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Phuket, Thailand

Ah, Phuket, I had such high hopes for thee. Hearing the word Phuket — at least since I learned it was a place name, pronounced “poo-ket”, and not an expression of frustration with a different pronunciation — has always brought to mind calm, teal waters, crispy sunbathers strewn across bone-colored beaches, and palm crowns shimmying in the salty breeze. And on these fronts Phuket did not disappoint. Unfortunately, on most other fronts it did.

There are three major qualifiers I should mention before I proceed. One, I am not a spread-a-towel-on-the-sand-and-sunbathe kind of guy — in fact, I’m nearly translucent — so I’m looking for more than the kind of experience that can be had in any given desert. Two, my trip to Phuket fell squarely during the low season, so surely I wasn’t catching it in peak form. And three, I spent just two and a half days there, and perhaps with a bit more time my esteem of the island would have improved. It’s telling, though, that after only two and a half days I was ready to kiss the carpet of the plane that carried me off.

Phuket suffers from a mild case of Cruise Ship Syndrome, in that once you’re there, you’re forced to pay inflated prices for things simply because you have no alternative: food, lodging, transport, internet access, and so on. This is a common phenomenon on islands. Easter Island, for instance, is similarly expensive, except that it bears the excuse of being separated from its nearest neighbor by 2,000 kilometers of ocean, and just about everything consumable has to be shipped or flown in. The distance between mainland Thailand and Phuket, on the other hand, is all of 600 meters, and it’s spanned by a four-lane highway. Hmmm.

Then there’s the omnipresent prostitution. Clearly it wouldn’t be so prevalent if tourists didn’t avail themselves of it, but I rather prefer to be able to walk down the street without having to politely decline the catcalls — if not the groping hands — of batteries of sex workers. It’s tragic that, even with so much tourist money pumping into other sectors of the island’s economy, so many young women are funneled into the sex trade. Again, this was the middle of the low season, but the prostitutes seemed to outnumber the tourists. That’s a bad ratio for everyone.

I’d been forewarned about Patong, the rowdy heart of Phuket’s tourist scene that’s chock-full of western restaurants, bars, and nightclubs heralded by neon signs and pulsating speakers — it hosts three Starbucks franchises grouped so closely that, if you neglect to trim your nails for a few weeks, you can almost touch them all simultaneously — so I steered clear. I pre-booked a room in Karon, just a few kilometers and decibels south of Patong.

I generally like to explore new places by bicycle, but Phuket’s size and hilly terrain don’t lend themselves to cycling. And tuk-tuk drivers wanted outlandish amounts to ferry people around — 250 Baht just to make the short trip from Karon to Patong — so I opted for another mode of transportation: a rented motorbike. I think it’s the ideal way to get around Phuket. Renting one for the day costs just 200 Baht, plus whatever fuel you consume, and of course allows you to go wherever you please. The roads are sinuous, the views stunning.

Atop my little, burgundy Honda Dream, I weaved through the mobs in Patong and headed up the west coast, stopping at beach after beach to take in the scenery. Faded red flags were posted all along the backshore to warn visitors about the low season’s dangerously strong currents. The beaches are undoubtedly beautiful, but it was strange to see almost no one in the water.

I rode an arc through northern Phuket and came back down the east coast, stopping for a couple hours at the Bang Pae waterfall (not much to see) and the adjacent Gibbon Rehabilitation Project (200 Baht entrance fee), a non-profit rescue and breeding facility for the adorable and highly intelligent apes. Because gibbons can fetch a lot of money — tourists buy them as pets or pay to have pictures taken with them — poachers seek them in the wild, slaughtering gibbon mothers to capture their young and exploit them on the streets. The project rescues such gibbons and, if possible, rehabilitates and returns them to the protection of a wilderness sanctuary. A very worthy cause.

Next, I checked out the very well organized and informative Butterfly Garden and Insect World near Phuket town (300 Baht, a bit pricey, but worth it if you’re a nerd like me). I was the only visitor there, having arrived near the end of the day, and I got the distinct impression that the employees wanted to shut down a bit early. “There are more butterflies to see this way, sir,” one would urge, motioning me coyly into the next room. As I wandered dumbly into it, another unseen employee would slam and lock the door behind me. In this way, as if by peristalsis, I was cajoled through several exhibits and out the front door in under 30 minutes. These people were good.

The following day I decided to book an all-day, all-inclusive snorkeling trip to Ko Phi Phi, a picturesque island 40 kilometers east of Phuket, about which I’d read nothing but raves prior to the trip. According to Lonely Planet, “Ko Phi Phi is so beautiful it will evoke tears.” All the photos I’d seen of Phi Phi, and I’ll add to them the above two that I took, corroborate that statement. The picture you don’t see, however, is the one below at left, depicting what I was standing in when I took the other two. The island seems to have dived headfirst into tourism’s flush pockets, with a ravenous appetite for its economic benefits but little concern for its environmental consequences. Everywhere I walked on the island, I had to step around discarded building materials, old shoes and clothes, plastic bottles, and other detritus of development. Phi Phi, incidentally, is pronounced “pee-pee”, but it’s turning into number two.

The “all-day” snorkeling trip was similarly deceptive, breaking down like this: two hours of shuttling back and forth to the Phuket harbor in a minivan, seven hours of transit and waiting around on two different boats, one hour exploring Phi Phi on foot, a thirty-minute lunch, and ten minutes of snorkeling. The snorkeling was amazing, if criminally brief, but I was put in a sour mood when the tour operator doled out our masks and snorkels but tried to extort another 100 Baht out of us for the use of flippers.

My flight the next morning was scheduled to depart at eight a.m., which meant that I’d have to leave for the airport around six. No minibus shuttles operate that early, and the cheapest taxi I could find would cost 700 Baht — more than twice the amount I’d paid to go the same distance in Bangkok — which seemed a fitting, wallet-cleansing way to end my stay in Phuket.

I don’t know to what extent prices have inflated since the devastating tsunami struck in December 2004 — and I am more than happy to subsidize the rebuilding effort by paying a premium for food, lodging, etc. — but I can’t help feeling that, given plenty of other gorgeous, affordable, and less trafficked beach destinations sprinkled through Thailand and Malaysia, Phuket’s just not worth it.

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Angkor Wat Week! Day four…

I had a long Wednesday ahead of me, and I wanted to get the earliest possible start, so I left the guesthouse at 5 a.m. to find a tuk-tuk driver. Still smarting from nine hours spent on a bike seat the day before, I was really looking forward to the sweet, forgiving padding of a tuk-tuk carriage. I hadn’t walked thirty feet when a driver zoomed up to me. I told him all the places I’d plotted to go, most of which were quite a distance from Siem Reap. There was no way a tuk-tuk could navigate some of the roads we’d have to travel to fit them all in, he told me, so I’d have to go by motorbike or scratch some of the stops. Against the protest of my hind end, I opted for the motorbike. We agreed on a price ($32), borrowed a second helmet from another driver, and tore off into the darkness, leaving the tuk-tuk trailer and its oh-so-sweet, oh-so-soft seat to languish at the side of the road.

[One point of interest: Lonely Planet sorely understates the price of a hiring a driver. You can expect to pay $10-15 for a day’s worth of shuttling around in the vicinity of Angkor Wat by motorbike, $20-25 by tuk-tuk, depending on the distance. As is the way, when gas prices increase, so will these.]

Our first destination was Beng Mealea, an Angkor Wat-era palace more than 70 kilometers from Siem Reap. The first 40 km of the ride saw us speeding down the well-paved and relatively boring National Road 6, until we broke off to the north shortly after sunrise, heading down a cratered, mixed-surface road that connects several tiny villages, where the residents were just beginning to stir. Cico, my driver, had spent his entire life in Siem Reap but had never seen Beng Mealea, and he seemed as eager as I did to tromp around the ruins. Amazingly, on arriving we found we had the place completely to ourselves.

Abandoned for centuries to the closing maw of the forest, Beng Mealea is one of the most ruined of the ruins. Most of the former construction has been reduced to an enormous pile of rubble within the decaying palace walls. What remains standing is grown over with groping tree roots and a brilliant layer of moss. The early morning sunlight slicing through the foliage gave the scene a romantic quality; were there not a long, wooden walkway coursing around the grounds (or a man selling $5 admission tickets at the entrance), it would be easy to trick yourself into believing you had discovered this marvel for yourself. Due to its distance from the main circuit around Angkor Wat, it’s probably the least visited of the ancient sites, but one that’s definitely worth a stop if you have time.

Next we rumbled down rough and muddy roads between Beng Mealea and our second stop, the enchanting river carvings at Kbal Spean. A night of heavy rains had left the last half of the way in awful shape, but Cico managed somehow to keep the tires churning on the four-inch tendons of dry dirt and rock between prodigious pools of sludge. After 90 minutes of repetitive trauma to my hind end, the mile-long hike required to reach the carvings was therapeutic.

The river rocks are engraved with wonderful images of Hindu deities and animals, and Sanskrit inscriptions. Somehow they remain well defined and vivid despite being run over by wind, rain, and river water, not to mention the sediment it carries with it, for hundreds of years. The area isn’t very well marked, and I would have missed most of the carvings had not a guard volunteered to show a few of us around, offering what information he could in broken English. Thanks to him, Kbal Spean was one of the highlights of my trip.

Nearing midday now, the air was as humid as a cloud and the sun oppressively hot, even beneath the forest canopy, so before heading back I stopped for a few minutes at the riverside for some swigs from my water bottle and to shake the crumby remnants of an addled bag of sugar crackers into my mouth. Lunched and refreshed, I rejoined Cico at the trailhead and we motored onward.

Banteay Srei is simply incredible, but I don’t recommend going there in the late morning or early afternoon. It features the most ornate and beautiful relief work of any of the temples I visited, but provides little in the way of shade, and its character gets washed out by the potent midday sun. It’s certainly the calmest time to visit, as most of the tourist groups disappear to Siem Reap during the lunch hours, but there is a reason they do so.

Finally, after failing to make it through the gate the prior day, I rounded this day out with a stop at Ta Prohm. Just in case I ran out of time before I got a chance to go back and see it, I had belittled Ta Prohm in my head as “nothing special, just more crumbling stone blocks and some gnarly trees.” And I was right, except for the “nothing special” part. The place is instantly memorable. The trees are not merely gnarly, but the gnarliest – their gargantuan roots cascade like dam-bursts over the sides of meter-thick sandstone walls, which buckle and crack beneath their weight. If these trees could spring to life and do battle like J.R.R. Tolkein’s Ents, we’d all be doomed.

As Wednesday afternoon expired into darkness, likewise did my visitor’s pass pass, so to speak. I was OK with it, though. After three days and more than a dozen temples, I was finally ruined for ruins. Thursday morning would see me to the floating village and flooded forest of Kompong Phhluk. This was feeling more like Lord of the Rings all the time.

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Vang Vieng, Laos: When it rains, it bores…

My experience in Vang Vieng is only worth recounting for how singularly unsuccessful it was. Even before I left Luang Prabang, I should have sensed that my travel stars were misaligned or something.

Having arranged for the Vang Vieng-bound bus to pick me up at my guesthouse at 9 a.m., I was surprised to be summoned from the shower, dripping wet and partially covered, by the driver’s knocking on my door at 8:10 a.m. He hadn’t come to pick me up, only to tell me that he’d be back in 15 minutes to retrieve me. So I hopped back in the shower, performed my hygienic obligations, packed in a flash, and ignored my hunger pangs so I wouldn’t hold him up. I spent the next 90 minutes in the lobby of my guesthouse awaiting him, sipping Nescafé through gritted teeth and daydreaming about the delicious, steaming cup of coffee I could have bought to douse him with.

Fast forward six hours. With just twenty kilometers between us and Vang Vieng, and as the gorgeous karst mountains outside my window began to hint at the beauty to come, it started to rain. No big deal, but from the resigned looks on the faces of cows we passed, I figured that either this town was on a beef-only diet or that the storm front wasn’t going anywhere. The latter proved to be true; the rain wouldn’t cease, even momentarily, for the entirety of my (admittedly brief) two-day stay.

Dropped off in the center of town, I immediately encountered a strange Vang Vieng phenomenon I’d read about but didn’t want to believe: a succession of bars where backpackers lounged about glassy-eyed, drinking cheap Beerlao and laughlessly watching “Friends.” It was a bit creepy how docile they were, as if they were all plugged into the Matrix and unaware that life had more to offer than decade-old sitcoms. It’s quite possible that a few of them had swallowed blue pills, at any rate. But more on that later.

Determined not to be thwarted by the weather — or sucked into the vortex of must-see TV — the next morning I rode ten miles (and a couple extra, thanks to some illegible kilometer markers) out of town to see two guidebook-recommended caves. Due to the unrelenting rain, however, the river was too swollen and the current too powerful to safely cross. So back I rode, soaking and cold, to my guesthouse, where I retired with a book until dinner.

I’ll mention here that my room, one of Le Jardin Organique’s sparsely furnished riverfront bungalows, was the one high point (literally, fortunately) of my stay. The picture above shows the view from my porch of the Nam Song river after the first night’s rains. This being the low season (and I was beginning to understand why), the room only cost $9 per night.

When my grumbling stomach finally forced me back out into the rain that evening, I found my way to the Organic Mulberry Farm Café, a restaurant operated by the farm of the same name that lies just north of town. I sat down and asked for a mulberry shake, a specialty of theirs, hoping mulberry and ice were the only ingredients. Which brings me to another of Vang Vieng’s well known quirks (and backpacker attractors): the widespread availability of drugs to anyone with half a mind and a few thousand kip to try them. Blend ‘em up in a fruit shake, bake ‘em onto a pizza, whatever you want, just order it ‘happy’ and let it take you away. In case you’re wondering, I ordered all my food ‘cynical’.

Between courses and nursing a glass of the farm’s own mulberry wine, I contemplated this strange town. That’s when its brutal logic hit me. Only a brain massaged by the kneading fingers of psychotropic drugs could find watching a repetitive loop of “Friends” episodes to be a worthwhile diversion. And as “Friends”-with-no-end is one of the only viable activities here in a marathon rain, why not depolarize your brain with a substance some guy you don’t know can stir into your smoothie?

The saving stroke of the trip was to be a kayaking excursion, already booked and paid for, down the Nam Song to Vientiane, which I’d been looking forward to all week. I had a bad feeling when I opened my front door after the second rainy night to this:

After waging an escape from my bungalow through a thigh-deep soup of river water and rubbish, I went to meet the kayaking guide, who told me that, although the river had been perfectly navigable the day before, today the water level was too high and the trip had to be canceled. Naturally.

With the proceeds from my refund I paid for the last remaining seat on the next minibus to Vientiane. Even in such dreary weather, this place was undeniably beautiful, but I was definitely ready to move on. I climbed into my seat and watched the rivulets of rain glide across the window for a while after we pulled out of town. And then the sun came out.

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The best laid plans on Fansipan — part two

I surveyed the available cooking utensils. One battered pot with a lid, one veteran pan, an ancient and tar-black kettle, and a metal spatula. From the basket he’d hauled up the mountain Hanh produced a head of cabbage, a sack of rice, a cut of beef, some tomatoes, a green pepper, carrots, onions, garlic, half a dozen eggs, two water bottles filled with cooking oil, and a handful of seasoning packets. How they planned to prepare all this food with a few shoddy implements and a tiny cooking fire, I had no idea.

Hanh arranged a bent iron rod over the fire to serve as a range, then filled the kettle full of water and the pot full of rice and water and set them on the rod to cook. Next he went outside to shave down a thick slab of wood with the machete; in a couple of minutes he’d fashioned a clean cutting board. Back inside he went to work on the potatoes I’d peeled, carving them into thin slivers while Khoa and the other hikers chopped vegetables and cut the beef into strips. My contribution was to shower their workspace with camera flashes in the dying light. I was invaluable.

Hanh had brought along some cocoa powder and made hot chocolate for me to fight the cold. Instead of a mug he sliced a water bottle across the middle and handed me the upturned, capped end. I thanked him in Vietnamese and he said something in reply that I didn’t understand, but it probably meant something like, “This is how Macgyver drinks hot chocolate.”

Khoa turned out to be an ace cook. He fried up the potatoes with chopped garlic and salt. We passed around the bowl of fries — some of the best I’ve ever tasted — as he used the leftover oil to sauté the diced cabbage, and again to stir fry the carrots, onions, and green pepper with the beef. The rice was now cooked and pulled from the fire; Khoa scooped out a fistfull from the top and set a mysterious can into the crater to let it heat up. For his last trick he stewed the tomatoes with boiling water and the juices from the stir fry, eventually cracking and stirring in a couple eggs to thicken it and shaking in some seasoning salt to taste.

When finally we all sat down on a tarp in one of the bunks to eat, the spread was impressive. The rice was cooked to perfection (something I’ve never managed even with the most advanced rice-cooking technology), the beef and vegetables were fantastic, and the from-scratch tomato soup was unbeatable. Even the mystery meat from the can was delicious — Khoa said it was pork of some kind, and I thought better of getting him to clarify any further — with a taste and consistency similar to goose pâte. We washed it all down with swigs of locally-made rice wine, the kind that tickles your throat, widens your eyes, and warms you up immediately.

After dinner we wiggled into our sleeping bags near the fire. Hanh set baby bamboo to boil above the fire as it died away. Exhausted, I was lulled to sleep in a few minutes as the rain began to drum against the metal roof.

I awoke to a thunderclap in the middle of the night, a deluge sounding throughout the room. If this kept up all night, the waterfall between us and the summit would swell and become impassible by morning. Couldn’t be helped, I figured, and fell back asleep. Sure enough, when I awoke in the morning the rain was still torrential. Khoa told me that Hanh had already scouted out the waterfall and thought we’d be foolish to attempt to cross it. We had two options: to wait out the rain, which offered no sign of stopping, or to head back down the mountain. The rain might have kept us in limbo for days, so I chose to head back.

Having climbed to within a few hundred meters of the peak, I was extremely disappointed to be turned away unsuccessful. The more I thought about it during our descent, though, the more I realized that success or failure in summiting Fansipan wasn’t going to redeem or ruin this trip. It would have meant a few more hours climbing in a chilly downpour, and visibility at the summit in weather like this would have been only a few feet anyway. And in the end, the real payoff from traveling is always in the experience, not the accomplishment.

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The best laid plans on Fansipan — part one

Just over a month ago I left Hanoi for Sapa and the mountains of northwest Vietnam. Really I was after a single mountain, Fansipan, the tallest in Vietnam and one whose ascent doesn’t require any equipment beyond standard-issue legs and lungs. However, my trusty guidebook warned that during the summer rainy season (June-September), the volume of water coursing through Fansipan’s streams and down its waterfalls can make the climb too treacherous to complete.

So I kept an eye toward the weather forecast, until finally it called for a 40% chance of precipitation in Sapa the next day. That’s practically beach weather during the rainy season, so I hopped on an overnight train to Lao Cai, caught an early-a.m. bus to Sapa, hired a guide and a porter from a hotel in town, and was on the mountain by mid-morning, 12 hours after leaving Hanoi. The plan was to hike that morning and afternoon to within 300 meters of the 3,143-meter summit, set up camp for the night, then make the peak the following morning and descend thereafter.

We had taken a rattletrap SUV from Sapa to the trail head some 12 km outside of town, and now we shut the doors behind us and took the first of thousands of strenuous steps to come in a thick, stagnant mist. My guide, Khoa, said it had rained on Fansipan for more than two weeks straight, and the soaking ground might as well have been an ice rink in places. While he and the porter, Hanh, effortlessly tread the path in lightweight trekking shoes (and carrying two days’ supply of food and drink), I was a staggering hazard in their wake, catching roots with my heels, dislodging rocks, and leaving gashes in the mud where my boots slid frictionlessly in all directions.

At the halfway point of the first day’s climb, we stopped at a campsite for lunch. Two other hikers and their guide awaited us there. The guide had fallen on the trail and injured his leg too badly to continue the climb, but he asked if his hikers could join us. Of course, we said, and after scarfing down sandwiches of sliced tomato, cucumber, and soft cheese on swollen baguettes, the five of us put our gear back on and set out again. Khoa said it would be two more hours of rugged uphill slog before we reached our destination camp. We spent the first half hour traversing gently sloping hills thick with green growth that fell away into sagging clouds. If this was a slog, I could slog all day long.

My confidence was premature; here came the slog. The rain had held off all morning and into early afternoon, but as we reached the most difficult part of the day’s hike, where handrails had been mercifully erected on either side of the path, the clouds burst. My raincoat, completely waterproof in both directions, proved its worth and then some. My body produced a steam that condensed on the inside lining of the coat, soaking my cotton tee-shirt through. I didn’t mind the cool moisture as long as we kept moving, but as we climbed the temperature fell, and at the end of each brief respite I had to fight off the shivers.

For the next 90 minutes, we pulled ourselves up wet boulders and mudslick hills, using rails and roots and rocks and whatever else we could to keep our bodies plowing forward. On a cloudless day the scenery would have been as staggering as the climb, but in the steady rain on a dissolving path, watching our feet fall was a more prudent option. We took care navigating the home stretch, a bamboo thicket dangerous in the wet because the path had been cleared haphazardly, leaving aborted chutes sticking several inches out of the ground, their tops lopped off at sharp angles. Here and there we found groups of fuzzy baby bamboo chutes, which we plucked and collected to boil for dinner later on.

We made camp with about an hour of daylight left. The camp building was basically a corrugated metal barn with six bunks divided three to a side by a muddy aisle, with a door on each end left open to channel the brisk wind. Inside we found some dried bamboo chutes for kindling and two dozen red potatoes left behind by previous inhabitants. After exchanging my cold, soaking wet clothes for chilly, damp ones, I sat around useless while Khoa and the Hanh built a fire, splitting the chutes in half lengthwise with an imposing machete and constructing a pyramid in the middle of the aisle (pictured at left). The two hikers who had joined us collected water for cooking from the stream outside. The fire crackling away now, Khoa handed me the machete to begin peeling potatoes for dinner. Determined to make it back down the mountain the next day with all my digits intact, I peeled so slowly it was almost dark when I finished. (to be continued…)

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Luxe among the cockroaches

Sometimes flashpacking isn’t an option. Perhaps the economy’s got you down and you can only afford budget accommodations for this year’s vacation. Maybe you’re planning on going far off the beaten track and there’re slim pickings. The question du jour is can you fake flashpacking?

In my line of work you often have to stay in some pretty wretched places, including where I was last week – a $7 a night guest house, away from the usual tourist haunts somewhere in Laos. The general idea with faking flashpacking is to trick your brain into thinking you’re “in the wild” à la Meryl Streep in Out of Africa . As opposed to “in the wild” à la Lord of the Flies. Speaking of flies…

Meet the Mombasa Defender – Mosquito nets are good for more than just mosquitos. Roaches, lizards, and even rats are deterred by them, which means sounder sleep for you. So try to forget the roaches and pretend you’re actually in Mombasa…

Linens and things – Ditch the sure-to-be-disgusting bed sheets (if there are any) and bring along your own. Up the luxury with a nice, compact, silk sleeping bag. You can find these quite cheap all over Asia, but if you’re headed elsewhere, try making your own or score one online.

Avoid that mildew smell – The best way to trick your brain is through scent. You will not be able to pretend you are anywhere but a dingy, dirty place if that’s what it smells like. Even decent dwellings can smell damp and dank during the rainy season, so I always try to pack scented travel candles. Now crawl under your net in your silk sheets, light some candles, and grab a good book. Pretend it’s luxury and a relief to be staying in a place without internet…

Avoid a gross shower and cold water – Dr. Bronner’s is a fantastic organic/fair trade line of soaps and shampoos. At some eco retreats you might even be asked only use Dr. Bronner’s since it’s completely biodegradable and only vegetable based. The downside? You’ll need substantial waterflow for a good lather and rinse. I tend to travel with wet wipes because you can avoid gross guesthouse showers (or freezing cold water) for a few days and stay perfectly clean. And now I’ve found this ezine article, which explains how to make your own Dr. Bronner’s wet wipes with tea tree and lavender oils! You can make the disposable kind or put the solution in a spray bottle and use it with a quick-dry travel towel. If it’s warm where you’re traveling and there’s some privacy, try washing your hair outside and pretend it’s Robert Redford lathering up your hair with those minty suds on your very own high-altitude coffee plantation in Kenya…

Keep your daily buzz -I love these small french press solutions! Death to Nescafe! There’s no reason to drink that horror or do without your daily fix just because you’re far from café culture. Pick your roast, grind your beans, and pack your tiny caffeine savior. Pretend you’re Meryl Streep’s next door neighbor in Out of Africa and that waking up to a rooster crowing before dawn is worth it because you live right next to a high-altitude coffee plantation in Kenya….

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Fun in Norway: more ways than one

(continued from last post…)

In researching yesterday’s post, I came across several excellent sites offering adventure trips in Norway. These were a couple of my favorites: Arctic Pathfinder and Sami Adventure (here’s the English version).

Arctic Pathfinder arranges a wide variety of trips — this is the full list — and judging from the website alone, they seem to be the better organized of the two. Here is a sampling of the trips they organize:

  • On August 1, 2008, there will be total solar eclipse visible in nearby northern Greenland. A few days before the event they’ll fly you to Greenland, where you’ll camp out in the wilderness and take an arctic survival course before heading to the eclipse-viewing camp at Cape Morris Jessup. Here you’ll share camp duties with other participants, including a shift on night-watch to guard against prowling polar bears! If you’re not that into the possibility of being devoured — and where’s your sense of adventure?! — they offer some less perilous trips for your consideration, such as…
  • Ever dreamt of spending a handful of subzero Norwegian nights pushing thousands of reindeer across a blank, icy landscape, taking part in a millennia-old tradition with indigenous Laplanders, the Sami people? Of course you have, and you can arrange exactly that here.
  • A stay at a Sami summer camp. Spend a few nights in a lavvu (also lavvo) and learn the ropes (literally) of reindeer herding, followed by a three-day trekking expedition through the national park. Don’t forget your liggeunderlag.

All of these trips are on the expensive side — the cheapest of them costs about $2,500 per person — but hey, for Americans the whole world is heading to the expensive side.

If you’d prefer to tailor a trip for yourself, check out Sami Adventure, which offers reindeer herding, snowmobiling, hunting in the autumn, fishing in the summer, a wintertime three-night stay in a lavvo to see the Northern Lights, whatever you want to do. You can even take part in the World Championships of reindeer roping. The original Norwegian-language website is only partially translated into English, so I had my friend Google work on it: “This is the tours that provide memories for life and hair on the chest for real karfolk.” So there you go.

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Dreaming of snow and ice and everything nice

With the heat index in Hanoi camped out at 107°F (42°C) this afternoon, I find myself daydreaming about becoming a Bennett-cicle in some distant snowscape. Hence, a two-parter about Lapland adventure travel. For the first part, let’s take a look one of northern Scandinavia’s main attractions, the Northern Lights…

For a detailed explanation of the phenomenon of the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, check out this page. [Basically particles shot out by the sun are captured by the earth's magnetic field and urged toward the poles, where they collide and react with gas molecules in the atmosphere; these reactions give off energy in the form of light of varying colors. So around both poles, the sky periodically plays the stage to dazzling aerial light displays. In other words, sometimes the atmosphere seems to be filling with beautiful, glowing goo.]

The Northern Lights are better known than their southern counterparts simply because it’s easier to access a vantage point near the north pole (Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Canada, Alaska, etc.) than to get to Antarctica. And getting you within view of them is the focus of today’s post.

You can fly round-trip from London (Stansted Airport) to Tampere, Finland for only £40 ($80) on Ryanair. Daily trains head into Lapland from Tampere.

Your chances of seeing the Northern Lights are highest during the winter months, especially between November and February, when daylight occupies just 4 to 6 hours of the day in northern Scandinavia. And the farther you remove yourself from the fluorescence of civilization, the easier it will be to see them. There is a lot of debate about the ‘best’ place to see the Lights, but truly the best place to see the lights is where the skies are the clearest. Here are a couple of options:

1. Kautokeino, Norway — The driest and coldest place in Norway, Kautokeino an ideal place from which to gaze. It is also the cultural center of the indigenous Sami people (whose descendents include Joni Mitchell and Renée Zellweger, incidentally). The tiny town — whose population numbers a meager 3,000 — is hardly a tourist mecca, but you can arrange to spend the night in a lavvu, a traditional Sami dwelling similar to a Native-American tepee. Maybe that only sounds appealing in a sweltering Hanoi summer.

2. Kakslauttanen, Finland — The Hotel & Igloo Village Kakslauttanen offers a bit more in the way of creature comforts. Accommodation options include log cabins, glass igloos, and proper snow igloos. For the view alone, I think I’d have to go with a glass igloo. Besides taking in the Northern Lights on a clear night, you can check out the ice art gallery, go ice swimming, or give ice carving a shot. I’m sensing a theme, and it is numbness. I couldn’t find rates on the hotel website, but according to this company’s site, it looks like you can book two persons’ transportation from London and accommodation for three nights (one each in glass igloo, snow igloo, and cabin) for £2,354 (or $3,711). Hey, they’ve got to pay for those imported zebra comforters somehow…

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Would a hole by any other name…

(photo above taken from National Geographic‘s Best Photos-of-the-Day, 2007)

Two hundred feet wider than the world’s-largest-known crop circle and equally as fascinating, the listlessly-named Blue Hole (or the slightly more enthusiastic Great Blue Hole) is a natural wonder carved into the Lighthouse Reef sixty miles off the coast of Belize. Almost perfectly circular, the sinkhole measures more than 1,000-feet across and 400-feet deep, and it’s one of the Western Hemisphere’s prime destinations for scuba diving and snorkeling. Undersea explorer-extraordinaire Jacques-Yves Cousteau called it one of the four best dives on the planet.

Diving Blue Hole isn’t recommended for novices, but even the snorkeling around its shallow rim is said to be fantastic, with vibrant coral reef and a large variety of sea life at home in the crystal-clear water. For those with scuba experience to match their curiosity, the actual dive into Blue Hole is unlike any other. Surging down into dimmer and dimmer waters to a depth of 130-ish feet, you are surrounded by huge reef and hammerhead sharks navigating an array of immense, submerged stalactites. For all kinds of information about Blue Hole, including the story of its formation, click here.

The Lighthouse Reef is the second largest in the world behind Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and accordingly there are a number of worthwhile nearby dives besides Blue Hole. Organized trips will generally visit multiple dive-sites, including Aquarium and Half Moon Caye Wall.

There are a number of ways to reach Blue Hole. Day-tripping boat charters can be arranged from Belize City, leaving very early in the morning and returning that same evening. Or you can take a ferry from Belize City to one of two islands just off the coast, Caye Caulker (round-trip $17.50) and Ambergris Caye (round-trip $27.50), from which you’ll have a number of options for reaching Blue Hole and nearby dives.

A Caye Caulker-based outfit called Raggamuffin runs a 3-day sail/camp/snorkel adventure (scroll down to ‘trip two’) to Blue Hole, with two nights spent camping on the paradisiacal Half Moon Caye, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a worthy destination for bird lovers. There’s an Audubon Society sanctuary on the tiny island, which hosts almost one hundred different avian species. The trip, including camping gear and food, costs just $250 per person, plus tax. All you have to do is find seven friends to go with you. You have my email address…

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Yangshuo, China

Planing, training, and busing my way south from Shanghai a couple weeks ago, I stopped for a rainy day in Yangshuo, a quaint backpackers’ town in Guangxi province. Looking back I easily could have spent two or three days exploring the area around Yangshuo, which abounds in stunning karst topography, caves, and two picturesque rivers that cradle the town.

Arriving on an express bus from Guilin shortly after 10 a.m. on Monday, I walked out of the station, bought the world’s most poorly crafted, lavender-colored poncho from a street vendor, and headed directly to a bicycle rental tent. Most of Yangshuo’s attractions, the karst peaks and caves that dot the tourist maps, lie a few kilometers in every direction from the town center, and riding a bike or a scooter is the best way to get to them. So I handed over 20 Yuan (US$3), checked to make sure my bike wasn’t going to fall apart half a kilometer down the road, and set to pedaling southward.

I opted to spend my day apart from the tourist throngs and aggressive touts that surround Moon Hill (picture at left from guilinchina.net) and nearby caves, so I broke off from the main road and took a soggy path along the northern bank of the Yulong River. The rain held constant at a light drizzle, and I stopped periodically to admire the landscape and watch as tourists on bamboo rafts were paddled lazily down the river. Sadly, despite draping myself ridiculously in tattered, lavender plastic to take pictures in the rain, most of my photos from the afternoon suffer from water droplets on the lens.

I hadn’t bought a map of the area, thinking that if I stayed within sight of the river, there was no way I could get lost. But many of the trails along the river were only a foot wide, and in the rain they became bogs too slippery to navigate. So I improvised a bit. In doing so, of course, I did get lost, but I’m awfully glad I did. With the rain getting heavier, my meanderings led me through a floating village, where canals crossed rectangular rice paddies and connected a handful of tiny shacks on stilts. A lady in an army-green jacket and conical hat led a water buffalo torso-deep through a canal to drink. At the moment, though, most of the villagers were huddled on a covered porch looking out at me, no doubt wondering why this rain-doused and mud-besmirched Caucasian was pushing his bike across their rock path, smiling dumbly toward them.

I eventually found my way back to the river and pushed on toward my goal, the 600-year old Dragon Bridge that spans the Yulong River. As I neared the bridge the sky unzipped. I took refuge under a concrete overhang, but the rain showed no signs of slowing down. Some tourists who had just shoved off on their bamboo raft passed me by; I could see the misery on their faces. I myself was about 15 km from Yangshuo now, facing a couple hours to ride back the way I had come, which would now be almost impassable in spots. I didn’t have a choice. Off I went.

Back in town and utterly soaked, I returned my bike and made my way down Xi Jie (West St.), the main commercial artery of the town, to find some dry shorts for the evening. In no mood to haggle, I plopped down the RMB-equivalent of US$15 for the sartorial equivalent of rice paper and went to my hotel to dry off, warm up, and rest. I stepped out in my wispy-but-dry shorts at sunset for a quick dinner at a vegetarian restaurant, took a quick stroll around town, and retreated to my room for the night. When I awoke the next morning, the rain was again torrential.

I packed up, checked out, and sprinted from my hotel, a blurry lavender streak on an otherwise empty street, to the Yuan Ming café for a cup of Yunnan coffee and a breakfast sandwich (both were delicious!). By the time I finished my meal the rain had eased up enough for a walk around town. I stopped into the market, where farmers and fisherman filled rows of stalls with gorgeous fruits and vegetables, live chickens pacing in cages, hanging slabs of newly butchered beef, pork, and goat meat, and buckets of swimming river fish, eels, snails, frogs, and turtles three-to-a-sack.

The rain finally departed Yangshuo late Tuesday morning. Boarding a bus back to Guilin, I wished I didn’t have to leave Yangshuo with it.

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