Happy birthday Adele,
Happy birthday Adele,
Happy birthday Adele Rose,
Happy birthday to you!

Day One Hundred and Sixty Two November 27th

Ha Long bay is on everyone’s Vietnam hit list for good reason.  When you wake up on an old wooden boat anchored in a beautiful calm bay, surrounded by the rest of the fleet and in the shadows of limestone spires you understand the fascination with the place. It is stunning to the senses and really, really beautiful.  

Top deck has Tia Chi at 7a for those so inclined, like Adele, though she is an observer not a participant.  I cannot get by the deck one floor below serving coffee.  Today we are off to visit a cave before breakfast that they locals call “Beautiful and Amazing!”  Our cruise director has promised an explanation of this unique name when we arrive.  We can hardly wait.

Once again we board the small launches for the short trip, this time over to the cave.  This is nutty.  The cruise director gets us all together dockside and then has our boat passengers fall in line with all of the other boat people to march up a cliff to see these big caves in the side of the mountain.  The caves have been wired with electricity and are lit up like a Christmas tree so tourists can snap photos of stalagmites and stalactites that may or may not look like dragons, Buddha, fish and assorted other things.  The Vietnam Ministry of Tourism is responsible.  No doubt. 

When our director gets us all hovered around him to announce why the locals have named the cave “Beautiful and Amazing” he pauses and encourages us all to guess.  People throw out various things.  He just smiles and nods, “No!” He finally declares, “It is because this cave IS beautiful and amazing!”  Really?  Did he just say that with a straight face?

We can’t get back on the big boat soon enough.  As we sail back to port we enjoy a nice buffet breakfast, it is all so civilized this cruising thing.  Not that I would ever do it again mind you.  Well, maybe if they had sitters for the kids.  By 11a we are back on the road to Ha Noi and headed for a 6:15p flight to Laos.

The drive is equally brutal this time around only it goes by much faster.  It figures when we have time to burn the traffic is light and roads clear. We just can’t get a break and end up at the airport four hours before our flight.  This is very poor party planning on the part of Ann Tours.  

There is nothing in the Ha Noi airport.  Nothing.  The food is really bad, the waiting areas uncomfortable, our check in gate is closed until two hours pre-flight and we are all feeling a bit ill from the van ride. Somehow we make it through.   

I spend a good bit of time trying to find dollars.  It is weird, they want us to use dollars but seem to be hoarding them at the same time.  I can get pretty much any other currency except dollars. I toy with the idea of trying to pass off Euros, they are easy to come by, but the Euro is in a downward spiral and no one wants them.  I need good old USDs to get our visas in Laos. 

At 6:30p, after four long hours of down time, we leave Vietnam, lift off from Ha Noi and head over the mountains to Laos.  This country has been on our wish list for years.  

When you get out of the plane in Laung Prabang it feels a lot like the really small airports in Hawaii.  The ones with a single runway, a small building for logistics and a couple of people standing around to make sure everything goes OK.  The ones that refuse to take the $40 dollars we need to enter the country in Vietnam Dong, New Zealand dollars, a few spare Euros or a handful of Swiss Francs.   

We hold up the line for a while as they sort things out.  In the end they send me off to the cash machine to pick up Laos Kips.  This sounds easy enough except that I may have reached our limit taking out money in Han Noi thinking the would take Vietnamese currency in the country next door.  No such luck, I get the sense the two countries are not on good terms.  It’s like bowling for dollars with these ATMs.  With some luck I bowl a strike and somehow it spits out another million.  We are on our way.

Sa Bai Dee! Excuse me? Sa Bai Dee, Carcano fam-i-ly!  It is Joy, our guide here in Laos, greeting us with a big warm smile and a welcoming “hello” in Laotian.  Laung Prabang is a small city compared to where we have been and most of the people live out side the city center in the surrounding villages.  The city itself feels very small as we wind our way from the airport to the hotel.  It is dark outside and we are all half asleep.  The streetlights take on that hazy glow that comes with fatigue.  It is so different than the world we just left.

We are staying at the Villa Maly, a small boutique hotel close to the town center.  It is comfortable but the room is very small and we are all one top of each other.  Not exactly what we expected but it’s workable for a few days.  The kids get to sleep under the mosquito net in the bed with mom and I pull the straw for the floor.  I trust the malaria pills will be effective.

Day One Hundred and Sixty Three November 28th

Laung Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage city of twenty four thousand people and is listed as “one of the best preserved cities in South East Asia.”  I am not sure it deserves such accolades but it is a nice place to hang around for a few days, especially after the insanity of Ha Noi.

The buildings are low, the streets tree lined and the place feels very open and manageable.  There is a heavy French influence and much of the architecture reflects the days of Colonial rule.  Our first stop is at one of the large converted government building that now houses the Laos Cultural museum.  

Vince is cranked up so we need to stay outside while Teri and Adele check the place out.  Apparently it is filled with Buddha statues. Not surprising.  It also houses some stuff from the last king.  It’s all kind of weird.  I have no idea what happened to the last king but apparently it has something to do with the war and it happened in the mid-70s.  Everything in this region happened in the mid-70s.  

For some reason the king is no longer and all of his king stuff went in to the museum.  It feels like its all just sitting there, waiting for him to return: there’s a Lincoln Continental from the mid-60s, a couple of crowns, some jewels. Overall it is kind of bleak and a bit depressing.

The Lincoln Continental sparks a conversation about the relationship with America and how the people here feel about us.  Joy pauses for a second and then explains, “During the war they dropped a lot of bombs, 1.7 tons of bombs for every single person in Laos.” He pauses again, “and many of them are still lying around.”  It’s an awkward moment: enough has been said.

We pop in and out of a few more temples.   They are familiar to us from our prior travels, the incense burning, an occasional bell or chime, the giant golden statues of Buddha.  It all feels very comforting in a way.  The monks run about in orange robes attending to what ever it is they do all day long.  A few tourists look on them with curiosity, snapping photos all the while.

Joy was one of them once.  He studied to become a monk for eight years in a temple here in Laung Prabang.  It is odd to think someone can study to become a monk then sort of drop out of the program and go on to become a tour guide.  You think of them as being like priest or ministers, part of a higher calling, dedicated for life.  I don’t get that sense here.  It sounds more like a safe harbor of sorts, a place to hang for a while to work on character development.

This city has been thriving for all of these centuries because it sits at the confluence of two rivers, the Khan and the Me Kong.  The Khan is much smaller and is flanked by steep walls terraced with gardens.  Bamboo bridges crisscross shore to shore.

This afternoon we have four hour boat ride up and down the larger one, the Me Kong, to see what life is like down by the riverside.  We should have read the description of the day a bit better before boarding, four hours is a long time with one bottle of water, no toys and two very tired children.  Plus, it’s a thousand degrees here in the jungle.

I feel like I am in a Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  Yes, I know that’s the Congo but this has the same feel to it.  The river gets narrower and closes in the higher/deeper in we go.  The people on the riverside are living in intense poverty.  It is so poor that I am not even sure “poverty” comes into the equation or calculus as a way to describe the life they live. There’s no running water or electricity, no real infrastructure.  People just live day by day on the river.  Riding by in the boat and looking on as a casual observer is uncomfortable.  

We get a bit more of Joy’s story.  He grew up in this town; his uncle was a bodyguard for the king so they lived next to the king and just around the corner from our hotel. (it turns out our hotel was once the kings house) As a child he used to play in the hotel garden.  He went to school to study English, tried the monk thing, went to Vientiane for ten years, got married and returned to the hometown to carve out a life for his young and growing family.

To get by they have two incomes: Joy’s wife is a doctor in town and clears $80 US a month.  That’s right $80 US working full time as a doctor.  Unbelievable.  Joy is taking advantage of the explosive growth in tourism to stake his claim.  He speaks English and it’s the universal currency in the guiding industry.  If you have the skill set you can make a killing off the tourist trade. 

Coming in from the outside we have no context for doctors making $80 a month. Salaries and standards of living are not comprehensible here when you come in from a first world economy.  I mean the average tourist will drop $80 on a Sa Bai Dee tee shirt and a few scarves.  The imbalance in the world is downright scary.

I notice a few plastic bottles floating in the current tucked in behind rocks and riffles.  The river is so clean that anything remotely resembling trash stands out. The water is thick with brown mud but other wise clean of pollution.   It turns out they use the plastic bottles as buoys for fishing line.  The closer you look the more you see that they are perfectly placed to catch fish.  Reading rivers becomes second nature after twenty years of fly-fishing: it is impossible to turn off when you are on a river.  It seems fish hide in the same places the world over, and there are always fishermen trying to catch them.

The lunch stop is the only restaurant for miles around and is set just off the river and back up the hill a few yards.  As we walk up from the dock in the blazing sun, kids, Adele and Vin’s ages, try and sell us birds in tiny cages and turtles in the smallest of boxes. It’s a hard sight.  

We eat for less than $20 US.  And this is in a place tourists must dine at as there are no other options.  The fried rice is excellent.  Across from the restaurant is our destination, the Pak Po Caves.  This fascination with caves is a mystery to me.  In this one they keep thousands of Buddha statues and for some reason consider it blessed.  I have no idea why.  It’s a small dingy old cave with dusty statues in the middle of nowhere.

The only saving grace is the fortune telling box.  First you draw a stick from a big pile and it has your number on it.  Then you go and pull your fortune from a box with the corresponding number.  It is all very low tech.  We are pleased to learn that Teri, Adele and Vince are all in for very good fortune.  

Joy happens to mention that Vince’s reading also says, “You can have anything you want in life.”  Now some may hear this as good news for the long term.  Vince hears it exactly as it comes out, “I can have anything I want, the number 21 in the cave said so.”  This will haunt us going forward.  Maybe forever.

After a long day on the river we end up back at our hotel pool, swatting mosquitoes and trying to cool off.  It is very hot here, even after the sun goes down.  Dinner is in town and bed follows shortly there after.

Day One Hundred and Sixty Four November 29th

I am done with poverty.  Today’s morning tour of another tiny roadside village on the tourist circuit seals the deal.  This one is billed as a place to see “Lao ethnic minority groups making crafts.”  It is a collection of huts made from sticks set on dried mud with a walking path down the middle for tourists.  

Chickens and dogs roam about.  All of the people are sitting out in the dirt trying to sell things made in China.  Old ladies are competing with small children to sell things you need to wash before touching.  You step back when they forcefully approach you.  There’s a sense of desperation about it all. 

I reluctantly buy a bracelet from a small barefoot child, ridden with lice and absolutely filthy.  It’s just too much.  We move through quickly and get back to the van as fast as possible.   They should not exploit poverty for tourism: it doesn’t play well.  Enough with the poverty.  Enough. 

From this insanity we move on to a waterfall in the middle of nowhere.  This is a land of extremes.  The waterfall looks like something out of a movie, a beautiful oasis in the middle of the jungle.  The pools are emerald green and sky blue.  Thick jungle vegetation hangs down and touches the water; big rocks create a series of waterfalls cascading down into deep plunge pools.  People (all tourists) are swinging from vines and diving from rocks.  The seen is surreal.

The kids jump right in.  Adele is the only one brave enough to actually swim.  Vince wades on the shoreline and Teri and I stand watch to make sure all is well.  A better part of an hour passes by.

We are getting used to lunches in far off places with very sketchy sanitation and really hot peppers.  If you ask for anything with a kick it may kill you.  Better a little heat to kill the germs though, best safe than sorry.  We sweat through another fifteen-dollar lunch, most of the expense going towards mom’s beers.

After lunch we cancel the rest of whatever else we are supposed to see and head back to the hotel to re-group.  We have hit some kind of limit, some wall.  From here on out we will deal with Laos on our own terms, we’ll manage to get a better sense of things out side of the tour guide staging.  

Vince:  There’s a monkey. (Pointing at an orange robed monk walking next to us.)
Mom: A monk Vince, he’s a monk.
Vince: No, the monkey, the orange one over there.
Makes you pray the monks can’t speak English…

We descend on the night market.  They have all kinds of thing for sale, all of it for the tourist trade.  I would guess that half of the vendors may be local the rest imported.  Joy told us earlier that the Laos people rent out storefronts and night stalls to the Vietnamese, take the rental money for the term of the lease and head out the countryside to get away from the growth and development.  They then return to re-rent at higher amounts in a year and then leave again.  The UNESCO designation has done wonders for Luang Prabang, or so they say. We should have come ten years ago.  

I buy a cup of Laos’s coffee.  It has a pretty solid reputation in these parts so I want to see if it stacks up to Café Bustelo.   Now I can handle pretty much anything in the coffee world, the stronger the better, but this is in a new league.  To those that know me well, it is enough to let you know that I could not finish this cup.  I actually put it down about half way through and I was forced to surrender.  It’s a humbling experience.

The kids are having all kinds of trouble going down at night.  Teri and I are actually falling asleep before they do and it is weighing heavily on all of us.  Without down time to re-group and get stuff done the adults are starting to crack.  

There is only one thing to do, head for the beach.

Day One Hundred and Sixty Five November 30th

The family sleeps in while I head out with Joy for one last tour of the local temples.  We see Wat’s Visoun and Aham: they are both clustered in one large compound.  The most interesting part of the sights is a wall depicting the afterlife in some form of hell for people that are unfaithful in marriage.  Clearly something is lost in translation.  I thought the Buddhist’s don’t believe in Heaven and Hell.  

Apparently these ones do, or maybe the French influence has something to do with the frescos.  These Wat’s were all built in the mid-1800s under French rule and we all know the French have a flare for the dramatic.  Joy tells me these are instructional messages to teach people how to behave.  Nothing like a healthy dose of the fear of the afterlife to keep everyone in line.

Adele’s birthday is tomorrow and we want to add in a few “cultural” items to her gift list per her request.  I’ve got to hand it to her she knows how to make the best of a situation.  I ask Joy to swing by a shop or two.  The first one is run by a Vietnamese women:  I know this because when I try and buy a dragon doll billed as a ‘hill tribe” item she asks for 110 Kip and Joy gets into an argument with her about the price.  

There is something going on between these two countries.  They clearly don’t like each other at lest not here in Laos.  I can’t tell if the Vietnamese are coming in with cheap labor and goods and undercutting the Laos folks or if it’s got something to do the past discretions.  Either way the dislike for each other is palpable. 

We move on.  Down the road at a night market stand we find a local Laos connection that sells me the same doll for 35 Kip.  Plus, she throws in a necklace for a few more because it’s my daughter’s birthday.  Such a world of difference.

Pre-flight we have time for one last meal that ends up being one of our best in Laos.  That is until Adele eats the pepper. No, not one of those long green peppers, it’s one of the short skinny red ones.  They look harmless, unless you are almost nine, and mistakenly not just bite but chew one hidden in your salad.  

She cries and sobs uncontrollably.  It must have been a real zinger.  The only thing that can sooth the pain is a big bowl of chocolate ice cream.  Vince gets a “sympathy” bowl as well because he is feeling the pain.  So do I just to be sure she is OK. 

So about that week in the tropics: Langkawi Malaysia here we come.

We bid a fond farewell to Joy at the airport and wish him all the best.  He has been a great guide here in Laos, if you come, call us and we will get you in touch.  

Airport security is non-existent.  It they have any concerns about terrorism at all you would never know it.  People drive on the runway here.  They pull up and board.  It’s a bit of a free for all.  They do have an x-ray machine but I don’t thinks it’s actually turned on, if it is, no one is watching.  We waltz in with water bottles, computers and electronics unchecked.  When we transfer in Vientiane they do stamp our passports so there’s some record of our coming and going but its ceremonial at best and no one seems to care.  

I am glad we went to Laos.  Next time I would avoid the UNCESCO sites, stay off the tourist routes and stay in smaller hotels.  We could not do this with kids and I think we got enough of a taste of what it could be this time around.  We may be back, not sure, but if we do return it would be on a mountain bike or hiking tour.  That’s really the way to see the country.  Just stay on the path and watch out for the UXBs.

In Kuala Lumpur we have thirty minutes between flights so we sprint to McDonalds.  Yes, that’s right, the Carcanos are eating Big Macs and Chicken McNuggets.  Unbelievable!  Wake the kids, phone the neighbors.  A large Diet Coke with ice never tasted so good.  

Gate side we sit next to a nice couple from Langkawi.  The guy is French Canadian and hails originally from Vancouver.  It seems ten years ago he left on a thirty some odd foot sail boat on a solo trip to Japan.  Forty-two days later he arrived safe and sound. Then he decided to keep on going and eventually, a few years later, he ended up in a harbor on Langwaki and never left.  It is that kind of place.

When I ask him what he likes best about the island he lists off the usual: beaches, water, people, food, and lifestyle.  Then he adds one more: they don’t care where you’re from or how long you stay.  Visas are a non-issue.  Once he realized no one cared if he left and returned every six-month to renew the Visa he never looked back.  Ten years have slipped away, now there’s a family and business and the like.  He suggests we stay as long as we like.  He knows a guy with a place if we need one, its on the beach and may have running water.  I thank him and tell him we will let him know.  If I ever get lost on purpose you should look here.

The flight is a late arrival into Langkawi.   We land just after 10p on what has turned out to be a three flight, ten-hour travel day.  Our drive to the hotel is another forty minutes down very dark windy roads.  It is hard to see anything.  We are definitely on and island: it is wet and humid and there are plenty of palm trees.  The vibe is very beach.

Our hotel comes recommended by a friend as a good place to lay low for a few days.  We have booked in for eight. When we arrive just after 11p our check-in takes forever and the kids end up asleep on lobby chairs.  We push them to check us in as quickly as possible and then head down to our room on the first floor.  Yes, down to our room on the first floor, it is one of those hotels, where you check in on the top floor and descend down the hill towards the ocean.  I like it already.

Turn out the lights - is that the sound of the ocean?

Day One Hundred and Sixty Six December 1st      ADELES BIRTHDAY!

Happy birthday Adele Rose!  Today is your day, you off to great places, your off and away!

When we wake up and things begin to come into focus we realize just where we are.  Our room is on the first floor, in walking distance to the pool and ocean.  We are on the ocean, on one of the most perfect harbors I have seen, on a fine white sand beach, with gentle waves and crystal clear warm water.  It is hot and humid, the bugs are so loud it hurts initially, then they just blend in and become part of the cadence of the jungle.  There is a kids club with games and activities, a game room with the same things for adults, wifi works everywhere, a business center, a top rated spa, several restaurants and no people.  It’s off-season so we pretty much have the run of the place.

Adele wanted to be somewhere special for this day and by all means this is one of those places.  

We have a family “surprise” party with balloons and a chocolate cake in the room. All of her friends and family have emailed and she is beyond excited.  We read through them as we open gifts.  Her gifts are the “cultural” items she wanted so much: the dress from Vietnam, the dragon and elephant necklace from Laos.  We have our scarves from the night market and a few other small things.  It is a special family time.  Nowhere near what we usually do for birthdays back home but just a special in its own way.  One we will always talk about and remember. 

Adele is a strong, independent, beautiful nine years old. I would say little girl but she’s beyond that now: maybe young lady?  I don’t know, it is all so hard to get used to.   Yesterday she was sleeping next to Archie and Beau, painting with Hannah on the back deck, starting the Yellow room, getting on the bus for the first time, performing at gymnastics, giving the first piano recital.  Tomorrow she will be downloading videos on her iPad, taking class field trips, graduating from Webster, going out with friends, dating, driving, picking a school and a major.  

Today we spend together, in the moment, thankful for the past and looking forward the future.  Today we swim way out in the ocean, hang out with Vince, mom and dad, Skype friends and family back home and smile the beautiful, innocent smile of a nine year old.  Today we celebrate.  Today we are nine.  

We love you Adele Rose, we love you…

Days One Hundred and Sixty Seven and Eight December 1-2

I am combining the next two days because that’s how things work around here.  The days blend together.  After the first few hours you stop worrying about time, then you stop worrying about the outside world, eventually you just stop worrying. Your bathing suit is the only piece of worn clothing, bathing actually becomes an option since a dip in the sea and a brisk sand scrub is probably good enough, you wake with the day light and go to sleep when it gets dark.  You get used to a buffet breakfast with strong coffee and a photocopy sheet of the days world news, lunch at the pool and eating dinner with your feet in the sand.  Naps are a required activity.  So is shell collecting hen the tide is out.  

On the first night here we get invited to a cocktail party on the beach.  The General Manager invites us all down for a get together so we can meet our fellow guests.  I assume we made the cut since there are so few of us here. 

We end up talking to a nice couple from Lebanon and Cypress.  I assume it’s the Republic of Cypress part no the Turkish part but it is hard to tell.  The guy runs some kind of music event business for six months of the year.  The woman is a practicing lawyer, with a MBA, another Masters in Political Science, and she is working on her third in International Relations.  Perhaps they are spies?  But why here in Langkawi?

They cannot believe we skipped Beirut.  These are the kids of conversation you get into standing on the beach, sipping cocktails in foreign lands.  We are Americans.  Last time I checked Beirut was not on the State Departments list of preferred vacation spots.  When we mention that perhaps it’s not safe for us to travel there they insist that the violence and potential threats to Americans are way over emphasized and exaggerated in the press.  Beirut is a happening city they say, one we should not miss.  Crazy these conversations, just crazy.  Can we get a quick flight form here?

Our friends from Singapore cannot make the trip in for the weekend.  Good friends of ours left for Singapore from LA ten years ago and never looked back.  They have been living there ever since.  We have been trying to work out a few days together here at the Amandan but the plans have fallen through. It would have been such fun and we are all a bit disappointed.  Hopefully they can join us for Borneo to see the orangutans over Spring Break in April.
Friday is coral cleaning day.  No joke.  Everyone is invited to meet at low tide to head out into the water to collect pieces of dead coral.  There is a tremendous amount of dead coral washed up on the beach here.  We head down to do our part and find out why.

Langkawi is just off Thailand.  It sits in the Andaman Sea on about the same line as Banda Aceh, a name that will ring a bell for those that remember the tsunami back in December 2004.  This area was the epicenter.  The coral is part of the aftermath and debris.  

Apparently the reefs we devastated in the earthquake and the tsunami’s waves moved entire sections into bays and coves all along the shoreline.  Debris was literally picked up and dumped into harbors, including this one, and they are still trying to recover.  There are several feet of dead coral and debris in this harbor that are covering other coral reefs fighting to survive under the rubble.  The Malaysian government is trying to clean up parts to give the reefs a fighting chance of survival.  It’s a daunting task.  I can tell you a bunch of hotel guests picking up pieces by hand at low tide is a nice start but they really need to put some more firepower behind the program if they want to effect change. Then again when you get right down to it, controlling nature is impossible.

The guy running the program tells me the water was up to a kilometer inland here on Langkawi.  Nothing like Phuket he says shaking his head, nothing like Thailand.  Even with five years passed you can still feel the pain.  Over three hundred thousand people died in these waters.  And those are ones that they know of: who knows how many more are unknown. It is an odd feeling standing looking out at the calm clear sea.  I guess you never know in life.

We have a blast picking up coral and floating it back to shore in big black plastic buckets.  Vince has his digging spoons and Adele gets to wear special gloves and her Keens in the water.  It’s a good lesson for them and it breads much discussion on coral reefs and healthy oceans.  Hats off to the Amandan for putting on the program.    

Now, where did we put the suntan lotion?