A Travellerspoint blog

January 2012

Book 3: A Nine Month Sojourn in Asia:

The Ping-pong Diaries

This section of Vagabonding describes a journey to Asia begun in February of 2008. It centers on a four month stint in which Nanette and I taught English in China, and was book ended by a tour of Indo-China (aka Southeast Asia), and northern India.

The idea for this excursion first germinated on a blue-bird day in the mountains near Lake Tahoe in California. We had taken a break from skiing and were hiking along a river bank not far from the Nevada border. It was one of the many picture perfect days days they seem to have out there, early Spring, temps in the 50's, but with a warm sun that made it possible to sit out on the rocks without being cold. This was the tail end of living out My Ski Bum Fantasy, as I like to call it. Following our Latin America trip described earlier in this blog, I got the idea that I wanted to spend a winter skiing out west, and I chose to do it in California because both of our kids were living in the Bay Area at that time. I began this particular fantasy by taking a demanding bar-tending course in Albany, somehow imagining that I would ski all day and then tend bar at night. Well that might have come to pass if I had lived out this fantasy in my 20's or 30's, but not in my late 50's. I hadn't reckoned on the fact that after skiing all day, I would be too exhausted to do much more than cook dinner for myself and crash into bed about 9 PM. And of course, no one wanted to hire an alta-cocker (aka old fart) like me to tend bar anyway. Especially in a ski town, they all wanted some young hunk, despite my perfect bar tending background as a psychologist.

But I digress. As we rested on those warm rocks by the stream we discussed what we might do the following year. I was ready to take off again on another big trip, my wanderlust having been ignited by South America. Of course, I was already off, as it were, having just spent the winter, as I said, skiing, but no matter, I was raring to go once again. China was actually Nanette"s idea, and so was the teaching thing. After all, we didn't speak a word of Mandarin, and how would we learn anything about the culture just by moving about constantly. When we got back home two weeks later we researched the idea, and found out that it was ridiculously easy to get jobs teaching English in China, complete with an apartment and a salary that would help finance our travels.

And so it was in February of 08 that we took off, first to Southeast Asia ,and then to Xiamen, China, to teach for one semester in a private English college known as WECL.

We began by flying into Hong Kong, courtesy of frequent flier miles. We stayed in Kowloon in a hotel that seemed to have few foreign tourists. It was mostly Asian and Chinese businessmen.

View from our Hotel Window

We only spent a a day and a half here, walking mostly, and gaping up at the enormous skyscrapers. The city surprised us with both how clean it was, and how green. It is built on a series of hills surrounding the harbor, and several of the outlying areas have been converted into large parks that have a wilderness feel to them. We didn't get much time to explore them given our time constraints, but just wandering around the downtown streets, taking the half mile long escalator, checking out the expensive shops with what were most likely pilfered antiquities, was an interesting experience. So was going to the noodle shops, one of the few inexpensive places to eat. Fewer people spoke English here than I would have thought, and our few, and I mean very few words of Mandarin we had painstakingly memorized, did us little good in Cantonese speaking Hong Kong. If we thought something looked good, we would point to it. The emphasis here is on thought, though we did manage to avoid the chicken feet, at least for a while. They also had pictures of dishes in the windows, but these too were often hard to decipher. We got quite good at the pointing technique over the next several months, as you might imagine. Overall, they were tolerant of us, though I don't know how many Brits and wealthy businessmen would frequent these local eateries.

And then it was on to Bangkok.

Posted by jonshapiro 07:43 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (1)

Wat Pho and The Journey Home

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On the day before my departure, Elona and I took a short excursion to Wat Pho, an Angkor temple. It is somewhat reminiscent of Angkor Wat,
though on a much smaller scale. What makes the place special is the location up in the hills, next to a vaguely phallic looking mountain that is worhipped as a lingham.

It doesn't Look Very Phallic here.

The old temple is slowly crumbling, although attempts are being made to prop it up and prevent further damage.



Looking down into the valley below, the view is expansive.


As in so many other temples, there are women making offerings to the Buddha which they sell for a few cents to tourists and locals.


My favorite part however, was this rock.


It took a while to get down all of the stairs.


On the way back to Pakse, in response to a question from Elona, I got started talking about how I work as a therapist, the notion of taking charge of your own Self-esteem, as well as my own relationship to my mother, who I felt never gave me much approval. This conversation took place in our taxi, which was a small pick-up truck with benches in the back. As I was discussing all this, rather incongruously given the setting and the heat, our driver suddenly gave me a thumbs up, as if he agreed with what I just said. His English was pretty good, but it seemed unlikely that he had heard and understood the conversation. When we got back to town, I asked him about it, and he said yes, he did understand, and added "very good," indicating his agreement once again. I wondered about his own family but didn't ask. How incredible that he could hear, given the wind in the back of the truck, and that he would actually listen and understand, given our cultural,language, and educational differences. Obviously these differences didn't mean what I had assumed.

The next day when I started the three day journey home, I thought it would be straight forward, despite the Bangkok riots and the ash cloud over Europe. However, the local travel company that sold me a bus ticket to Ubon Ratachani, across the Thai border, had put the wrong date on it. When I showed up at the station, I was told the bus was full and that my ticket was no good. I more or less forced myself on despite being told this, saying I would stand if necessary. I had a flight to catch the next day in Ubon, and this was the last bus out. As I stood in the aisle, there was a major argument between a Thai and a French couple, who refused to give up their apparently double booked seats. The French did a lot of cursing and yelling, and refused to move, despite the fact that stools were placed for them in the aisle. The Thai's were equally intransigent, though they did not lose their cool. There was a stand off for about a half hour, while the driver tried to sort it out. In all the hubbub, my own predicament was ignored. Finally, a different Western couple voluntarily got up and sat in the aisle, and the bus pulled away with me on it. In the end, there was one empty seat near me which I took.

Another take on the issue of cultural differences.

The next day I caught my flight to Bangkok without a problem, and then a taxi to my favorite hotel near the airport, riots notwithstanding. Early the next morning I left for the last 15 hour flight home.

Posted by jonshapiro 10:28 Archived in Laos Tagged buildings_postcards Comments (2)

Don Dhet and the Four Thousand Islands

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It took Elona, my Israeli traveling companion and I, about three hours on the bus/boat ride to get to Don Khong, the biggest of the Four Thousand Islands. We stayed there one night, but when it became apparent that there was nowhere to swim and little to do, we moved to the southern and less crowded part of Don Dhet, another nearby island. We had our boatman take us to the River Garden , in what turned out to be a basic guest house close to the Mekong.


It was highly touted by the Lonely Planet, undeservedly so, as the rooms were not particularly clean and I spent most of the night dodging the spiky bed springs. Even more disappointing, we found that there really weren't good places to swim here either. We were were told that the river was very low this year, which might help to explain the many places where garbage was visible at the waterline.


The heat was OVERPOWERING, as it was the hottest time of year, close to or over 100F on most afternoons. For most of the day it was impossible to do much of anything except stay in the shade and sweat. Walking and biking were next to impossible, and even when I got into the water, the bathtub-like temperature and the burning sun made it less than refreshing.


We did manage to walk across the old French bridge connecting Don Dhet to ]Don Khon, , to see the water falls, half an hour away, by leaving at 7 AM before the sun was too high.


The falls, a series of them, are carved out of black volcanic rock and even at low water levels they are impressive. There is a small beach, blissfully clean, and I went for a quick dip.


Alas, no shade, so we didn't linger. The falls are already being developed as a tourist attraction, and normally admission is charged to see them, but because of the hour no one was there to collect.

At our guest house there was a lot of hype about the river dolphins at the end of [Don Khong, but when we spoke to someone who had taken the expensive boat ride to see them, he said they were few in number and too far away to really get a good look. We passed.

After suffering in the heat for two days we opted for a more expensive bungalow, Pan's, across the bridge on Don Khon. Nothing fancy, but the AC did work. The downside is that there were many squawking roosters. We managed to avoid the big parties for Lao New Year, though nearby there were booming speakers grinding out bad Lao pop music more or less constantly. Luckily they stopped fairly early at night.

Main Street on Don Khon

Before I came here. I pictured a collection of small islands with bungalows on stilts in a wide and pristine estuary, good swimming and fishing everywhere. Instead there are a few islands with a variety of bungalows, mostly overpriced, some on the river but many not, and there is already ramshackle over- development in several places. The pictures you see here do not show most of that.

There are other islands, but most are tiny and inhospitable, and in the main, uninhabited. Development of both cheap and more upscale accommodations is proceeding at a furious rate. Though the locals are still friendly, the days when Four Thousand Islands was a collection of simple fishing huts are long gone. It is hard to see what the fuss is all about. Granted, this was not the time of year to come here. November through February is much better, but with the poor swimming and the generally unexceptional landscape, I can't understand the rave reviews.

After a night at Pan's, I was more than ready to leave and return to Pakse

Posted by jonshapiro 11:41 Archived in Laos Tagged postcards Comments (2)

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