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I Meet the SouthEast

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Genocides, Non-Profit Radio Drama and Dumps, Oh My!

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

What do these three things have in common? Our Pacific Discovery group experienced them all in Phnom Penh! Phnom Penh is a city separated by a large gap with riches, development, and corporate jobs in one corner, and with entrenched, dump-diving, amputated poverty in the other. But in the space between exists a vast amount of wonderful, inspiring, and driven non-profit NGO's that are committed to helping solve to complex hurdle of poverty that so many in this country are subjected to. During our stay in Phnom Penh, we visited quite a few NGO's (Non-Governmental Organisations which basically means non-profit orgs). Non-profits have been a staple of our trip in Cambodia, as it is the poorest country that we will have visited on the trip. We would visit the Toul Sleng Prison to learn about the genocide that went on during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, Equal Access to learn about marketing messages and educating young Cambodians, and to KDFO a school for impoverished children who live in a dump (literally).

The Toul Sleng Prison used to be the main prison of the Khmer Rouge in their genocide of the educated and the weak back in the 70's. By the bloodstains, scratches and inhumane conditions unmodified from that time, it shows. Its still on the walls!!! The prison really goes for the shock factor and pictures (such as to the left) of skulls and cases of human bones make their point. After seeing all the nitty gritty of Toul Sleng, I (and many others) decided that we didn't even need to go see the actual 'killing fields' because it was just more of the same, only they actually made full sculptures and stuff out of the human skulls there. Point made, alot of people died. What wasn't as clear though was who, when, why, how concerning all the killing. From what I gathered, Communist Khmer Rouge initially focused on killing all the city-dwellers (the emptied Phnom Penh) and the educated, but sort of moved on to killing anyone, even people in their own faction. 15% of their entire population to be exact. So it was chaos. Yet most people in Cambodia don't even know much about it. This is because they were born after 79 when the communist Khmer were overthrown. It has created a big generational gap in their society.

Creating awareness and helping educate kids is were Equal Access, the NGO we visited the next day, comes in. Non-profit radio drama for sure, we got to go into the studio they use to create their radio educational programs and do our own radio drama! The messages the skits carried were...use government recognized programs if your going out of the country for work (directed towards women so thy dont get trafficked into the sex industry), and use a condom so you don't get AIDS(directed at young guys who like to party or think they're too cool). This was the most organized NGO (I thought) we had visited thus far; the difficulties of getting modern messages out to most of the (mostly rural) Cambodians is not an easy task. They explained how they managed to do that to us, the politics of working with radio stations, government censorship, the impact of their programs, and the various other ways they seek to inform Cambodians about the Khmer Rouge, sex, safety, etc. They presented their material as in a very professional yet hands-on manner, as if we were potential investors, and as a future businessman myself, this approach worked. Their website is EqualAccess.org.

The last thing our group did in Cambodia was visit a dump and take kids who went to the dump-school out for a nice day. The conditions at the dump were appalling, and the fact that people live/work there is even crazier. It looked like a scene out of Mad Max in this dump, all the bedraggled people sifting through garbage, clamoring after each new garbage truck that enters to pick-up the most aluminum cans, plastic bottles or cardboard. The people that make the most money pickuing up trash are the guys who have the most kids not in school. Very low life-spans at these dump camps too. After a walk through the dump, we went to a school at the edge of the dump called KDFO Children (I have no idea what it stands for) and took some of the kids out for some real culture, not their trash.
We went to a very nice play complete with backlit cutouts, a ladyboy actors, a small Cambodian music ensemble, and some wonderful actors. The play was of some famous Cambodian mythology and, although performed in Cambodian, its plot consisted of some fued between the king of the monkeys (a man) and the king of the Tigers, complete with a romance subplot. The kids enjoyed this, and the subsequent play workshop immensely, and it feels wonderful to have helped these children have a unique experience and expose them to some 1st-worlders despite their awful circumstances.

All in all, experiencing the 3rd-world in such a full on way has been a complete culture shock, and I am still trying to fully grasp my head around questions and answers of extreme poverty. Through our Pacific Discovery groups visits to various NGO's including Equal Access, Friends Restaurant (+vocational education, job training), and KDFO Children, I am happy to see that there are many motivated individuals out there figuring out solutions, and managing to make an impact despite the wide gaps of culture and communication that lie between us. Hope everyone is well!

(The city center Paragon)

permalink written by  JohnJack_Crestani on March 13, 2009 from Phnom Penh, Cambodia
from the travel blog: I Meet the SouthEast
tagged Cambodia, Johncrestani, Pacificdiscovery, Phnompenh, Equalaccess and Ngo

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Small Town Takeo Cambodia

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

On the road in Cambodia and I have no idea what to expect. Other than learning something about genocide and seeing a photo here and there of Angkor Wat, this land contains no prenotions for me to draw upon. I somehow guess that the people here will be unfriendly and hardened due to genocide. Boy was I wrong.

As our two vans pull into our homestay in Takeo, Siphen and her entire family receive us with big smiles and warmth. We wold stay the next three nights on mattresses in large rooms in her family complex. Cambodians are a very family oriented people, and tend to all live together in close groupings of buildings or a large house with the rest of their sisters, husband, parents, etc. Upon marrying, men are expected to move into their wives house. The women do much work around the house and taking care of their parents that it would be very hard for it to be done any other way. Another interesting thing about the family is that they have a big pond (pictured left) that is actually the result of a B52 bomb crater that destroyed their old house 30 years ago. And reluctantly for us their were no hard feelings.

We visited the local Takeo county high school the next morning and helped the kids practice English and to give them something out of the ordinary. It was alot of fun, we made the kids really nervous and many of them were shy to begin with, but many genuinely wanted to learn English, it is seen as the way up in these Asian societies. Another parallel is that in all the countries we have visited, the elementary, and high school systems are set up the same way as the US; a child goes to middle school with the same kids, then goes to a larger general high school with kids from further away, then college. From conversations with various Europeans, I guess it isn't that way in their countries, after 16 they transfer to a more specialized school then gap years, mentorships or attend college.

The one other person staying at our homestay was a very friendly American named Derek who worked for the Peace Corps in Takeo. Among other duties, he had taken a side-project in his spare time to train and coach a girls basketball team at the high school we were visiting. Basketball is just catching on in Cambodia so having an American coach gave the team a great edge. We got to watch one of their games and MAN, are these girls aggressive! The refs dont really call fouls and in 3 instances a girl fight almost broke out after an elbow or a trip. Derek's team ended up winning 48-2 so no wonder the girls were getting a little mad.

The next days were spend lazing around the homestay, helping build a house (kindof) and visiting a Cambodian non-profit elementary school. After this sweet homestay in the Cambodian country, we headed west to Phnom Penh, the economic and social capital of Cambodia.

permalink written by  JohnJack_Crestani on March 12, 2009 from Phnom Penh, Cambodia
from the travel blog: I Meet the SouthEast
tagged Cambodia, Takeo, Siphenmeas and HighSchool

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Saigon is the Bomb

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Saigon is the newest, richest, and most lively city in all of Vietnam, and has a lot of history with the US through the Vietnam War. (The government tried to change its name to Ho Chi Minh City but all the locals still call it Saigon.) From the old US Arny bases to the VietCongs Cu Chi Tunnels and the various museums concerning the war, the area sheds alot of history. The group and I visited the Cu Chi tunnels the first day in Saigon, which lie roughly 20 miles north of the city. This complex boobytrapped tunnel system spanned hundreds of kilometers and was an important base for the Viet-Cong (the bad guys).
I was amazed they had a base so close to the American HQ in Saigon, but I learned why. The tunnels were almost completely self-sufficient; the men only came up for a short time at night to empty their toilet pots. Even the smoke from their cooking was directed through a series of vents so that it would emerge far away from the tunnel, to protect from bombs. Even so, something like 25x more Viet-Cong died for every American that died there (1,000 something Americans KIA, 25,000 VC KIA). Shown to the left is an example of a tunnel system. The boobytraps were so hidden that the soldiers could only stay in their own tunnels simply because those were the only ones they knew where the traps were.

Saigon itself is a very modern city though Western food chains are just starting to come into the city (I'm DYING for a good hamburger...) There is everything a tourist would want, and loads of Viet businesses, banks, tall buildings, fast cars, and large developments. This is where all ambitious or poor Vietnamese looking for a job end up, and it shows. There are people everywhere trying to sell you things. I made a joke, you don't need to even go anywhere in Saigon, sellers walk up to you with anything and everything. Books, food, snacks, drinks, hookers, drugs, motorscooters, bracelets, clothes...and this was just after walking back from dinner!
Only one of those illegal offerings caught my eye though, and that was the $3 book catalogs they had! Vendors and bookstores would have little book catalogs with the front and back covers of popular books copied on a page, you would flip through, point to the one you wanted, and only pay $3. Its genius. And the currency they use is dollars(mostly), which makes budgeting 10x easier and gives a cool little peace of mind.

Interesting Fact #39: On almost all men aged 40 and above who have moles, they sport mole-hair a couple inches long and its quite unsettling. Asian men regard their facial moles with reverence and allow their mole hair grow to its full length. Its very weird.

After a nice stay in Saigon for two days, we were off for the Mekong Delta region to the south of Saigon. This area is incredibly populated with Vietnamese and also ethnic minorities because it contains the most productive land and consistant water supplies in the entire country. While many of the northern provinves are able to produce only one crop of rice each year, the Mekong Delta produces three. The entire area is flat, and either built or farmed out. We spent an entire day of biking through the region and the region is flat, dense, and completely built out with many houses with small farms with a large commercial boulevard here and there. Canals run along almost every single pathway. The transportation through the entire region is by small concrete and hard-dirt pathways, big enough for two motorscooters or bikes to pass each other, but not for a car.

After all the biking was through, we arrived at our beautiful homestay situated right over the river. We ate just as the sun was setting over the river and the big sky which was breathtaking, except for the insane, relentless mosquitos. Overall my experience of Vietnam was amazing, the country has much to offer tourists, at the right prices, and with a solid structure in place to serve any need, from local touring to world-class golfing. The people are very ambitious and the most forward-thinking and progressive I have come across, this is definately a country whose economy is sure to continue developing into the future. The population has put away the events of the past, mostly due to the population being born after the events, and the fact that American culture/society is the model they take after (though their progress resembles China). I would highly recommend both Hue and Hoi An as beautiful and cheap travel destinations for those looking to vacation, and a visit to Saigon for the experience of the museums and the big city.

I hope everybody is doing well, leave comments if you can, and feel free to contact me about anything! All the best.

permalink written by  JohnJack_Crestani on March 7, 2009 from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
from the travel blog: I Meet the SouthEast
tagged Vietnam, MekongDelta, Johncrestani, Saigon, Cuchitunnels, Vietcong and Americanjohn

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Motos and Models: Having Fun in Central Vietnam

Hoi An, Vietnam

After Hanoi and northern Vietnam, our Pacific Discovery group headed south to warmer waters in Hue and Hoi An. After a long bumpy overnight train ride from Hanoi, we finally ended up in beautiful Hue. A welcome change from the grit of Hanoi’s streets, Hue’s clear open sky, beautiful riverside parks (complete with ancient and modern sculptures), and less congested streets helped lighten everybody’s mood and help us relax. After a nice jog along the river and a little sight-seeing, I returned to the hotel for the afternoon ‘mystery activity’. It was a motorcycle tour of the city! 14 Americans riding around on motorscooters woohoo. And we were off.

We toured around two Buddhist temples, a monastery, an incense making area, French gun-turrets and a royal palace now tomb. Truly too many places to show pictures of here, though I chose to post up the picture of the sticks incense are made from to the left, and a picture of a Buddhist pagoda is shown at the top of this entry. Pagoda’s are built at some but not all Buddhist temples and are always seven stories high. The French turrets were quite interesting because they were a very new attraction, it had only been two years ago that they finished clearing the landmines from the site.
The turrets were used on ships of the Vietnamese traveling up the river back in the 50’s and 60’s. One theme was common among the separate sites; the endless rice paddies that stretched in between every one of them. Vietnam is one of the largest rice-producing nations and it shows. After Hue, we would travel another 3 hours across endless stretches of rice fields to the beach and resort town of Hoi An.

High fashion city meets beach town in Hoi An! Not their fashion, not the Italians fashion, but Your fashion. This small beach town has hundreds and hundreds of tailors and tailoring shops with every cotton, silk, linen and polyester known to man and its up to you to point to something you like in one of their catalogs, bring in your own picture of what you want, or just design it yourself. From suits($60) to shoes($20) to boardshorts($15), they make everything, and quick, usually a day maybe two with alterations. I personally got a silk pink/black dress shirt (for Vegas), baby blue silk shoes (also for Vegas), and some really cool boardshorts (not exactly for Vegas). I finally shaved off my 'Wolverine' facial hair, which may have helped me during the groups ‘fashion show’(complete with thumping Vietnamese music and judges...) I came away with the award Hoi An’s Next Top Model.

Enough about that though, Hoi An as an awesome beach town is much more interesting. From luminescent waters at night to some guy I watched herding buffalo by bike, it doesnt really get boring. The bike-herding was a peculiar sight I saw while sitting in a cafe having a drink, wasn’t able to snap a picture but yea, it was quite a shock for someone not used to seeing water buffalo being herded through a city. That night was another annual event, ‘guys night out’. Craig, Jeremy, Will, Colin and I ditched the ladies for a night of beer, pool, beef, and biking. Awesome times. And all this combined to have us end up late night on the beach. But not any beach. The waters at Hoi An possess a special type of plankton that lights up like a starry aura around you when you swim through it. The plankton react to movement so that when you swim in it, splash it, or move a part of your body through it, a thousand bright tiny stars immediately illuminate. Truly the most magical experience of my trip so far and one that I will never forget.

If there’s anyone who you recommend I add to my blog’s mailing list, or questions you have about the particulars of traveling/touring in SE Asia, please shoot me an email at Jack.Crestani@Gmail.com. Cheers!

Strike a smile, the winners of the fashion show

permalink written by  JohnJack_Crestani on March 6, 2009 from Hoi An, Vietnam
from the travel blog: I Meet the SouthEast
tagged Vietnam, Hue, Hoian, JackCrestani, Johncrestani and Pacificdiscovery

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City of the Soaring Dragon

Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi is the capital and also the largest city in northern Vietnam with 7 million people. Ruthlessly crowded with motorbikes, people and goods-for-sale along the tiny winding roads, my first impression was that this city was completely nuts. Coming from the jungles and mountains, I felt overwhelmed at first by the congestion, claustrophobia, and from crossing the street even in this super-dense city. Nor would it be considered a particularly pretty city; there aren't many parks and exhaust fumes tend to discolor most of the buildings, and the weather is gray cloudy most of the year.

Things are even CHEAPER in Hanoi though, than from the rest of the cities I have been in thus far! I am constantly amazed to see how cheap things are and am just surprised they can go lower than Bangkok or Chiang Mai. DVD's were only $1.75 and entire shows or sets of movies could be purchased for $5. Movies and TV shows are categorized completely differently than they would be in a Blockbuster or Best Buy back in America, they are organized by actor, director and show, not by genre. There are set compilations offering all movies by a certain actor such as Brad Pitt, or all the seasons of The Simpsons in a little box. And yes, they all work.

Our Pacific Discovery group also had the privilege of visiting both the 'Temple of Literature' and a prison used for the imprisonment of American's during the Vietnam War. The Temple of Literature was slightly interesting, it was Vietnams first university and founded almost 1000 years ago. A little band played ethnic Vietnamese music which made it worth it for my easily-bored self. The prison was more interesting, it housed John McCain during his time as a P.O.W. The walls and the cells looked haunting (pictures to come soon, bad internet here...) and the aura of the atrocious conditions made everyones mood very weary. The text along the walls explaining both the French treatment of Vietnamese prisoners and the Vietnamese treatment of American prisoners painted completely different stories, and was obviously mostly propaganda. I somehow doubt the Americans received 3 healthy meals a day and mostly played chess, basketball, and helped plant trees.

The Vietnamese tend to like Americans, and I have not encountered any situation during my time here to suggest otherwise. The population is mostly young and under 35, and American's were part of a long chain of attackers in the quest for a sovereign nation including France, Japan, and China. By the time we had come along, war was a very ingrained part of their world. Their war was not about communism, as we believed, but about independence and local rule. Ho Chi Minh simply chose communism because it provided the most distinct roadmap for economic, social, and political processes for the founding of an entirely new nation. The Vietnamese did not hold to any ideals other than a Vietnamese nation, communism was an easy path of action and nationalism to rally people under. The Communist experiment failed by the mid to late 80s in Vietnam, perhaps quickened by the West's embargo against the nation. It now seems to be a very capitalist society, allows foreign ownership of businesses, houses, etc, and actively courts foreign investment for factories. Its chief export is oil, and is the 3rd largest rice-exporter, just behind the US.

I will post more analysis of the situation here in my next post, when I am able to upload more pictures. I am currently in Saigon (in the south) and my next post will be from Cambodia. All the best!

The Lego House in Hanoi

People park their motorbikes on the sidewalk so most of the time you have to walk on the street.

A woman at the market wearing a funny t-shirt "Hunk if you (heart) my body!" They sell alot of t-shirts and jeans with misspelled words or meaningless English on them which usually turns out to be pretty funny.

A FOUR story KFC in Hanoi. Order on the first floor, recieve food on second, sit on 2, 3 or 4. Symbolically American food chains such as McDonald's or 7-11 haven't been allowed in Vietnam because of the war, although even these restrictions are starting to loosen as time goes by

permalink written by  JohnJack_Crestani on February 27, 2009 from Hanoi, Vietnam
from the travel blog: I Meet the SouthEast
tagged Temple, Vietnam, Hanoi, JackCrestani, Johncrestani, Prison and Johnmccain

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American Invasion of Vietnam: Part II, Tourism

Sa Pa, Vietnam

After five-thousand feet of steep, rigorous and back-breaking journey and Mr Cho (our guide) Cait, Taylor, Emmy and I (
) finally reached the top of Mt. Fan Xi Pan, the tallest mountain in SE Asia at about 11 thousand feet. Nothing compared to our American mountains, but hey, its a different place. Yet Setting, working, and reaching a tall goal in one day left us all with the great sense of exhaustive relief and accomplishment that made it all pay off. We hung around the top for a bit, then ventured downward to basecamp where we ate, drank some rice wine, and then watched the bright Milky Way and shooting stars until sleep. This was our trips last real intensive trek, and of the three options we were given, this was the hardest route.

A vacation town in the mountains of North Vietnam, Sa Pa exudes a very peaceful attitude, and very curious dress customs. The local H'mong peoples who live here (partially pictured right) dress in all black garb with funny hats ornamented with red and metallic things. Many of them try to sell you tribal gifts and thinga-ma-jigs such as bracelets, earings, hats, sunblock, playing cards and fruits, and many of them just hang around the market and the lake chillin'. Tourism has been a particularly good boon for this Vietnamese economy, as their communal farming of the 70s-80s was a failed experiment, and their reliance on opium and timber created a devastating economic void after the government outlawed both practices in the early 90s. The Vietnamese people adapt very well to the market economy, chiefly due to the large influence of the Chinese on the Vietnamese.

Vietnam is very different from the other mainland countries of SE Asia because their society is not as fully influenced by strict Buddhism as are Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand. Much of their influence comes from the Chinese, including their set notion of private property, their nobel dress/palaces/architecture, and their city structure.

I feel these much more Chinese attitudes have made their transition to a market economy much easier than it has been for the other countries in the entire region. The picture to the left shows an interesting cultural influence...Catholicism (see left-the Christmas tree and I, and above-the cave Jesus was born in). Many missionaries from the West worked in Vietnam during the colonial period and today they have 8 million Catholics in a country of 85 million. Even so, almost everybody celebrates Christmas, and there are many statues in Buddhist households to the Virgin Mary, Jesus, John the Baptist and even Santa Claus. The mainstream Buddhism of Vietnam and China are of a totally different breed than that of the other mainland SE Asian countries (Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos).

After Sapa, our group traveled to very tourist-populat Halong Bay. Halong Bay is a 300 square mile World Heritage region where massive limestone cliffs, caves and arches rise from the misty sea all around as far as the eye can see. The 14 Pacific Discovery group members and I had a boat (
) chartered for us while we sailed along for three days, kayaked, swam, and explored limestone caves I spent my free time mostly reading, enjoying the nice scenery atop the boat, and swimming. School can't get much better than this.

Some more pictures for everybody... Click on the photos to make them larger

Taylor, Emmy, Cait and I at the pinnacle of Mt Fan Xi Pan (Mt Fancypants)

Me achieving enlightenment at the top of the mountain of course.

A cool photo of the bamboo forests we tread through. An interesting side-note, wild marijuana plants actually grew around here!

Another mountainside photo, reminded me a bit of Yosemite in NorCal.

Vietnamese love Jesus!

Colin and I inside a cave in a limestone cliff of Halong Bay

More Halong Bay

permalink written by  JohnJack_Crestani on February 23, 2009 from Sa Pa, Vietnam
from the travel blog: I Meet the SouthEast
tagged Vietnam, HalongBay, Trek, Sapa, Hmong and FanXiPan

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Luang Prabang and My Life as a Human Windshield

Luang Prabang, Laos

It all started in Luang Prabang. As the past capital of Laos and the French colonial capital, Luang Prabang is a small city with gorgeous architecture, a lively cultural life, and surrounded by plenty of natural beauty. Although in spite of all this natural beauty, I still managed to get myself into quite a bit of trouble, my clothes stolen, my motorbikes tire popped, and my camera memory cards lost in the netherworld.

Let me begin with the architecture. It is stunning and a welcome relief in an otherwise crippled third-world country. The french district (and tourist/nice area) of Luang Prabang lies between on a small but dense peninla between the mighty Mekong River and the Dam Thiong River.

In this area lies the royal palace, riverside resorts and beautiful gardened hotels, all for around 10-15 bucks a night. The first night our Pacific Discovery tour group got in we all went to their famous night market, where vendors sold everything from bracelets to tribal purses, and from spring rolls to bottles of rice wine with a dead cobra floating inside (really). Quite interesting although I still opted to spend my Kip on getting a much-needed massage ($5/hr, rediculous right?). One of the better experiences I had in Luang was playing pickup soccer with the local Laotian guys, it wasn't any different than back home, except the Laotians arent nearly as dirty players as you get in LA.

Clean air flying in your face, wonderful relics of nature in all directions, and complete freedom to ride; I love the open road. The fun started the next day when I decided to rent a motorbike ($20/day) and travel around the Lao locales with my friend who-will-not-be-named. It started off great, the excitement of riding, a gorgeous waterfall we wandered upon and open road in all directions. That was until the bike started shaking at 60 km/hr and I realized I had a flat. Not good when your in the middle of a foreign country, dont speak the language, the bikeshop owner has your passport, and you have the complexion of a walking-wallet. Shit. "Sabadee, You know where bike shop is?", I motion at the woman to my bike tire with my hands, make a circle and then do a popping sound. I hope this works. She smiles and gestures to the unreadable laotian sign and...biketires above the shop. It turns out I ended up right in front of a motorscooter repair shop. "1 broken chair - $5, 1 Laobeer - $1.50, 1 Coffee - $1.50, 1 Motorbike fix - $3" read the receipt. This is crazy I thought, I'm the man. Best...Luck...Ever.

And it just got better. After another 40 minutes of riding far out in the country we stopped for lunch at what looked to be a randomly placed touristarea, and chanced upon another waterfall, and it happened to be the tallest in all of SE Asia! SCORE! Things could just not get better, I really am the man! The Kuang Si waterfall is not only the tallest in SE Asia, but contains numerous natural springs, garden-of-Eden-gorgeous grounds, an Asiatic Black bear rescue center, swimming areas and rope-swings. A must-see location in Laos. After taking advantage of all of this, and after rope-swinging for a few, I return to put back on my underwear, shorts and shirt...although they are now gone.
Shit. Somebody stole them, it was near dusk, and it was a ways back to the hotel in Luang Prabang. I was a shirtless human windshield for the 40 minutes, complete with having to wipe-out flies trapped in beard every other minute. I was even less happy after the girl I traveled with told me she accidentally lost my trips worth of photos she-doesnt-know-where. SHIT.

Well life is a series of ups-and-downs, but seriously, that many in one day?! I arrived in Vietnam two days ago and just finished a 2 day trek of the tallest mountain in SE Asia, Mt. Fan Xi Pan (Mt. Fancypants) at 11,000 feet high. Blog on that soon. I hope everyone is doing well, and until next time.

-- John 'Jack' Crestani

Another example of French-Lao architecture

The gardened grounds of our hotel in Luang Prabang, the Xiang Muong Guest House.

Our flight on Valentines Day from Luang Prabang to Hanoi, where we would board a bus to Sa Pa Village between the dramatic Cat Cat mountains in Northern Vietnam.

permalink written by  JohnJack_Crestani on February 17, 2009 from Luang Prabang, Laos
from the travel blog: I Meet the SouthEast
tagged Waterfall, Laos, LuangPrabang, JackCrestani, Johncrestani and KuangSi

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Lovely Laos: Trekking in the Nam Ha River Valleys

Luang Prabang, Laos

100% pure unbridled nature. That’s what we got trekking through the beautiful Nam Ha Valley in northern Laos. Two full days of rigorous trekking (most of it seeming to be uphill…) brought our group through three Lanten villages and up, down and across more hills and jungles than I can count. But with natures glory bursting with joy out from the ground, and beautiful mountain vistas awaiting at the top of every hill, things weren’t so bad.

The end of the first day of trekking up/down/around hills left our group staying at a lodge in a Lanten village near the Nam Tha River. The Lanten’s are an animist tribal group in Laos who still live off the land as hunter gatherers, and now to some extent, traders. To give an idea of how remote we were, the village had no road, power of any sort, and the closest town was a 5 hour WALK away (this village could only be reached by walking or on the river during the wet season). So we were out there. Although ethnically Tai, the Lanten are animists, meaing they believe in nature spirits, and are very superstitious. Some examples…they throw a bit of food into nature each time they have a meal as an offering…all their houses face down-stream…married women shave their eyebrows…water buffalo guts and other oddities are hung from the ceilings in the houses to ward off evil spirits. Kinda eccentric huh? Although you have to wonder what they say think about us ‘crazy Americans’.
(BTW, sorry about the few pictures. Look at the next entry to see what happened to my camera memory cards)

People may grow up and start expressing themselves differently, but our senses of joy and happiness inherited from childhood are all the same. I’m pretty sure that’s a profound thought, or else maybe I just have taken it for granted, but playing with the children in this Lanten village had to be the most fun of the entire trek. Craig’s (genius) idea of bringing bubbles paid off 10x its cost through the magical joy the Lanten kids expressed at these colorful, floating delights. We starting blowing bubbles too and for hours these kids couldn’t get enough. They thought our camera’s were pretty cool too, but it was as if bubbles were the best thing to come from Western culture for these children. Who knows, maybe they’re right! After that, the kids proceeded to play ‘tag’ and ‘boys chase the girls’ in the river sand naked, which was pretty funny, but nice to see that, although worlds apart, kids are still kids whatever circumstances you grow up in. Sometimes bubbles bring more joy than a Ferrari (if anyone wants to trade, I’m game).

(Our lunch) That night, our group had some very interesting conversations about Bhutan, with the one outsider who trekked with our group. From idolizing and creating religious statues and staffs of penis’, to over-the-top religious imagery (in temples) involving ‘sky-clad’ demi-gods ridings flaming tigers to earth, it sounds like a very…’interesting’ culture. Bhutans form of Buddhism has embraced the very toungue-in-cheek religious teachings of a famous Divine Madman, yet take these as completely serious. After two hours of fireside explanations, I think most came out more confused than not.

After a night of wonderful sleeping (for some), we all awoke to the heavenly song of roosters bright and early at 6am. We were treated to some famous Laotian tea or coffee (both very good) then trekked our way to where the vans were set to meet us. After my run-in with some leeches (we defeated them valiantly), we finally made it across the river, through the woods, and into the clear.

A beautiful taste of Laos, a lovely sup of nature, and a quaff of humbling, back-to-basics living left everyone in this group very happy to have been able to partake of this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The guest lodge we stayed at the night before our trekking.

permalink written by  JohnJack_Crestani on February 15, 2009 from Luang Prabang, Laos
from the travel blog: I Meet the SouthEast
tagged Laos, JackCrestani, Johncrestani, Namtha, Lanten, Animist and Bhutan

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Something new To Try, Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Pie in the sky Chiang Mai finally doing the laundry Chiang Mai its good to ask why Chiang Mai� buy a lady get a guy Chiang Mai�These area all the names our group thought up to help market the city in the States because, in the words of Tony the Tiger, its grrrrrreat!

Chiang Mai is a blast and a half and during the course of the last few days our group got a much needed massage, completed an amazing race, visited a wat , and spent a morning at a Burmese children's school. And of course many amazing Thai meals along the way. (Note: Chiang Mai's time was cut in half by a 2 day visit to a rock-climbing and caving area which will be covered in a separate entry)

The economic powerhouse of northern Thailand, Chiang Mai's atmosphere is more relaxed than the massive-city appeal of Bangkok, with a mixed appeal of riverside live-music bars, beautiful temples, a sleazy sex-tourist district, numerous open-air markets, rooftop lounges, and noticeably cleaner air than its larger city cousin. Our first activity upon entering the Chiang Mai's fray (Chiang Mai literally translates to 'New City', the northern Thai area was recaptured from the Burmese only three hundred years ago), was embracing a much needed massage after three days of trekking to the Karen-tribe village. It was awesome.

The next day (Feb 1st) we were off to visit Wat Suan Dok, a magnificent temple built hundreds of years ago highlighted by the ridiculous 300-some steps (I lost count) to climb up into the main temple area, adorned with a massive golden Buddha (but beware the wandering elephant, for it expects bananas).

The 'Secret Activity' ended up being The Amazing Race: Chiang Mai. We were set-off in three groups to complete a dozen tasks as fast as possible and return by a set time to the hotel. After grueling hours of beer, sweat, and tears, The Pimp Daddies (Jeremy, Taylor, Emily Long, Mackenzie) completed the challenge first (albeit using questionable strategies), the Tiger Paws (Shannon, Jack, Katie, Emily Maeder) completed second (completed every task perfectly),
and then the Buddha Bellies (Colin, M.E., Will, E'Beth, Sam, Audrey) finished last, although (coincidentally perhaps?) they seemed to have feasted the finest that afternoon. The race involved a mix of learning about the city with visiting various places all around Chiang Mai from temples to a mall to a restaurant and more. By placing exploration in competitive circumstances, it created an inventive twist to get many of us exploring the city and interacting with the locals.

Children are the best. Yes I know there are many parents reading this who may say otherwise, but I'm talking about the younger, cuter sort. The group taught at a Burmese school this Wednesday. Some of the older students practiced their English by interviewing some of our group, while the rest (and most) of us played and drew pictures with the children. The older students were surprisingly good at English, and displayed a real drive to learn the language, while the younger kids were, well, typical kids and a lot of fun.

All-in-all, Chiang Mai is an awesome city that I wish I had the opportunity to stay in longer. The dynamic nature, fun, chillaxed people, amazing temples were a great experience for everyone, and a welcome breather from trekking, although now we are off to Laos, tune in sometime soon for the next post!

Here is a picture at the Chiang Mai Elephant Santuary of an elephant painting a self-portrait of himself....really.

Here is a picture of the Ratchadameon Sunday market, its still early so there arent many people but this place gets really crowded

Funny grafitti

permalink written by  JohnJack_Crestani on February 6, 2009 from Chiang Mai, Thailand
from the travel blog: I Meet the SouthEast
tagged Thailand, Elephant, ChiangMai, JackCrestani and Johncrestani

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Cimbing and Crawling

Chiang Mai, Thailand

I am a dirty man. In the happiest, sorest and most satisfying sense of the word. Caving on your stomach through tunnels barely wider than your body, in 100-degree putrid heat, and with little underground streams and bats occasionally paying visits, you would be just as dirty. Pepper it all up with some 300-foot rock climbing and rapelling, and you'd be cimpletely pooped.

During my Pacific Discovery tour group's 2-day break from Chiang Mai, we went to and stayed at Chiang Mai Rock Recreation Center, where we climbed, caved, roasted rice cakes, played games, and camped out.

A combination of chess and pull-ups, climbing is alot of fun, and something I enjoy dearly. Strategizing each succession of grips, clenches, and footholds combines thinking and tests your physical limits in a game where theres a clear goal, reaching the top. Thats me over to he left rapelling (descending) down one of the walls I had just scaled. If it wasnt so damn expensive of a hobby, I would definately treat myself to more climbs, more often, in more places.

We also did some rapelling into caves, loads of fun. Pretty scary though when the difference between life and falling to your death depends on how tightly you hang onto your rope as you slide down it. I prefer hanging onto at least something, alhough the 'motto' of the camp was, Discomfort=Growth. The more you put yourself into uncomfortable situations, the more growth you undergo as a person. And the more discomfort people go through, the more they turn to 'comfort' items as a reaction, such as the 'Pizza and Beer' meal our group mandated after 3 days of trekking in the wilderness. Embrace the awkward/discomfortable!

Caving was a trip. A 3-hour trip that only got deeper, hotter, wetter, and putrid-er. But we managed to embrace the discomfort, and look at how we ended up! It was a great experience, with most people agreeing never to try it again, while yours truly wanted to holy-mole deeper until I eiher found gold, dinosaur bones, or both. Calcite from the limestone formed these caves, similar to the ones in Kentucky and Tennessee. he calcite becomes slightly acidic when mixed with water, and underground streams of this acidic water form along the grooves in the rocks and eventually form large (or small) caves, slalagtites, bat dung ecosystems, etc. We crawled through spaces barely as big as our body, treaded water through underground streams, and monkey-crawled through mud and rocks. Bats even flew in our faces; One got within a foot of my face, while another actually smacked into a girls head! To say the least, after we exited the cave, we were spent, our knees all rightly bruised up, but still in good spirits.
The victory picture!

(Skip over this next part if your not into politics)

The camp was run by a Princeton graduate, I finally learned a bit about the Thai coup that happened late last year. Thai is split between two political parties, the Reds, based in the north, and the Yellows, based in the south.
The Reds are the party of the nouveau-riche, the police, and many people in the north especially around Chiang Mai. They are the new guard, business-friendly and might be compared to the GOP in the US. They were the ruling party until late last year, until they were forced o forfeit their presidency because of major money scandals, an undermined police force, and dissatisfaction. he president was also the richest man in Thailand, but was wracked by corruption scandals and abuse of loopholes.
The Yellows are considered the old guard party and represent the south (around Bangkok), the military, and the King. They took power late last year after some very symbolic non-action by the military in letting the Yellow protestors (most of the protestors on both sides were hired) to take over and shut down the airport. Bangkok airport is the only international airport in Thailand, and being very dependent on tourism, this affected the economy greatly, with many travelers jumping at the chance to cancel their trips abroad altogether because of he already sorry state of their home economies. It will be interesting to see how the politics in this country develop during the year.

(End of boring political part)

At the end of all the hoopla, camping and outdoor activities, I came away with new loves of climbing and caving, and some great times around the campfire with all the camp leaders and my Pacific Discovery friends. Here are some more pictures for everyone to check out. I will be in Laos for the next week or so, with absolutely NO internet access (it is one of the 10 poorest countries in the WOLRD) but upon my arrival in Saigon in 7 days, I will fill everyone in. Thanks for reading!

The name of the camp was Crazy Horse, aptly named after this distinctive looking rock that crowns the mountain from which all the climbing walls and caves run around and under.

Some of that beautiful cave light. This is NOT the cave we went caving in. This cave is like a walk in the park compared to that one.

Me pooped, lying on a bamboo mat, after climbing and caving.

permalink written by  JohnJack_Crestani on February 6, 2009 from Chiang Mai, Thailand
from the travel blog: I Meet the SouthEast
tagged Rockclimbing, Caving, Thailand, ChiangMai, JackCrestani, Johncrestani and Crazyhorse

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