Vietnam: Hanoi to Ninh Binh and Mr. Angry Pants

We arrived in Hanoi, in a travel slump.  Vietnam was our sixth new country in three months.  We weren’t excited to learn a new “hello-thank you-good bye-delicious-beautiful-I am ten years old” vocabulary, or eat a new food.  Our tongues and stomachs have been tickled by Southeast Asian cuisine, but the food we find the most nourishing is shared with other people (or elephants).  Since the intimacy of the Gibbon Experience and BEEs (elephants), we have met many people, but haven’t really connected with anyone.  We missed home, friends and pets.

But, we were landing in Hanoi, so we psyched ourselves up for a big Asian city.  The drive away from the airport seemed promising – interesting buildings, old French-colonial style, narrow and tall, with colorful fronts and decorated balconies.  The traffic was exotic, with a flow that seemed to follow the laws of fluid dynamics rather than engineering.  Motorbikes, pedestrians, cyclos, cars, bicyclists slid past one another, like dense tropical fish over a coral reef.  Every player was purposeful, perhaps a feeling we were searching for.

Hanoi streets


Our taxi driver, though, cast a cloud over our initial enthusiasm.  He was a pushy, impatient man, unlike most people we’ve met (both in Vietnam and elsewhere).  Once we were safely in his car, he told us the fare would be higher than what we had agreed on originally.  He and I argued, but in the end I submitted, as I dislike conflict and sometimes doubt my membership in the subphylum vertebrata.  Amy’s instinct for thriftiness is quickly becoming a family trait, so once I agreed to the higher price I had to look straight ahead to avoid six piercing eyes and three furrowed brows.

We reached the street of our guest house, which was too narrow for the taxi to drive down, so the driver stopped the car in the middle of the road, impounding a long stream of hooting scooters and cars.  He turned to my and said,

“You pay!”

I had only large denomination bills from the ATM in the airport.  Mistake.  ALWAYS carry small change – as soon as you get big bills, break them down at the nearest convenience store.

“Do you have change?” I asked the driver.

“No!” he barked back, like a slap.

“Small change?” I asked again, wondering if we were having a communication breakdown.  This time I showed a large bill from my wallet.

“No!” he staccato berated me again.

Next, he totally shocked me by reaching into my wallet (which I held in my left hand) and literally shuffling through my cash looking for what he wanted!  I was momentarily stunned.  I pushed away his hand (yes, I actually had to physically remove his hand), closed my wallet, got out of the car, made sure all luggage and family members were accounted for, then ran across the street (remembering to not get hit by a bus in my slightly frazzled mind) into a nearby store to get change through buying a bag of tortilla chips.  I returned to the driver and paid him.  He sped off in a huff.  Not even a “Thank you,” or “Good bye.”

I’d become so used to the kind, open hearted people of Southeast Asia, that it was a bit of a shock to meet a jerk.  We’ve realized that “angry, demanding and pushy” is certain archetype of person in Vietnam.  We’ve only met a few, but they leave an impression, I now refer to his tribe as “Mr. Angry Pants.”  On the flipside, the tortilla chips I quickly bought were some of the best we’ve had – crisp, thick and salty!

Most people we met in Hanoi were friendly.  Despite Mr. Angry Pants, we were quite taken with the city.  The traffic, as I said, is fascinating. There is purpose and structure behind it, but it is an organic structure.  The streets of the old quarter are tight, grimey, overhung by a canopy of electrical wires and business signs – “photocopies,” “Pho,” “Bun chien,” “massage,” “guesthouse.”  Every sidewalk is cluttered by parked motorbikes and people squatting on little red, plastic stools (always red!), eating some sort of street noodle dish, or drinking green tea and spitting sunflower seeds.  The place feels like a messy child’s closet after he tidies it using the “stuff and slam the door” method.

We had landed in the morning, so our first culinary experience would be lunch.  Woo-hoo, Vietnamese food!  We stopped at the first crowded collection of stools.  A gregarious man ushered us inside to a cramped room with three long tables surrounded by, you guessed it, little red stools.  The floor was tile, covered in used straws, a few bones and wet napkins plastered to the floor.  Every seat was taken by Vietnamese (I assume) young people chatting and chewing.  Vietnam seems a quick country, where movement is favored over lingering, so it was only a few moments before some stools became available.  We were invited to sit down around a pile of bones and dirty dishes.  The detritus was swept away to who knows where, with more than a bit falling to the ground.  We sat down, but no menus.  People were getting food, but we couldn’t figure out how.  Huh.  This is one of those uncomfortable traveling moments that was awesome before kids, but with mouths to feed, my criteria has shifted.  Amy and I looked at each other, smiled, and decided to stay put.

Fortunately for us, sitting right next to us were three Vietnamese girls who could speak English.  They actually suggested we go elsewhere for Pho, but also told us this place was famous for noodle bowls, or bún ngan.  We went for it, and had tasty, but very non-Western some-kind-of-meat and some-kind-of-thickish-noodle soup bowls.  Mia and Porter were paralyzed, and did not touch the food.  We didn’t even push for a “courtesy bite.”  On the way out, the cook noticed that our kids didn’t eat.  She waggled a duck head at them with a big smile.  Mia basically shrieked, giving the hoped-for reaction, and laugh.  Mia was a great sport about it.

We spent a couple days wandering Hanoi, marveling at the pace.  Amy started making Mia and Porter navigate us by paper map.  It took a long time, and they were a little annoyed, but Porter enjoyed the challenge while Mia put up with it.  Even though I have a app (which is awesome for navigation), you just can’t beat old technology for learning new skills.


Amy helping Mia and Poe learn to read and navigate maps

Story update March 13:  We were in Hanoi at the beginning of March, and I am actually posting this mid-March, two weeks later.  Mia has turned into an excellent map navigator. In Hoi An, she has grown to enjoy the role of navigator from the back of Amy’s bike.  Whenever we reach an intersection, say “the corner of Thai Phien and Tran Cao Van,” I would pull out my phone for assistance.  Mia would see me and scold,

“No, put that away!  I am navigating!” she commands.  Not nearly as angry as Mr. Angry Pants, but just as bossy.  Another family trait I love to see emerge.  Her routes tend to be wrong according to my app, but with much less traffic and more pleasant.  

Back in Hanoi, we enjoyed the “Women’s Museum” and water puppet theater.  I found real coffee (wow!) although the local brew, Bia Hanoi, did not crack my top five SE Asian beers.  Too bad.

Amy and I debated where to go after Hanoi.  As I said previously, we were travel fatigued, and choosing where to go next was getting more and more laborious.  Everywhere sounded beautiful but touristy.  Ha Long Bay and Sapa are beautiful places in the North, but they were supposed to be cold and drizzly, and very popular (touristy).  We opted for warmer climes, south to Ninh Binh.  To get us there, Amy eschewed the pricey, “we’ll book you ticket for you” English-language signs, and ran to the train station, where she bought us tickets directly.  Success!  The train was an enjoyable four hour journey, costing us each $2.75.  Yeah baby.

We arrived in Ninh Binh (actually we stayed in a little town nearby called Tom Cok), glad to be in a smaller town.  We were staying in a guest house run by Mr. Gia, but really we just called him grandpa.  He is married to, of course, grandma.  Both of them were absolutely lovely!  They could not speak our language, but yearned to communicate with us (fortunately, for practical reasons, their daughter could speak English).  Every time we saw either grandma or grandpa, they would chat earnestly at us in Vietnamese.  We both would gesture broadly and cast butchered bits of English and Vietnamese words into the air between us, our communication taking shape for a moment before disappearing into the void of senselessness, like soap bubbles floating to pop.  After a few rounds of zero understood communication, we would all burst into a fit of laughter and go about our business.  Of course, they loved our kids.

On the second day in Ninh Binh, we ran into Mr. Angry Pants #2.  We rented motorbikes to go check out some caves nearby.  As we approached the trailhead, a guy walks out into the road with a semi-official looking uniform, holds up his hand and commands us to “Stop!”

He waved us towards some parking on the side of the road.

“No thank you,” I said, staring straight ahead, “we are just looking.”

“No!”  (Does Mr. Angry Pants know any other words?)  “You are here!”  Pointing to his little parking lot.

I lightly turned the throttle to move past him, but he grasped my handle bar and started turning my bars towards his parking area.  “Here!  Free for you!”

Free?  No way.  Grab my handlebars?  No way.  Again, I was taken aback by this guy’s audacity.  I pulled my handle bars away from his fingers, and buzzed onwards.  Amy said as soon as he realized that his bullying wasn’t going to work, his eyes immediately left me and scanned for his next victim coming down the path.  We were relieved to enter a gate where a very nice ticket booth lady showed us where we could park for free, and how to buy a ticket to go to the cave.  After speaking to several other travelers, we realized that Mr. Angry Pants’s sales tactics, though distasteful, were not without success.  Many people had parked at his “parking lot,” and paid the one dollar or so “fee.”

We’ve now encountered three other Mr. Angry Pants in addition to these first two.  It seems to be a personality type, but I have no idea why or if it really is a thing.  But, we’ve spoken with other travelers who know exactly what we are talking about.  As is often the case when I talk with other people about my own challenging perspectives, my judgement of Angry Pants’ behavior has become less harsh.

In particular, I spent some time speaking with Etienne, a French-Canadian man who used to work for the “Fish Police” in Vancouver, BC.  He has been travelling for, get this, five straight years!!!!!!  He is very interesting, and seems intent to just understand different countries and cultures around the world.  Even after five years of travel (his longest stay is two months in Rome), he still woke up early to stroll the markets of Hoi An; diving into who the Vietnamese people are.

Etienne also had some stories about encounters with a few Mr. Angry Pants.  But on the whole, he told me that he was just surprised that there were not more.

“After what they’ve been through, and after what other people have done to them, I am shocked that they are not more angry, or that there are not more angry Vietnamese.”  He opined.

Interesting.  In my Pacific Northwest, nearly Canadian mental sensibility, I see no need for brash bullies in this world.  But, I have never lived through war, I’ve never had my homeland invaded by one country after another.  I’ve rarely had my freedom trampled upon.  Except when a bully reaches into my wallet or pushes my handlebars against my will.  It sucks, it feels bad.  It makes me angry, like my pants are too tight.  Point taken.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

BEES-Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary

An elephant’s skin is tough. Wrinkled. Hairy. Yet soft. Grey from the years of dust bathing. Warm. The tip of the trunk is wet, soft, and pink. It reaches out toward me, searching, sniffing, snuffling for the sweet treat I am holding. Thong Dee’s trunk grabs all five figs from my hands and shoots them into her mouth. Before her tongue can even make jam out of the fruits, her trunk is already waving about, sniffing my hands for more. I feel blessed, and honored to be sharing this moment with someone so magnificent.dsc_0220

Elephants worldwide are abused, bullied, misunderstood. According to, the definition of “Sanctuary” is “a tract of land where birds and wildlife, especially those hunted for sport, can breed and take refuge in safety from hunters.” The key word here is refuge. Elephants all over are being poached for the ivory in their tusks (more often, it’s the African elephants being poached, as female Asian elephants do not have tusks. However, they might have what are called tushes, which are like little tusk nubs. Male Asian elephants don’t always have tusks, and if they do, they are much shorter and smaller than the African ones).

Asian elephants, even without tusks, are still under threat. They are more often used for logging, circuses, zoos, riding, and tourist attractions, because Asian elephants are more tolerant, and more likely to accept training and humans.  I can sort of understand why we want to interact with them; they are beautiful, majestic animals that have quickly developed a place in my heart.  What people don’t understand is that this is breaking them. Riding elephants is bad for their backs. Carol Buckley from ‘The Elephant Sanctuary’ in USA explains Instead of smooth, round spinal disks, elephants have sharp bony protrusions that extend upwards from their spine. These bony protrusions and the tissue protecting them are vulnerable to weight and pressure coming from above.”  On the other hand, horses are not hurt by human riding unless mistreated. According to Wikipedia, “Integral to the back structure is the rib cage, which also provides support to the horse and rider. A complex design of bone, muscle, tendons and ligaments all work together to allow a horse to support the weight of a rider.”

Image result for elephant spine    Image result for horse spine

Riding on a platform chair on their back hurts elephants’ spines. Riding bare neck is better, but still, if you were a wild animal and you got taken from your mother at a young age, then trained to kneel, let an obnoxious stranger climb onto your back, and then go on a trek through the jungle, would you like that? In logging, the poor animals have to walk, working long hours, with very little rest. People can’t use whips on elephants because their hide is too thick, so they use a piece of rope, with a hook on the end to force them to do what they want.Image result for elephant loggingImage result for elephant riding platform  Image result for elephant riding bareback                      In the circus, they are forced to do tricks, and must live on concrete, or in a very small enclosure. The same goes with zoos. Elephants are in the same enclosure day, after day, after day. In the wild, elephants move from location to different location, following their matriarch in the search for fresh water and food. Therefore, the Asian population is dwindling faster than their African counterparts. In the past hundred years alone, we have lost ninety percent of the Asian elephant population. There is a campaign started to save the elephants, and “sanctuaries” are advertising no riding, no chains, no hooks. Image result for chained elephantsSome are better than others, but the elephants are still mostly forced to do the same thing twice a day, seven days a week, three hundred sixty-five days a year, and this is why you should do really good research before choosing your elephant sanctuary. This is also why I am writing a recommendation for BEES.

Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary has three elephants. Mae Kam was their first ever. She is somewhere in her fifties, and doesn’t really like to be around humans. That makes sense, given her past. She was a logging elephant, before it was banned, for 50 years. Then she got transferred to trekking. She was not happy, and became very distressed after her second calf got bitten by a cobra and died. She could not work, as she started throwing tourists off her back, and was sold to BEES. The full story is on their website. I will put the link below. Mae Jumpee is their second elephant. She is around 73, and also started in the logging industry. She worked with tourists for a very long time, and has had 11 calves. That is a lot. (did you know that elephants are pregnant for twenty-two months?) Mae Jumpee (they just call her Jumpee) and Mae Kam are best friends.

The last elephant at the sanctuary is named Mae Thong Dee. (Mae just means Miss or Mrs. In Thai language. At BEES she is just Thong Dee.) Thong Dee is around 76 years old, and approaching the end of her life. She only has one tooth left, and in the wild would have starved to death. She came to BEES after logging and then 30 years with a kind-hearted man who rescued her from that. Thong Dee’s best friend was Boon Yueng. They were inseparable. Boon Yueng however, died in July 2015. Thong Dee is left devastated and alone from her friend’s death, and mentally and physically scarred from her days in the logging and tourist industries. Despite the scars, Thong Dee is the sweetest thing. She is lonely sometimes still, but that makes her crave the company of people even more. She was a lovely animal to be around, and I miss her with all of my heart.

BEES is a true elephant sanctuary. They allow the elephants to go where they like during the day, only followed by their mahouts. A mahout is a person who works with an elephant. The mahouts are only making sure these lovely animals don’t get hurt. One of the days we were at BEES, Burm took us on a walk through the forest to find the elephants. We got to see them eating in their natural habitat, and being happy in their nice, relaxed, retirement home. We stayed for four days, but I could have stayed four weeks! They had twelve rescue dogs on site with them, and it was lovely being able to pet, and cuddle dogs without being afraid of rabies. They also had around 10 cats, although we only saw like five.

Burm made excellent meals for us, and it is a really fun place to be. The elephants come back from the forest on their own—like I said, they are not forced to do anything—for dinner. Sometimes we made a salad for Thong Dee (remember she only has one tooth left) and sometimes we chopped up sugar cane (the elephants love it), or we washed pumpkins. Now, I am not talking about jack-o-lantern pumpkins, I am talking about smallish pumpkins that taste (when cooked) like pumpkin pie. I am not kidding. No wonder the elephants love them so much. Diana (or Di, who works at the sanctuary) says that if the elephants like it, we should too. Thong Dee’s pumpkins and sugar cane must be chopped into fourths or halves, but Mae Kam can eat a whole stock of sugar cane as tall as me! She can put a whole pumpkin in her mouth, and squish it with her tongue! And that’s not even close to what her trunk can do.

It was amazing, being so close to these animals. It was remarkable, feeding Jumpee pumpkin halves, stroking Thong Dee’s trunk. Although I felt amazed, and loved every minute of it, the reason I could stroke Thong Dee, I could feed Jumpee, the reason I couldn’t feed or stroke Mae Kam, was all because of what we (humans) did to them. We broke them. But this is why I love BEES. They are giving elephants a chance to retire, and hopefully die happy in the place that they were free again.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

BEES website link:

Bees Elephant Sanctuary  (

Luang Prabang

“Tal lat Phosy sam yeck wi ta nya rai kaan eung un?” Amy read off her iPhone screen.  I looked at the Tuk-tuk driver’s face, hoping the sounds she just uttered would somehow render into meaning.  Somehow, this message we’d received from our Air BnB reservation was supposed to direct us to beds. No chance.  Then again, Amy’s ability to correctly pronunciate Laos is about as good as Josie’s ability to speak French.  So, we tried our best speaker – Mia.  Mia tried, and it sounded like Laos to me, but the driver still stared with incomprehension.

We tried to let the driver read the message, nothing.  He flagged down two other drivers to look at it.  Nope.  Google translate?  The app kept thinking the message was in arabic, WTF?  No phone number, no email address, just this cryptic sentence, and a vague blue location circle on the Air BnB map.  Arrgghh!

Finally, we just asked to get dropped off near the Phosy Market, hoping we could stumble into our place near the only decipherable landmark from the message.  So, we walked some side streets; Amy asked passerbys and a receptionist at a swanky river resort for help, strikes two and three.  But, the receptionist felt sorry for us and offered a room for $100 (normally like $140/night).  Amy was all in, and ready to override me if I hesitated over budget.  Apparently, I said “oh, okay,” which Amy thought meant we’ll take it.  I followed up with “that’s too much, no way.”  Amy hid it well but told me her heart sank at the denial.  The kids groaned.

After twenty minutes, mutiny was a real possibility, so we plopped down, defeated, on a crumbly concrete sidewalk.  Motorbikes and cars streamed purposefully by, the sun was bright but no longer hot, and we were hungry.  This is the kind of story that I expected when I was a single traveler.  But with kids getting hangrier, not so fun!  Welcome to Luang Prabang.

Our spirits were low, having just stepped off a surprisingly enjoyable two-day river journey down the Mekong River from Huay Xai, and the amazing Gibbon Experience.  We had traveled by “slow boat,” a long wooden vessel that could seat around 70 people, and stuff 30 or 40 in the back near the giant diesel engine.  The scenery was interesting – a river thick with silt, swift and turbulent.  The canyon walls were a fragmented mix of jungle, rocky outcrops, and villages, frequently interrupted by large equipment – cranes, bulldozers and backhoes readying this river for a Chinese and Thai-funded series of dams.  It reminded me a bit of what the Columbia might have been like before Bonneville and Grand Coulee.

In the boat we had time to read and play with new travel companions.  A young guy, Niels, from Netherlands, started several card games.  He took a liking to Porter, teaching him new games and discussing strategy.  The best was when he asked if we wanted to learn,

“Shithead, it’s a classic British drinking game.  Not too hard, so you can keep playing when you get really drunk.  There’s no winners, just one shithead!”

World exposure comes in many forms.  Very fun.  I was shithead once, so was Porter.

The boat dropped us off an annoying 10 km north of Luang Prabang at 4 pm, forcing us to pay for a tuk-tuk into town.  By 6pm, sitting on the curb, we were all feeling like the losers of the card game, but fortunately our luck was about to change.  In good macho style, I told them to wait steet-side while I went in search of our digs.  I ran down a small street, sniffing for a good spot to be a guesthouse.  I saw a beautiful large white house right on the river, and thought/hoped it might be it.

There were a couple kids toys and a soccer ball on the porch, good signs.  I entered the lobby, it was deserted, with a thin layer of construction dust on the floor.  There was a front desk, but no advertisements or order to the piles of papers.  A kid, maybe 6 years old in spider-man PJs, darted out of a hallway.  At the sight of me, he turned heel and scampered down a wide teak staircase.  “Hello, sa bai dee?” I called out after him in English and Laos (about the only word I say that is understood).

A Laos woman about my age walked up the stairs, “Can I help you?” in lovely English.  Her name was Noi.  I asked for directions to our place, but she didn’t know about it.  Although her hotel appeared vacant, I asked if she had a room for us.  She seemed momentarily puzzled, but then broke into a grin and said, “Yes, but will you eat?  Our kitchen is not ok,” she apologized.

Noi showed me the room; it was beautiful, with a private veranda overlooking the river and the dirt hole where a swimming pool will eventually be built.  It should have been expensive, but no pool or food made for a cheap offer, $36 and I talked her down to $30.  I think maybe the hotel was closed for construction, judging from no other guests, but the rooms were all done up and ready for visitors, weird.

I marched back and grabbed Amy and kids.  We flopped into the room after weathering many more apologies for no kitchen.  Mia was ecstatic about the place, especially when she saw it had a proper hot water shower (which turned out to be her “best in two months.”)  After settling in, everyone was too tired to go out for food.  But, I know my family, they would sooner wither of starvation than make the effort to find a proper meal, so I offered to go fetch food.  Back out on the streets the night market was already shut down, but there were a few vendors still open under weak fluorescent lights.  I bought baguettes, hun-bao rolls, instant noodles, sticks of some sort of charcoaled meat, and oh, look there, Beer Lao!  Things were looking up.

I brought my prizes back to our hotel.  Noi and her family were enjoying their own dinner, and Noi offered us a table.  I ran upstairs to get Amy and the kids.  Meanwhile Noi had put our food out for us and brought out some plates and cutlery.  Once the food was out, it became very clear that I had bought the dregs of the night market.  The meat was sinewy chunks of chicken skin and maybe some type of pork knuckle?  The hun-boa was ok, but too chewy, like it had been sitting under a heat lamp all night.  The baguettes were dry and crusty.  Noi couldn’t stand it, so she offered to make us a plate of fried rice.  She brought it out, beautifully done, and it was delicious.

While we ate, Mr. Chen Thome pulled up a chair.  He turned out to be the owner of the hotel, a wealthy man of Laos-Chinese descent.  He had a big smile, and was eager to sit with us.  He could not speak any English, but he had a friend, Kham Sang, with him who could, and so could Noi.  We hacked through some conversation, and soon discovered that Mr. Chen Thome was a businessman, he owned a couple factories in China. We saw a few pictures of giant pigs hanging from hooks, while we ate chicken or pork fried rice.  Never look in the sausage factory!  Mr. Chen Thome found out that he and I are the same age.  That’s when he started bringing out cans of cold Beer Lao.  “Cheers!” over and over and over.  It turns out that we were the first western guests at the hotel, and the reconstruction was to make the hotel more desirable for westerners.  Perhaps we all felt equally fortunate.

The following day, we thanked our hosts, took about a hundred pictures, then searched for a room closer to town with better food nearby.  We found a lovely guest house on the Nam Khan river, an old French-colonial teak house run by Mr. Sam, a nice man with three teenage kids.  We ended up spending a relaxing week in Luang Prabang, just enjoying leisurely strolls around town with a few other adventures like:

Eating delicious food

shopping at the night market

movie nights at L’estrange book store (Sully and Dr. Strange)

home school

swimming in the river and at Kuang Si waterfall

“A Quest for Pain” bike ride – Porter and I sought up some mountain biking with not enough water, no good directions, and bikes in need of some Chad Wertz attention.  Bad start, painful middle, a few laughs at the end, same story as our landing in Luang Prabang.

A class at the “Weaving Sisters” which will probably need its own post.

Good times.  I think we were trying to find a little peaceful hamlet to live our “regular life,” similar to Bellingham for a few days.  Bham is the “city of subdued excitement.”  Luang Prabang seemed like the city of subdued Asia.

Here is a video of swimming:


This slideshow requires JavaScript.




Soaring, Gibbon style


This is a family post, about our adventure at “The Gibbon Experience,” and ziplining in the jungle wonderland in Northern Laos.  We spent three amazing days here – hiking, sleeping in treehouses, ziplining, meeting new friends, and dissolving into the jungle. The following are a few  words (well, a few more than a few for John), a string of video highlights, and several photos.  We can’t get enough of all of these; we have literally watched every video like 100 times.  They just keep making us laugh and smile.  If you are pressed for time, at least check out the last two videos of Amy and Mia, they are the funniest.

And a quick spoiler, although there are Gibbons living near where we stayed, we did not see any.  They are elusive creatures, rarely seen during this time of year, as there is not much fruit on the trees.  No matter, we were there to act like Gibbons, not necessarily see one.


It hurts to laugh.  My core muscles hurt.  It’s hard pulling in.  Ziplining is tiring, you have to lie flat on your back, trying to look up, suspended in the air by only your waist.  It’s harder than it sounds, especially when you do it like a hundred million times.  But, it is very, very, very, very, very, very, ∞ (and beyond) fun.  It is spectacular, and fun, and spectacular, and fun, and so on, and so on.  And the same for the treehouse.  We even got to sleep in it.  Too bad it was only two nights.

That was only the beginning.  I’m just going to tell you about a little part, and some other member of my family will tell you about the rest of it.  The part that I will tell you about is how to position your body on the zip.  I curled up in a ball, but everyone else would lie flat, and lying flat hurts your core muscles.  So, I go in a ball, but there is another reason I go in a ball.  Because I go faster.  But, I’m still too light, so sometimes I had to climb.  Climbing is what you must do when you don’t make it to the platform.  You turn around and pull up hand by hand on the zip-line.  Mia will show you that in one of her videos.

I kept track of the length and how many ziplines we went on.  Here are the facts:

Each of us traveled 31,713 ft on ziplines, that is about 6 miles!  We each did at least 50 total zips (but I probably did more), on 23 different ziplines.   The longest zip line was 500 meters (5 football fields!!!), the highest point on a zipline was 200 meters off the forest floor.

Poe is out (or in?)



Ziplining, hiking, treehouse camping. Those things pretty much sum up the gibbon experience. Also, beautiful views, sore muscles, and little animals. Our guide showed us around, we got to zip line, and sleep in a treehouse 40 meters (120 feet) off the ground. When you think of me, Mia, you probably think of books, books, books, books, etc. You might not expect me to love such an adrenaline sport like ziplining. Surprise! I actually trust the cable more than my own limbs. But still, I can’t pretend I wasn’t scared. Launching yourself into midair and hanging over the tops of trees is freaky, but exhilarating. The only downfall is my weight. If you are heavier, you go faster, but if you are light, like me, you stop before you get to the end. More often than I would have liked, I had to pull myself the rest of the way. The result is painfully sore arms, and waist. I also now have sore legs from trekking to the next ziplines, but all was worth the views, the exhilaration, the fun.

Here is Mia illustrating how to “climb like a gibbon,” assisted by Liv and Poe.


It never gets old.  Over the course of 3 days, zipping became a way of life.  Time to leave the hut in the morning? Get your harness on and zzzzzzzzzzzzzzip.  Let’s leave the treehouse after lunch?  Put your harness on and zzzzzzzzzip.  John and I were amazed at how MUCH fun we had.   But that fun came at a price.  Sick nervous stomach watching my children drop off a platform 150ft above the jungle floor, reaching speeds of 40 mi/h, zipping across the jungle canopy as far as the eye can see.  I fared pretty well as far as keeping my cool and only had a few OPM’s (over parenting moments), none of which ended in disaster.  I think I said “be careful” only once when Porter headed out into the darkness for a dawn zzzip to look for Gibbons.  I did have two brief, but sickening panic moments.  One for no good reason and one because Porter got disoriented in the dark of night, sleeping in a tree house 130ft off the ground.

There have been zero major injuries and zero deaths at the Gibbon Experience, their safety protocols are excellent.  But towards the end of day two, I started to have some irrational thoughts about pushing our luck, kids falling to their death, and “inevitable carelessness” while not under my motherly watch.  It’s hard enough to manage fun fear, but child death fear on top of fun fear is just too much.  I probably lost 4 zips to anxiety before I got it under control.  Is this intuition or anxious worry? Intuition? Anxious worry? Anxious worry of course, but what if it’s intuition?  Aaarrrrgggghhhhh, stop the madness!   I worried less about Mia, she was a graceful zipper.  I worried more about Porter (obviously), he was an insane, feet in the air, no hands, monkey on steroid caffeine zipper. But, every time I checked he was following protocol and saying “yeah yeah yeah mom, I know, I know, I’m doing it, mom, I know how to do this!”

By the end of the day, snuggled up in the treehouse, playing cards with our jungle family, I was tired, relaxed and very happy.  All was well as we went to bed.  That night though, my motherly nighttime superhuman listening machine was turned on and I awoke (not really “woke up,” because who actually sleeps in a treehouse in the jungle with the cacophony of jungle noises, tree rats and flapping bark munching flying squirrels? Oh wait, John does…) to a faint cry from the upper level where the kids were sleeping.  I tore out of the tent and started calling for Porter’s location.   I found him trapped between the blanket tent and the railing (the other side of which is some thatch roof and fall to your death).  He and Mia had switched places in the night, he couldn’t find his headlamp and went out the wrong side of the tent.  He was a mess of tears and frustration and really had to pee.  I’m not convinced that he was even fully awake.  Needless to say, we brought him to bed with us for the remainder of the night.  After that scare, the superstitious part of me thought we had somehow paid our close call dues, and we would officially be fine for all the zipping on the last day. FYI – Superstitious bargaining is not a wise or sustainable anxiety coping strategy, but it did get me through the day.

Our treehouse mates were great.  Sonia from France, Brett from Australia and Immy and Liv the jungle babies from UK.  On the first night, Immy awoke to a furry animal nuzzling her neck, she and Liv didn’t sleep a wink.  Neither did I as flying squirrels flapped through our treehouse, occasionally slapping into our tent-like blankets hanging over our beds, and making loud munching noises on the tree house tree. On night two, they named me Jungle mom after I insisted on “tucking the shit” out of their net/tent before bed.  I am the master critter net tucker  in the jungle, and in guesthouses.

The zipping was super fun, the tree house was so cool,  and our jungle family was wonderful. I didn’t want to leave.


Ziplining and jungle living are amazing, but as with most amazing experiences in my life, the real treat were the people we met – our jungle family in Treehouse #7.

It started on the drive in.  Amy and the kids sat in the air-conditioned front of a pickup (to prevent car sickness), and chatted with Tungchan, one of the guides.  He spoke very good English and was a jokester;  Amy began scheming to get him as our guide.  I sat in the back of the truck and made small talk with other Gibboners:  a couple from Italy and two young travelers from the UK – Olivia (Liv) and Imogene (Immy).  The girls were on a gap year, working and traveling before college.  I was entertained by their miserable-on-the-cheap-bus-ride stories, and impressed by their informed perspective.  The gap year is such a good idea!

After 3 hours of dust, curves and bumps, we reached the end of the road, a pretty little village in the hills.  Twenty-two of us plus guides began hiking. After a half hour, we stopped for lunch.  Sitting next to us was a French-English woman named Sonia.  She was tall, composed, and had a bemused look on her face.  We were immediately drawn into her life stories of travel to Tibet and Palestine.  Amy and she bonded over similar feelings of animosity towards one nationality of people at the temples of Angkor Wat.  Same observations, same frustrations, same too-widespread conclusion, same guilt about it, and same effort to prove themselves wrong.

After lunch as we hiked, we overheard conversations of “Which treehouse do you want?  Where are you more likely to see Gibbons?  Where are you staying?”  Camp stress had set in.  Amy told me that she was going to take charge, and fight for Treehouse #7.   She asked if I was ok with her getting a little aggressive.  “Hell yes!” I said, and “Thank God,” I thought.

An hour up the trail, we stopped at a camp of a few stilted bungalows, the jungle kitchen for treehouse #1.  We donned our harnesses and stared at the map of houses.  Amy quietly tried to form an alliance with three other travelers (so we could get the eight-person treehouse #7 and Tungchan as our guide), but they didn’t bite.  Other groups were banding together, as the primal instinct of “where will we sleep?” was taking hold.   A guide told us to figure out who would sleep where. The stress!  I immediately withered into my 7th grade, last pick for the football team self, while Amy leapt into action.

“Treehouse #7 over here!” she called out, stepping away from the group.  Mia, Porter and I followed her into our newly claimed land.  Nobody protested, and immediately others started adjusting their own plans to the loss of four available spaces. A master-move, as she grabbed the first mover’s advantage.  And, those who joined us would be choosing to be with kids, an important factor in close-quartered living.  I love that woman, and the fact that she has the bullying power I so obviously lack.  Four others quickly moved up to fill out our band – Immy, Liv, Sonia, and Brett, an Australian tech worker.

Up the trail, and on to ziplining.  We’ve written plenty about that, but I will just say that it was a exquisite thrill each time, about as close to a day of good powder skiing as I have experienced.

In the afternoon and evenings, we had time to relax in our treehouse, enjoy each other’s company and survey the surrounding jungle.  On the first afternoon, we spotted wide- throated lizards, brightly colored birds, and a “giant black tree squirrel” clamboring around the tree tops.  By giant, I mean giant – about the size of a small black bear!  During the nights, we had limited electricity, so we entertained ourselves with puzzles, riddles and cares.  Every member of the family, including Tungchen were gamers, making for spirited competition.

Throughout the time, I was struck by how interested Immy and Liv were with Mia and Porter.  They would often strike up conversation, asking about top-ten lists, how our family operated, and what they missed about home.  Over time, we realized that even though the girls had the composure of adults, and felt like travelling peers, they were actually much closer to the ages of Mia and Poe.  They probably identified with our kids, and felt some kinship.

When Amy found out their age (19), she exclaimed, “You are just babies!”  They laughed good-naturedly, accepting the title “the babies” as they had numerous other times with older travelers.  When Amy offered to tuck their mosquito tent in on the second night to avoid unwanted furry bed-fellows, they rejoiced to be taken care of by a “jungle mom.”

On the ride out of the Gibbon back into town, Sonia, Immy, Liv and I all got into a political discussion.  I wanted to know their perspective on Brexit, they wanted to know what I thought of the US election.  Once again, I was impressed by their knowledge of the world, and their facility to think critically.  After I ranted about our US president for a bit, Immy asked me an insightful question,

“Are there any policies of Trump that you agree with?”

I was a little stumped, but I appreciated her question, she was asking whether I was a nuanced thinker.  We went on to share our impressions of the cultural differences between people from different nationalities. When describing Americans, Liv said she thinks of us having a “Gaw shucks, attitude,  VERY positive,  Action-oriented.” It was especially funny to hear her drop her proper English accent, and take on a “John Wayne” kind of swagger.

It did not take me long to figure out I was swimming in deep waters, without much of a stroke to swim by.  All three women were interested and aware of world affairs.  I mean, I didn’t even know who the current leader of the UK is.  As Sonia and the two nineteen-year-old girls sort of schooled me in geo-politics, I bemoaned the fact that I, as an American, do not really understand the world very well. Immy asked sweetly, “What do you think could be done to improve US citizens’ understanding of the world?”

Whew, tough question!  In a sense, it is understandable.  The US is a large and incredible country, offering plenty to explore without needing to leave the boundaries.  Our food, water and roads are safe.  We have wonderful people at home.  Everyone speaks English there.  So it makes sense that many Americans may not leave the comforts of home to meet the wider world.  But I am still left with this nagging questions from a couple of 19-year-olds, laughing, traveling and expanding their own worldviews…

I could not resist adding this last video, showing Mia on the 500 meter zipline.  Every time I watched, I would gasp as the zipper slipped away from us.  It was surreal, looking a bit unnatural – like the speeder bikes in the Ewok forest scenes from Star Wars.  On this one, she was still going after 30, 40 and 50 seconds.  Here’s Mia:


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Po Po, Peanut Butter, P-Town, Mr. Silky Pants

I love that boy and he makes me laugh every day.  Porter has quickly morphed into the quintessential Asia backpacker and has embraced every backpacker fashion trend. He really has a remarkable flair for fashion and he always knows exactly what he wants when we are at the market.  I used to be doubtful and look at him sideways but now I know, you don’t get named Mr. Silky Pants for nothing.   Here are some highlights:










A LOT of Thai cooking school (re-post)

Note:  This is a re-post, somehow I deleted my original.

A great benefit to travelling with my kids is an open calendar.  There are no soccer practices to get to, lawns to mow, or meetings to attend.  We have time.  Bring that to boil with a little seasoning of a personally recommended Thai cooking school, and Mia and I found ourselves with a delicious day.

A friend of ours, Jessica, an amazing chef in Bellingham and owner of Ciao Time, suggested we look up her friend Yui at “A Lot of Thai cooking School.”  They weren’t the cheapest school, but Jessica’s recommendation carries some serious calories.  I emailed them,but they only had space for two of us.

So, who get to go?  Mia was a sure thing as one of her goals is to make Asian food for friends and family when we return.  Amy was feeling a bit sick, so I drew the other lucky card.  I asked Yui if they had “kids prices.”  Yui responded,

“No, she is twelve, she is old enough to cook her own food.”  Immediately I liked this woman.

I must say that I am a little surprised that Mia wanted to go.  This was the day after “Temple Tired,” and Mia was in serious need of some downtime.  But, this young woman is mentally strong, my respect for her grows by the day (another benefit of traveling – I get to observe my kids more closely!).  When I suggested that she didn’t need to go, she ruminated on the choice:

“Well, I want to sleep in, but I also want to go to the cooking class.  I mean, I promised Auntie Amy that I would make her a meal.”  Yay, a day with my daughter, learning about one of my favorite pastimes, eating!

img_0071We were picked up by Yui and her husband Kwan in their charismatic Volkswagon bus.  I have yet to see another in Southeast Asia.  I asked her why they owned one.  She gave the typical bus owner’s answer:  A puzzled shrug of shoulders as if the answer was obvious, “We have a serious mental condition.”  She went on to tell me that there is only one mechanic in town who can work on busses, and he is 70 years old.  With a wink and a look over her shoulder at Kwan, she told us that she wants Kwan to buy the guy’s business (and tools).  He just shook his head, probably well aware of the life of a VW mechanic.

We arrived at the school with several other vagabonds from around Chiangmai.  The school is open-air, along a shaded side of their house.  Each student had their own cooking station, on a “proper Thai” cooking stove:  a dual-ring gas burner.  Pretty smart really, the outer ring allows rapid heating (for a boil say), while the inner provides a good low-heat flame to simmer.  Yui told us that successful Thai people who build their own “Western-style house” usually have a European kitchen with stove, microwave, inside.  But, they cook on a “Thai kitchen” outside.  Ha!  Yui’s observations often were seasoned with humor.

Mia at her cooking station

When you learn from a chef, you learn a LOT.  Maybe that’s why the school is called “A LOT of Thai.”  Yui is a great teacher.  She not only instructed us on how to make a dish, but she talked about the molecular nature of food, how to properly heat up a wok, how to cut food correctly, and about her curiosity and experimentation with food.  For example, she told us how she consults with another restaurant.  First thing, she looks at their facilities – their stove and cutlery.  She tells them to make dishes that fit those.  She instructed us to cut our vegetables into “woman bites.”  She ranted about male chefs who implicitly cater to men by cutting their food too large.  Food should be the right size to fit into a woman’s mouth, AND to fit on the eating utensil – no longer than the width of the spoon.  So smart!  A simple little bit of thinking about geometry to make the final eating experience more pleasurable.  The entire day was filled with such little gems of wisdom and experience.


Yui putting the finishing touches on pad-si-ew.

Yui began by showing us how to prepare Pad-si-ew, stir-fried noodles with vegetables.  This was a simple dish, and to be honest I wasn’t all that excited about learning it – stir-fried vegetables?  Sounds dull.  But as we all circled her wok, she tackled a problem I have wrestled with probably a thousand times:  sauteeing garlic without burning it.

“What we want,” she said, “is to get the flavors of the garlic into the oil, without burning it.  Why then, do we put the garlic into the oil and continue cooking?”  She suggested we get the wok and oil hot (two burners), then turn off for half a minute or so before dropping the garlic in.  Turn on low heat from there.  Genius!  My garlic never burned.  Good science:  Identify the problem, research the dynamics, hypothesize a solution, test!  I was so into this school and this teacher.

Yui explained the rest of the dish.  The key to a good stir-fry is timing, so it was important that we prepare all the foods and sauces first.  The actual cooking only took two minutes or so.  Mia was struck by the frenzy of the cooking.  Soy and oyster sauces into noodles to marinate, oil heats, garlic infuses, pork sizzles, noodles slide in, broccoli stems sear to translucent, greens heat to bright colors.   Turn off the heat, plate and eat!  Wow – stir-fry is too simple John?  Think again.

Our next dish was Som Tum, or green papaya salad.  Yui’s instruction focused on balancing flavors – she held up her two index fingers so the tips lined up.  She wiggled the left, “this is sour,” followed by wiggling the right, “this is salt, they are even.”  Then, in the air between, she drew a concave arc, like a little Asian style suspension bridge, “here is sweet.”  Next the drew a concave shape, like a stone arch, and shook her head at the bulge, “never too sweet.  You can always add sweet, but you can’t take it away.”  Whoa, life philosophy perhaps?

Another classic bit of Yui instruction:

“If you cut the tomatoes into the same size pieces, you will fail the class.  Make each bite interesting – different shape, different size, different amounts of flavor!” she instructed.  She went on to explain that by changing the size of pungent tomato pieces, every bite was different and interesting.  You add a different amount of flavor to every moment.

Since Mia and I had already made Som Tum a few times in Sriboya, we experimented.  To reduce the strong flavors that put Mia off most good food, she used only a nip of a chili pepper (instead of two or three whole ones) and she didn’t add any dried shrimp.  Hers was delicious.  Mine ended up a bit too sweet, as I free-styled how much cocunut sugar to add.  Yui was right, I couldn’t mask the sweet with lime or fish sauce.

The third, and last savory dish of the day was Khao Soy, sort of a red curry-like soup with soft and crispy egg noodles and chicken.  It is a specialty of northern Thailand and Laos, even though it is not traditional norther Thai cooking (coconuts generally don’t grow in the cooler North).  We started by deep frying a handful of egg noodles in oil to make an interesting crispy nest.  Next, we prepped and cooked the sauce:  Bring a couple tablespoons of red curry paste and coconut cream to a quick boil, or until the spicy-fragrance bites your nose.  Add the chicken until it is just seared, then add coconut milk and boil again.  Add curry powders, fish sauce, light soy sauce, sugar and a thick, dark, sweet soy sauce.  Check for a rich yellow-red color dotted by dark brown splotches of sauce.  Taste for all flavors but sour.  Simmer to be sure the meat is finished cooking.

Boil egg noodles and shake off the water to stop cooking.  Pour the sauce over, and add the crunchy nest to the top to make an appealing plate.  Serve with fermented vegetables, limes and thinly sliced shallot.  Wow, delicious.  I almost must stop writing this to run out and get a plate.  This dish must become a John-Mia Chesbrough signature.

Mia’s Khao Soy

The final dish of the day was mango sticky rice, hands-down Mia’s favorite dish to eat.  Yui, in typical fashion started by talking about high quality fresh ingredients – the right rice, a good mango, and fresh coconut milk.  She told stories about how her father was one of the first people in her village to buy a grinder to make coconut milk.  Yui had already cooked the sticky rice – a mix of about two-thirds white grain and one-third dark grains.  We mixed the rice with coconut cream, sugar and salt.  Sliced mango, not too perky, not too floppy, on top.  Finally drizzle a sweetened coconut milk sauce over everything.  Whoa, eating it is a sensation not unlike sliding your washed body into 1,200 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets.

Mmmmm, mango sticky rice

At the end of the day, Yui toured us through a local market, introducing us to the many foods and personalities of the aunties and uncles in there.  Lots of laughs and nibbles, although most of us were pretty food coma’d out by that time.  Finally, the bus dropped us off at our guest houses.  Most just had memories, but since Mia doesn’t actually like eating anything too spicy, we had a bagful of food.

We reunited with Porter and Amy.  Although Amy was not hungry, as we started re-telling our day, her interest perked up.  She devoured the stir-fry over Mia’s gesticulating story about a wild and hot wok.  Amy moved onto the Som Tum and finally the Khao Soy.  “MMmmm resonated through the concrete walls of our cramped little room.”  After eating all of the food, and listening to Mia, Amy basically asked us to tell her everything again.  She was so lost in the flavors, she had just let the words pour over her head like a massaging water fall.  A soundtrack to a lovely taste experience.

A getting well Amy devouring Mia’s Som Tum.

At the end of the day, we could not wipe smiles off our faces – proud, satisfied.  As we shared stories and food with Amy and Porter, Mia she stated one of her favorite sayings, “One of the best feelings in the world is when something you do makes someone else happy.”  The next day Amy’s sickness was basically gone.  Coincidence?  Can good food made with love cure someone’s ills?  I think so.

More photos from the day:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.



Ugh, the garbage/plastics situation is not good, in fact it feels dire.  As my friend Lisa said, the longer you live in Asia, the more hopeless the garbage situation feels; efforts that we put forth in the states can not even begin to make up for the amount of plastic used here. But don’t give up, there is hope. Shifting the collective subconscious from dispose to reduce reuse recycle takes time, patience and persistence.   There are some people making changes in select communities.

If John were writing this, he would have some useful statistics about plastic use and production, plastics in our oceans and what it’s doing to the planet. But, that would require some additional research so take my word for it or look up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Okay, I did some research.  The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a plastic mass twice the size of Texas, 9 feet deep.  There are 5 major ocean patches on the earth.

7 billion pounds of non recyclable plastic are produced every year

only 7% of the plastic in the US is recycled.

The issues I witnessed in SE Asia are two fold:

In some areas, garbage disposal is a problem.  There are not well executed systems for collection and disposal. Insufficient systems lead to people dumping or burning their garbage, which is of course toxic for the people and the planet.

The other issue is plastic production.  ALL THINGS COME IN COPIOUS AMOUNTS OF PLASTIC.  The packaging situation is out of control.  Most drinks, even if it is not take away, is put in a plastic cup with a straw or two, then put in a plastic bag or a special plastic strap holder so you don’t have to hold your drink.  I’m not sure the purpose except maybe so your hand doesn’t melt the ice?????  Even plastic water bottles can be purchased with a straw and a bag for carrying the plastic with water in it.


In Indonesia upon first encountering the garbage, I had mixed feelings.  On one hand I wanted to be at a clean beach or clean jungle path free of garbage while on my vacation.  On the other hand, I knew it was important to see it and be in it because that is the reality.  The clean swept beach is an illusion and the garbage that was removed for your viewing pleasure in paradise, is piled up at the end of the beach, ready to be burned.

Mia has been vigilant about not accepting bags for our purchases and bags and holders for our drinks.  We have not been so vigilant about straws.  Our friends, the Mangelsdorfs order drinks with no straw knowing that it will always arrive with with one.

We have seen some recycling efforts.  In Cambodia – recycled art.  John got a rubber tire belt, we all have paper wallets, I have a necklace of beads made from wrapped paper.   We saw people going through garbage pulling out plastic bottles, indicating some sort of reuse or recycle.  Les Manguiers guesthouse in Kampot had recycling bins set up.  The Green Umbrella school had a garbage compressing machine that makes garbage bricks to be used for walls.

I don’t know very much about the problem world wide.  I’m certain, like all things, the problem is complicated.  Introduction of fast food, westernization of production without infrastructure for disposal and transport, lack of refrigeration but increased production of transportable foods.  The banana leaf, although still used as a bowl, bag, wrapper, plate etc, just isn’t keeping up.

So, the garbage situation is bleak but let me leave you with this little nugget of hope and good times. One morning while at breakfast on Sriboya, a french expat invited us to join a trash clean up effort partnering with the local school.  Great, we were due for a project and a give back.   He started the Sriboya chapter of Trash Hero, an international community based program focused on education and cleanup efforts.  They have a facebook page if you want to check it out.

We met the next morning at 8:30 and walked the beach 1 kilometer to meet up with the students age 8-11.  We divided into groups and headed out to do the clean up.  What ensued was the same group dynamic with a large group of kids in a loosely organized activity that I have witnessed everywhere I have ever worked with kids.  The separated groups immediately became one large scattered mass of friends, loners, hard workers, slackers and defeated adult volunteers.  Most of the girls were picking up garbage, the smart studious boys were picking up garbage and then there were the packs of naughty little boys destroying things, turning plastic bags into wind kites, hiding in the trees.  Ant and I got a few packs of the naughties to engage and fill some bags.  One boy communicated clearly to me through body language that he simply did not pick up garbage, it was below his pay grade.  I stuck Ant on him and he filled a whole bag with Styrofoam.  In the little packs there was usually one girl, you know, the girl that runs with the boys.  Who do you think was doing the job when the group was approached?  She was.

There was one pack of girls huddled up in the tide pools so I checked up on their progress.  They were smashing shellfish attached to the rock and scraping out the tiny slimy animal inside.  TO EAT!  I thought that was Badass and left them to it.

The whole group gathered to sort the garbage and have a snack. Mia and Porter worked hard.  Mia jumped right in despite the searing heat, sorting the garbage until the job was done. We played games with the kids, tried to communicate, took selfies.  At one point, Mia started quietly singing the cup song with a water bottle.  At first the girls became quiet to listen, then the boys were silenced with curiosity, then the girls all squatted down to see more clearly what she was doing.  Her voice got stronger and a pack of 20 kids were silently listening.  It was Awesome and Brave, everyone cheered when she finished.  After that Mia had a few little cuties that wouldn’t let go of her hand.


A job well done, hopefully some education about the problem and for us, some fun connections with kids.


Temple tired

Amy and I have had this plan for mental health on our trip.  Every week or so (every seventh day?), we would plunk down somewhere happy and fun for recovery and rest.  Maybe find a place with a swimming pool.  But in Chiang Mai, our budget was limiting us to small rooms without much space to lounge.  With a need to slow down, but no appealing place to be slow in, we compromised to a short outing – just a small wander to the Chiang Mai University gift shop.  That was the plan.  But I think I was feeling claustrophobic, a little stir-crazy, like Josie two days after her last run.  That’s my excuse anyway for why I hijacked our family’s weekly Sabbath.

I Google-found a blogpost about a trail leaving from near the university, called the Monk’s Trail.  The blogger suggested an hour-long walk up to one temple, followed by a second, steeper journey up to the “spectacular” mountain-top temple of Doi Suthep.  Perfect, I thought.  We’ll stretch our legs, get a tich of exercise, breath-in some nature, then return to the guest house to lounge the afternoon away.  I proposed the idea to the kids, “Come on, it’s just a one hour walk, it will feel good!”  They both responded with squinty eyes and raised hackles, sensing an intruder into their peaceful domain.

Mistake #1.  I bull-dogged my agenda.

Mia at the meditation retreat, this picture is foreshadowing?

We got a late start, around noon, and we flagged a tuk-tuk from our guest house.  I insisted we eat a proper lunch to prevent hangry kids and mom.  Turns out that was about my only correct decision of the day.  We explored the university; it was open and green, filled with enthusiastic and chatty college students.  Mia asked a couple helpful Thai girls for directions, and we soon found her shopping spot.  The birds were chirping and the sun was shining, a lovely day.

Then, as the afternoon wore on, I veered us towards the Monk’s Trail.  After about 1 km walking in the afternoon heat, we were on a nearly deserted road, and I first realized my second mistake of the day.

Mistake #2.  We had no more water.

Porter, never a fan of a boring walk without bike, scooter or skis, started dragging.

He lamented, “Uh, it’s so hot.  I’m so tired.  I’m so thirsty.  How far do we have to go?  This is a terrible day…”

I retorted with a perky carrot, “Just think how delicious the ice cream will be after we’ve had a bit of exercise!”

Amy sensed the precariousness of our situation, and brandished the stick, “You always hate hiking at the outset, then you have fun.  If you walk the whole way without complaining, we will get ice cream.  If you complain, tomorrow you and I are going to tour museums all day long.”

Laughter from Mia.  Porter retreated, and marched on in silence.

Correct decision # -5,285.  I married Amy.

We reached the trailhead after nearly an hour walking, both kids moving well.  The trail was quite nice, in the shade.  We reached a trail junction: one route offered a few more points of interest than the other.  The kids did not waver in their campaign to recapture the day, “Which one is shorter??”

We pushed on, reached a false summit, kept going.



Mistake #3.  I read every sign.  I explored the crumbled remains of an ancient temple. I lingered in jungle cricket noises.

We reached the first temple.  Actually, it was a meditation center, set on a hillside, in the forest.  It was lovely and serene.  The kids must have been relieved.  They had basically agreed to the hijacker’s terms.  We enjoyed the view over Chiangmai and found a stall selling thai ice tea and water.  Amy and I asked the vendor about further route options.  She suggested there no easy way to flag a taxi, the mountain-top temple was still 45 minutes to an hour further, the way was steep, but the view at the end was spectacular.  The blogpost I had read also suggested that the second part of the hike would be 70 to 80 minutes.


Mistake #4.  I said to Amy something like, “Probably just Thai time, they don’t realize that we are hikers.  I’ll bet it’s fifteen minutes, tops.”

Mistake #5.  I repeated the thought to the kids, verbatim.

In the air between my mouth and their ears, my words took shape, hardening from malleable conjecture into the hard promise of parent to child.  Mia and Porter leaned in, recognizing the day for what it was – a coup.   Like good soldiers captured by General Sherman, they just plodded on.

After 15 minutes following steep stairs chopped into the hard soil, we admitted the meditation center lady’s route description was probably correct.  By this time, the afternoon Sun was low.  Maybe not quite as low as Mia’s attitude, but close.  To her credit, Mia doggedly climbed on, losing water through sweat and tears.  A sobbing, frustrated, tired kid.  I dared not say anything, but Amy hung back.

“What’s wrong sweetie?”  Usually those kind of words are the kiss of death, especially the sweetie part.  But, I think Mia was too worn out to be mad.

“I’m hot, I’m tired, I’m thirsty, there’s a bug in my water, I miss Josie, this has not been a good Valentine’s Day.”  She sobbed.  But she kept walking, such a trooper.

Porter, was scampering up the hill, embodying his inner Josie.  He was tired, but mostly mad.  He just stared at me and said flat out, “You lied to us.”

Correct decision #2.  I kept my mouth shut.

We finally reached the top of the trail around the late afternoon, but unfortunately the end was just a bend in the very steep paved road.  The final half-kilometer of walking was on road.  A Thai traveler from Bangkok was taking a smoke break, and kindly offered our kids some fragrant oil to rejuvenate them.  After looking at their faces a bit closer, he just gave us the entire bottle.

We trudged up further, getting passed by fossil-fueled ease of modern transport – tuk-tuks and busses filled with sedated tourists.  Finally, we reached the parking lots and accompanying gawkers and hawkers.  I bought some water and offered to buy the kids any drink they wished.  Both kids refused to be bought off so easily; they would not allow me to buy forgiveness.  Finally, I just bought a couple Sprites and stuck them in their hands, this was survival now.  The final climb to the temple was a mockery – a steep, 100+ stairs of dragon staircase, crawling with tourists, like a ripe piece of mango made inedible by a swarm of ants.


100+ stairs leading up to Doi Suthep.  Mia had charged up so fast the first time, I didn’t get a chance for a photo.

Porter tried to wrest some control back, “Ok, let’s catch a bus and go down.  They are probably going to charge us to go in, and there are like a million tourists.  I don’t want to go up there.”  Porter was using a subtle art of persuasion – appealing to Amy’s thriftiness, and our dislike of overly popular tourist destinations.  I must admit to feeling some solidarity, both kids by now recognize the difference between meaningful moments and touristy visits.  But, I was going to see the damn temple.

“Seriously?” I protested.  “After all that effort, with the end nearly in sight, you are just going to turn back?”

Unfortunately for Porter, at my words, Mia resigned any remaining protest, and she just charged up the steps, powered by huff.  Porter moaned, but followed.

The temple was nice, but we were templed out.  However, the sugar from the Sprite was kicking into our blood and the tourists crowds were thinning out.  We admired the many gold-enshrouded Buddhas and other spiritual symbols.  To me, the more ornate a temple is, the less interested I become.  I sort of like the old, crumbly structures more.  Doi Suthep  is elegant, but very gold.  Mia and Porter fell into a laughing fit about lighting some candles and trying to take pictures of the flame.

Then, at 6 pm, a row of monks appeared.  They asked all tourists to be silent, and to kneel with them before the great steeple in the center of the temple.  The sun was low, the light was soft and all grew quiet.  An older monk lit incense, then led the others in bowing and chanting.   Mia and Porter had transitioned into tired hysterical mode, and couldn’t stop cracking each other up.  They finally clamped hands over mouths and scampered out of the area to enjoy their chuckles in peace.  The monks rose and moved into another chamber for more chanting.  We were invited to participate.  We kneeled until my body’s perseverance ran out – foot cramps, the bane of my spirituality.  I’d make a lousy monk.

We reunited with Mia and Porter, it was nearly dark by this point.  They had somehow flipped their attitudes from revolt to reveling, and we caught a tuk-tuk back down the mountain.  We had a great shopping experience with a woman selling meditation bowls.  Despite being the physics teacher, I am the worst at producing a resonant sound in the metal dish.  We met a very interesting couple from the US, Rob and Cailey, traveling for a bit before heading to Nepal for a 3-month research project into high altitude sickness.  We ate expensive pizza for dinner, and Thai pancake for dessert.  Yum.

A second goal in our trip was to be challenged out of our comfort zones.  This day certainly accomplished that.  We will see if there are lasting effects over the next couple weeks.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


People are people

Last week, several of our friends visited the Islamic Center of Bellingham as an effort to build community across faiths.  Matt Dowling compiled reflections of those visiting the center.  Their words were beautiful and inspiring.  I was particularly struck by the following said by a congregant of the mosque:

“We may not be able to connect through our faith, but we can certainly connect through our humanity.”

– Josh, a member of Islamic Center of Bellingham

Simple, true, and deep.  I call it “people are people.”  Last week we experienced exactly that on a predominantly Muslim island in Southern Thailand.

The island of Sriboya

Picture a volleyball net strung between two sturdy metal poles.  Poles are driven firmly into the ground.  Solid, permanent, meant for game after game, season after season, maybe generation after generation.  Lines of the court are nylon cord, stretched taut, the corners nailed square.  The floor is a mix of gravel, dirt, and grass, ground up by countless barefoot lunges.  The only ceiling is the sky.

The players are arranged in teams of six, twelve players in all.  Nine are Thai women – mothers mostly, wearing a mix of hijabs, sarongs, flip-flops and crocs.  There are two farangs (Keri Bean and I), a young boy, and a tall lanky gender ambiguous player.

The play was excellent, spirited, and competitive.  It was mesmerizing to see these women crush serves, bump, set and spike, while their colorful scarves remained fixed in place, tighter than a French braid.  It was less mesmerizing, more like panic-inducing, when one of their serves blasted into my outstretched arms, clamped together like I was in secular prayer, hoping for a good return of serve.

No need for translation here:  Boom – Chesbrough receives the serve. A mini-calamity erupts as the ball ricochets wildly, my hands flail, and welts appear on my wrists. “Ouuuwwww! sorry, sorry.”  Peels of subdued laughter.  I am served at again and again.  These women played for real.

And they played for fun.  Big smiles, little verbal whoops, lots of chatter – like birdsong floating through the trees and across the net.  But curiously, no high-fives.  Physical touch seems less easy in this culture.  The only western-style hand-slap I saw was when the tall, lanky Thai blocked my “spike.”  Afterwards, she (he? and I mean this respectfully) smiled sheepishly at me.  I immediately said “nice one,” and offered a congratulatory hand under the net.  She understood the offering, and slapped my hand in return, in mutual appreciation for the universality of sport.  We have been told, and have experienced, that Thailand has an admirable acceptance of gender fluidity.

We are staying on an island in the South of Thailand, called Sriboya.  It is not a tourist destination, even though it is surrounded by the famous beaches of Ko Phi Phi, Krabi and Phuket.  The island is mostly rubber tree farms and fishing villages, but there are other businesses – little shops, two table restaurants, and motor repair shops (where I tried to pay 20 Baht to pump up a tire, but the guy only accepted 5).  Ant and I even stumbled into a boat-building yard, where a craftsman was using only a few tools to build three classic Thai “long-tail” wooden boats.  His property was right on the water, his workshop shaded by old-growth (teak?) trees, his boats carried a look of pride.

The people of the island seem contented: there is food, fuel, activity, energy, and lots of family.  They are curious, and inviting.  They are hospitable.  They are Muslim.  Above all, they are human.  People are people.  Here are few of their stories:


We were on Sriboya because of our friends Ant and Keri.  Keri’s brother, Kirby, met his wife, Da, several years ago while traveling Asia.  He and Da were married on the island, and they have a son, Kaden.  Da seems to be related to about 80% of the islanders.  Every time we went somewhere, including off island, we met a new aunt, cousin, uncle or “son of my mother’s sister.”  Da’s family embraced us, and showed us many of the sights around Sriboya.  We traveled in the family boat, truck or tuk-tuk, with a gaggle of Da’s family on our every adventure.  It was wonderful to be embraced by a family.  We felt very fortunate.

The family “long tail” boat carrying our combined families to another beautiful beach.  Da is wearing pink, her sister aunt and niece are all pictured.

Da is Muslim.  She is a legal resident of the USA.  She is delightful.  But she and Kirby are a little bit nervous about her American status, both for no reason at all and for one big reason – the current administration’s policy on immigration and immigrants.  History is littered with stories of countries and peoples sliding down slippery slopes of human rights abuses.  They always seem to start with a few, small actions, that do not appear to affect the majority of people (like banning immigrants from seven countries does not directly affect most Americans).  Just after Trump’s ban, I read several Facebook comments saying something like, “Why are you so angry, you and your kids are going to be fine!”  I’ve spoken to many travelers who think Trump will be “good for America, but the rest of the world will suffer.”  Seriously?  Are we so self-centered?  A “temporary ban on immigrants from only seven countries,” may not directly affect most Americans.  But, history warns me that such a policy is only a first step.

My reading of history suggests that once the powerful taste the success of oppression, regardless of their culture, they thirst for more (Hitler, Pol Pot, Mugabe, Zuma, Idi Amin, the list goes on).  It is as though they get the first rush of shoving a younger sibling down a muddy slope – it’s so funny to watch them flail their arms!  Then, the ugly, acidic rains open up on the slope.  When I heard news like the “temporary ban on immigrants,” I gasped for breath.  I searched for cleaner air in a reputable journalistic source (NPR) to try to learn some facts.  Unfortunately, my breath is still heavy.  Hearing about Trump’s executive order to halt immigrants entering the US (including legal status immigrants!!) from certain countries while living with this wonderful family is like watching a TV commercial for Coca-cola while munching a delicious organic salad.  Actually that understates it by a few orders of magnitude.  Trump’s actions need no hyperbole or analogy to explain my outrage.

Even though the gun is not aimed at Da, she and Kirby can’t help but feel targeted and concerned.  I share their worry.  My “leader” is extra concerning because he is often referred to as the “leader of the free world.”  The USA isn’t a small country without sway and leadership.  Trump is acting in a narcissistic way – foolish, without compassion, foresight or wisdom, let alone common sense.  His actions are just plain insane.  And the number of travelers we’ve met who share a similar national history being written right now is shocking – in Poland, Britain, Turkey, Myanmar governments are turning shoulders to people who are from another tribe.  It is human to be scared, to point, to laugh from fear, but it is also human to embrace, to communicate, to laugh from togetherness.

People are people

Da teaching me to make Som Tum, or green papaya salad.


On our first day on the island, we visited Da’s mother and father’s house.  Da’s mom, Leea, is one of those women that just demands your love, your attention, and your respect.  She is strong, vibrant, and industrious.  When we arrived, she was putting the finishing touches on a handwoven mat for Keri.  It is beautiful, or Suay in Thai.

She showed us her craft – how she had harvested the fronds, dried and dyed them, peeled each across a metal blade to make it supple, then wove them strand by strand.  She said it took her about three days.  As we appreciated the art, admired the details, and complemented her skills, she pointed at Amy, and announced that Amy would get one as well.  For real?!  What a blessing.

Leea, showing one of her many skills.

Despite living in “island time,” Leea has only one gear in her transmission – full speed ahead.  She rarely sits, even while we visited at her house she would put up with only a few minutes of small talk before busying herself with weaving, slicing up a pineapple or sweeping the front dirt. Her husband, on the other hand, spent most of his time chewing bettlenut, and cackling with a friend from his second-story porch like an old codger from the Muppets.  (Why is it so rare to encounter a woman with sloth-like tendencies?)

Som Tum

On our second day on the island, the family took us to a deserted island for a family barbecue.  As soon as we arrived, Leea was the first to start chopping chilies for lunch. We ate Som Tum, or spicy papaya salad.  Each serving was prepared individually in a ceramic mortar and pestle – garlic, lime juice, chilies, fish sauce, peanuts, coconut sugar and green papaya were mashed together into South-east asian coleslaw.  We grilled chicken skewers on hot coals.  Fresh pineapple for dessert.  Did I mention we were on a deserted island??!! Holy deliciousness.

Fishing without a rod



After lunch, several people went out fishing for squid.  Solet, Leea’s son, and Kirby taught Porter, Ant and me to fish without a rod.  However, after an hour of plunking and a little trolling, we returned, empty handed.  An hour later, Grandma Leea arrived back on shore in her own boat, with eleven squid in her basket.  She jumped out of the boat, thrusting the bucket to Solet as if to say, “That’s how you do it.”  Actually, since she only speaks Thai, that is probably exactly what she said.  She quickly ate some lunch, packed up, then jumped into her boat, indicating “No time to waste, projects to complete!”

Leea also has a great sense of humor.  She especially enjoys jabbering in Thai at Ant, who goes by the Thai word for Ant, “Muut.”

“Muut, something something, jiibity-jabbity, sun mai, jab jab” she says as she points to a piece of chicken.

Ant does not speak Thai, but he is always game for the game.  He replies back, “Muut, som-sum, mak mak,” which means “Ant, jibberish-nothing, very much.”  They both cackle.

Ant and Leea

At the end of our week, Leea invited us to her home for a send-off lunch.  Leea and her sister, “Auntie” were there, as well as several of Da’s sisters and cousins.  We ate Som Tum, Pad thai, shredded green mango with shrimp paste, gai pad krapow (chicken with basil), some veggie dishes, and of course fresh mango and pinneapple.  Home-cooked dishes, shared family style, better than most restaurant food.  And since it was a special occasion, we also had 2-Liter bottles of cherry-red Fanta and Coke.  Ahh, western additions of finery.

Towards the end of the meal, Amy asked for Da to translate for her.

She said, “Leea and Da, thank you for taking our family in.  We have felt blessed to be a part of your beautiful family for this entire week.  We…”  She hit the standard Amy Mckenney pouring love into the world two sentence mark before the flood gates opened.  First Amy, then me of course (proud proud).  Her words trailed off, no longer any need to translate.  I looked around at ten smiling women in headscarves, little shining jewels spilling out of twenty dark brown eyes.  Even Leea, the tough old cackling crow, was wiping her eyes on her skirt.

The ladies

People are people.  Whether we praise Allah, Jesus, Yahweh, Buddha, Brahmin or the deep black spaces between the stars, we are a humanity.  We all toil, we love, we play, we grieve and we wonder.   People are people.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Fresh seafood

This post is dedicated to my dad who passed away about one year ago.  He would have loved this experience.  Also, for my father-in-law, Mike, and any other seafood lover out there.

We are currently staying on Sriboya, a predominantly Muslim island in the South of Thailand.  We are travelling with our friends Ant and Keri, who have family on the island.  I’ll write more about the island and people later, because they are both lovely.

We are staying at a smallish resort, with several ex-pat owned bungalows (mostly French I think.  It’s about the only tourist accommodation on the island.  But there are only a handful of people staying here right now – it is quiet and lovely, we are awoken under mosquito nets and fresh air to the sounds of the jungle.

The other night, we asked, Tuom, one of the very friendly staff, for other restaurants on the island.  He suggested his brother’s restaurant. “But, only seafood!” was his terse review.

“Seafood??  Yeah baby, let’s go!”  Ant and I agreed.

Mia and Porter were like, “What the…” and “But…” before being scooped onto the back of the motor-scooters.

We arrived at the other end of the island, and saw that the restaurant was floating about a hundred feet off the pier – a platform of wooden planks, supported by blocks of foam, tied in place by heavy ropes falling off into the depths.  The planks surrounded large pens and nets all sagging into the water.  The place had a sense of decay to it, the same feeling I get in any working fishing village:  wooden boards sun-bleached and warped, discarded bits of the sea dessicating in the sun, smells of salt and drying fish permeate the air.  You’ve probably been to seafood restaurants where you pick the food from a big tank.  In this case, we literally picked it right out of the sea.

The menu was essentially indecipherable.  Ant and I ordered by pointing at something, the owner would pull up a net, throw some on a scale – “more?”

Clams.  “More?”  “Yes, we’ll take a few more clams.”

Snails.  “You want?”  Oh yeah, gotta try snails.  “Kap, mak-mak”  (Translation:  yep, more, I think).

We also ordered crab, clams, crab in curry sauce, fried fish and deep-fried crab.

The food was lip-smacking delicious, although the crabs were small and did not match up to our Pacific Northwest Dungeness.  I’ll attach some photos, but once I got into the crab, there was no chance I would touch my camera with sticky curry-fingers.  So, unfortunately we did not get all of the food.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


The snails were particularly interesting.  The shells were small, with a small little tough bit sticking out (a toe?  an antannae?).  I would grasp it, then pull out the rest of the meat.  It was a long, curled up thing, meaty at first, but gradually becoming more gooey.  I mixed a bunch of green chilli sauce with it, and yum!  It was less chewy than clams or squid, really quite tasty.  Mia could not watch.  If you want to experience it with me, I’ll attach a youtube video link at the bottom.

While I was enjoying my maritime gastronomic adventure, at the other end of the table, Mia was struggling.  She knew this dinner was a favor for dad, but she was also super hungry and needing some food herself.  She ate some rice and a couple pieces of fried crab.  Porter was also so-so, but at least he likes crab.

When we returned to our bungalow in the dark, the adults were tired, happy, and full.  A full seafood extravaganza for about 7.5 diners for around $50, total!  Unfortunately Mia and Porter were still not content.  So she and Porter decided walk down to the restaurant and order a Thai pancake with banana (basically a fried Indian bread rotee with sliced banana inside.  Wow, delicious).

The next morning, Tuom and Lok kidded around with us, “why don’t their parents feed them?”  Laughter all around.  Obviously, no grandmas had come with us on this trip.

We talked about how grandpa Mike would have reacted.  We agreed his response would be something like:

“This is so freaking cool!  This is so freaking COOL!”  Over and over, as his rapture with seafood would take on praise in Allah-like proportions.

My dad also would have loved every bit of it – from “talking” with a salty old fisherman in body-sign language, to fishing from the restaurant, to getting his fingers crusted with crab juice and curry sauce.  Good food, good times.

Here is the snail-eating video:

John eating snail in Sriboya