When in doubt, go to the Irish bar

Seeking out the familiar is not really the point of travel. Obviously. New sights, unfamiliar foods, bewildering cross-cultural Learning Experiences — this is what we should be after. On the other hand, sometimes you have to take it easy on yourself.

For us, this last point is sometimes hard to remember. Our time in any place we’re visiting is finite by definition, and there are always things we wish we could have squeezed in. On our month-long scamper around southeast Asia, this is especially true, since we’re spending only two nights on average in each city or town on our trip. It’s a survey course; we’re getting the broad strokes, but inevitably there’s a sense of having half-assed it, having failed to find all the things that really sum up a place. Even when we’re tired, and hungry, and sweaty, with blisters, it feels like we probably should walk another half-mile to that really authentic bone-marrow popsicle place we read about on that one food blog.

Cut to Kuala Lumpur, where, in what is fast becoming a trademark move, we’ve rolled up just in time for an unforeseen national holiday that has many businesses closed. After some confusion and minor extortion with a cab driver, we’re left on a nearly deserted block, where the coffee place we’d been hoping to try is shuttered. A 7-Eleven employee tells us that this holiday happening tomorrow, too — oh and also they can only sell SIM cards on weekdays and non-holidays.

Alrighty then. Back around the corner to the one place that’s open: A kind of Indian Muslim buffet with a local clientele. They appear to have coffee. The Farenheit temperature and percentage humidity are both hovering just below 100. We are disappointed and perspiring and in need of caffeine. So we do the hesitant-tourist shuffle: Do we just sit down, can we figure out who’s in charge of seating people, will we be successful in requesting two chairs and some coffee? No matter how many times we do this, and no matter how much I know it’s silly for me to feel this way, I always feel conspicuous and mortified.

But the proprietors welcome us very warmly and usher us to some chairs. Our attempt to just order coffee is confusing to them, so we line up and select from a buffet of various mystery chunks in various curry sauces. Surveying my plate of things like Organ Meats in Spicy Brown Sauce, a fried egg, tiny dried anchovies, Eggplant with Meat of Some Kind, and another curry I’m calling Maybe Fish?, I look at Kevin very seriously and make the pronouncement I am issuing with some frequency these days.

“You are very lucky.”

He smiles around a mouthful of something he’s identified as Possibly Mutton? “I know,” he says cheerfully. “I married the perfect woman.” This is a man who knows when to mollify.

We continue making lemonade from our lemons. DIY architecture tour! The landmark mosques are closed, but still lovely from the outside. Historic Merdeka Square is closed so they can set up for a holiday celebration, but we can still glimpse the polo field and colonial-era buildings from the periphery before being shooed away by security. There are row houses along the riverfront, some Art Deco landmarks falling into disrepair, and a well-restored market building that’s not only open but air-conditioned. After 45 minutes of sweaty haggling at a streetside phone kiosk, Kevin gets a SIM card. It doesn’t entirely work, but at least he got them to sell it to him on a Sunday. We find an open food court selling good versions of a lot of Malaysian specialties, which all goes very well until I go to get some cendol and get cut in line by a group that then orders — I am not exaggerating — 50 cendols to go.

As usual, we don’t have any arrangements made for the next city on the trip, so we hike back to our hotel, weaving our way along the thin margin between numerous construction sites and rapidly oncoming traffic, for another round of Train or Bus?, followed by the gauntlet of Does This Cheap Hotel Look OK? We will not miss this part of seat-of-our-pants traveling.

After more time than it would seem like this should take, we’ve made arrangements and it’s time to stroll out for a drink and some dinner. Except, is it maybe raining a little? I figure we can walk, but Kevin opts to spring for a taxi. And it’s a good thing, too, because by the time the taxi lets us off near our destination, it is raining harder than either of us has ever seen the sky rain. God has aimed His mighty fire hose directly at our heads. We run laughing from the taxi into the nearest establishment, where we arrive looking half-drowned. Kevin: “I don’t think I’ve ever gotten so wet in only seven steps.”

And here we are: in the Irish bar. It’s totally Sheleighleigh O’McLanahan’s, and the scarred wood tables were probably mass-produced at a plant. But it’s raining so hard that the bar’s TVs can’t even show soccer — there’s too much interference to get satellite signal. After the slightest guilty hesitation, we collapse onto the path of least resistance. Bar stool? Thanks. Beer with name we recognize? Don’t mind if I do. Occasional soccer interrupted by static and error messages? Best programming I’ve ever seen. I’ve scarcely ever been so happy to be anywhere. Sometimes a guilty pleasure is the best kind. Sometimes you gotta just go to the Irish bar.

Bangkok Part 2: Bangcockier

After a surprisingly restorative stop in Chiang Mai, we headed onward to Bangkok, to fit in one more day of that highly modern, mildly impenetrable city, before going further south to Malaysia and Singapore. To shake things up a bit, though, we travelled by train, since we tend to love trains, and they are a good way to see parts of the countryside you might otherwise miss. Plus, people are weird as shit on trains.

Since the ride was going to be an overnight train, though, we first made a Cultural Excursion to the local supermarket, something I always enjoy. Maybe in another 10 years seeing the combination of undiscovered-to-me types of local green vegetables and the weird consumer food products each country invents will get old, but not yet. And until then, I’ll have me some Red Skin Peanuts Larb Flavor, thank you very much.

After Page handled some uncomfortably aptly named custard apples (100% like a fleshy foam-rubber children’s toy), we lugged our stash to the train station. The day before, in a soulful, cultural-sharing mission, the kind train-agent-policeman helped me understand my extremely meager booking options for our upcoming train ride. Whoops! After I made Page’s hair stand on end by breaking the language barrier hundreds of times, like a blowfish thrown repeatedly at a taut membrane composed of the station agent’s patience, the two of us managed to work out that there were two sleeper seats on the second-class, non-express 3:30 PM sleeper train the next day, and not much else. I’ll take it! (I mean, seriously, I spent 45 minutes hectoring this poor guy as he navigated a VT100-based terminal interface in Windows 2000 literally connected to a 9600 baud modem. Which failed 4 times during our negotiation, each time causing the poor guy to have to get up, cross the room, and flip a metal toggle switch hooked up to some jury-rigged plastic box. Man. I do not want this guy’s job.) Most of our conversation during this negotiation was some broken-record repeat of: “Oh, sorry, but, could you check train 23 again? On Tuesday? Yes, Tuesday? <wait 3 minutes> Oh, I meant first-class. Sorry. <wait 2 minutes> Oh, how do you tell if the seats are together again? <cranes neck to look inside metal bars of window>”.

Regardless, it did get sorted out, and the seats were totally fine. How this world holds together sometimes, I do not know.

The journey itself was mostly pleasant, but with a side of mild disappointment salad. I think I was hoping to see a bit more pretty stuff as we went, but the windows were dirty and dusty, so you couldn’t see a whole lot. The train was comfortable enough, but quarters were a little close, and there was some not-friendly jostling for places to put your luggage with the local folks, and accompanying mild glares. All in all, the trip was harmless, with occasionally nice (blurry) sights, and had no problems, but it wasn’t really a highlight.

And then: Bangkok. This time we stayed in a designer-y hostel that has some private rooms with private baths available, and it was actually perfect: clean, modern, fun, and directly adjoining the Skytrain. (Lub.d Siam Square, $66 per night.) Because we’d been traveling a lot, and we were still going to be traveling a lot more, we resolved to take it easy and just enjoy the day (Success Quotient: 4d / Mild).

The first thing we did, and probably my highlight of the day, was to go to the OTK Market. The market (real name is Aw Taw Kaw / Or Tor Kor, depending on phonic preferences) is a large, sort-of-high-end open air fresh market, and is reputed to be the nicest market in Bangkok, and where restaurant chefs shop for their daily haul. What I can tell you is that it was awesome: super clean, super fresh, amazing produce, and amazing food court. I think the best touchpoint I can provide is that it is like a much, much larger, more serious Ferry Building Farmer’s Market with Asian produce and foods. Rad.

So, that was fun. Then, in no particular order, we went back to Ruen Nuad for an amazing $5 massage, went to a not-so-great Museum of the Multimedia Here Is What It Means To Be Thai Except We Sorta Tapered Off Sorry, and then watched the Royal Wedding at the hostel bar. Then, Pager had the brilliant idea that we should go to a movie, since it would be relaxing, A, and B, because Bangkok has crazy-insane high end VIP movie theaters that have bars, private lounges, crazy recliner seats, and let you eat crazy food and noodles while watching the film.

Done! We had the crazy free green cocktail and mega-reclined to the smooth stylings of Source Code. And that’s how Bangkok leaves you feeling: weird.

( See all Bangkok redux photos. )

The Sundowner Report, Episode 1

Inaugurating a maybe occasional feature, in which we talk at you, watch the resulting video, and post it in spite of the fact that it’s excruciating to watch yourself on video. Page would like it known that she is sending away for a new voice and head. Also that she has never been to either Nantucket or Manchester, England. Anyway: Coming to you not-live, from Chiang Mai, Thailand!

Nairobi, week 1!

Oh, blogging. Here is our account of our trip, limping along on its way back to Bangkok, and meanwhile we are in Nairobi, settling in, learning the ropes, consorting with entirely different elephants. I’m going to break chronology again and describe our first week in Nairobi.

(We did not take this picture.)

So, we’re here, on the fifth continent either of us has ever visited. It’s exciting! And entertaining and jarring in the way that new places often are: some things are so different, and of course many things are familiar, just your basic Big Global City attributes.

I wish the first thoughts that came to mind when trying to describe what Nairobi is like weren’t about safety. But, they are. I think, though, that that’s mostly due to advance press. In our admittedly limited experience, even people who live in and enjoy Nairobi usually lead off any discussion of the city with a mention of its unflattering sobriquet “Nairobbery.” Crime rates here are high, and foreigners are easy targets for pickpocketing and mugging. Having been warned about this, we weren’t sure what to expect, and to some extent we still aren’t. Every time we try a new thing, that experience helps orient us and build confidence for the next time, but all the warnings we’ve received make even small events like going to the grocery store feel kind of epic. We can try to follow instructions – walk only on busy roads, and only in the daytime; keep the phone numbers of cab companies you trust; keep close track of your belongings at all times – while trying not to be too limited by the need for these sensible precautions. But it’s difficult to know when we’re being too cautious and when we’re not being cautious enough.

Our initial landing has been substantially eased by the estimable Nat, an American expat who’s the head of the company Kevin is working for. On the Friday night that we arrived, he sent a taxi to the airport to get us and take us to the hotel he’d recommended. On Saturday morning, another cab arrived — preceded by a text from Nat, saying “your cab will be blue” — to take us to the rental apartments he’d arranged for us to check out. He made restaurant recommendations. In addition to being CEO of a complex and thriving business, he volunteered to serve as our temporary concierge.

And in truth, without this help I think we would have felt pretty overwhelmed. Even as it was, I think we felt pretty overwhelmed. But we’re doing our best to be patient with ourselves.

First week — the good: Sunday visits to the elephant orphanage and
giraffe center, where we watch BABY ELEPHANTS play and feed giraffes handfuls of kibble. (Pictures coming.) We each start work, and people are nice and helpful, as well as smart about and committed to their work. We’re working in separate companies that happen to share a building. As convenient as that sounded from 10,000 miles away, it feels like a lifesaver now that we’re here. We have some tasty Indian and Ethiopian meals. There’s a happy hour out at a bar on Friday, and we drink local beer and meet a bunch of people. The city is lush and green, full of trees, plus hibiscus and bougainvillea and lots of flowering bushes and trees we don’t yet know the names of. We’re getting lots of sleep, and the presence of the hotel gym is a huge boost to the Rockwell Stability Index.

First week — the speed bumps: Kevin has a cold and feels crappy. The apartment we decide we want is no longer available. There’s another one available in the same building, but not for another week. Debates about what to do in the meantime feel weirdly high-stakes and fraught. Transportation is a constant negotiation – as much as we’re officially reconciled to being lightly fleeced by the local cab drivers, it doesn’t feel great. Considering the distances covered, taxis are expensive, and the roads are rutted, dusty and hazy with black petrol smoke. You know that thing when you’re in a place where the air quality isn’t great, and there are faint cruddy rings around your nostrils at the end of the day? That’s happening. As we have been warned, traffic is formidable — not enough roads to meet demand, those roads that there are two-lane and unpaved, without traffic lights — and obviously dangerous. Work-wise, we each feel fairly stressed-out — are we on the right track, is this donation of our time helpful to the world? And, as much as it’s prudent to be constantly alert to our safety, it also makes us feel like jerks. It’s all natural settling-in stuff, but we’re each emotional and tense.

First week — points of interest: The biggest bill in local currency is 1000 Kenyan Shillings, or about $12. It’s a predominantly cash economy, so making a deposit on an apartment, say, requires a breadbox full of bills. We do frequent pilgrimages to the nearest ATM, stockpiling. Also, there are all these road blocks around our hotel, which we had initially taken for a standard security measure. But then, what was that building down the road with the extremely serious wall and even more serious razor wire, and the sign saying “photography forbidden”? Eventually we learned: it’s the Israeli embassy. Ohhhh. Much becomes clear.

Thanks for tuning in with us! We miss you guys. We’ll circle back soon with retrospective reports on Thai night trains, Malaysian public-service announcements, and the world’s best chicken wing. FOR REAL.

Normal Fruit and Luxury Fruit

After being in SE Asia for a few weeks, I’ve learned something interesting: all fruit is created equal, but some fruit is more equal than others.

By that, what I mean is that in SE Asia, there (as far as I can tell) are two classes of fruit: fruit, and luxury fruit. Fruit is composed of just about what you would expect: all the fruits you have heard of, and many other types of tropical fruit that we don’t get in the states much. Pineapple, mango, starfruit, orange, green orange, papaya, apple, rose apple, dragonfruit, coconut are all examples of “normal” fruit.

You’ll see normal fruit all over the place: market stalls, street vendors, etc. Particularly, you’ll see normal fruit at fruit shake vendors, who just have a little stand with a blender, ice, and racks of fresh fruit, and the’ll juice-slash-blend whatever you want to order. (Yum.)

But then, there’s Luxury Fruit.

Luxury fruit includes durian, mangosteen, jackfruit, and often lychee. Luxury fruit is kept separate from the normal fruit. You will see street-side vendors selling these fruits, but often the vendor will be dedicated to just one of these fruits: just selling durian, or just selling mangosteen. If they sell multiple types, the “luxury” fruit will be kept separate from the rest of the fruit, usually in its own reverent pyramid. You’ll never seen a fruit shake vendor with any of these fruits.

So why the separation? Well, it’s probably pretty obvious: cost. The luxury fruits cost a lot more, perhaps 5x-10x as much as the normal fruit. (I’ll try to do some quantitative analysis next time I’m lugging a 20kg bag and pouring sweat down onto the sidewalk.) The normal fruits have different costs, but as far as something like a fruit shake go, they basically have one cost: pretty cheap.

The other reason for separation, I think (which relates to cost) is seasonality and freshness. The class of luxury fruits spoil very quickly, I believe, and fresh vs. not-fresh ones are tremendously different. So it makes sense to dedicate your business to these products.

This second reason is also the reason why you almost never see any of these fruits in the US (with the occasional exception of lychee).

And this has been your extremely concise introduction to the Periodic Table of Luxury Fruit.

Does Chiang Mai suck?

If you’ve ever planned an extended trip around southeast Asia, you may know that Lonely Planet’s “Southeast Asia on a Shoestring” offers several proposed itineraries. One focuses on beaches, another on the former spice-trade route around Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore – and then there’s what they call the traditional southeast Asian tour, starting in Bangkok, wending east through Cambodia and then taking Vietnam from the bottom to the top, flying west into Laos and circling back south through Chiang Mai to Bangkok, before flying further south to either Malaysia or Singapore. This latter course is more or less the one we followed.

Sometimes we’d feel self-conscious about traveling by the book – and it’s true that we did occasionally see some white faces in a new city that we’d already glimpsed in a previous one. But it saved us a lot of research and planning time, and when we wanted to deviate, of course, we did.

Our first port of call – and first deviation from the traditional route — was the gorgeous, mosquito-replete isle of Ko Phi Phi, off the west coast of south-central Thailand. We were just getting our legs under us at that point, working through jet lag and figuring out how to say hello and thank you in Thai. We made limited conversation with the hotel staff, all of whom seemed to work six 16-hour days a week. Our favorite was Pai, a sort of morose waiter guy. We’d sit looking out at the water before dinner, and he would shuffle over like Eeyore, if Eeyore could carry a tray of beers. We did not have a lot of shared language in common, so it was hard to get to know him very well. (Added to the fact that we were just two in a constant revolving door of foreign hotel guests arriving on his shore, and probably not of great individual interest to him.) But we did manage to learn that yes, he worked a lot. And that for travel in Thailand, he recommended visiting the north: Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai. So, two votes for Chiang Mai (and surrounds).

Fast forward a couple of weeks, and we’re in Luang Prabang, assessing our options. Turns out there’s a daily LP—>Chiang Mai flight on a smallish prop plane belonging to Laos Airlines, which Lonely Planet endorses as having “a rapidly improving safety record.” I gave myself a stern talking-to and climbed aboard. (And it was fine, obviously, as it always is, but a phobia is as intransigent as a two-year-old, and requires a lot of cajoling and discipline.)

Annnnd — our first day in Chiang Mai was not a huge success. The city had been described to us as the cultural heart of Thailand, with an old walled city center and a good university. But upon arrival it seemed kind of like an endless strip mall with temples, and chockablock with advertisements for things to do outside Chiang Mai. Economically, the city seemed oriented around helping tourists go bungee jumping. Or pay for sex. All the sex tourists we had been told to expect but ultimately not encountered in Phnom Penh — possibly due to Khmer New Year— were out in force in Chiang Mai, flirting creepily with dressed-up Thai ladies in the bars and massage parlors that exist for this purpose. I’d rather that sex commerce be legal and regulated than clandestine, so officially all this should be fine with me, but these particular examples of the phenomenon felt gross.

Plus, I stupidly tripped on some obstacle-course feature of the sidewalk and twisted my ankle, painfully though not seriously. I was still able to walk, but being minorly injured took most outdoorsy activities off the table.

We did have some delicious khao soy and some tasty curries that day, and located the train station and procured second-class tickets on a night train to Bangkok for later in the week. After these modest successes, though, we got some beers and — with apologies to Pai — debated whether we should leave early.

However, as you may have guessed, matters improved. And, having managed to overcome our bad attitudes and enjoy Chiang Mai, I think we developed extra affection for it. Chiang Mai was our underdog, falling in the late middle of our nomadic April, and when we found things to love it felt like we and the city had achieved a mutual triumph.

So, here’s what to do in Chiang Mai, if you ever happen to be a) there and b) us.

Visit temples. Really! We almost didn’t get it up to visit many temples in Chiang Mai, having seen our fair share over the previous couple of weeks. But the ones we visited in Chiang Mai were interesting and unusual, and among our favorites of the trip. I think this may be part of the “cultural heart of Thailand” thing we failed to notice initially. Gorgeous murals, a beautiful teak-and-gilt temple that was one of the most beautiful we’d ever seen, and the stupifyingly huge, 600-year-old stupa of Wat Chedi Luang. The stupa was once the tallest building in the Lanna kingdom, and has a wonderful palpable eerie energy.

Take songthaew. Taxis in Chiang Mai are savvy about overcharging tourists, and tuk-tuks are fine but not really up to the traffic and scope of the city. Plus they’re not much cheaper. Enter the songthaew, basically a covered pickup truck with benches in the back – they’re cheap, they’re everywhere, and locals actually take them. And you can watch the world go by out the back of the truck. Really really fun.

Find the local eating establishment with the least pleasant ambience and eat there. While in Chiang Mai Kevin and I talked about our respective traveling strengths and weaknesses. I would say that my strengths are a decent knack for languages and for the pidgin-and-miming communication that kicks in when language runs out; and a facility for tasks related to planning and organizing. My weaknesses are significant: I am anxious in the face of the unknown and often assume that things will go wrong; I get shy at all the wrong moments and hate bargaining; I have a tendency to want to throw money at all problems; and I want stuff to be cute.

All of which is to say: When in Thailand, do not let me pick your restaurant. I had one of the best meals of my life in one of the least attractive settings: a humid, windowless, semi-underground concrete food court in the Warorot market. At one point one of the exceedingly nice Thai cook ladies came over and took one of my forks, gave it a cursory wipe with a sodden rag, and handed it to another customer. But the food was just transcendently fantastic, and I’m so glad I didn’t miss it. (So maybe there is one more strength to add to my list: I am tolerant of mystery meats, and not overly concerned about hygiene.)

Anyway, here are all of our pictures of Chiang Mai, culminating abruptly in our visit to this very food court.

P.S. What are Kevin’s strengths and weaknesses, you ask? Well. I would list his strengths as: A big supply of dogged persistence in the face of obstacles, which often makes the difference between having an awesome new experience and missing it. A chivalrous generosity to his travel partner, whether in the form of offering to carry her extra stuff or willingness to ask for directions, make restaurant bookings and bargain about fares, despite the fact that it’s harder for him to understand what people are saying. A contagious excitement and appetite for new experiences, particularly those that relate to food. And an openness to being moved by things, whether beautiful or awful. Weaknesses: Not very organization-minded and inclined to leave his dirty clothes on the floor; sometimes too attached to a particular vision of how things might go and thus inflexible when the need for a change of plan arises; reluctant to snack if the snack options are less than spectacular; and – this becomes problematic more often than you’d think – totally intolerant of bath gel. It’s soap or nothing, baby, and that’s just the way it is. On the whole, though, I think you can tell that I’m getting the good end of this deal.

So today I rode on an elephant's neck, NBD

We couldn’t decide whether to schedule an elephant ride. What if it seemed exploitative, or just tacky?

Obviously, we went for it. There’s a sustainable-tourism outfit in Luang Prabang that centers around a sanctuary for former logging elephants, so we went out there. The elephants seemed to be treated very affectionately, and we learned lots of interesting facts: elephants can carry almost half their body weight; they eat hundreds of pounds of food and drink dozens of gallons of water a day; they gestate for about two years and elephant calves are milk-dependent for three years after birth! We also got to view a comparison poster contrasting Asian and African elephants — apparently Asian elephants are “wrinkly” and African elephants are “very wrinkly.” We’ll report back.

The guides kept suggesting that, in addition to the standard thing of riding in a little basket tied to the elephant’s back, we could also climb down to the elephant’s neck, which is usually where the guide, or mahout, sits. We tried to convey how very appreciative we were of this opportunity while politely refusing. This approach… was not successful.

I would say that sitting on an elephant’s neck is exhilarating, somewhat terrifying, and a fantastic inner-thigh workout.

Also, in a group of basically docile animals, our elephant was mutinous and badly behaved. Everybody else would be walking politely in a line and our elephant would try to overtake on the narrow path, or swing abruptly over to some especially delicious-looking bushes and start ripping them apart with her trunk and eating them. This was occasionally alarming but also pretty adorable.

Post-ride, we got to hang out with the elephants and feed them. Elephants have poor eyesight but fantastic sense of smell, and they knew exactly where the bananas were at all times. We’d stand there and these huge fleshy hoses would rear toward us, and we’d hold out an unpeeled banana or even several, and they would snorf them up with the wet toothless mouths at the ends of their trunks, deposit them in their actual mouths, and then immediately reextend the trunks for more food. MORE FOOD NOW! I felt a strong urge to hug them, but I mastered myself.

In the post-game recap over some Beers Laos, we got all grandiose about Luang Prabang, envisioning coming back with our hypothetical 10-year-olds some years hence. Who knows, but it’s definitely high on the list of places to return.

Paradise Laos'd

Let’s begin with the most important thing: Laos puns.

Regardless of whether you pronounce Laos to rhyme with the Yao in Yao Ming, or to rhyme with Taos as in Taos, New Mexico, Laos really lends itself to a punny blog-post title. But I’m not sure I’m doing justice to this opportunity. The problem is not just my limited pun-imagination, but also the apparent lack of consensus on proper pronunciation. “Laos-d and clear” only really works if Laos rhymes with Yao; if, instead, Laos rhymes with Taos, “All Laos’d up” might be a better way to go. Unfortunately, we kept getting conflicting reports on which was correct. And also neither of my sample puns makes any sense. So the rather poor Paradise Laos’d it is, but if you guys think of some greater Laos pun, please chime in.

As you may have guessed, we loved Laos, at least what we saw of it. We were not in the country that long — only three nights in Luang Prabang — and we almost didn’t make it at all, because our schedule was feeling tight. But luckily my former San Francisco roommate, Sabrina, had traveled extensively in southeast Asia, and said Laos had been her favorite destination. Thank goodness we were in possession of her recommendation, because LAOS IS AWESOME.

Or at the very least, Luang Prabang is awesome. Most tourists stay in the old town, which is on a peninsula created by the meeting of the Mekong and Mae Kok rivers*, and which feels like Martha’s Vineyard in the jungle, except with approximately one temple for every three non-temple buildings. It’s sleepy and mostly pedestrian, with picket fences and low-key colonial architecture (so, cute n’ breezy two- and three-story brick and clapboard buildings, rather than the magisterial We Will Rock You form that colonial architecture sometimes takes). There are businesses that cater exclusively to tourists, but they’re right alongside the ones that cater mainly to locals. There aren’t any big hotels or chain businesses or tour buses pulling up. After the bustle of Hanoi, crossing the street in Luang Prabang felt like crossing my bedroom.

Every night on the quiet, cafe-dotted main drag of the old town, there’s a night market — featuring mostly clothing and jewelry and wood carvings and paintings and stuff, and patronized mostly by tourists. But there was this weird differentiating factor separating this market from others of its type: I actually wanted to buy things. The things I would have picked up for you guys if there’d been space in my bag! Awesome cloth handbags with wonderful embroidery and pom poms, beautiful silk things, cute little slippers with bells for all your babies, and embroidered skirts for your daughters. I’m not doing justice with my description — I guess the best I can come up with is that I think Anna Sui has been to this region a time or two. And that the color combinations remind me of those you see in images of Tibet, but leavened with some kind of linen-y neutrals? Anyway, I wanted to mow through the place souvenir-shopping, but for space reasons I refrained.

Instead we drank coffee in sidewalk cafes, drank beers at picnic tables overlooking the rivers, took sweaty walks, talked to a cute young monk who wanted to practice his English, tried lots of Laotian food — and, oh yeah, rode an elephant. More on that in a sec.

For now, though, an emphatic tourist bulletin: Laos, you’ll love it! Heartily endorsed. But don’t take my word for it — here are all of our Luang Prabang pictures. (Duh-nuh-DUN!)

* I know, I know, Mae Kok. Laos is brutal in its expectation that you will not make juvenile jokes about the names of things. Don’t even get me started on Mt. Phousi.


You guys, I have to confess a thing. Which is: In the time-honored tradition of blogs everywhere, our blog is behind. We have recently gotten safely to Nairobi, while our blog is still maybe in Vietnam.

This delay owes partly to some spotty internet connections, but mostly to the pace of our first month. We kept arriving in each new place without having anything for our next destination booked, and so most of our internet time was spent on onward arrangements. Consequently, we have stored up anecdotes from Laos and Thailand: Part 2: This Time It’s Personal to share with you guys! As well as reports from Malaysia and Singapore, which will consist almost entirely of food photos.

But I wanted to send up a “we made it!” flare. A mere 19 hours of travel, and we swapped swanky Singapore for a simple but nice hotel in Nairobi, where we have a window with a view of a field. Today we looked at some prospective rental apartments, had Indian food for lunch, got lost walking around looking for a shopping center (which you are NOT supposed to do, safety-wise, but nothing sinister befell us this time), and then triumphantly and with deep relief found said shopping center and made use of it for our water/newspaper/cash withdrawal/city map/cookie-purchase needs. Despite this modest slate of accomplishments I feel proud and tired, as though I had done a strenuous workout and then done my taxes with itemized expenses.

Preliminary observations:

  • It is so deliciously cool here after a month in southeast Asia. Which is to say it’s like 80 degrees. I can almost imagine wearing socks and liking it.
  • After a month on the Kevin Gibbs southeast Asian chili sauce express, I tried my jeans on today. It’s a squeeze, but they zip. So, I mean, where would I be without all those hour-long walks in 96-degree heat, right? Jeansless, that’s where.
  • It’s Swahili time! I am doing some Rosetta Stone, which means I am beginning with useful phrases like “boy under plane” and “girl with socks.” For those of you unfamiliar with the language, I can report that most of the nouns seem to begin with M or N, and most of the verbs seem to begin with A. Other than that, it’s all mvulana chini ya ndege,* dudes.
  • Each taxi we take seems to have one working seatbelt.
  • On the way home from the shopping we passed a sign for something like the Kenya Prisons Supplies Center — which, if we read the sign correctly, is open to the public? Like a showroom for incarceration aids? If we make it there, we definitely will let you know.

* Yep. “Boy under plane.”

"No Promises"

I kept hearing this song on the radio in Vietnam, both on stations that mostly played songs in English and on stations that otherwise didn’t seem to play songs in English. I was totally tickled by its borderline nonsensical generic-ballad lyrics, and assumed I was experiencing some Asian boy-band phenomenon. Like:

“I don’t wanna run away,
You’re the one I need tonight.
No promises.
Baby — now I need to hold you tight.
I just wanna die in your arms…

I don’t wanna run away,
I don’t wanna be alone.
No promises.
Baby, now I need to hold you tight, now and forever my love.”

... and, listening, I figured, presumably no one involved in the making of this song is solid on the meaning of “no promises,” right? Like, if I am the only one you want and you want to be with me forever and it is your preference to die in my arms, I think we may be entering commitment territory. I pictured some lithe dudes with asymmetrical haircuts, soulfully crooning lyrics that were written by a computer program.

But then with a free moment I looked it up. And no! The person who is not solid on what “promises” means is actually English pop sensation Shayne Ward. (Although — why I am wasting my time on this is anyone’s guess — according to Wikipedia the song is originally by some dude Bryan Rice; Shayne Ward is merely covering it. And with a classic like this, who can blame him.)

I mean, the brass cojones of this song. “You’re the only one I want — but if by some chance I DON’T drop dead in the midst of this evening’s passionate lovemaking, you know. No promises.”

Anyway this guy and his shifty overtures are huge in Vietnam. And the video is a masterpiece of its genre. What is that girl wearing?