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offwego Sep 8th, 2006 06:36 PM

Offwego's Trip Report August 2006
OK Andy go ahead and start calculating how much kip I have to send.

In my defense I will only report that I came home with a nasty case of pneumonia and am just now rising from the ashes...worthy of at least a 25% discount.

I will begin by saying this was the first trip I have ever taken in my life over an ocean by myself. There are certain positive aspects of this trip that can be attributed to that fact alone. Traveling alone was an unexpected delight.

In fact, I would say I prefer traveling solo. Even after years of traveling with the perfect travel companion. I actually liked the idea of having no one to bounce an idea off of. When faced with the "should I or shouldn't I" conundrum, I found it refreshing to just say, "yes I will do it" without consulting anyone.

I put my faith in my own intuition instead of into the opinions of another and in that space, everything got magical.

This was the best trip I have ever taken.

So let's begin.

I flew from Texas to LA then on to Taipei and to BKK on EVA air. Love EVA Air. No problems. I will say I preferred the connection through San Francisco to the LA nightmare. Security was the big contraband toothpaste and all that... but I had a four hour layover there and it took about 3 hours of it just to make the connection.

Got to Bangkok and met Tong once again. I will never be in Bangkok and not in company of Tong. I don't care if I've been there 17 times and all I want to do is eat and laugh for 72 hours. I will call Tong. Can you see Bangkok on your own? Of course. Can you go as deep and with such ease? I don't think so. There's also the argument for just having a driver as opposed to a guide and on that issue I also beg to differ. There is no price you can put on all the information in this woman's head. These little tidbits of information tie everything together and make it all make sense.

Before we left the airport I checked a bag full of toys that I was taking to Cambodia at the left luggage at the airport so as to not have to schlep them through the journey. I will get back to this later, but it was my only gross error. I should have schlepped.

Before leaving the US, Tong asks me where I want to go; what I want to see. I never really came up with a plan. I just told her I wanted to eat. All the time. That was my only plan. Similar to the "plan" we didn't have the last time I was there. I left it to her to decide where we would go and when and it was the best way for it to happen. Every day was a joyous surprise.

So offwego into Bangkok. Love it. The smell. The heat. The pollution. The cacophony. The sweating. The traffic. I just love this city.

First stop is to buy some coffins. We go to the usual place and buy them. They give us a dvd of the efforts they made during the tsunami. These are images we didn't see on CNN. Horrible tragedy. I get my fortune and it's not so good, but still I feel upbeat. I'm in Bangkok.

We go to the hotel-Centre Point Silom. I thought the apartments were great. The Robinson department store, hooked on like a siamese twin; perfect. A HUGE apartment with everything I needed and a great department store attached? What's better? Great service. Would stay there again.

I freshen up and of course WE ARE HUNGRY. So in true Tong style, who thinks nothing of driving clear cross town for some good food, we go to a small local Vietnamese place. There we feast on all manner of awesome food. Until I think I'm gonna fall over. I can't remember the name of the place and couldn't direct you to it if I tried (this will be such a useless report!) but I will say it was divine.

Then she takes mercy on me and drops me at the hotel, where I go comatose until 6 am the next morning.

The next day, I'm waiting for Tong. I'm jet lagged so I'm up too early. It's raining. It's 6am. I go to the alley behind the apartments and give alms. I don't have anything prepared really, but I brought some tamarind roasted almonds from home and use them. They seem to be well received. When I come back to the hotel, she's there waiting and offwego to the floating market.

We drive out of Bangkok and pass some salt farms and shrimp farms. Bags and bags of salt line the road. We drive on and stop at a local temple where there are 3 dimensional wood carvings all inside the temple. Beautiful. Never seen anything like it-very unusual style. There are wild pigs there you can buy food to feed and fish in the river you can also feed. I like it. Feels good there. Was hard to go on.

We stopped at the Benjarong Factory. I thought about what kind of patience it takes to paint it, then fire it; then maybe it cracks and you get to do it all over again. Such painstaking attention to detail. The product was so amazingly beautiful. It's worth stopping there to see the craftspeople at work; whether you buy anything or just marvel at what it takes to produce it.

Then to the Floating Market. I was torn about going there. I have heard it said so many times that it is so touristy; and it is. Tong got the boat for 400 baht and we paddled around for a couple of hours. Had some great food (of course; Tong was there!) and coffee. Yes Bob, with ICE. (We lived!) We then diverted into the more residential area. So peaceful. Stopped at a house where they do traditional dance. Was kind of "down-home" but enjoyable. I liked the market, but again, was glad I was with a local who could steer you to the right places, the right food, the right experience of it.

We drove by the snake farm but did not stop. Went to the Royal Thai Handicraft place where I bought a piece that I am anxiously awaiting. Tong drove her usual hard bargain until I actually felt sorry for the salesperson and told her to stop. Merciless bargaining.

We had lunch at the restaurant that floats on the river Kwae which was excellent. I felt weird about eating the fish we had been feeding all day...but not so weird as to not eat it. Yummy.

Then we took a long tail boat to the monkey school. They teach the monkeys to pick coconuts as well as do other tricks. The boat trip was nice. Cool. Beautiful surrounds. Very nice relaxing ride.

After that, we drove to the Tiger Temple. I have heard the debate as to whether the tigers are doped. I don't know about that, but I left there with a better understanding about where I stand in the food chain and had a humbling experience in such close proximity to an animal who could just as well eat me and had decided not to do it. Petting a tiger is cool under any circumstances.

There is a beautiful point on the railway where you can walk the tracks and look out over a most beautiful place on the river. The tracks hug the hill at a perilous angle and one can imagine what it took to build it and under what circumstances. There is a cave there where the POWs languished. A monk came later, sensed the discontented spirits there and installed a Buddha image to transfer the merits to the spirits and settle them. The place feels redeemed. There is pain there but redemption as well and you feel that when you walk in. I liked it there.

These are the arguments for having a great guide with you. I would have never found this place, much less understood the significance of it. I would have only seen the touristy parts of the floating village. I would have never petted the tiger, thinking "they are doped up".

We went to the Elephant Village, but just to see them. You can go for rides here, but we didn't. It was late so we headed back to Bangkok. It was a long but wonderful day. Full of unexpected beauty and events.

The next morning Tong calls me and says "Shall we go to Ayuttaya or to the orphanages?" I say "You pick". So she picks me up and we go to Robinson's and buy a basket full of diapers, powder and cookies. Offwego to the orphanges.

This is an "orphange district". Blocks and blocks of orphanages. Different kinds. With different kids.

She starts me off easy. The first one is the orphanage with the "adoptable kids". This orphanage is very nice, bright and shiny with bright and shiny toddlers that anyone would want. They were having lunch when we arrived so we gave them the cookies and they were all very polite and sweet. I think "this orphanage thing is a piece of cake".

Next door is the orphanage for the AIDS babies. So many of them. All so small, so skinny. So new and yet so obviously close to the end. I try to think of something positive and think well, they don't know where they are and will be gone before they do. It's the best I can muster. So sad.

Next are the physically handicapped kids. These are a little older, between 8-16 or so. Some missing arms, some legs, some blind, some deaf. The more capable are taught some arts & craft and Tong speaks with the art instructor. He takes us to their "shop" where they sell paintings and things. I find a most beautiful painting. I want it BUT I have no idea how to get it home. I take it to the hotel, ditch the frame, try to roll it up, but it's attached to some board. I folded it in half and stuck it in my suitcase. It made it home in one piece and is at the framers now. I love the painting. Loved the spirit of the artists there.

We walk to the next orphanage and the clouds come. I can smell that thickness in the air that brings the hot rain so we hurry. This building smells of piss and heat and the coming rain. Here are the children no one wants. Or will ever want. Autism, water on the brain, cerebral palsy, MS, profound retardation and all other manner of physical handicap. The nurse is holding the deformed baby that was the result of a botched abortion. OK thanks very much for that.

These children lie in diapers all together on mats on the floor unable to do or articulate anything, except rock themselves, writhe around or just stare up to God. Some cry. Some don't. They are all between about 2-6 years old. There are about 30 children here. But there are other rooms.

We take a deep breath and go inside. We sit on the floor among them and I feel like I'm going to break. I think --I don't know what to do-- but then it begins-- just the touching of them. The smoothing of a worried forehead, the rubbing on a rashy belly. I cup their little faces my hands and look in their eyes and say "I see you". The ones who can, grasp our fingers. We pat the ones who cry and when we do, they stop crying. You stop, they start. You pat, they stop. Like a switch. We did not have enough hands to quiet the room but we tried.

When we leave from here, the rain is now coming truly. We run to the clotheslines where all the sheets are hanging. We did not have enough hands to pull them down in time, but we tried.

We cried for a bit then went to the office and talked with some of the attendants there. We asked what kind of donations they needed and they brought us a list of medicine that is sorely needed by the kids we had just been with. We made a donation for the medicine and went on our way.

The orphanage was not a downer experience by any stretch. I left there with a profound sense of love in my soul. Reminding me that love comes in the giving, not the receiving. I highly recommend a trip to the orphanages for all the seasoned travelers to Bangkok. It added a dimension that I can't fully describe, but that afternoon stays with me still. Again, it was good to go with someone who knew the people, knew where the neediest kids were.

The rest of the day we spent eating Khao Soi, feeding fish and having dinner at yet another local spot with some questionable live music but the service attentive and the food divine as always. Again, I can't tell you where I was.

I love Bangkok. It's full of Bangkokers and all the crazy stuff they do. I have never been any other place like it or felt the same way I feel when I'm there. I look forward to coming here many more times and discovering it again and again. (Always with Tong.)

Tomorrow: Luang Prabang.

rhkkmk Sep 8th, 2006 07:05 PM

thanks for this segment....tong wants us to visit the orphanges....not sure i can get past stop one...maybe if i drink with ice the day before

offwego Sep 8th, 2006 07:27 PM

Perhaps a little scotch over that chipped ice....

Go to the orphanages Bob. It's a great experience. Go to stop one then make a donation. Same Same.


KimJapan Sep 8th, 2006 07:43 PM

Excellent. I can't wait for the next part.

Glad you are feeling better.

spenny Sep 8th, 2006 08:39 PM

Wow-what a great story, very well told and moving. I would like to do the orphanage trip but I must admit it would be very confronting.
Look forward to the rest!

Kathie Sep 8th, 2006 08:41 PM

Thanks for the wonderful report. I look forward to more.

hawaiiantraveler Sep 8th, 2006 11:58 PM

Glad your feeling better. Great start to your report. Anxiously awaiting more.


althom1122 Sep 9th, 2006 04:17 AM


Gpanda Sep 9th, 2006 04:28 AM

Let's see. 18,000 miles to and from Asia, multiplied by 3 different countries is 54,000. Subtract 4 for the types of orphanages, 53,996. Double for a visit to the floating market, 106,992. Divide by 6 for the PLF stuff (I know it's coming, 17,832. 25% dicount for pneumonia, 13,374. Add 50 for ending a sentence a preposition with, "idea off of", 13,399 Kip. Payable to the Boston GTG-fund.

Craig Sep 9th, 2006 05:10 AM

Great start, Lori. I sent you an e-mail at work looking for advice on how we can help out for the coming Cambodian school year - I assume you have not returned to work on account of the pneumonia.

Looking forward to hearing all about LP and your time with Ponheary in Cambodia. Will consider doing a day with Tong next February.

offwego Sep 9th, 2006 05:54 AM

Craig-yes--been home from work the last few days (and not checking email!). Will get your mail on monday.

The school you and Jeane "inaugurated" is the most pitiful of the four schools in which we're working (that last gramatically correct phrase is for Andy), so we'll have lots to talk about.


OneWayTicket Sep 9th, 2006 06:24 AM

Great post Lori. Thanks again for reminding me where my heart lies.

- Ken

Gpanda Sep 9th, 2006 09:36 AM

Thank you for thr tortured sentence. It warms my black little heart.

Bonita Sep 9th, 2006 11:11 AM

Beautiful, touching and inspiring report! What a great heartfelt travelogue!

Now that is some superb traveling! So passionate and joyful! Thanx for sharing!

Oh, and i too soo Love Thai Ice Coffee!!

offwego Sep 9th, 2006 06:06 PM

Luang Prabang

A good flight is an uneventful one and I got one of those from Bangkok to Luang Prabang. Easy to get a taxi into town and I arrived at the Maison Souvannaphoum (Thanks Craig). The room was great. A bit small, but certainly fine for me and very well equipped. I noticed there were some mosquitos in the room and was happy to be one of those people who have never had a mosquito bite in my life. I lit some incense and wished them well. Went to the bar and got friendly with the bartender, a pleasant fellow named Phouvong who was to become a good friend over the next few days. This giy was at work at 7am when I came for breakfast and at 10pm when I had my nightcap. How do they work like that?

The day I arrived, I just took a walk around town, resisting the urge to get a map. LP is a great place to operate on instincts. Just walking around, poking into shops, stopping for a snack, a drink, looking around in the temples, chatting with the locals. You could easily spend days and days just doing that. All the locals so friendly and relaxed. My impression immediately was that what they seemed to lack in material possessions, they easily made up for in spiritual wealth. The locals in LP positively glowed.

At 7 pm a fellow came to pick me up to go to a 48 hour silent meditation at one of the temples a couple hours upriver from LP. Here is one of those situations where I was moving 100% on instinct and trust. I had only "spoken" to this man twice on email. Was not sure if he would indeed meet me as promised, but there he was, right on time. We went down to the river and I followed him onto his boat. I was not allowed to take anything with me. I got on a boat at sunset with a perfect stranger and headed up the Mekong to an unknown destination with no money, no passport. Nothing. (Well ok I had $50 secretly tucked in my bra.) I could hear my mother screaming in my head something about being sold into white slavery but I quickly shut her out.

We arrived at the temple and he dumped me out. I walked up and realized I was the only westerner there. I don't know if anyone there spoke English since we weren't allowed to speak. I was led to "my quarters" which was a small room with a wash basin and a mat on the stone floor. I laughed to myself that this would surely prepare me for the beds in Cambodia. I slept. Sort of. Then at 3am we were up in meditation until sunrise. Then breakfast (rice) then chores (lots of sweeping) then meditation then tea, then meditation and so on until about 9pm (guessing, no clocks). I found this to be a deeply moving experience. All my vacations before have been full of getting from point A to point B, seeing as much as possible. At home it's much the same. Go Go Go. It was incredible to just STOP and be still for a couple of days. The meditation causes much less of a need for sleep, which was a good thing, because there wasn't much time allotted for that. I also wasn't hungry though they did not feed us much. (Probably still full from pigging out with Tong in Bangkok.) It was ungodly hot there. The rain was like standing under a hot shower. Sitting in that temple for hours on end with the sweat pouring off me and the bugs swarming around, was not the most comfortable experience in the world, but it's not supposed to be and soon I eased into it. Of course all the Laos in the room sat there cool as cucumbers.

What struck me most about being silent for 48 hours is how loud everything outside you gets. The frogs, the rain, the bugs, people's barefooted footsteps, my heartbeat. Everything was LOUD. I realized everything is always this same volume. Our own noise just turns it all down.

The thing that caused my going on this trip alone was the ending of an 18 year relationship. Rather sudden; just before the trip. When I left the temple that evening and was headed back to LP on the boat, I took off my ring and hurled those diamonds out into the depths of the Mekong River. I hope some fat fish ate it and I also hope some Lao woman cut him open for her family's dinner that night, found the diamonds and is maybe getting a new house. Hate to be wasteful!

When I arrived in LP again, I felt like a new person. So calm. So in tune with everything. I stopped at some restaurant on the river and told the guy I was starving and to bring me everything he likes. He laughed and said "really?" I said yes, really. So he brings me a Beer Lao and some riverweed. Don't miss out on the riverweed if you go there. With a beer, it's heaven. Then he brings me some sticky rice and some sort of SPICY minced chicken with some cucumbers and tomatoes. Then some dessert which I cannot name but it was good. The whole thing was less than $4. Afterward we toasted with some rice whiskey and I went down to see if I could find someone to take me to the caves the next day. That only took about 5 minutes. I met Mr. Seng, from boat #122 and made an appointment to see him the next morning. I then dragged myself to the hotel, which by that time seemed like the Taj Mahal and I TOOK A SHOWER and slept like a pig in the AIR CONDITIONING.

The next morning I got up early to give alms, very convenient right outside the hotel and then walked down for some breakfast. I dropped off my laundry at a place along the way. 8 pounds of yucky clothes for about $2. Then I met Mr. Seng and offwego to the Pak Ou Caves. We did the usual stopping at the whiskey village and the paper making village and they were both ok. Obviously for the tourists, but the people were friendly and did not hassle me. (In fact, I found the Laos to be so friendly they make the Thais look like a bunch of uptight Franconians.) I walked through both villages and on to the temples where I was immediately accosted by a group of novices eager to speak English with someone. I spent so much time there with them that Mr. Seng finally scaled the muddy bank to see what had become of me.

I can't say enough about the caves. Truly a magical place. There were hardly any people there and it was beautiful. It was raining the whole time I was there and I contemplated not going to the upper caves but then slapped myself and went. It was a bit treacherous but worth the climb.

As others have said the boat ride there was the best part of the whole thing; seeing life on the river, the cool breeze, good songs on the iPod. I liked it so much I made arrangements with Mr. Seng to take me somewhere the next day too. He said "to where"? I said "I don't care". He laughed and said to be there at 8am and he would take me to China.

I enjoyed the night market that evening. Was nice to shop without being accosted. Had a great snack that was some roasted sticky rice on a stick. If you see it, have it. There are a great profusion of internet cafés, restaurants and bars near the night market. I had a great time doing a pub/night market crawl that evening. Met several of interesting travelers from all over. I think this is yet another benefit of traveling alone. I suppose you seem more approachable. People just talk to you. Late that night I had an interesting conversation with Phouvong, my bartender friend. Having been a bartender in my younger days, we talked about wages and the ups and downs of being a bartender in general. He works forever hours and brings home about $55 a month.

Earlier at the caves, I threw the sticks to get my fortune, #15. Of course I couldn't read it but I brought it to Phouvong who gave me a very sad face and said "Oh I don't want to read it". I told him this whole vacation so far was full of bad fortunes and to please go ahead. He tells me "Someone you love wishes to take something from you and will succeed, destroying your faith in them forever. You must leave your home, go far away and guard your health." Well allrighty then....

Just an errant thought-Laos seems chock full of bugs and lizards but I don't think I ever saw a bird. Was it the season? Are there no birds there? Was I blind? I've got to look into that.

Bright and early the next morning I meet Mr. Seng and he's going to take me to some waterfalls. I wondered why since standing there on the bank was like being under a waterfall it was raining so hard. But offwego the opposite direction from the caves toward these falls. We travel for 1-1/2 hours and arrive at a small village. There's a pretty treacherous embankment that must be climbed to get up there and the mud is pouring down the side. Oh well. When we get to the top a small group of kids come running over hollering "Pen Pen Pen". At first I don't understand what they want (I assume money) but indeed they want PENS. So make a note if you're moving around in these small villages, the kids dig pens.

There is one guy in this village who has the one pickup and we find him and he drives us over the most ungodly muddy roads to the place where the path starts to the waterfalls. About halfway, his front tire literally falls off the truck and we have some fun getting ourselves to a place in the muddy series of potholes they call a road where we can jack up the truck. We're having some fun now. I'm thinking Mr. Seng and I should have gone on to China. Once we arrive at the clearing, there is a row of huts where you can have something to eat and drink. I was surprised how much English was being spoken by the women who ran these establishments. We trek for about an hour and go past a tiger conservation where they rescue cubs whose mothers have been poached. There are also some bears there. Sort of a weird mini-zoo out in the middle of BFE Laos. By the time we get to these waterfalls there is really no need to swim since I am drenched, but I do go in to get the mud off my clothes. These waterfalls are beautiful and not a soul is there.

On the trip back to LP we stop at another village on the river that makes pottery. I get out and head to the temple as usual, knowing I will find some English speaking novices. This village is a little different. A lot poorer and no one seems to be really selling anything. Or speaking to me. Alot of staring. Finally I find the temple and it's in ruins. No one around. I think "well, ok, where the hell are they making the pottery" and just then a boy about age 7 walks right up from behind, grabs my hand and is taking me somewhere. He is telling me something really important, which I certainly don't understand but I just let him drag me. He takes me to his hut where his mom and little sister are preparing some dinner. His mom is there in a sarong at the waist and a brand new beautiful bra. An ill-fitting Walgreen's special. She was so proud of it she obviously didn't think it necessary to put a shirt over. Anyway. The boy sits me down and brings me a glass of water which I wouldn't drink in a million years (see Bob, I so have SOME sense) and proceeds to make me a piece of pottery. He then grabs my hand again and takes me over to this giant pit which has been fashioned into a kiln. I've never seen such a rudimentary set up but they were churning out some great pieces. I bought a few small things from the boy and gave some cash to the mom and motioned for the boy to take me back to the river, since I had no idea where I was. He made sure I understood that was going to cost 5,000 kip. No problem. So he grabs my hand again and offwego.

When we were almost back to LP I asked Mr. Seng about the Boat Races which were supposed to commence in the next couple of days. He mentions he knows a place on the river where teams are practicing and would I like to go watch? Well, sure why not. The rain is coming in a torrent now. We stop on the bank to get some gas and I see this skinny white guy standing on the bank about calf deep in mud. While Mr. Seng is getting gas I shout to him "What are you doing just standing there?" He says "I'm trying to catch a boat to so-and-so but I think I'm in the wrong place". I ask Mr. Seng if so-and-so is on our way and he says "sort of" and I say "well, let's go there and take this guy", since I'm feeling a little too bourgeoise about being the single passenger in a boat built for 20. So Mr. Muddy Pants gets in. He's from Britain and he's been in SEA for 6 months. His parents have disowned him because he won't go home. I say "Why not go home?" He laughs and says "Trust me, don't stay here too long or you won't go home either". I take this to heart.

Tomorrow: Siem Reap

althom1122 Sep 9th, 2006 06:16 PM

I had to laugh at myself when I read your report this morning. I had seen postings from you before and never got the "offwego". In my mind, I had always pronounced it offWAYgo - and even wondered what it meant... duh. Sometimes it's the simplest things that elude me. My daughter tells me she knows I'm smart but she wonders how I get along in the world (with such a lack of common sense)...

Anyway, as I posted earlier, wow. Fabulous report. Can't wait for more.

rhkkmk Sep 9th, 2006 08:11 PM

i am so disappointed in you!!! offended that little boy by not drinking his water---that might be the only water that the family has for the next 6 months....shame on you....and yes your mother does have tons of common sense...

offwego Sep 9th, 2006 08:12 PM

forgot link to LP pictures:

Craig Sep 10th, 2006 04:13 AM

Lori, your portrayal of LP during the rainy "off" season is absolutely magical.

We also thought the riverweed was delish but I prefer to call it "dried seaweed with sesame seeds" - sounds a little bit more appetizing that way.

Your photos are fantastic - you really captured the spirit of LP - nice to see what it looks like at this time of year too.

rhkkmk Sep 10th, 2006 07:11 AM

wonderful bout those feet pics...

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