Hi Everyone! Thanks for all the contributions to the discussion about our next president, and about that whole process. Today is (was?) “Super Tuesday,” and as for us we’re pulling for Obama. We’ll be on a train for the next few days, though, so we’ll remain in suspense about the results…. Let’s keep discussing this (barring complete burnout), and in the meantime check out Aaron’s recent post. (Derry is Aaron’s dad.)

Also, people have expressed some curiosity as to just who is actually writing these posts. So we wrote a mini-post, Who’s writing this stuff, to explain how we do it.

Well we’re back in Bangkok one last time, getting ready to take the train (three days and two nights) to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on our way to the Philippines.

We have enjoyed Thailand thoroughly, and spent a relaxing week walking and biking around 14th century ruins of the ancient royal cities of Ayutthaya and Sukhothai. The bike gods finally smiled on us with fully functional (though heavy) Chinese-made “Crocodiles”:

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While it is easy to OD on temples and statues of Buddha, this one at Ayutthaya is unique and one of the most highly revered in Thailand, due to the rare and unplanned merger of the Buddha and nature. Here is the Buddha in his “Ent” manifestation:

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One way for Buddhists here to demonstrate reverence and receive merit is to apply little squares of gold leaf to Buddha images. But this one is so huge (over 60 feet tall) that people can only reach his fingernails:

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The past few weeks found us needing to recharge our batteries after our frenetic trip to Vietnam. Our ideal travel ratio of GOING, DOING, and BEING, needed some major fine-tuning: too much GOING and DOING, and not enough BEING. So we settled down in Luang Prabang, Laos for a week before heading UP the Mekong River to the Thai border. Luang Prabang is everything that Hanoi is not. It is a small, ancient royal city that is now a World Heritage site. The danger of this honor is that it will quickly be turned into a Museum caricature of itself. But for now, it is clean and quiet (with an actual 11:00 PM curfew) and surrounded by green mountains. It is filled with elaborately decorated wats and the saffron-robed Buddhist monks, not all of them paying full attention:

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There is also a strong French feeling: streets are actually called “Rue”, and the food (much of it French) and coffee (yippie!) are excellent. One of the most interesting local signature dishes is Mekong River seaweed, which is spread out and dried to a crisp in the sun and sprinkled with sesame seeds. It is the greenish item on this plate of Lao hors d’oeuvres:

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It is really delicious, but we had to work hard to not think of its source. In the evening Hmong women come into town to sell beautiful crafts: the bolts of silk woven with silver and gold threads were breathtaking.

But as is true everywhere, there is a dark side to this vignette: the communist government, which seems to exist behind the scenes only (unlike in Hanoi, there were very few flags, hammer and sickle emblems, soldiers, or propaganda posters on public display) is — still!! — hunting down and killing stray Hmong resistance fighters left over from the 1970’s when the Pathet Lao communists succeeded in taking over Laos. We read of incidents of Hmong people nervously emerging from the jungle to try to “surrender,” after thirty years of hiding, only to be picked off by armed government troops. Ohhhh, humans… 😦

The Mekong River runs through Luang Prabang, and so we decided to take a “short cut” back to Thailand, up this grand river. Old cargo boats refitted with benches make their way back and forth between Luang Prabang and the Thai border. It is a two day trip, ten hours each day, and requires enduring sitting on amazingly uncomfortable benches. (Were they designed by the Spanish Inquisition? or perhaps the communist government?)

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Here is Kate being outwardly stoic but inwardly screaming.

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But it was worth it, and in retrospect our recovered bottoms would agree. The ochre-colored Mekong flowed past small fishing villages and the boat stopped every once in a while to let a passenger off. The whole village would often gather on the rocky shore to wave, gawk, or sell snacks (caramel coated squid chips are very popular here).

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Most of the time the landscape was mountainous and appeared uninhabited. But on occasion we would see human activity, even though there was no apparent town or village. These shy monks were washing their robes at the river edge, but ran for the bushes as the boat passed by. Great saffron undies!

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When we got back to Thailand we decided that we needed even more battery recharging. So we settled in for a week in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city. We had been together non-stop since the middle of October and we needed to “miss” each other some. So we took up difference residences and separately enjoyed the food and pace of the city. Derry enjoyed the surfeit of wats in the moat-ringed old city. There are differences in the decorative styles in the north, and most obvious are the Nagas (serpents) that inhabit the temple roofs, the entries, the altar, and even the mouths of other Nagas.

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So, now we have visited three countries of South East Asia. We’ve learned a lot and hopefully we’ll be able to articulate more of it than just what we’ve shared with you so far. But for now, what stands out is how different the people seem to be in each country. Thai people have an exuberance and openess, matched by their willingness to help confused travelers like us, and their broad, uncalculating, and freely given smiles. We felt very welcome indeed, no matter where we went.

The Vietnamese on the other hand seemed to always be calculating, and their smiles were given or withheld according to the potential profit at hand. And in the countryside the feeling of resentment by the local people toward tourists biking through their villages, and along their rice paddies, was palpable. It made both of us self-conscious and uncomfortable. Was this feeling heightened when a little boy threw a stone at a smiling and waving Kate as she pedalled by? Hmm, perhaps. But in truth we think we might well feel the same if the roles were reversed. After all, who wants to be seen as a quaint curiosity when your life is really one of hard work and poverty?

And lastly, Lao people seemed to fall somewhere in the middle. Their smiles were more tentative, and it was harder to “read” their attitudes toward visitors. They seemed more self-contained, pleasant but not particularly out-going. Of course a big caveat is required in making these observations: our experiences have been very limited, and not everyone in any culture is the same. But these felt differences are fascinating to us, and a big part of the joy in “learning as we go.”

Well, here we go to get on our train, to fall asleep in one country and wake up in another… how exciting! What will we learn in Malaysia (though we’ll only be there for two days), what will we learn in the Philippines? Stay tuned… With love, Derry and Kate

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