but he did go through the motions.  No discount.  It’s over, I lost, we move on right?  No.  My classic next move when I know I’m losing the battle is to seek validation that although I have lost, “I AM RIGHT!”  A few more rounds, manager has lost his charm, I am utterly defeated.

In the end, I accomplished nothing but souring the mood, accosting a woman and feeling ashamed of my misguided conviction.  I apologized to the family for my behavior and turned on my uber-chipper-make the best of it-attitude.  My family is resilient and forgiving.  Every step away from the check in, moods started to lift.

Kudos to Mia.  Her 28kg skin and bones frame jumped into a cold river, walked into a dark cool cave wearing only a swim suit and headlamp helmet.  Shivering along the muddy passage ways, hands bracing on the muddy walls, entering a cold muddy pool with no shore and no shallow end– not a peep.  When John pointed out that she was really a four-4-four trooper on this day, she responded calmly but firmly, “oh I know, I know….and you owe me some painful shopping days.”

The highlight of the cave was a chamber filled with mud.  Waist high, latte-colored swimming pool with the texture of gritty thick water instantly covered our bodies in a thin layer of creamy brown.  Kinda cool?  Kinda grosss? Kinda mysterious?  Yes, yes and yes.

Porter was of course leading the pack with the guide and entered the pool first.  We had heard that the mud was more buoyant than water but we were all still on our feet and it just seemed like muddy water.  Suddenly, Porter was floating on his back with most of his body out of the muddy water.  He was laughing and shouting with disbelief and delight.  We all tentatively lifted our legs and boing, up to the surface we bobbed, most of our bodies pushed out of the slurry.   It became a giggle fest in the echoey chamber.  Once floating, it was hard to get my legs back under me and my body just kept rolling around on the surface.  Mia and I experimented with the balance point curled up in a ball and paddled ourselves across the pool in this position.

We were the last of the large group to leave the mud chamber.  With the rest of the group out of site down a skinny corridor, six of us paused in the adjacent dry chamber. We turned off our headlamps and stood in silence in absolute, complete darkness.   For me it was at first exhilarating, timeless, and vast.  In the next moment, just before turning on our lamps, a glimpse of crushing panic, thick air, hard to breathe.  John and I looked at each other wide eyed, “did you feel that?”  “I felt it.”

The day ended with John and Porter playing on a series of ropes and small zip lines over the river.  Mia and I shivered our way through a cold shower and dressed in every layer we brought.  Pringles have never tasted sooo good.  We motored home with the setting sun, leaving behind my dark mood.  I could feel a shift happening in my psyche that often comes with unrelenting nature and good old fashioned giggles.

I have included pictures from the national park and Paradise cave, which we visited the next day.  Paradise was discovered in 2005 by a local farmer.  A small opening only a few meters wide, opens into a vast cavern reaching dimensions of 72m high and 150m wide.  It measures 31km in length.  We walked the boardwalk 1 km in.  Although the cave was built up with boardwalks and flood lights and attracted many tourists, it was a wondrous site to behold.

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