NOTE: I’ve tried to be responsive to those who have requested “fewer words, more pictures”, but fair warning: this one kind of got away from me.

On the evening of December 1, 1969, some bureaucrat in Washington pulled birthdays out of a jar and decided the collective fate of hundreds of thousands of young men, including me. This was the first Draft Lottery for military induction for the Vietnam War, and as college seniors about to graduate my classmates and I were the most vulnerable. It had been reported that people with birthdays picked in the first 120 were certain to be called up, and those in the second 120 were on the fence; if you were number 240 to 366 you would be safe. (That proved to be accurate, as 195 was the last number called to induction.)

It was difficult to breathe as they started announcing birthdays. My fraternity brother Bob Hepler was number 10, and somewhere he found some fatigues and a toy machine gun and spent the rest of the night ambushing people in the hallway. I made it to 120, a big milestone, and then 200, then into the “safe zone” with 240, and then 300. And finally: “Number 301, June third.” Most of my closest friends were similarly fortunate, but it was impossible to celebrate knowing that fate had been far less kind to so many others.

A thousand times I’ve wondered why I was so lucky. A thousand times I’ve asked myself what I would have done if I’d been number 1 or 3 instead of 301. It gives me chills to think about what might have happened if not for being so outrageously lucky the night they pulled our lives out of a jar.

So now I find myself with a travel itinerary that includes Saigon, the Mekong River, Da Nang, Hanoi, place names that bring back horrific images, not to mention quite a bit of guilt. I know Vietnam has changed dramatically in the past 30 years, but it’s hard to think of it in any other context but that war. I’m curious about how I will feel by the time I leave.


We flew into Saigon from Cambodia at night and realized on the bus ride from the airport that it has become a vibrant, modern city. (Since 1976 it has officially been known as Ho Chi Minh City, but if you don’t mind I’ll stick with the name that is less political, more familiar and easier to type). The roads were wide and smooth, the skyline gleaming with glass and colorful lights.

View of modern-day Saigon from the Saigon Saigon bar.

View of modern-day Saigon from the Saigon Saigon bar.

In April of 1975 Saigon had fallen to the National Liberation Front of North Vietnam, marking the end of the Vietnam War and the beginning of the unification of Vietnam into the communist republic that it is today. The fall of Saigon was punctuated by one of the largest helicopter evacuations in history, as remaining American civilians and military personnel were airlifted off the roof of the American Embassy, the sad culmination of a futile war we couldn’t win.

Fish farms in the middle of the Mekong River.

Floating fish farms in the middle of the Mekong River.

Our first morning we got into a boat on the Mekong River, passed by the floating fish farms, entered a narrow tributary and headed to an island where natives lived and made coconut candy and sold fruits and bottles of liquor with scorpions and small cobras inside. And you thought the worm in a bottle of tequila was disgusting!

DSCN2242As we motored our way up the tight passage at low tide, with barely enough room for another boat to pass and thick jungle on either side, it was impossible to shake images of young soldiers slogging through booby-trapped rice paddies, or scenes from films; Martin Sheen and his crew of hopped up river cowboys heading into the heart of darkness in Apocalypse Now.  It was unsettling. But the people we visited were happy, they played music for us and sang, gave us tea and fruit, and it seemed genuine.

That night I took a cab to the Caravelle Hotel and a rooftop bar called Saigon Saigon, where the journalists and photographers used to hang out during the war. Other than the cynicism that soaked into the dry wall I’m sure nothing remains from that era; the bar is modern and neon-lit, and the 270-degree view is of beautiful hotels and high-rise office buildings and condominiums. I sat on the patio enjoying the scene and trying to imagine what it was like with all these correspondents sitting around bitching about being spoon-fed their stories. I ran into some friends from the tour and we had a few drinks and listened to a terrific band from Cuba, which we assumed was part of some communist cultural exchange program.

The most compelling segment of our southern Vietnam portion of the trip was a visit to the Cuchi tunnel complex, about 50 kilometers northwest of Saigon. It is a 180-mile system of tunnels that were originally constructed in

Hidden tunnel entrance.

Hidden tunnel entrance.

1948 and used to fight the French, and since they were made of solid sandstone, requiring no timber support, they were still functional 15 years later. Because they were close to the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail they were easy to supply, and they were ideal for the Vietnamese “hit and run away” style of fighting, according to our guide. This was an area that the American GI’s sardonically called the “Happy Triangle”; of the 58,000 American soldiers killed in Vietnam, 11,000 were killed here.

Before touring the complex we watched an old and poorly made film that was shockingly anti-American. “The poisonous bombs of America destroy the peaceful beauty of village life,” said the narrator at one point. “Like a crazy batch of devils they fired into schools, pots and pans.” The film referred to the communist “liberators” as American Killer Heroes. It was disturbing on many levels, not the least of which is that this is clearly how people around here feel, to this day.

The Viet Cong slept in the well-hidden tunnels by day and at night, when the Americans were back in Saigon “partying” (so said our guide), the VC would get to work expanding the tunnel complex, installing their booby traps, building their weapons. We saw the secret tunnel openings, a board maybe 10” by 15” that was

Revolving-door booby trap.

Revolving-door booby trap.

undetectable when covered by leaves. We saw many examples of bobby traps using spikes made of steel or bamboo. Within the cave system were kitchens with ventilation, clothing depots, and weapons-making areas.

We crawled through 60 meters of tunnel, very uncomfortable and claustrophobic, but this was a sanctuary for the enemy in this area for many years. We began to see clearly why this had been such a challenging opponent to confront. I hadn’t realized that Vietnam had had such a prolonged and difficult war with France, and how that had served as preparation to fight the Americans. They had it down to a science.

In that fascinating complex of hidden tunnels and booby traps, there were lessons all around us.

My time in Cambodia and Vietnam was part of an organized tour with a company called SmarTours. It is the only multi-day tour I’ve done so far; I have one more scheduled in Mexico, touring the Mayan ruins. The tour itself was a mixed bag … we stayed in excellent hotels and covered a lot of ground, but the forced shopping opportunities got old in a hurry. But what makes or breaks a tour like this is the people, and we had a terrific group of very nice people and very experienced travelers; if Cambodia and Vietnam have moved to the top of your list, you have probably been a lot of places! So it was fun getting to know these folks (all American and Canadian) and learning about their past trips and favorite spots. I look forward to staying in contact with many of them.


Hoi An

We spent several days in the coastal central part of Vietnam, flying into Da Nang and taking a bus to Hoi An, and there was universal agreement that we would liked to have stayed there longer. There is not much to say about it historically, other than it was originally populated by Chinese who came to escape from politics and stayed to set up businesses. Fifteen years ago it was dead but now it is starting to boom.


It’s a very peaceful place on a nice river and a short ride from the sea and excellent beaches. There were great shops, good restaurants, cooking classes, bike rides, silkworm demonstrations, inexpensive silk tailoring, a fascinating central market and Japanese bridges, and our excellent hotel was a short walk from all of this. Three of us had a wonderful dinner at an Italian Restaurant called “Good Morning Vietnam”. Hoi An was very comfortable and livable, a place to return to.

Hoi An night scene.

Hoi An night scene.

The currency in Vietnam is the dong. And it’s very small; one U.S. dollar equals more than 20,000 Vietnamese dong. If you want to purchase anything of real value, boy, you sure need a lot of dong. 

Da Nang

We heard this city’s name often during the war and with good reason; it was home to a major air force base that at one point averaged more than 2,500 air traffic operations daily, more than any other airport in the world. One of the women on our tour was a flight attendant who made many trips into Da Nang to evacuate wounded soldiers.

Fishing boats on China Beach.

Fishing boats on China Beach.

Today it’s a thriving port city on the South China Sea, the commercial and cultural hub of central Vietnam. We drove around a bit and had lunch at a restaurant overlooking China Beach, originally My Khe Beach but renamed by American and Australian soldiers. There was a TV series for a few years about a hospital there that prepared the wounded for evacuation. After lunch we walked on the beach and saw many unusual, round, one-man fishing boats made of bamboo, and tried to converse with a fisherman who was mending his nets in one of them. It was a pleasant interlude before heading off to …


Hue’ (hway) was another familiar name.  In the Tet Offensive of 1968 it was damaged severely by American bombing and traumatized by a brutal massacre committed by communist troops. Many of the historical buildings that were destroyed are just now being restored. We had a wonderful guide in central Vietnam, a young mother of two named Ha (“every time you laugh you say my name”), and as a native of Hue’ with many family members impacted by the war, she had particularly vivid descriptions.

“In 1968, no one knew who to trust. People just disappeared. There was so much killing and bombing it was easy to kill someone you didn’t like. Many were scared and escaped to the north. People couldn’t find their family members, their brothers, their husbands. They put all the dead into big graves, and the fortune tellers, the people who communicate with ghosts, they couldn’t find a specific person with so many souls crowded together.”

Inside the Imperial Palace in Hue'.

Inside the Imperial Palace in Hue’.

The main attraction in Hue’ is the massive complex that includes the Citadel, Imperial Palace and Forbidden City. The city had been the capital of the country from 1802 to 1945 and this is where the royal family had lived, but it suffered during a war with the French in 1947 and in 1968 was a Viet Cong stronghold and was heavily bombed. Little by little it is being restored, but there is a long Hue’ to go.

Ha Long Bay

We headed north, taking a flight from Hue’ to Hanoi and a bus to our hotel on the coast. In the morning we took a four-hour boat trip to Vietnam’s premier attraction, its Angkor Wat: Ha Long Bay.

We were told that 500 boats per day take people to explore the mysteries of Ha Long Bay.

We were told that 500 boats per day take people to explore the mysteries of Ha Long Bay.

Ha Long (“descending dragon”) Bay is a series of more than 3000 islands and limestone rocks cropping up from the Gulf of Tonkin near the port city of Haiphong. Millions of years of tectonic activity created underwater mountains that ultimately surfaced. It reminded some of our world travelers of the Galapagos, and others of Antarctica. We had a lousy weather day in terms of seeing great distances, but the mist and light rain did create an atmosphere that somehow seemed appropriate.


The rocky coastline of the islands contains many caves and grottos, and we visited one that was only discovered in 1993. They call it “Heaven’s Palace”, and it was huge and surprisingly spectacular. We anchored out after that and had a wonderful fish lunch, and then headed for our final stop on the tour.

"Heaven's Palace" ... or was it "100 Steps to Beauty"?

“Heaven’s Palace” … or was it “100 Steps to Beauty”?


Hanoi is very different from Saigon and not as appealing at first, but it kind of grows on you. Whereas Saigon is new and shiny, Hanoi is more ancient and gritty. In some areas there is a substantial European flavor from the days of French occupation, particularly with some of the larger government buildings. People seem to live on the street here, sitting in small plastic chairs, cooking on their street grills, buying food from the impossibly tiny women who carry the Asian scales of justice on their shoulders filled with vegetables and rice and cans of cola and beer.


There are nine million residents of Hanoi, and 6.5 million motorbikes, an infestation greater than anywhere I’ve seen in Africa, India, Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia or southern Vietnam. The sidewalks are often impassable because of all the motorbikes parked there, and they must comprise 90% of the vehicles on the street. They drive up over the curb, cut across lanes of traffic, use their maneuverability to creative advantage at every turn. At some intersections there are no signals of any kind so they just proceed toward each other with awareness and weave a tapestry of traffic.

We had a very odd experience visiting Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. It is clearly a major shrine for Vietnamese people and there was a long line to get in. There are a lot of rules: shoulders covered, no hat, no talking. As I entered the room where he lays I was walking with my hands respectfully clasped behind my back, and a guard hissed at me and indicated that I had to hold my hands at my sides. I was channeling my inner John McEnroe (“you can’t be serious!”) but I complied instead. It was a pretty good you’re-now-in-a-communist-country moment.

The Ho Chi Minh mauseleum

The Ho Chi Minh mausoleum.

“Ho”, as we were fond of calling him, was looking pretty good. It turns out he wanted to be cremated but the Politburo boys at the Kremlin know a promotional opportunity when they see one and had him embalmed with the same process they used on Lenin. Ho is on display every morning from eight to eleven, and then he goes back to the freezer. Each year he gets a two-month vacation back in Russia for re-embalming, a spa treatment I’m sure none of us can afford.

In the northern part of Vietnam people do eat dog. I’m a big “when in Rome” guy so I made a reservation at the acclaimed Restaurant de Chien (the French influence remains in Hanoi), and to get a flavor for different breeds I ordered the “ngot nuang”, the Pooch Sampler. The grilled Schnauzer with sauerkraut was a casual appetizer that would enliven any tailgate party. The Poodle au Poivre was cooked to perfection, but the hollandaise sauce was a bit on the rich side. I caught a nice little buzz from the poppyseed seasoning on the ground Afghan hound. But my favorite, unquestionably, was the Chihuahua enchilada, so zesty with just a hint of jalapeno.

We saw other things in Hanoi, including a charming and unusual water puppet show, but nothing was as impactful for all of us as a visit to the Hoa Lo prison, known during the war as the Hanoi Hilton.

For many years this prison was used by the French to incarcerate Vietnamese resistors to French occupation, and then the Vietnamese used it to imprison American pilots who were shot down in the 60s and early 70s. Once again, it was odd and uncomfortable being on the other side of the propaganda, but also enlightening.

Image on the wall of the infamous Hanoi Hilton.

Image on the wall of the infamous Hanoi Hilton.

We call it the Vietnam War, but here they call it the American War. Their effort was called the “Anti-U.S. Resistance”. The videos on exhibit in the prison emphasized the American bombing of schools and hospitals, of civilians. The displays lost credibility when they showed how well the American prisoners were treated despite; there were videos and photos of the pilots playing volleyball, eating well, getting medical treatment (included was a photo of John McCain), enjoying Christmas celebrations and packages from home. We knew this was all a long way from the truth.

I wonder what the imprisoned American pilots would have to say about this?

I wonder what the imprisoned American pilots would have to say about this?

But there is also no denying that almost 60,000 young Americans died needlessly, and that the lives of hundreds of thousands who returned were contorted irrevocably. And there is no denying that more than one million Vietnamese soldiers were killed, north and south, not to mention between two and three million Vietnamese civilians, and that the chemicals used will impact generations yet to come.

And for what? To prevent the spread of communism? Vietnam is a communist country today, albeit a hybrid that allows its citizens to open businesses and be entrepreneurial. And how many of the surrounding countries has communism spread to? None. True communism in the form that spawned McCarthyism, the progenitor of this war, cannot succeed, nor can any religion or ideology that sucks the spirit out of its people by stifling creativity and free expression.

So I leave Vietnam no longer feeling guilty about having a high lottery number. I do leave with a much clearer sense of how misguided we were, how impossible it was to accomplish anything but mass devastation. I leave feeling angry that the country I love so much could be responsible for a calamity of such magnitude … and that we haven’t seemed to learn from it! If I feel guilty about anything now, it’s that I didn’t protest loudly enough at the time.

But in our hotel bar in Hanoi the most sensible approach was articulated by a veteran of the war from Australia, in Vietnam with five of his fellow vets for the first time in forty years. “Everything here is so much different now, mate,” he said. “We’ve all learned that it is finally time to put that chapter behind us.”




Categories: Uncategorized

Siem Reap and Angkor Wat

From Phnom Penh it was a seven-hour bus ride north to Siem Reap, which is home to the great Angkor temple complex and the reason most people come to Cambodia.

Rocks, ruins and rubble.

Rocks, ruins and rubble.

According to Wikipedia, in 2007 an international team of researchers using satellite photographs and other modern techniques concluded that Angkor had been the largest preindustrial city in the world, at least 390 square miles and supporting up to one million people. Its closest rival, the Mayan city of Tikal in Guatemala, was no more than 58 square miles in total size. In its glory Angkor contained more than 1000 temples, the oldest dating back to the 6th century; ruins that remain today are from between the 9th and 12th centuries. It served as the capital of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to 14th centuries, but in the 15th century an Ayutthayan army from Siam captured Angkor, driving the population south and destroying the city. The capital was moved to Phnom Penh and the massive Angkor complex became deserted and overgrown.

The entrance to Angkor is lined with gods and demons.

The entrance to Angkor is lined with gods and demons.

The story has it that a Frenchman, with guidance from a local monk, rediscovered Angkor in 1860. I did overhear one guide say this: “He didn’t rediscover it, he just re-publicized it. It had been here all along as home to monks, and many Japanese and Chinese and Vietnamese people knew it was here.” But I prefer imagining this guy and his monk buddy hacking their way through the jungle with machetes and stumbling upon these incredible temple ruins, in the ultimate Indiana Jones moment.

The many faces of Angkor Thom

The many faces of Angkor Thom

The first afternoon we visited the ruins of Angkor Thom, “Big City”. In its day it was three square kilometers, with a 12-kilometer moat and 57 towers. The ruins are quite striking and there are areas where the stone is much lighter because the Japanese government has paid for restoration. There are faces built into the stones, and a prevalent theory is that they are a combination of the stern visage of the king who built the temple and the benevolent face of Buddha.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

First thing the next morning we visited the magnificent Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. It was built between 1113-1150 by king Suryavarman II, employing 300,000 men and 3,000 elephants. It was originally a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu, and is still a functioning religious center but now it is Buddhist; there were a number of shrines within the ruins where Buddhists had come to pray amidst the thousands of tourists.


After entering through the west gate, the king’s gate, I left my group and walked to the far side of the compound to the east gate, where the commoners used to enter. It was shaded and peaceful there, with far fewer people, a couple of lakes and a family of monkeys. With the sun behind me I tried to get some interesting angles on the five main towers, which are shaped like lotus flowers that have yet to blossom. Angkor Wat definitely does not disappoint; it is a powerful place that captures the imagination and takes you back 1000 years, in wonderment of what this unique and sophisticated civilization must have been like, and what it might have become.

The bottled water is always safer.

The bottled water is always safer.

There is a market (of course there is) adjacent to the temple within the grounds. At a small café’ each table is named for a celebrity: John Rambo, Harry Potter, Lady Gaga, Angelina Jolie, James Bond … and Tiger Wood. I asked the guy hustling me why they did that. He said: “Maybe if people see person they like, they stay to eat.” I asked if it worked and he just shrugged. I didn’t correct him on the spelling of Tiger’s name; I was just amused that his popularity has reached as far as the jungles of northern Cambodia.


Later we went to the Tomb Raider temple, so called because the Angelina Jolie movie of that name was filmed there in 2001. The resulting publicity and traffic have taken a toll and much of the grounds are under construction and renovation.

The jungle is taking over the Tomb Raider Temple.

The jungle is taking over the Tomb Raider Temple.

We had two evenings to enjoy the city of Siem Reap (“The Defeat of Siam”), which has 300,000 permanent inhabitants and receives 3.5 million visitors per year. There is a terrific night market no more than a ten-minute tuk tuk ride from wherever your hotel is; the streets are alive with bars and restaurants, clothing and art shops, every conceivable accent and dozens of massage places on the street, where you can get incredible 15-minute foot massages for a dollar.

Oh, how it tickles!

I’m not sure this was worth a free beer.

The more interesting massage is called Doctor Fish. You sit on the edge of a large fish tank filled with one- to three-inch garra rufa fish, also known as the reddish log sucker, nibble fish and physio fish. You recoil half a dozen times from the tickling before you can completely commit. Supposedly they are eating only the dead skin and cleaning off the dirt, and afterwards your feet do feel smoother, but it’s not the most comfortable sensation. It’s a dollar for ten minutes, and for two dollars you get 20 minutes and a free beer, quite a deal, and when you are with four other friends it’s a definite hoot. When I researched it later I discovered that certain agencies have called for the practice to be banned, believing that it could spread viruses like Hepatitis, which sounds like a bunch of BS to me.

But I don’t think I’ll tell the others.

Nice afternoon light on Angkor Thom

Nice afternoon light on Angkor Thom

I'm not sure what they were doing there but they sure looked nice

I’m not sure what they were doing there but they sure looked nice


In Cambodia, he's still #1.

In Cambodia, he’s still #1.

One of my favorite photos of the trip.

One of my favorite photos of the trip.

Categories: Uncategorized

Phnom Penh

For people around my age Cambodia evokes a couple of different thoughts. We probably remember during the Vietnam War that American troops were not supposed to be crossing the border to engage in any fighting but didn’t really have a choice. We might have some recollection of Pol Pot killing many of his own people there few years later. More recently, perhaps we’ve become aware of the enormous complex of temple ruins in Angkor. So not knowing much more than that I was curious to check it out.

I landed mid-afternoon on a flight from Bangkok and was on my own until the next morning, when I would join a tour group. At the airport in Phnom Penh I went to an ATM to get some local currency and it spit out dollars, very surprising. When I saw my cab driver pay a toll with dollars I asked him what was up. “We no get many American tourist,” Kim said, “but we have much American money.” In the course of four days here we would find vendors who wouldn’t even accept Cambodian money, only dollars. And we would learn that just one dollar buys so many things … a 20-minute tuk tuk ride, an outstanding 15-minute foot massage, and a good-sized bag of fried spiders.

In an effort to make this brief and painless, here are a few bullet points about the country and its history:

  • The first Kingdom in Cambodia, called the Phnom, was created in the first century A.D. by an Indian Brahmin priest and the local princess he married. He introduced Hindu customs and the Sanskrit language. It was the first Khmer kingdom and became the dominant power in the region for 600 years.
  • In 800 A.D. King Jayavarman II united the Khmer people and established the capital in the Siem Reap province, where Angkor Wat is today. He also changed the primary religion to Buddhism, and the country’s affiliation tended to vacillate depending on the allegiance of the King.
  • The golden age was between the 9th and 14th centuries, but in the 15th century the Ayatthuian Empire of Siam captured Angkor and dominated for 100 years, until Cambodia regained control.
  • Constantly under attack from its neighbors, especially Siam (Thailand) and Vietnam, the kingdom asked France for help and a protectorate was established in 1863. Along with Laos and Vietnam, Cambodia became part of French Indochina.
  • The country was granted its independence from France in 1949 and tried to stay neutral when the war in Vietnam broke out in 1963, but North Vietnam and the Viet Cong used eastern Cambodia as a staging area to attack South Vietnam, making neutrality impossible.
  • An indigenous Communist guerrilla movement called the Khmer Rouge (Red Khmers) began to put pressure on the western-supported government, and as fighting continued between North Vietnam and U.S. supplied troops even after the peace agreement of 1973, the Khmer Rouge forces, under the leadership of Pol Pot, overthrew the current regime.
  • Between 1975 and 1979 Pol Pot tried to install a Marxist agrarian society and in the process murdered more than two million people and effectively exterminated Cambodia’s professional and technical classes.
  • Pol Pot was ousted by Vietnamese forces in January, 1979, and after that it gets real hard to follow, but there have been attempts at free elections, lots of corruption, execution of political opponents as recently as 1993, and other nastiness. Pol Pot and 35,000 of his most loyal and deranged sidekicks fled to the jungle and tried to stage an unsuccessful comeback. He died in 1998 under house arrest from his own people, and is rumored to have been poisoned.
The King lives here, so they tell me.

The King lives here, so they tell me. He wouldn’t take my call.

  • The country is about the size of Missouri and has a population of almost 15 million, and is now a “multi-party liberal democracy under a constitutional monarchy.”
  • And finally, a bit of geography. Lake Tonle Sap is the largest fresh water lake in Southeast Asia, and the Tonle Sap River is the only river in the world that flows in both directions. Starting in June every year the river becomes so swollen that all the water can’t empty into the Mekong River at Phnom Penh so it starts back in the other direction, keeping the lake replenished. So tuck that away for your next trivia party.

I checked in to my hotel, cleaned up and hailed a tuk tuk. This is a wonderful form of transportation that has been prevalent in many places on this trip. In Africa they are called bajajis and are more like an enclosed golf cart,

In a tuk tuk you are definitely in the middle of the action.

In a tuk tuk you are definitely in the middle of the action.

with the driver inside. In India they are called auto rickshaws. In Nepal and Thailand they are also called tuk tuks and are pulled by bicycles. And in Cambodia they are nice carriages pulled by a motorcycle. Whatever the configuration, they are cheap and a great way to get where you want to go, if you don’t want to go too far.

Where I wanted to go that first night was an area down by the Mekong River where I was told there were some good restaurants. My driver’s name was Yel Phoungmara and he did a great job navigating the chaos of rush hour in Phnom Penh, and I did a great job of sitting back and letting him. He picked out a restaurant for me and when I tried to pay him he said: “No, pay later. I wait.” I told him I didn’t know how long I would be. “No matter. I wait.”

I sat down and ordered a chicken curry dish ($3.50) and a very large bottle of Angkor beer ($2.50). Immediately a kid came up to my table with a box of books … guidebooks, books on Cambodian history, books that would have told me I was in a tourist area if I hadn’t already noticed all the white people. As soon as I got rid of him a withered old man in a wheelchair approached, looked me dead in the eye and put out his hand. “No,” I said, a bit too firmly. I hate being a hard ass but you have to draw the line sometimes, and approaching me at a restaurant table is crossing it.

A few minutes later a young girl came up with another box of books, and the one she held up interested me: The Killing Fields. I asked how much. “One hundred dollars,” she said with a smile, “but you can bargain.” Her name was Ne, I liked her style and we concluded negotiations at $2.00. All the books looked new and were wrapped in cellophane. “How much do you pay for these books?” I asked her. She told me one dollar each. There must be some cheap and probably illegal black market reprinting racket going on here, but so far the book actually has all the pages in the right sequence.

Ne asked me if I wanted some weed; she looked so innocent! “No, I’m too old,” I laughed. “I’ll stick to this.” I took a swig of the Angkor. “I know plenty people older than you who smoke,” she said. “Plenty older people.” God bless you, child.

I ate and looked out at the boats on the Mekong River, which starts in the great mountains of Tibet and flows down through Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, where it forms the fertile Mekong Delta before emptying into the South Chin Sea. After dinner I asked Yel to take me to some non-touristy parts of town but no place I felt comfortable stopping, so we headed back to the hotel. I gave him 40,000 riel — about $10 — and he almost kissed me. With transportation, dinner and the book my wild night out in Phnom Penh had set me back $19.50, and I had made one tuk tuk driver very happy in the process. A good night.

The next morning I met my tour group including my friend Maria Dancsak, whose boyfriend is an old college buddy; Maria was born in Hungary and I had dinner with her cousin Lazlo when I was in Budapest. The tour group seems full of nice people around my age or a bit older, and I learned quickly that these are folks who love to travel and do it a lot.

Wat Phnom

Wat Phnom

We saw some temples that first morning including the beautiful Wat Phnom, where there were some more young entrepreneurs. Dealing with these kids was clearly going to be an ongoing challenge because they are relentless, but at least they are selling something and not asking for handouts. If they buy bottles of water for $.50 and sell

Naan, the bird boy of Wat Phnom.

Naan, the bird boy of Wat Phnom.

them for a dollar, it’s hard to find fault with that. And at this temple we met Naan, a young kid who had a great scam. He had a plastic bag full of baby birds and bird seed, and he would sell you two birds for one dollar so you could let them go. Of course he would just go catch them again and resell them, but you had to love his inventiveness. I ponied up for a buck and when I saw him again later there was a line of Koreans waiting to free some birds … Naan was raking it in, and good for him.

That afternoon we visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, where the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge really hit home. The leader was born Saloth Sar but started calling himself Pol Pot for “Political Potential”, and became a homicidal tyrant the equal of Stalin and Hitler. He believed that Cambodia’s future was tied to agrarian socialism, and he evacuated all the cities and forced everyone into the countryside to collective farms. Phnom Penh became a ghost town. Those who resisted were killed, along with their families. Those representing specific ethnic minorities were killed, along with their families. Those with any affiliation to the previous government were killed, along with their families; Pol Pot

Interesting Prison Rules

Interesting Prison Rules

didn’t want any children around who might some day seek revenge. Estimates vary, but it’s believed that the Khmer Rouge murdered and tortured and otherwise caused the death of well over two million people, in a country of just eight million.

The Genocide Museum used to be a prison for officials of the old democratic government, a place where they would be held and tortured; often they would be hung upside down until they lost consciousness, and then dunked into a large urn of sewage until they revived for more interrogation.  Ultimately they would be taken to the infamous killing fields at Choeung Ek, where a memorial today still contains more than 5,000 human skulls.

So … cheerful stuff. But this recurring theme of one man’s capacity for evil and the lemming-like willingness of so many to follow him is a disturbing thread on this trip. Anyway, in a day or two we’ll move north to the complex at Angkor, the most Indiana Jonesy place you will ever see, and of course the ruins of the greatest temple of all, Angkor Wat. (And also a really cool monkey picture!)

Categories: Uncategorized

A True Thai Vacation

Some people have suggested that I’m basically on a one-year vacation and I guess there is some truth to that, but I’ve tried to approach this journey more as a student than a tourist, so it hasn’t always felt that way. The past ten days, however, during which I have had a lovely traveling companion to help share the ride, has felt like a true vacation, with unique adventures and a great deal of relaxation.

Kenny G stopped by our table on the river cruise.

Thailand’s answer to Kenny G stopped by our table on the river cruise.

Elle has to be one of the world’s bravest women to fly exactly halfway around the earth to hang out for ten days with a guy she didn’t know very well, but when I met her over a year ago she impressed me with her spirit of adventure, and when she accepted an invitation to come join me for while, I knew she was a kindred soul. She

adjusted quickly following a 25-hour flight, and we hit Thailand running with two days in Bangkok, two days up north in Chaing Mai, and finally three days back south at the beach near Hua Hin, with transition days in between.

In Bangkok we did a river cruise one evening which reminded me of New Years Eve on the Bosporus … great company, average food and cheesy entertainment. But it was a lovely night punctuated with views of the Royal Palace and a number of riverfront temples, lit dramatically.

Bangkok's Royal Palace

Bangkok’s Royal Palace

The following night we had a phenomenal dining experience at a restaurant called Issaya, recommended by friends who know the local scene well, and after dinner we took a cab to Soi Cowboy, which I felt Elle needed to see. But the entire street was closed because of a Buddhist holiday; this quarter-mile of neon decadence was reduced by religious observance to a dark and ominous alley. But hey, even working girls deserve a night off.

Chaing Mai is the second-largest city in Thailand and only a 55-minute flight north of Bangkok, but it has a laid-back vibe that makes it distinctive. Because of my fortuitous stumbling around the Internet we stayed at a wonderful place called 137 Pillars House, the history of which ties back to Anna Leonowens, of Anna and the King fame.

Anna was a penniless, widowed schoolteacher with two children when she was summoned by The Borneo Company to open a school for the King of Siam, around 1860. Her relationship with the King has been romanticized in a book called Anna and the King of Siam and later by the Broadway musical and film “The King and I”, but her impact to this country is undeniable. One of her students, Prince Chulalongkorn, eventually became the most revered King in Thailand’s history, Rama V (the current King is Rama IX). His enlightened initiatives – including the abolition of slavery – were considered to have come directly from the lessons of freedom and equality he learned from Anna.


Anna’s son Louis was invited by the King to join Siam’s Royal Cavalry, which he did. Many years later Louis found a beautiful black wood home and moved it to the other side of the Ping River. It changed hands a number of times, was abandoned and overgrown but eventually purchased by the company who owns it now, and named for its number of teak columns: Baan 137 Sao, or 137 Pillars House. It is now an exceptional boutique hotel.

Our one full day in Chaing Mai included the following:

An authentic Thai market. We were the only “farang”, or foreigners, so it was special opportunity to see so many tiny women on their haunches grilling prawns, carving coconut, folding clothes. We bought fried banana chips, fried sweet potatoes and pork rinds that sustained us through the day.

An elephant ride. It was fairly uneventful for the first five minutes but then our “driver” hopped off and pointed to me, and I inched my way out onto Nomi’s neck. When you are in that position you have two responsibilities: don’t fall off, and feed the beast. In the course of our ride we went through six enormous bags of bananas; when he stopped moving and his trunk came back into your lap you had better put a banana by those nostrils or you are not going anywhere. Elle took her turn in front as well as we went up and down some hills and into a river bed before climbing back up to the disembarkation station. It was a surprising amount of fun.


A jungle trek.  Our guide, who just said to call him Oh, led us on a 90-minute hike through the jungle, past some rice paddies and cornfields, up and down some hills to a waterfall, and finally back up a steep slope to the OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAwaiting car. It was a beautiful excursion and not a bad little workout.

An ant omelet for lunch.  Well OK, a couple of bites of an ant omelet. Mr. Oh had purchased some ants and ant larvae at the market that morning and when we stopped for lunch he had his bag of goodies cooked up with some eggs. It wasn’t bad, and if I ever see it on a menu somewhere … there is not a chance in hell I will order it.

A river float on a bamboo raft. The raft was long but narrow, just nine bamboo poles wide. There are white-water rafting experiences available in Thailand and this was hardly that, but there were some tasty little rapids on this stream that get your attention when you are standing in the back with a pole, pretending to help the professional up front. That lasted until my pole got caught in some rocks and yanked me back onto my butt, where I stayed contentedly for the remainder of the trip. It was a peaceful ride except when the driver would whack the water with his pole and yell, “snake”.  I figured it was just part of the show until I saw a couple of sticks start to slither away.


We had dinner that night on the outdoor porch at 137 Pillars House, and at one point saw some strange lights in the sky; there were four of them in formation that appeared to be stationary, and a fifth that seemed to be joining them. Close Encounters of the Thai Kind! When we pointed them out to our waiter he said, “Oh, flying lanterns.” They were probably part of a wedding ceremony, and an interesting end to an amazing day.

The following morning on the way to the airport for the flight back to Bangkok, we stopped at a village that OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAfeatured members of eight different tribes. The real attraction is the Pagaung, an ethnic minority from Burma who are also known as the longneck tribe. The tribal belief is that the longer a women’s neck, the more attractive she is, so at age five or six girls start wearing brass coils around their neck, increasing the number of rings each year to push down the shoulder blades and elongate the neck. Human rights groups have tried to get the practice stopped but it generates a lot of revenue from tourists like us, so on it goes.

On the drive from Bangkok to the beach at Hua Hin the following day we stopped at Thailand’s original Floating Market, at Damneon Sadoak. One of the older James Bond films included a scene shot there, and there’s a mystical quality to these narrow waterways that pass by hundreds of shops with a lone shopkeeper squatting by the water, waiting for business, and on the wider waterways, homes adorned with plants and flowers. Some vendors navigate their own longboats with a paddle, selling bananas and mangoes and bottles of water or juice or beer. The canals intersect and often get so jammed with boats that you can walk from one side to the other on the boats.


The next three days were nothing but relaxing at Aleenta, a wonderfully remote and beautiful resort on the Gulf of Thailand, 40 kilometers south of the resort town of Hua Hin. We had been warned that the water was not good for swimming because of jellyfish, but we found everything about it to be perfect. Elle spotted one jellyfish about the size of a champagne cork, and that was it. At night there were lights from so many fishing boats offshore it looked like the coastline of Miami Beach.

We spent our time there getting too much sun, watching the kite surfers capitalize on the afternoon wind, riding bikes, getting brutal 90-minute, $10 Thai massages at an open storefront across the street, and dreading having to leave.

But as I post this Elle is on a plane to Tokyo before the long flight over Alaska back to Atlanta, and I’m getting ready to head to the airport for a flight to Phnom Penh for a couple of weeks in Cambodia and Vietnam, before I also head back across the Pacific. All good things come to an end, and these ten days have been a good thing indeed.

Musical Interlude

My ultimate fantasy … oh, to be able to do this!

Categories: Uncategorized

Two Sides of Bangkok

Not long ago a friend offered a suggestion for this blog: “Less history, more sex.” I’m in Bangkok now where both exist in abundance, so I thought we’d try a combo package.


I’ve hooked up with a wonderful cab driver named Prasoot Varakorn, and we spent the better part of a day in Ayutthaya, the former capital of Thailand, then known as Siam. It’s about an hour north of Bangkok, traffic

Prasoot, driver extraordinaire

Prasoot Varakorn, driver extraordinaire

permitting; on the way we passed the Pinehurst Golf and Country Club, which made me a touch nostalgic.

Ayutthaya (Aye-YOU-tee-ah) is in the valley of the Chao Phraya River, which comes up from Bangkok, and its ruins are spread out over a large area and connected by the contemporary town, which bills itself as “The City of Perfect Balance.” It was founded in 1350 by King U Thong who took refuge there from a small pox outbreak and ultimately declared it the new capital of Siam.  The ruins of the “prang” (reliquary towers) and large monasteries are the only remains of former glory.

For more than 200 years Ayutthaya fought off attacks from Burma’s Toungoo Dynasty. In 1593 there occurred a famous elephant duel between Siamese King Naresuan and Burmese heir-apparent Mingyi Swa, who was slain. Thailand still celebrates Royal Thai Armed Forces Day on January 18 in observance of the event.


By 1700 the city had a population of one million, making it one of the largest cities in the world, and between 1600 and the mid 1700s Ayutthaya experienced its Golden Age as trade flourished with Holland, France, Portugal and Japan, and culture blossomed as well, especially art and literature.

The ruins of Wat (temple) Chai Watthanatam

The ruins of Wat (temple) Chai Watthanatam

But the city finally fell to a 40,000-strong force from Burma in 1767; the invaders burned everything, destroying all the buildings, the art, the books. After finally capturing Ayutthaya following hundreds of years of trying, the Burmese immediately left the smoldering city to go defend their own capital from the Chinese, and they never returned.

Buddha in a Tree

Buddha in a Tree

Soi Cowboy

Soi Cowboy is one of three areas of Bangkok known for the “romance” trade, the others being Nana and the legendary Patpong. “Soi” means little road, and Soi Cowboy is only about 400 meters long, but every inch of it is packed with bars and clubs and an endless supply of young girls trying to attract “farang”: foreigners. The area got its name from a cowboy hat wearing African-American soldier named T. G Edwards, who opened a bar there in 1977.

The street is like a mini Las Vegas strip: wall-to-wall neon and fabulous people watching. I walked from one end to the other and took a seat at a round top outside a club and ordered a Chang beer. There was an outdoor bar with a bartender and three waitresses, a fat bouncer sitting by the door pretending to check IDs, and seven girls out front whose sole responsibility was to entice customers to enter the club. Six of the girls were talking and giggling among themselves. The seventh one was older, sturdier than most of the reed-thin waifs working these joints, and best of all she was more than willing to sit down and talk about her life and the Soi Cowboy scene.

Yui is 33 and has a 10-year old daughter who doesn’t live with her but who she calls every day. She has had

The lovely Yui (number 277 in your program) and the lights of Soi Cowboy

The lovely Yui (number 277 in your program) and the lights of Soi Cowboy

serious boyfriends from Finland and Australia who took her to nice places, and she had hopes both times for something permanent, but they both left her for younger Chinese women. I asked her how much longer she would do this. “Everything OK now,” she said. “I no think about that.” Like every other girl on the street she holds out hope for a farang Prince Charming to take her away to an easy life in New Zealand or Switzerland or Norway, but I had to believe that if her window of opportunity wasn’t shut, it was closing rapidly.

I asked her what it was like inside the club. “Downstair, girl dance and dress normal. Upstair, girl dress like schoolgirl. They all come to you, rub your leg: ‘Oh daddy, you like me? You want to take me home? You so strong.’ They all say same thing.” Any of the girls are available at two-hour increments for a $20 payment to the club and $100 (negotiable) for the girl.

I asked her to point out some of Bangkok’s infamous ladyboys. “No ladyboy in Soi Cowboy. But in Patpong and Nana, many ladyboy. And you no can tell. They all have snip snip.” I winced as she made a scissors-like motion. “Only one way you can tell,” she said, pointing to my throat. She told me the fat bouncer was French; I guess most Thai men aren’t big or threatening enough. “He so fat because every day he eat pizza,” Yui said, and right on cue one was delivered.

I gave her a few baht for her time and thanked her for not trying to hustle me into the club or buy her a $25 glass of ginger ale; she seemed to understand that my purpose was more anthropological than amorous. But learning the ropes from a nice lady like Yui and watching the Soi Cowboy parade go by was a great way to pass a couple of hours … and a lot less expensive than the alternative.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

I took this from a moving cab and went back a couple of days later to find out where the "golf" fit in, but it was  a Buddhist holiday and they were closed.

I took this from a moving cab and went back a couple of days later to find out where the “golf” fit in, but it was a Buddhist holiday and they were closed.

In truth Bangkok is so much more than these two sides: it is a vibrant, contemporary city with a thriving economy, up-to-date infrastructure, functional public transportation and a booming real estate market. It is clean, which is refreshing after being in cities where garbage is dumped on the side of the street and into rivers and streams. The traffic can be intense but drivers actually stop for red lights and no one honks their horn. It’s a very impressive place.

And now my intrepid friend Elle has arrived so the next ten days will be a true vacation, including elephant rides in Chaing Mai and a beachside hotel in Hua Hin and drinks with umbrellas in them. Pictures to follow!



Categories: Uncategorized

The Beautiful Faces of Surya Vinayak

BHAKTAPUR, NEPAL         February 11, 2069

Yes, Nepal has a completely different calendar from the rest of the world, just one of the many things I learned from the students at Surya Vinayak English Secondary School. It will be 2070 here in the middle of April, the Nepalese New Year. 2013 happened fifty-seven years ago and I am frantically searching for someone who can tell me the score of the next ten Super Bowls.

Suresh and Bina

Suresh Kaphle and Bina Panday Kaphle

For two weeks I lived and worked at the school under the guidance of Bina Panday Kaphle and Suresh Kaphle, who own and manage Surya Vinayak and fight the good fight against the economic tide, Nepalese politics and corruption, and the fast-rising rents in the rapidly growing Kathmandu suburb of Bhaktapur.

Suresh left home at age 16 and came to Kathmandu where he quickly got a job in a school, and he eventually also opened a small vegetable shop with his brother. He would get on his bicycle each morning at 2 a.m., ride for an hour to buy vegetables wholesale, ride the hour return trip and open the shop by 4:30.

In 1999 the previous owner of Surya Vinayak, a customer in his shop, had potential buyers for the school back out at the 11th hour, and she asked Suresh to come manage the place for three months. At the time there were six kindergarten students and a host of financial and other problems. After three months there were 19 students and fewer problems. Suresh made a deal to purchase the

Aidan Witts and Will Fooks

Aidan Witts and Will Fooks

school with the dream of it being private but still open to everyone. Bina gave up her career as a clinical psychologist to take over as principal. “We have the same dream,” says Suresh. And they have passed up a much easier life with relatives in Canada to pursue it.

They were only permitted by the government to add one class per year, so it took them ten years to get to grade 10, where they remain today; students go elsewhere for their final two years of high school (the government would charge them 500,000 Nepalese rupees to add the last two grades). The school has almost 300 students now, ages 2 to 16. Sixty-seven of the students are on “scholarship”, and ten of them live in a house adjacent to the school along with Bina and Suresh and their daughter, Subi, and, for a time, me and fellow volunteers Will Fooks (18, from England) and Aidan Witts (21, from Australia).

Class Eight

Class Eight

Suresh’s primary job now is traveling the district on behalf of Cerebral Palsy – he has 1200 kids with CP under his purview – and on one occasion he met a young CP victim named Harish Chaudhary and asked him to write anything he wanted to. “He wrote just four words,” says Suresh. “‘I want to learn’. Bina and I immediately

Harish also plays a mean game of chess

Harish also plays a mean game of chess

brought him into our family.” Harish, 15, has won regional awards in science and math, and also art, in a category called Differently Able.

Then there is eight-year old Ronan, who at 18 months had an abusive, alcoholic father and a mother who ran away from it all, and serious bronchial and other medical problems that required frequent visits to the hospital. Into the family he came, and now he is healthy and happy and full of mischief.

I had far too little time with the wonderful students at Surya Vinayak. They are just beautiful, always smiling, and are unfailingly polite: “Good morning, sir!” “May I come in, sir?” And most of them are smart as whips. I was going to teach English, but in classes eight, nine and ten, which I was assigned, their English was already outstanding, so we worked on creative writing in preparation for a test they will all have to take at the end of their tenth-grade year: short stories, factual news reporting, cover letters for a job application. And every day one of them would just stun me with something elegant or compassionate and mature beyond their years.

Class Nine

Class Nine

It was in between classes that we had the most fun, playing table tennis with a rolled up newspaper as a net, or just talking about sports and travel and technology. I knew I was in trouble the first day when a very personable

Prashant, the football star, and Aneesh, the rock star

Prashant, the football star, and Aneesh, the rock star

tenth grader named Prashant asked me where I was from. “Oh, the United States, they are 21st in the world in math and 25th in science, but they are first in confidence,” he told me with assurance. “That’s why they are great.”

In 1951 Nepal had a literacy rate of 2%, but now it’s over 60% and they have kids like Prashant who, when I asked him what he wanted to be, said: “I will be something great. But if I can’t be something great I will marry a rich woman and be a house-husband and play video games.” Gotta love a 16-year-old with a plan.

Bina and Suresh rent part of two buildings for the school, a small muddy field for exercise and the adjacent house where they live. But several years ago the biggest and best six-lane road in all of Nepal was built just yards from the home and the subsequent development and rent hikes have been debilitating. Their teachers make one-third of what teachers make at public, government-funded schools because of the corrupt political and educational system, yet Surya Vinayak consistently turns out better results, higher test scores, more capable kids.

Suresh and Bina constantly worry about the future. They dream of owning their own property and not being at the mercy of landlords, of having fields where the kids can play their games, of having a bigger house so they can

The ever-adorable Seka.

The ever-adorable Seka.

bring in more children in need: the next Ronan, the next Harish.

“Our hope is for a small, integrated school that is open to all, somewhere in the village again, like we once were.” says Suresh, “But economics are preventing this, so we are always concerned. We wonder how it will be with Harish and the others. We worry our dream will die.”

On my final day at Surya Vinayak I asked the students in each of the three classes to write an essay about where in the world they would most like to visit and why; what they would see and do there; how they think the trip would change them. All the essays were terrific and I still have them, but my favorite was from Aron Bhattarai, a shy, diminutive tenth grader. Before class he had asked me the difference between politics in Nepal and in the U.S. and we had a long discussion. His goal is to clean up the filth and pollution in Nepal. In class he read with great passion an essay about Nepal, about how it was a waste of time and money to go anywhere else, about his desire to see it become a developed nation. From where I stood I could see the big letters he had written at the bottom of his paper, and he read the final sentence with the same conviction with which he had written it: “I LOVE MY OWN COUNTRY!”

The kids had a surprise farewell for me that day and a lovely, poised eighth grader named Preeti read something special she had written and gave me a huge card her class had made wishing me well on my journey, with pictures of some of Nepal’s cultural icons and the names of every student and teacher. Bina put a red “tika” in the middle of my forehead for good luck, but at that moment I couldn’t possibly have felt any luckier.

If they were born in a developed country most of these kids would become scientists or doctors or whatever they wanted to be, and hopefully that will still be the case, but it will be so much more difficult in a country that has the second greatest capacity for hydropower in the world but can’t manage to get electricity to its people for more than eight hours per day (soon to be two). But then their intelligence and compassion are matched by their joy for life and capacity for happiness, and they have Bina and Suresh fighting for them, so I know they will be OK.

Class Ten. (Arun is in the middle in the red cap.)

Class Ten. (Aron is in the middle in the red cap.)

The irrepressible Ronan.

The irrepressible Ronan.




Categories: Uncategorized

Pokhara, Paragliding and the Himalayas

The first full weekend in Nepal I signed with some other Projects Abroad volunteers to visit Pokhara, Nepal’s “Adventure Capital” and the country’s third-largest city. Early on a Friday morning nine of us departed Kathmandu by bus along with Zokul, our guide for the weekend.

The ride to Pokhara was about eight hours, including one flat tire and three stops for food and bathroom breaks. It was primarily downhill, and it took us through a variety of vegetation and diverse topography. As we descended there were areas that reminded me a great deal of Jamaica, with broad-leafed palms, verdant surrounding hillsides and terraced agriculture. Much of the trip was along a narrow, switch backed road high above a river, and it was a lovely and stark contrast to the hustle and congestion of Kathmandu.

The bus was filled to capacity with about half tourists and half Nepali citizens; I assume tour groups lease it and any remaining seats are sold to the locals. When we stopped for lunch it was amusing to see the natives line up for the dal baht, vegetable pakouda, and chana and aalu, while the westerners opted for Pringles and Oreos.

In the back row of the bus I met a delightful young guy named Biplab, who at age 26 is both a software developer

Biplab, my bus buddy.

Biplab, my bus buddy.

and a social worker; he is somehow managing to teach life skills to 2000 kids throughout the region. “If you get in any trouble in Pokhara,” he said, “call me, I will send some of my guys to help.”

He loves music (he was listening to some vintage Deep Purple on his computer) and was in a band in high school. “But after school some guys went to America and some to the U.K. and Australia, and I was all alone with no band. That’s when I started listening to Western music, classic rock and roll. I like to compose music, especially fusion of Western and Nepali music.”

He said that the next time I came to Nepal he’d take me to his village. “It’s not far from Pokhara, maybe 15 kilometers. We’ll go by car for most of the way, and then it’s a two-hour walk straight up. Maybe one hour if you’re a good walker.” We agreed to get together the following weekend so he could show me the “real” Kathmandu. Biplab was kind and thoughtful, humble yet proud, curious and bright, all qualities I’ve come to admire in so many of the Nepalese people:

Paddling toward Temple Island in Pokhara.

Paddling toward Temple Island in Pokhara.

The other eight volunteers from Projects Abroad were all very delightful young women from Australia, Denmark, Lithuania, Germany, Switzerland and Canada. We checked into a nice hotel in Pokhara with wifi and hot water, and then rented a couple of canoes and paddled to a small island with a temple on it. Later Zokul took us to a good restaurant with a live music and dance show. It was a similar instrument configuration to the club I had visited in Kathmandu, but much more soothing with the ladies dancing instead of singing.

The next morning we left the hotel at five, walked around the lake that is the centerpiece of the city and then headed straight up a mountain. It got very steep very quickly and two of the girls who weren’t feeling great turned back, wisely. We climbed for about four hours with one stop for a box breakfast, and around nine reached a lookout point for the Himalaya. It was not an ideal day, but through the haze we got a good glimpse of this section of the range, including Annapurna South, Annapurna 3 and the dramatic Fishtail. Seeing these mountains was one of the major “bucket list” items for this trip, and they were every bit as inspiring as I had hoped they would be.


We then walked up a road to the departure point for paragliding, which eight of the ten of us had signed up to do. We had a long wait as the company we were using went off with another group first; they had to complete their flights, pack up the canopies, do the administrative stuff and then come back up by jeep and do it again with us. It was at least a two-hour wait, which gave everyone’s butterflies a chance to multiply several times over.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFinally our pilots arrived, we paired up and got buckled in. There are straps around your thighs and waist, you are hooked to the pilot in several places, and the harness you wear actually includes a seat. My pilot was named Baloo and we didn’t do a lot of prep; he just hooked us together and told me to walk when he said walk and to run when he said run and that’s what I did, and off we went over the side.

It was dramatically evident how high people were flying in the afternoon as opposed to the morning. The early group had just followed the contours of the valley down to the lake, but now the colorful canopies were rising perhaps 800 meters over the top of the take-off mountain. “You are very lucky,” said Baloo. “Bad wind this morning, very good wind this afternoon.”

Looking down ... big mistake.

Looking down … big mistake.

He was a good guy, concerned about my comfort and easy to converse with. He demonstrated the benefits of the afternoon wind by circling and catching the currents, and once or twice the lift was so sudden I could feel it in my stomach. He took us ever higher and Baloo said he could stay up here all day with a wind like this. I assured him my 30-minute ride would be plenty, thank you. It was very comfortable and calm, but the height we attained was staggering and a bit unsettling when you looked down. As we descended out over the lake he asked if I wanted to do some acrobatics, and he got us whipping around and pulling almost 3 Gs, he told me later. It was dizzying and not my favorite part of the ride, but the feeling passed quickly, we landed without incident and all of us were invigorated but not unhappy to be back on terra firma.

You are definitely not alone up there.

You are definitely not alone up there.

That afternoon the girls went on a tour of a cave and a waterfall and visited a museum, but the old guy opted for catching up with emails and a nap; I had done and seen what I came for. The following morning, as we loaded back onto the bus just after sunrise, we were witness to a clearer and more dramatic view of the same mountains we had seen through the haze of the previous day, a much appreciated farewell treat from our visit to Pokhara.




Categories: Uncategorized

One Day in Kathmandu

Not more than 20 minutes into the Jet Airways flight from New Delhi to Kathmandu, attendants came down the aisle with complimentary cans of Tiger Beer. I’ve been offered water or tea immediately after takeoff but this was a first. After the beer I shut my eyes for a few moments. At a sudden jolt of turbulence I instinctively looked out the window and there, in the distance to the north, were the biggest, most dramatic mountains I’d ever seen. The two

A typical street in Thamel

A typical street in Thamel

tallest peaks were fairly close together, with a V shaped notch between them. I have no idea if they were Everest and Lhotse, probably not, but no one is going to tell me differently. (Sign at the Kathmandu airport: “Welcome to Nepal, home of the world’s tallest mountain and the world’s shortest person.”)

At the hotel I was met by Melanie and Linn, who work for Projects Abroad, the volunteer organization I was registered with. They confirmed that there is no heat and that power is rationed on a schedule that depends on what part of the city you are in; it goes off for two seven-hour segments each day. It’s worse this time of year because all power is hydro generated and this is the dry season.

Our hotel was in Thamel, the tourist section of Kathmandu. The narrow streets are covered by a canopy of wires

Multitudes of wires overhead.

Multitudes of wires overhead.

and cables, and you have to wonder how much of the limited power they generate is lost in this seemingly random latticework of electrical chaos. The streets are lined with restaurants and bars, Internet cafes, money exchanges, Ncell phone stores, trekking and outdoor shops and adventure tour storefronts.

The first night was an adjustment, to both the cold – there is no heat anywhere, even in the nice hotels, and it was probably in the low 30s at night – and to the noise. Somewhere in the vicinity of our hotel – it seemed like right outside my first-floor window – was a club with live and very loud Nepali music that went from eight until midnight.

I needed a requisite tourist experience during my one full day in Kathmandu and the next morning went to visit the Monkey Temple, a famous Kathmandu landmark. It was a good 20-minute haul via a bicycle rickshaw, but my guy Hari was up to the task, and when we arrived he parked the bike and we started up a long and steep stairway together.

The first of the 365 steps to the Monkey Temple.

The first of the 365 steps to the Monkey Temple.

I stopped to take a picture and was set upon by a teenager. “Hello, where you from, U.S.? Washington, D.C., very nice city. Obama the president.” I assumed he knew the capital of every country that supplied tourists to Nepal. “You know how many steps up to the temple? Three hundred sixty-five. One for each day in the year.”

His name was Su-san – sue-SAN – and he seemed to know a lot about the place. He said that the temple was 2500 years old, which Wikipedia later confirmed. The valley had once been a big lake but this hill rose out of it and the temple was built to look down on the growing city below. You arrive at the top to the white dome of the “stupa”, with giant Buddha eyes that squint out over the valley. The temple is actually called Swayambhunath (Tibetan for “sublime trees”), but the resident monkeys are thought to be holy so that is how it is known. Legend has it that Manjushree, the bodhisattva of wisdom and learning who lived on the hill, grew his hair too long and developed head lice that transformed into the monkeys.

The eyes of Buddha look out over the Kathmandu Valley.

The eyes of Buddha look out over the Kathmandu Valley.

The stupa was surrounded by an iconic Nepalese symbol: prayer wheels. At this site alone there must be several thousand, of different sizes, all with the same Buddhist prayer engraved on them. You walk clockwise along the prayer wheels and spin them the same direction. The world can never end, so it is believed, as long as one prayer wheel is spinning somewhere, and to spin one counterclockwise guarantees bad luck.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOnce past the stupa the hilltop opens up into a surprising complex of temples and monasteries, shops and sidewalk vendors. We saw many red-robed monks talking or meditating. Su-san took me to a place that features the singing bowls that are sold everywhere in various sizes, and which are supposed to have healing powers. Chandra, the owner of the shop (and probably Su-san’s uncle) did the bowl thing on me, and it was hypnotic. Standing rigid with my eyes closed he banged the bowl with a muted mallet and held it close to my chest; my entire body vibrated, and the sensation in my head was intoxicating. He moved it up and down my body as it continued to ring and vibrate. Then he used a smaller bowl on my lower back and a smaller one still on my knee. He wanted me to buy a bowl but I just tipped him and we went on our way, to the second and third portions of the complex, which were not as interesting.

I walked back to the main gate with Hari, Su-san and his buddy, Sunil, who had mysteriously materialized. The two kids were both 16 and in high school. They claimed they were doing well, working hard.

Su-san spins the prayer wheels.

Su-san spins the prayer wheels.

“What do you want to be?” I asked.

“A doctor,” said Sunil.

“A tour guide,” said Su-san.

Their English was outstanding and I asked if they knew any other languages. They both spoke fluent Spanish, which they demonstrated, and are working on Italian and French. Impressive.

“If you’re going to be a tour guide,” I said to Su-san, “you’ll need to learn Japanese.”

“Konichiwa,” he said. Wiseass.

I then asked how much he wanted for his time, and that’s when the scam began. “No money. If you pay me money he will just come and take it.”


“The man who is watching us. He will take the money and use it for drugs. So maybe you just buy me some milk. I have a brother who is just two years old, and he needs milk. And maybe some biscuits.”

We got to the grocery store and before I knew it there were four large boxes of powdered milk on the counter and three large packages of biscuits for a total of 3800 Nepalese rupees, maybe $45 and about ten times what I was prepared to give him. “Put it all back,” I said when I saw the total.

He pouted and I gave in to one box of each, which he probably returned immediately after I left, kicking back 10% to the shopkeeper. I was certain there was no man to steal his money and probably no younger brother, but he ended up with more than I’d have given him in cash and I had to admire his creativity. He even left me his phone number. “Call me, I will show you other temples.” The kid is going to go far.

That evening I went to find the source of the music near the hotel, and at that volume it wasn’t difficult, just

My drive Hari, after a job well done and a pretty good tip.

My driver Hari, after a job well done and a pretty good tip.

around a couple of alleyway corners and through a curtain. The club was one large room with many leather chairs and couches, a sizable dance floor in front of the three-tiered stage, and a small bar. This early there were only half a dozen patrons and maybe as many staff, and they were all clearly surprised to see someone as pale as I am walk through the door.

The band consisted of four musicians, all seated cross-legged on the back two levels of the stage. One played an instrument that appeared to be a horizontal accordion, and he was very good. A second used drumsticks to beat notes on an electronic panel. The other two were percussionists, and the four of them were actually a tight little unit who were compromised by the two female singers who warbled and shrieked into microphones at an ear-splitting, Spinal Tap (11) decibel level. “For this you need a dance floor?” was my first thought. My second was: Finish the beer and get out of there; it may have been mildly aggravating in the hotel room, but live it was unbearable.

So I went back to the room and listened to something a bit more suited to my western ear: Bob Seger, singing … well, what else would it be?

Categories: Uncategorized

Travels with Prasad

In the past three posts I have mentioned Prasad Chavali, who arranged every aspect of my Indian itinerary, enlisting the support of many of his friends along the way.

Prasad grew up in Rajahmundry, not too far from Hyderabad where he now has his business. After completing his education in India in 1990 he decided to apply to OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAgraduate programs in the U.S. and the first to accept him was the Rapid City School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City, South Dakota. Speaking only a few words of English he arrived there on December 30 to two feet of snow and a temperature of minus 20 degrees, slipped and fell on the ice and immediately called Arizona State, where he had also applied. They said he was welcome so he boarded a Greyhound bus, transferred seven times and ended up in Phoenix, his home to this day and where he became an American citizen in 2002.

He got two advanced degrees at ASU, the first in Combustion Engineering and the second in Management Information Technology. While there he worked many jobs, among them ushering at Sun Devil Stadium and at the on-campus McDonalds, where he went from assistant to the back-up deep fry guy to Manager in a matter of days. He also worked at the university’s Department of Disability Resources, where he trained by spending time in a wheelchair and wandering the campus without eyesight or hearing. It was at ASU where he met his wife Lesli in a story that would make a great Lifetime movie.

In 2008 Prasad and Lesli moved to Ponte Vedra and we worked together for a few years at PGA TOUR Experiences. They are back in Scottsdale now and he has 40 people working for him in Hyderabad, which he visits four times a year for three weeks at a time. His company is a technology solutions provider and he has a dozen or so clients. Last year he also started a Computer Programming Institute that is doing well. Prasad is a very smart guy and is finally having the success he deserves.

Prasad at the house where he was born.

Prasad at the house where he was born.

He flew in and met me in Hyderabad and we worked for a few days, and then headed to his hometown of Rajahmundry for a whirlwind 24 hours. That first afternoon we visited the house where he was born, places he lived, schools he attended, neighborhoods where he and his buddies hung out and the temples where they prayed, the stairs to the Godavari River where they went swimming and flirted with the girls … it was a intense three-hour look into the formative years of a friend and I was honored to be there.

I asked Prasad to tell me about a key moment in his life. His freshman year in high school he was the new kid and no one knew him, and they announced the class rank for the year and his friend R.K. was first, as always, and when they read Prasad’s name second his life was forever altered. “It changed my status immediately and was the first time I realized I might be capable of achieving something,” he told me, “so it was a very important moment for me. Also, in India girls didn’t go for the macho guys, the athletes, no one was even thinking about sex. They liked the smart guys because they wanted someone who could make a life for them.”

That night we spent some time with a group of guys from Prasad’s high school days, most notably our gracious host Hari, who oversees fire department services for the entire region. A couple of the guys tried valiantly to communicate with me in English but Prasad spent most of the night translating. We all had a few drinks, Hari brought in some food, and after dinner at the others’ urging a teacher named Murthy sang a beautiful, dramatic song about frustration, which was evident from the way he acted it out even though I had no idea about the words.

A night out with the boys.

A night out with the boys.

These guys went back and forth, the goal of each song to evoke a specific response — frustration, romance, havoc, anger, sympathy, pathos, vigor, fear, fantasy – and as they traded off the songs became more and more animated. I chimed in with some Beach Boys, and when that flopped I segued into a stirring rendition of Johnny B. Goode, at which point I lost them altogether. But hey, an A for effort.  In any case it was an exceptional day, well away from temples and palaces and museums and dead center in the authentic heart of India.

After one more day back in Hyderabad Prasad and I flew north for the final five days of this Indian adventure in the Golden Triangle: New Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. We started in Agra, arriving just before sunset at the Taj Mahal. We walked a long street lined with vendors and those pesky “walking merchants”, paid our fees ($15 for me, 40 cents for Prasad … they do that all over India), and entered the grounds.

Our guide gave us the lowdown. The Taj was built between 1632 and 1653 by the grief-stricken Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died during the birth of their 14th child. I’d seen many photos of the Taj Mahal, of course, and a few days earlier was sent a link to a beautiful 360-degree panorama of the Taj and surrounding area. Still, I wasn’t prepared for the impact when we walked through the entry arch and saw it in all its glory. It literally took my breath away. The sun was low over our left shoulders and gave the white marble a beautiful amber glow. The Mughal architectural style incorporates components of Indian, Persian, Ottoman, Islamic and Turkish styles of architecture, and it is stunning.


On the west side of the domed mausoleum is a huge mosque, and on the south side is an identical building that was constructed only for purposes of symmetry; it’s a guesthouse in which no one has ever stayed. The minarets at the four corners are tilted two degrees so that if they should become compromised during a typhoon, they will fall away from the mausoleum.

The mosque just west of the Taj Mahal.

The mosque just west of the Taj Mahal.

Not long after the completion of the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan was deposed by his son and placed under house arrest at Agra Fort, just across the river. He died there, on an overlook where he would gaze at the Taj, the resting place of his beloved wife. He is buried next to her.

From this terrace in Agra Fort where he was under house arrest, Shah Jahan could see his Taj Mahal, and this is where he died.

From this terrace in Agra Fort where he was under house arrest, Shah Jahan could see his Taj Mahal, and this is where he died.

The next day we visited Agra Fort. Agra was actually the capital of India until 1638, and between 1565 and 1573 Akbar the Great built this fort to house the government and to protect it from potential attack. Only 25% of the fort is open to the public; the remainder serves as India’s Pentagon and is home to the military.

Akbar was great indeed. He had four wives and 360 concubines, which by our calculations gave him one night of rest per year. He is also credited with inventing the king size bed.

From Agra we drove west to Jaipur, an interesting city close to the desert that borders Pakistan. It’s drier, the trees are closer to the ground, and it’s reminiscent of the American southwest. We went immediately to the impressive fort there that includes a 27-kilometer long “great wall” protecting it and the surrounding area. We were entertained by a family of Gray Langur monkeys that followed us for a while.


And finally we returned to New Delhi, the nation’s capital. As you’d expect for the seat of government it is India’s nicest, greenest city, with trees and many parks, gated embassies and well-maintained government buildings. Our one full day there was Republic Day, one of India’s major holidays. We had hoped to see the Republic Day parade but couldn’t score tickets, so we took advantage of the light traffic and saw two wonderful sites: the Qutab Archeological complex of ruins, and the Lotus Temple. Qutab features the impressive Victory Tower, visible from all over this part of the city, and ruins of mosques and crypts.

Victory Tower and ruins at Qutab Archeological site.

Victory Tower and ruins at Qutab Archeological site.

The Lotus Temple was built by a new world religion called the Baha’i faith, which is dedicated to uniting “all races and peoples of the world in one universal Cause and one common Faith.” It’s an impressive building shaped like a lotus flower – it reminded Prasad of the Sydney Opera House – and with it being a holiday and with no fee to enter, people were checking their shoes and pouring in. They let about 200 people in at a time for five minutes of quiet reflection as people read or sang passages from a variety of religions; a young woman read The Lord’s Prayer, for example. The interior was very simple and lovely: no statues, no statements about any specific religion. It was a very calming place to spend a few moments.

The Lotus Temple.

The Lotus Temple.

And so tomorrow Prasad will fly back to Hyderabad and I will fly to Nepal and leave India behind. It’s been a very full and unforgettable three weeks, thanks to, among others, Kiran, Subbu, RK, Srini, Phani, Hari, Dr. Prakash and of course Prasad Chavali. He was a good friend before this trip and now he’s a friend I would trust with my life, and you can’t put a value on that.


Categories: Uncategorized

Itinerary Update

The final post from India is on its way momentarily, but since a few people asked if I would publish the remaining itinerary and since communication is going to be iffy for the next 16 days, I thought I’d do that first.

Jan. 27 – Feb. 12       Nepal

Feb. 12 – March 5     Thailand (Bangkok, Chaing Mai, Hua Hin)

March 5 – 20             Cambodia and Vietnam

March 20 – 26           Tahiti

March 26 – 30             Easter Island

Mar. 28 – Apr. 16      Chile & South America (TBD)

April 16 – 27               Mexico (Mayan ruins)

April 27 – May 4       Cabo

May 5                           Have to be somewhere in Mexico on Cinqo de Mayo, right?

May 6 – 31                  TBD … hoping to get to Cuba in there somewhere.

June 1                          Home!

I’m not sure what the next 16 days have in store, only that I will be teaching English to kids ages 3 to 15 and apparently living in an environment with no heat or electricity, but it will be a wonderful adventure, I’m sure. On February 12 I fly to Bangkok and will spend the first two days thawing out, getting back in touch with everyone and finalizing the remainder of the trip. Best wishes to all until then!

Categories: Uncategorized

Blog at