Saturday, October 28, 2006

Back in HCM...awaiting my plane ride from hell

I'm back in Ho Chi Minh city -- until tomorrow evening, when I begin 3 back-to-back flights that will transport me from HCM to Hong Kong to Johannesberg with Cape Town being my final destination.

I figured I would get it all out of the way at once, though I'm sure it will be hellish.

I'll be sad to leave Asia. There is an easy comfort here for me. Africa will be a bigger challenge -- I will be the sore thumb. But that's okay (the exterior appearance will be in concert with the interior feeling).

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Something wonderful, something synchronistic

I ran into a fellow Tibet traveler in Vientiane -- we ended up checking the same hotel without having much planned it! We exchanged some email prior but didn't believe we would be in the same place at the same time as we were coming from opposite directions and on different time tables. Later, I intercepted him on the street.

It's synchronistic. (Yes, there are plenty enough hotels in Vientiane to make this feel unusual and special.)

That I was in Laos at all on this trip was unexpected to myself. That I would rush from southern Laos to the capital because as I was unable to obtain information about (nor reservation for) the flight I needed from Vientiane to Ho Chi Minh for a particular date for my onward flights to South Africa, was decided the night prior.

Today we had good fun, a hot day walking all around Vientiane (over 15km!) and some boredom too tonight because it is such a sleepy town that we couldn't even find a bookstore open at 7pm!

I think we couldn't have planned it better.

The rankings

DISCLAIMER: This is my personal opinion based on 3 weeks of travel in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. As always, I reserve the right to change my opinion!!!

NOTE: These rankings don't include Thailand, because if you've never visited SE Asia, you must first go to Thailand. It's a gorgeous country, the tourist infrastructure is well developed, plenty enough people speak English (for those English-speaking readers), and the prices are very, very reasonable due to competition. Also, Myanmar is not included in this ranking because I haven't yet visited. It's in my future plans, so I'll fill you in on that in a future year.

1 = top

Commentary: Laos is the most undeveloped and therefore the most natural.

1=Cambodia / Phnom Penh
2=Vietnam / Ho Chi Minh City
3=Laos / Vientiane
Commentary: PP slightly edges out HCMC by a smidge. PP and HCMC are alive and vibrant! HCMC has a lively arts scene and beautiful people (particularly the women), but there are too many motos, much polution and a lot of hassle from the touts. PP is less touristy and tourist places are not all concentrated in one area -- a plus in my book. Vientiane is more like a small town, many roads and sidewalks even in the central part of town are unpaved. Consequently, Vientiane is a lot less poluted and a lot quieter.

Commentary: There is very little traditional Vietnamese architecture in Vietnam -- much of this was wiped out by the French colonialists and the communists who believed that keeping tradition was backward thinking. Cambodia has plenty of fabulous, fanciful architecture, and even modern buildings retain elements of Khmer design. Laos has more traditional flavor than Vietnam, but being such a poor country the buildings are relatively few.

unranked= Laos
Commentary: For these 3 countries, nothing compares to Angkor Wat. The Laos temples are not particularly special and the Vietnamese temples are few and far between, relics of a pre-communist era.

Commentary: There's no contest here, Vietnamese food rocks! But Cambodian food is a close second, the influence of India (which lasted for over 1000 years) means that there are very good curries to be found here, and then there's clay pot, and you already know how I feel about that!
Laotian food doesn't compare (it quite often ends up being bad food named after Thai or Vietnamese dishes but not necessarily resembling them!)

Commentary: Vietnamese accommodations are overpriced. Laos can be very cheap, but the 'upscale' accomodations are overpriced for what they are. Cambodian accommodations were cheap and very, very clean!

Commentary: Vietnam requires advance purchase from outside the country.

Commentary: The Vietnamese touts are by far the worse, even sometimes blocking your way so you can't walk if you refuse to take their moto or tuk-tuk. Laos is so laid back, generally one 'no thank you' suffices.

Commentary: Not an attribute I consider extremely essential (when people want to communicate despite different languages they find a way!), so this does not figure into my overall ranking. Both Vietnam and Cambodia have plenty of English-speaking people in the major cities, slightly more in Vietnam. (Of course, sometimes when they are touts, you wish they didn't speak English!) The children vendors in Cambodia are amazing, they can converse in English quite well at 6 or 7 years of age! I didn't see so many children vendors in Vietnam.

Commentary: Vietnam can be overpriced for what you get, for example, there are a lot of cheap, bogus tours around. Laos can be supercheap but anything nice is overpriced.

Commentary: I'm glad I visited all these places to get a beginning of a sense, but I liked Cambodia the most! If someone told me I would have come to this conclusion before I went, I wouldn't have believed the person!

My future travel plans include another visit to Angkor Wat and a visit to Myanmar (future as in a future year). I'll keep you posted!

Laos is the epitome of relaxation II

...but frankly it's a little too relaxed for me right now -- what with 4-hour bus rides having turned into 8 because something goopy stored in a plastic jug on the top of the bus for cargo spilled and they decided to wipe the bus down in the middle of the trip with toilet paper; also one hotel receptionist having quoted half the rate the hotel clerk the next day demanded, and I'm expected to pay that double rate, but they cannot wake up and bring the person who quoted me the rate when I am trying to leave early the next morning...

Well, you get the picture. (But, there won't be any pictures of Laos on this blog, because I left accidentally left my charger and extra battery in Vietnam, and my camera battery ran out at Angkor Wat, and those of you following my blog know that the my visits to Cambodia and Laos were spontaneous, unplanned.)

Perhaps my expectations were unrealistic because everyone I met along the way who had been to Laos raved about the country, and maybe I am not a fair judge because I was feeling a bit travel weary (I've done a lot of moving around in the last 3 weeks via several long, hot bus rides). And to be fair, a country like Laos (very undeveloped) needs to be traveled slowly and appreciated for its beauty and nature, so the next time I am here (yes, there will be a next time!) I will do just that.

But other things happened here, other wonderful things, and I will write that momentarily, but first, the rankings.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Laos is the epitome of relaxation

And I feel so relaxed, I think I won't write anything else in this post.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Onto Laos

I'm at the internet / phone place awaiting 9am CST, so I can call the airline to again delay my flight to South Africa.

You see, I decided to go to Laos. I'll have about one week to travel through southern Laos and onto Vientiane, the capital.

Yes, this Cambodia and Laos interlude was completely unplanned. But now that I am here and loving it as much as I am, I can't not!


Southeast Asia has some of the same feel as Tibet in the spontaneous reunions, seeing the same travelers in different places, repeatedly, unplanned. So, a shared boat ride one day on the Mekong in Vietnam turns into running into each other at Angkor Wat in Cambodia or a few beers together. We stopped being surprised that we kept seeing each other in different places and knew with the variabilities in travel it couldn't work better even if we had planned it!

Angkor Wat II

Angkor Wat (main temple):

Bas relief (wall carving) in Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat is a forest of temples:

Gate to the city of Angkor Thom:


Ta Prohm:

Angkor Wat was stunning, truly an ornate and lavish place of worship. It's a forested-area the size of Manhattan with many Hindu and Buddhist temples strewn throughout, with a main temple the heighth of Notre Dame, and with forest, swamp, man-made reservoirs and quiet roads.

This place is synonymous with the glory of the Khmer empire, roughly the 9th through 12th centuries. Khmer kings built temples to glorify Gods (in earlier times Hindu, in later times Buddhist) and to bring honor to their parents, families and citizenry. True devotional artistry was inspired and created here, and it's palpable.

At this point in time, because of its current administration, Angkor Wat is just a cultural relic, a religious museum, not a place of worship.

Many of the temples possess moats and academicians confirm that the many vast reservoirs have no practical, agricultural purpose (and so likely built for solely religious reasons). Many buddhas and other gods were defaced as the place was looted for many years mostly by foreigners.

The place reminds me a bit of Tikal in Guatemala, except the buildings are much, much more ornate with every square inch embellished and long walls depicting famous religious stories in bas relief. Also Antoni Gaudi came to mind, and I wonder whether he was at all influenced by Angkor Wat for his masterpiece, the still in-progress Sagrada Famalia.

Trust in the moment

We had a little adventure of a couple days...

Three of us came on the same bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, and when we arrived to SR, there was nearly a riot -- of moto and moto-remorque (motorcycle hauling a covered cart for up to 4 people) drivers and hotel touts trying to get our business. The bus let us off into a smallish pen with waist-high railing enclosing the area. The drivers and touts were yelling, pushing and making incursions into the pen, grabbing us forcefully. A security guard was "helping" us by using a long wooden stick like a whip, aiming at people who were particularly pushy, which riled up the crowd even more. We three had already decided to go together and we were slightly panicked because we had never seen anything like this in Southeast Asia (which is relatively relaxed and non-violent). We wished to re-board the bus but knew could not. So, I pointed to the calmest looking driver and we took him.

His sign read that he would charge literally pennies for the ride, and in conversation he made it clear that it was his aim to get our business to take us to, around and from Angkor Wat (which is slightly out of walking distance from Siem Reap and the place is so vast, as mentioned.)

At the hotel we agreed to go for sunset for a reasonable rate. We parted ways for about an hour then a different driver came to the hotel.

It turned out to be a bait-and-switch. This new driver was trying to charge more and trying to charge 150% of the going rate of the following day. We said no and later I learned that the driver had come back and agreed to the going rate with the guys.

On the day, he did not want to take us anywhere within Angkor Wat, just from the hotel to there and back. He acted like a real jackass, and we didn't want to deal with such negativity and deception, so we paid him for the time he had spent up to that point and we let him go. Of course that meant that we were a pied for the rest of the day (because all the drivers within the grounds of Angkor Wat generally have customers for the day).

This was delightful for us as we enjoyed walking and found the roads to be more quiet and peaceful as were no longer surrounded by the tourist-bus-crowds. We were laughing, joking, talking to people and families. We were learning Cambodian language (seus deey = hello, li hai = goodbye, aw kawn = thank you, onlee one-dahlah = please buy something because I will kept pestering until you do.)

When it came time to go (the place closes promptly at 6pm) we were several kilometers away from the main temple where we knew we could find transportation back to the hotel. And it was thundering loudly at that point and the wind began blowing, it felt like rain was imminent. A few motos passed, trying to charge ridiculous rates but we would have none of it. It looked like we would have a 2-hour walk back in the pitch black dark (there is no night lighting) in the pouring rain.

Once again, I learned that when you are in the right place doing what you are supposed to be doing what you need will come to you. When the place was very empty and our long walk back seemed mandatory, we found a family packing up to go with 2 motos willing to take us back to the main temple for a reasonable rate. The next thing you know we were racing through Angkor Wat at sunset on empty roads with the place almost to ourselves! It was so beautiful and so, so much fun!

So everything was a part of that wonderful day, even bad in the moment changing into something truly memorable.

Urgent, the time is now!

If anyone out there wants to see Angkor Wat with your own eyes, go as soon as possible! Cambodia in general and Siem Reap in particular is going through explosive tourist growth, it's already noticeably more expensive compared with Phnom Penh, and many hotels with $500 per night rooms are going up now which will surely inflate prices and increase the level of hassle.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Angkor Wat: first glimpse at sunset


I'm speechless.

Bakheng Temple in Angkor Wat, "the" vantage point for sunset.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Killing Fields

I thought I was going to blow through Phnom Penh and head right to Siem Reap (as my main purpose in coming to Cambodia was to see Angkor Wat). I chatted briefly with another tourist on the bus about what she was going to do and see in Cambodia and she mentioned seeing the Killing Fields (or the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center where stands a memorial stupa erected to honor the victims of Pol Pot's Ultra Communist Khmer Rouge regime, about 12km outside of PP). When I felt a sharp discomfort in that conversation, I knew I must go see it for myself. Strong feelings (negative or positive) indicate the persuasive and unavoidable -- unavoidable because the issue will continue to reappear and to conjure itself anew until the hard work of honestly facing the issue is completed.

I engaged a moto for the day (only $5USD!). We left at 9am and were caught in the morning rush hour which made for a jarring and muddy ride. Many of the roads not in the center of PP are unpaved and it's rainy season (mostly it rains heavily late at night /early morning).

We wiped out in the slippery, thick clay mud (thankfully no traffic was around and we were not hurt). After we stood up and I realized it was slippery even to walk, I could not be mad at the driver. I had my second of 4 showers of the day at the home of someone who lived nearby which consisted of scooping with a plastic pot (likely rain) water out of a barrel at the side of the house while I was fully clothed (I had to clean my clothes too so that was the best way).

I got to Choeung Ek during a relative lull. That was good because I really needed to be by myself. I sobbed.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Sometimes traveling is like eating crab --

especially when it is Cambodian crab clay pot.

You have to bite through the shells to suck the sweet succulent meat that melts in your mouth like perfection.

You cannot proceed with complete abandon otherwise you may cut your mouth or lip, and inevitably some of the shells will invade so sometimes you'll have crunchy crab or you must spit out the parts you don't want.

And the monetary cost will be ridiculously cheap and the experience will be invaluable, irreplacable!

Cambodia: strong positives, strong negatives

Phnom Penh is a feast for the eyes -- I'm swooning.

Traditional Khmer architecture and ornamentation is everywhere (much more visible and present than traditional Vietnamese architecture in Vietnam). Khmer design is intricately textured and carved -- with pagodas and steeples, single or in clusters, and roofs corners with stylistically curled, diminishing ends (like the turned-up ends of a French moustache -- or Grinch-like). By night (at least), I see some similarities to Thai architecture. I can't wait to see Phnom Penh in the vibrant light of day!

In preparation for my travels, even though then I wanted to see Angkor Wat then as now, I excluded Cambodia from my plans because I felt leary about entering into the presense of evil (of the Khmer Rouge). Evil does not just dissipate/disappear ("energy is neither created nor destroyed"). And no one has in any way been held accountable for the ferocious atrocities ("the killing fields," etc.) inflicted by Cambodians on Cambodians.

For me that is one chapter of modern history I don't understand.

I understand from a factual perspective how Hitler came to power amidst the social and economic forces that contributed to the Holocaust. That doesn't diminish the pure evil that was Hitler, but understanding helps me to integrate the facts. Similarly, I understand the events in Rwanda, how the seeds of conflict were sown in colonialism and more recent conflict between the Tutsis and Hutus (spilling into other borders and at the same time fueled by other countries).

I don't understand why the Khmer Rouge killed 20-30% of their own.

So, one of my major tasks is to obtain a deeper understanding of what happened in Cambodia and why. That and to see Angkor Wat, the world's largest house of worship.


Note: I've delayed my flight to South Africa so that I can spend more time in Cambodia and possibly go to Laos. It looks like I'll have to cut Mozambique completely. But for now I love it here, I don't want to be anywhere else.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Nirvana in a cup

Today I found nirvana in a cup: Vietnamese ice coffee.

Vietnamese ice coffee is coffee with chicory (in the U.S. the prevalent brand is Cafe Du Monde which comes in mustard-yellow containers and is the coffee of choice in the New Orleans area -- the French influence all-round) made with boiling water poured into a manual espresso maker with a screw-down press where the grounds sit -- and sweetened condensed milk over ice. Yum! (And please don't even compare it to the medicinally-sweet Thai iced coffee-lite -- different, inferior ingredients, different, inferior taste.)

I've had this before, in fact my Vietnamese ice coffee days date back to my freshman year in college when my college roommate Doris (Vietnamese of course) would make it in our dorm room (I lived in an upperclass dorm in a suite with a kitchenette)! On it we would study for hours completely wired.

Then, I renewed my obsession with it when I worked for a Native American non-profit organization doing population research and community organizing. The Native American community in Chicago is not too far from the SE Asian refugee community, in the adjacent neighborhoods known as Uptown (in which my family lived in my pre-kindergarten years) and Argyle St. (or "Little Vietnam" -- with Vietnamese and Laotians and Cambodians)... In fact both communities share the fact that they were relocated by the U.S. government -- forcibly from reservations to cities for the Native Americans in the 50's and 60's and following the Vietnam War (or the "American War," as it is known over here) due to people's lives in danger, histories of torture, etc... They also share this history with the de-institutionalized mentally ill (forcibly de-institutionalized in the 60's) who wander the streets of Uptown.

My office was right across the street from a Vietnamese restaurant and we worked together with the SE Asian refugee community (we were trying to organize the many disenfranchised groups into one unified voice), and I ate there almost once daily (as I was a workaholic back then too, it wasn't unusual for me to take all my meals in the office!)

Once when working on a big project with a looming deadline I drank something like 5 of these back-to-back, and so my digestive system did not function properly for one week! I had to institute a moratorium on that coffee for a while.

Well, today I learned that I had actually not had Vietnamese ice coffee until today. The stuff in the U.S. does not compare to what I've found here on the street for $.25USD. It's truly nirvana in a cup on a hot (let me qualify that -- it's hot to me, 28 degrees Celsius but not hot for SE Asia), humid day on a street in Saigon.

And don't get me started on nirvana on a plate!

Saturday, October 14, 2006

More on Hanoi and environs; onto Saigon

Perhaps Hanoi is to Vietnam as New York City is to the United States (?) ...that's probably why I feel easy and comfortable here. (That and to some extent I blend in so I get less hassled by touts and cyclo drivers -- that and I have the 'shaking head and waving hand with minimal eye contact' down pat which makes a verbal reply unnecessary (and thus not inviting more hassle.))

No wonder I like Vietnam! Any country whose main post office via vending machine sells beer gets my vote!

Did I mention that the food is perfection?

Water Puppets

The night before, I went to see the famous Vietnamese water puppets theatre. This unique and lively folk art has been performed on rivers, lakes and ponds since the 1100's (wow!). "Children's" entertainment is not my first choice for a night out, and as those of you who know me well know, I LOATHE corny movies, television shows, pulp fiction -- I DESPISE CORNY ANYTHING, all that cliche and contrived sentimentality -- except for a few 'guilty pleasure' songs from my childhood on my ipod (hee hee). Though a bit skeptical, I went on the advice of a friend with my own open mind and heart (how Vietnam makes me feel).

The water puppets did not disappoint. Moreover, I thoroughly enjoyed the performance and found the stories and songs more than just amusing, it was moving. The music was all live (with a 5-piece band and 2 vocalists) and beautifully performed. I dislike Chinese opera music and other types of traditional, highly falsetto and vibrato Asian music -- except pansori -- so I wasn't expecting to like the music much -- but, this very stylistic music together with the stories was touching, like the celebration song of boys coming back home from graduation and all their glee, pride and longing for home. Other stories showed awe and respect for nature and other animals with plenty of laughter and poking fun at our own human foibles. Though I did not understand the words, I could feel the stories unfold in the textures of the music.

Perfume Pagoda

Yesterday, I went to the Perfume Pagoda, a collection of Buddhist temples which dates back to the late 17th century, about 70 km outside of Hanoi. As my only outing during my Hanoi stay (I did not have time nor a particular inkling to go to Halong Bay, which is the #1 tourist destination for northern Vietnam), and I'm very, very happy I chose the Perfume Pagoda. One temple is in a cave and requires a 2-hour drive from Hanoi, followed by a river boat ride and a 1-hour hike to the top. The heat and humidity of this end-of-autumn monsoon season added to the fatigue and to the "fun" of it, but the hike was not too hard. I hiked up and took the cable car down which was nice for the views.

The place is lovely and fairly well preserved (a lot of Vietnamese cultural and religious relics were destroyed by the French during the period of colonization). The cave was relatively cool in temperature with beams of sunlight breaking through the haze and calm darkness of the cave. The feeling was quiet and meditative. The other tourists were relatively few, so that added to the serene feeling.

A couple of gals and I went for cocktails (at the City View Restaurant, high on the 5th floor of a building overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake) and (a really delicious) dinner afterward! I was the one who had to call it an early night because my friend insomnia has been visiting of late and the 2-4 hours of sleep each night has begun wearing on me.

Onto Siem Reap

I would not hesitate to stay in Hanoi longer, but tomorrow I have a flight to Ho Chi Minh City. (And if my analogy works, I'm guessing HCM is to Vietnam as Los Angelos is to the U.S.) Yes, this is a little rushed, but I'm doing this so that I can see Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia, on this trip. I decided I simply must.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

I feel like a fish in water

The bus ride from Nanning to Hanoi was an easy one and beautiful -- green, lush and with rolling hills. Now in Hanoi, I feel like a fish in water.

I love the frenetic energy of the place! I feel warmed by the Vietnamese full-face smile. The street life charms and welcomes me -- I've become one of the people sitting on tiny plastic stools drinking beer on the corner on a humid night while watching the thousands of motorbikes race past, the street vendors selling their wares, people rushing home from work and restaurants (quite often mom-n-pop places) in unhurried preparation for the night's diners.

Tomorrow I'll either bum around Hanoi or go to Halong Bay. We'll see -- my pace is now one day at a time.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

North Korea claims to have the a-bomb

Samye mission

This is my last day in China. Tomorrow morning I leave for Hanoi by bus (seemed a better option than waiting 2 days for a local train that would run only as far as the border, and I would need to find onward transportation from there. At least by now I have some basic capability with Chinese, and I can buy my own train tickets, a feat for any non-Chinese-speaking traveler, thanks to my Lhasa examinations!)

Unfortunately, there are many things I did in Tibet that I just don't have time to write about. This long list includes visits to Potala Palace, Nam Tso Lake, Tashinlumpo Monastery in Shigatse, Lake Manasavora and monastery, Drepung Monastery in Lhasa, Yumbu Lhakang and Tara Temple.

(Yumbu Lhakang:)

My last topic will be Samye. It's a good story. (And I may try to upload pictures of some of the other trips/sites, but this usually takes hours and hours of time -- alas, it's not very expensive at $.25USD per hour.)

Fortunately, I'm leaving China in a happy way. I've had a couple relaxing nights here in Nanning (thanks in large part to a comfy hotel! plus I found some good street food that reminds me of what I've heard about Vietnam at least in terms of decor (lots of food stalls with low-to-the-ground tables at which the patrons sit on tiny plastic stools) and generally the South is friendlier and more relaxed than the North. (Yes, I'm a Northerner at home but when traveling I prefer the South.))

About my Samye mission

After the calamity of the trip and happy return to Lhasa, we spent a few days resting and rejuvenating, sleeping in, and eating well. Those with whom I spent my days knew that I wanted to go to Samye -- to see the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet and to fulfill a mission.

I had in my possession about 20 photographs taken by a friend of a friend. My friend's friend had tried to mail them (some 3+ years ago) and they were returned by mail. My friend had received them from her friend and had intended to go to Samye to deliver them, but due to unforseen difficulties (see the section On the terrible in a previous entry), asked me to either fulfill the task or find someone who would.

If you had seen these photographs yourself, you would see the affection for his subjects and special care the photographer took and his talent (these were beautiful photos). The photos were taken at Chimpuk a hermitage for female monks, (a number of caves fairly high up in the mountains surrounding Samye, a few hours away from Samye itself and requiring at least an additional day due to the distance and strenuousness of the hike -- according to the guidebooks).

Trip preparations -- everything fell into place

During our Lhasa rest, each day our daily rounds included a stop at the travel agent. We weren't optimistic for a monetary refund, but we wanted some token of their regret, if even saying, "I'm sorry." We naturally fell into a good-cop/bad-cop duo, and I of course was the bad cop (hee hee!) Well, they didn't say sorry, but they did return a modest amount of money, including a per person share of fees paid for the EBC permit which were fairly steep by Tibetan standards and cost of two unused trip days.

This was not the only good that came of our diligence. More notably:

-We met 2 more fellow travelers (for a comfortable total of 4 passengers) for our trip to Samye!
-We met our driver for the third time -- not our first driver for most of the Western Tibet trip, but "our driver" -- the only one who stopped to talk to us out of 16 landcruisers on the hike back to Tingri and the one with whom we rode back to Lhasa. This was our third unplanned meeting, so we knew he was "our driver" in general and for Samye in particular.

So, succinctly we booked a 1-day trip to Samye.


We loved it. We went by landcruiser to the point where we could see Samye from across a wide river. Then, we took a boat which was full of Tibetans and often moved in the direction away from Samye in order to avoid the sandbars (we joked that we were going to back to Lhasa). We jumped off and walked through thick mud and took a basic jeep some ways (again a rough ride, but only for about 20 minutes, and certain passengers managed to grab a catnap.)

When we entered Samye, the energy felt light and cheerful and intentional. Six or seven younger monks were mixing tsampa with yak butter tea on a tarp in the courtyard -- to be made into bricks with a mold and ultimately to become a part of a giant sculpture in the main chapel for a festival in the coming days.

We saw many, many monks and worshipers, some worshiping intently, some chatting lightly, interacting. Other than Jokhang, it seemed to me the most alive place of worship I visited in Tibet.

Samye has 4 levels open to the public and it was the first monastery in Tibet, built in 779, about when, with the help of Padmasanbhava of India, Buddhism gain predominance over Bon, the traditional religion of the Tibet!

Samye has survived devastation, both natural and man-made. Most recently it survived ransacking and other sacrilege due to the Cultural Revolution. Very little of the original construction remains, and yet it is a special place, the feeling is palpable.

Mission fulfilled

Because the time was not sufficient time to go to Chimpuk ourselves, we knew we had to find someone to deliver the pictures to the owners, for whom the photographer intended. In the main chapel, I found a monk sitting making smaller tsampa sculptures by hand. "Our driver" helped to translate our wish (many monks spoke only Tibetan). The monk said that there would be a festival in the coming days with monks from Chimpuk in attendance, and he would pass them on. I was grateful.

After spending a while in each of the chapels looking at the Buddhas and praying and doing koras around the courtyards and spinning the prayer wheels, just when we were on our way down and about to leave, looking at a last little chapel on the third level we had missed on the way up, I saw bright eyes and heard a female voice and just at the same time my friend was asking her (the female monk) where she stays. Of course the answer was Chimpuk!

So, with my heart beating wildly, while the others stayed, I went downstairs to the main chapel to retrieve the pictures. When I arrived in the main chapel on the first floor, the pictures and our monk were no where to be found! Our monk had cleaned up his station and moved! I asked a younger monk for help. I was able to explain about the pictures through the help of a fellow visitor to the temple, and he pledged to help me.

Our young monk was gone 5 minutes. For a while I chatted with the (more senior) monks making the big tsampa sculpture. Our young monk was gone 10 minutes. As I was feeling more unsure of what would happen, I was scolding myself for not having been more intuitive about whom to give the pictures. Our young monk was gone 15 minutes. I prayed.

After about 20 minutes, my friends came to the chapel with the female monk saying she needed to leave, where were the pictures. I was in the middle of explaining to them that I could no longer find the monk with the pictures, etc., when the junior monk showed up and the pictures were back in my hand (perfect timing!) and so I delivered them person-to-person!

We sat together for a few minutes and looked at the pictures, taken almost 4 years ago. She spoke as she pointed to people in the pictures (for the most part could not understand her commentary) and ...that was that! The pictures are at Chimpuk!

(These photos were taken by CK Yu -- thanks, CK! I'm glad you had the presence of mind to take these and your quality photography skills because at the time this slipped my mind, and I am too shy to photograph people avidly.)

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Food just tastes better when eaten with good friends

Today I ate Korean food again! (Yes, even though at I ate Korean food 1-2 times per day every day for the last 5 days I was in Lhasa -- ha, ha, you thought I had enough of that fermented cabbage and red pepper and garlic! No, not even close...)

I got rudimentary directions and the name of a major landmark nearby written in Chinese on a piece of paper by the guesthouse owner. To make it even more challenging for myself, I decided to take the bus. (Hey, what can I say, I have time on my hands!)

I managed to get to the place (thanks in the end to a very nice fellow at a teahouse a couple doors down from the restaurant who walked me there, because believe me, it wasn't obvious).

When I walked in, I sniffed heartily, expecting the smell of childhood and of home and of my life to come to my nose. My nose was disappointed. The smell wasn't bad (otherwise I would have made a beeline out of there!) but it was lacking. However, I persevered. Upon examining the menu (and in general the place), there was no Korean lettering or signage and the pictures of the food (does that give you a hint about the goodness of the place? The good restaurants never have pictures in their menu!) -- were unrecognizable.

After attempting to speak Korean with one waitress then another, they called the owner over to my table. Thankfully he is Korean, and so we could communicate.

I ordered the standard bibimbop.

It looked like bibimbop and sounded like bibimbop (sizzling, hot stone bowl, veggies and rice and runny egg on top). There was no sesame oil to be had (it's usually at the bottom of the bowl thus causing the sizzling and infusing the dish with a divine taste and smell) and, even worse, the kochejang was a disappointment -- it did not have the depth of taste that comes from fermentation.

(Anyone who has eaten Korean food with me knows how much I love kochejang and that I feel buoyant and happy after I eat it!)

Despite all of this, I ate politely, albeit unenthusiastically, and then I left.

The Korean restaurant in Lhasa wasn't brilliant either, but it was better. That and food just tastes better when eaten with family or with good friends.

p.s. For all of those uninterested in my daily minutae, please accept my profuse apologies! Remember what I said in an earlier entry about traveling and how it makes the basic concerns of life (food and shelter) the main goals of the day???

Saturday, October 07, 2006



The last days in Lhasa passed too quickly. I thought I was tired of Tibet & of China, but those days renewed me, deepened my experience of Lhasa, left me overflowing.

I realized that like any complex place, one attempt of Lhasa reveals her outer shell. Persistence is rewarded by the unpeeling of layers and seeing the more genuine, everyday life and energy of the place.


My Singapore-Shanghai pungyao Zann:
You were the perfect company in my last days of Lhasa. Yes, fate it was! Thanks for Samye, all the meals together, our genuine talks and so much laughter. (We shall take our nangma secret to the grave!) The time felt like much more than a few days, and believe me while on the train to Chengdu, looking at the map, was I (and am I still) tempted to change my plans and go to Shanghai! Until we meet again -- in Shanghai / Seoul / Singapore / New York!

My Singapore-Shanghai pungyao CK:
You're brave! To speak to a stranger (at the time me) who looked very mad (at the travel agent following the accident) and ask what's wrong! I'm so glad that you looked past that look on my face and talked to me anyway! Thanks for all we shared -- including your excellent bargaining skills and several heads of garlic! We squeezed in a lot in a little time. See you in Shanghai / Seoul / Singapore / New York (for cosmos, another round of darts and much more!)

My Seoul-Beijing brother / teacher / "Tibetan guide" & UN-BE-LIEV-ABLE friend:
Can I ask you a question? Would you like to smell my socks? How about that? -- the new fashion trend we started, soon to be imitated all over Seoul and New York. When is my next examination, and who will remind me to wash my face before my feet? Did you have your 4-eggs-1-hot-chocolate-1-hot-milk-2-croissants-and-jam-by-the-spoonful breakfast today? Did you have your 5 Masterpieces today? Please eat enough samgyupsal and kimchee jigae for me in the next several months as I will have none. Thanks for handling the drunken horse owner and taking me across the river and shielding me from the wind during our picnics on the walk back to Tingri. Thanks for getting up to give me a hot water bottle when I was shivering under 4 blankets and you had a fever. Thanks for special times with Tibetan families in tents and homes (your friend's) that I will never forget. I will remember your lovely, shining face in our long conversations about faith and life. I will carry our karmic times and your compassion and our endless, abundant laughter with me to Africa, South America, home and the next life. In your travels, may you find a 5-star hotel whenever you need a long toilet. And please remember: you got a lucky break in that last round of darts!

EBC trouble and transformation

The trouble began on the 10th night after our trip, after visiting the Guge Kingdom ruins (one of our favorite destinations) and after a splendid day around Lake Manasarovar.

We came to discover that the driver had a different itinerary than we had negotiated with the travel agent that would cause two of us to be liable for payment for additional days. Well, a long discussion ensued, and finally we agreed on something that would meet all expectations -- including a long ride the following day to Saga (a town we didn't much like), followed by Tingri, a staging town for a hike to Everest Base Camp.

The Saga segment went okay (despite the dust problem with back doors of the jeep that did not close completely; probably due to the fact that we were very sleepy after a 3:30am-late conversation about religion and life with a Tibetan guide that had us puzzled, surprised, enthralled).

(Here I got an answer to the question: why no (continued, armed) resistence to the Chinese occupation of Tibet (beyond the demonstrations which brought about brutal suppression and murder of 87,000 Tibetans in 1959 and the following years of famine due to the so-called Great Leap Forward that resulted in the death of millions of Chinese and Tibetans)? He said that as Buddhists they believed that killing people (which would be necessary) would bring bad karma to those involved, so they believed that waiting for karma to bring the correct resolution was the only way. This is completely consistent and heartening to me that people are living in faith, even in these extreme circumstances.)

The following day, we breathed a sigh of relief when arriving in Tingri mid-afternoon.

More trouble: Tingritans are hungry for money and I felt hassled as soon as we arrived --most especially by an angry, drunken Tibetan trying to double-charge after I went off with his horse for one hour. (It wasn't the money that mattered, it was principle.) Gimme money, money, money was the attitude all around. I wanted to get out of that town as quickly as possible.

(Glimpse of Everest from the road, early morning:)

The next morning, September 28th, the 13th day of the trip (ahem!), we arose early to head toward EBC. The terrain was exceedingly rough, including side-of-mountain roads, high passes (we had to get out and walk up at one point because the jeep lacked sufficient power), semi-frozen and running river-crossings and all-rock roads -- such is the terrain coming from the West (we later found out that coming from Lhasa the road is much more tame). About 40km outside of Tingri, with 20km to go to Rongbuk Monastery (the starting point for the EBC hike), suddenly,

THE FRONT, DRIVER-SIDE WHEEL BROKE OFF AND ROLLED PAST THE CAR AND THE DRIVER LOST CONTROL. Apparently the ball-bearings broke (the tire was smoking when we came upon it a minute later), the hub snapped, the tire dislodged from the car, and we lurched to the left side (no control of the car is possible with 3 wheels, not 4).

Fortunately, we were on a plateau. Had we been on the side of a mountain or at the top of a pass, we would have had a very bad accident and (not to be dramatic) probably died. We were very lucky about the whole incident. In all days on the trip, I counted the remnants of 8 jeep fatalities (no, I did not see any dead bodies, I wasn't looking that intently, but I did see one vulture circling above.)

The car was obviously irreparable, and we needed to leave for the hike back to town (40km / 25 miles) fairly quickly as it would take 8-10 hours. The driver insisted it was his responsibility to stay with the car (with enough fuel for warmth and tsampa for food, we were not too worried). For about 2 hours, we followed a young yak herder (whose gender we could not discern -- looked female but acted male) who led us back to the road.

Then it was the long road back to Tingri.

We walked 9 1/2 hours to the first town (and found a ride for the last 8 km -- after they tried to charge an exorbitant rate and we walked on to be called back 4 times.) The town was in harvest season.

We didn't hurry because we had sent word by another landcruiser (more below), and we were lucky that it was mostly downhill overall (though we did have our share of passes, rough terrain, basically everything we drove over that morning.) We were unlucky for the knee-deep river-crossing that involved taking off socks and hiking boots and wading across (I was still nervous from my kora experience) and the fact that the wind was increasing in speed and therefore growing colder as the day progressed.

While walking, we joked that some people paid for this experience, but we didn't pay one dime extra. We picnicked with our supplies of sweetbread and "Masterpieces" (a.k.a. Snickers bars -- a gift from the only landcruiser that stopped -- more below). We joked that all that was missing was coffee. We took catnaps by the side of the road, in the sun.

16 landcruisers passed us that day -- 16! The only one to stop was the second one (who had a full load of passengers, including one sick person.) We asked the driver to call our travel agent with 10RMB and the phone number. No other landcruiser stopped, even though they were coming from the direction of the accident and had likely seen the disabled landcruiser, even though some had only 2 passengers, even though we attempted the universal sign for hitchhiking, thumbs up. That was disheartening (but at least we knew we sent word for the driver whom we did not want to be stuck there indefinitely).

After returning back to the guesthouse, chaos ensued. Some in our group needed to get to the Nepal border and we didn't know how that would happen. We 2 thought we would be stuck in Tingri for 3 days (and to me that sounded like torture). Our original driver showed up not long after us, having gotten a ride back to town. He was generally useless at that point and even disrespectful. I am pretty sure that the Lhasa travel agent was evading our calls (our mistake was to let the driver make the first call, they could see the number that was coming in; I would not be so suspicious normally, but I learned from previous experience, like the drunken horse owner, how slimy and /or irresponsible some people can be!) One of us had a fever. I was nearing a cold. We decided the best thing to do was go to sleep, even though it was only 9:30pm!

The next morning we slept in -- talked in bed until 10:30am! Then we decided we better get the day going and figure out what to do.

At that point, all the bad transformed.

The only driver that stopped the prior day (the second landcruiser) suddenly materialized at our guesthouse -- with 2 open seats to Lhasa, leaving immediately, arriving that night! All we had to do was reach the travel agent, which we did, and they agreed to pay the driver. Similar situation with those going to EBC. (Miraculously, later we would even receive a very small refund from the travel agent once back in Lhasa.)

I felt completely comfortable and safe on the ride back to Lhasa (something I hadn't felt the entire trip prior) -- in the brand new, virtually dust-free landcruiser. I kept joking that when we got back to Lhasa I would kiss the ground. When we arrived in Lhasa, we threw our bags down at the hotel and ran to the Korean restaurant (the only one in Lhasa, open late). That was the beginning of the rejuvenation and refueling that would last the next 5 days.

Friday, October 06, 2006

State of mind

Some things written in my journal along the way, retyped here, from the days prior to the EBC incident:

September 20, 2006:
I love that I'm in this shabby tent, it's snowing inside the tent through a hole in the top. The owner gave me his spot right next to the yak dung stove, and now I'm really, really hot. And somehow I don't mind one bit!

September 21, 2006: Nausea and vomiting nothing because my stomach is empty. I ran out of water 2 hours ago. Bright eyes of open skies with a warm voice telling me it is only 30 or 40 minutes to the top.

September 25, 2006: Today I miss my father very much. Even though you passed more than 4 years ago, our relationship deepens every day.

September 25, 2006: My hair is so dusty and dirty, I can't run a comb through it. Oh for a hot shower in the next town.

(Note: Later I figured out that the nausea was not caused by the altitude, but by the food at the guesthouse that would come to the fore later.)