backpacking… upgraded

Archive for August, 2008

A different kind of travel pod?

Please pardon this rant, but I’ve just left the longest and most excruciating two-hour flight of my life. Was it rough air, you ask, that made it so miserable? Did the flight attendant unload the newly brewed contents of a coffee carafe in your lap? No, it was worse than either of these. Misery was two-and-a-half feet of mobile terror, cleverly disguised by a seraphic face and a copse of platinum hair. Misery sat right behind me, a sugar-fueled fiend in a yellow jumper.

I’ve come across, and sat within an ear poke of, every possible kind of kid in my travels. There have been plenty of complete angels, of course. But that’s not the kind I’m concerned with. I’m talking about kids with vocal cords of solid titanium. Burgeoning kung fu masters engaged in mortal combat with the back of my seat. Children gifted with the ability to project bodily fluids over great distances and with frightful precision. But this one had a knack for chaos clearly imparted from on high.

He was a bonanza of irritating noises: from the brash clacking together of plastic toys and seat belt parts with his havocking little hands, to the soul-wracking squeals that would outdo a stuck pig in a sack, to the favored electronic game whose sole redeeming qualities seemed to be its ability to mimic an ambulance siren and its eternal battery life.

Where were his parents? Across the aisle, leaving the monitoring and reigning in of this viking-in-the-making to his overwhelmed grandmother, whose meek castigations were rebuffed with the glee of a defiant dictator. And speaking of dictation, midway through the flight he filled our collective ear canals with a tantalizing taste of his in-progress work of literature, surely the first to be composed entirely of ‘goos’, ‘ghees’, and ‘ghaas’, and punctuated exclusively by exclamation marks!!! He ended the oratory with a wholly unexpected and murderous scream. As with all great art, my reaction to it was a visceral one.

OK, I understand that it’s developmentally important to let kids express themselves and exercise their creativity. But I also think it’s necessary, just as a precautionary measure for a select few tyrannical tykes, that airplanes, restaurants, and theaters be equipped with sound-absorbant pods, lockable from the outside, in which these kids can be placed when the “creative” urge strikes. This way, they can develop the expressive aspects of their personality and their sense of independence. Everybody wins. I’m only one-eighth serious, of course. The other seven-eights of me thinks the parents should be thrown in there with them.

I was still fantasizing about my idea as we began our descent, when a pointed jab caught me in the underarm. I turned to peer through the gap between seats, catching brief glimpses of a whirling, yellow column of air and, behind it, a resigned look on his grandmother’s face, as if to say, “Oh well, what can you do?” I responded with a look that said, “Get a pod.”

Thanks for reading. See you next week…

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Tune Hotels: Air Asia’s new venture hits the low notes

“A 5-star sleeping experience at a 1-star price.” That’s what Malaysia’s Tune Hotels aim to offer. But do they succeed?

Like its parent company, Air Asia, has done for commercial air travel, Tune rethinks the traditional hotel business model, allowing guests to tailor their stay by selecting (and paying for) amenities à la carte. If you want a budget room with minimal creature comforts, that’s what you’ll get. If you want more flash, you pull more cash.

The basic Tune room, which can be had for as little as RM9.99 ($3) plus tax if you play your advance-online-booking cards right, consists of a bed, a hot shower, an electronic safe, and a ceiling fan. That means no extravagances like a/c, tv, towels, or soap. But unlike comparably priced hostel and motel rooms tend to be, Tune’s pared-down digs are stylish and comfortable spaces that the magical Ikea elves might have designed in their spare time. That is, if they even experience time.

The rooms are compact and angular, to a somnambulator’s chagrin; the bathrooms are chic and clean; and the bedding is pristine, with “King Koil®spring mattress beds with pillows, pillowcases, bed sheets and 250-thread count duvets.” For a small incremental fee each — ranging from $2 to $5 — you can upgrade your stay with a towel and toiletries, a/c, wi-fi (though they have a free internet cafe in the lobby), and travel insurance. I recommend this last one from personal experience, especially if your itinerary is subject to change; without insurance, if you have to cancel a reservation, your prepayment might as well have been a donation.

Another interesting Tune touch: Instead of mawkish, Bob-Ross-clone hotel paintings, the walls of a Tune room are adorned with concept art of its own — advertisements for hotel services, Air Asia promotions, and nearby restaurants. Hey, if it helps keep room rates low, I don’t mind the odd dash of corporate propaganda. I might even pay a little extra to avoid another picture of a solitary eagle, looking all pensive and forlorn.

You might be thinking, “If room rates are so low, the hotels must be in awful locations or have some sort of poltergiest they’re not telling us about, right?” As for locations, Tune takes pride in setting up shop where people want to be, i.e. in safe areas near the downtown bustle and major shopping areas. And as for the poltergeist, isn’t it possible that it’s just looking for high-quality accommodation at a reasonable price, too?

But Tune does go off pitch in places. They certainly haven’t made a huge investment in soundproofing, for one thing. During one of my nights in the Kuala Lumpur hotel, the adjacent room to mine held a family of four, from the sound of it. One of the children so enjoyed the peals of his own squealing and the relentless patter of his flip-flops down the (acoustically brilliant) tile hallway, that he continued for an adolescent’s eternity, until he either ran out of batteries or into a wall.

Currently only the Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, hotels are open for business, but there are five others in Malaysia scheduled to open soon. Plus, as the major airlines have had to adjust to the success of low-cost carriers, I wouldn’t be surprised if struggling hotels and startups around the world adopt the Tune model if Air Asia’s hotel experiment takes off. And that sounds just right to me.

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Where to eat Khmer cooking in Phnom Penh

Cook something in a clay pot and I’m pretty much sold. That’s how Khmer cooking first hooked me, but I have to admit it’s the highbrow authentic and fusion restaurants in Cambodia that keep me coming back.

Malis is an all-around favorite — from locals to the New York Times Travel section to Lonely Planet’s food blog, everyone loves this place. It offers a range of dishes, most of which would fall into the tapas category, so you best bring along some buddies to share. Bonus points: the digs are gorgeous (reflecting pools, silk cushions, Khmer statues, etc.) and it’s not even expensive.

Romdeng’s tag line is “a taste of Cambodia’s provinces.” Now, you might ask, “Why not eat provincial food in the province? Or in the street for that matter? Why a fancy restaurant in a French colonial house?”

Well, the thing about traditional foods is that they often come cooked in 3 inches of pig grease. Or the “authentic” experience now includes a recipe with half a can of condensed milk. That’s the real province these days, so don’t look down on fusion cooking. Embrace the flavors and enjoy the lovely villa. You can get an authentic experience with a bus ride alone. And, truth be told, eating fried tarantulas takes guts anywhere, posh ambiance or not.

Romdeng is also part of the “Friends” empire, which runs training programs for street youth to work in restaurants, handicraft stores and even a salon.

“K” is a newcomer. Serving Khmer and Vegan cuisine in a renovated house, you might be tempted to raise one eyebrow and walk on by, but stop by instead. The food is really, really good, if slightly odd. It does serve meat (while I thought they meant Khmer vegan, they meant Khmer and vegan) and a great selection of creative vegan food. The sweet potato, pepper, and peanut stew was a nice change up from the normal pan-Asian bistro fare. The juices, cocktails, and desserts are worth mentioning too. Also, if you like your fish amok in a super sleek setting, this is the place for you. Just watch out for the music selection. They like Thriller. A lot.

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Shopping in Phnom Penh: Phnomenal buying power and an itty bitty suitcase

Hanoi used to be my all-time favorite city for boutique shopping, but I have to say Phnom Penh is really threatening to take the top spot. Forget Bangkok and its designer-bag knockoffs — Phnom Penh is the place to buy a purse. Or twelve. And they’re design originals at mind-bogglingly low prices. It’s easy to find yourself unintentionally becoming the Imelda Marcos of gorgeous silk purses… To facilitate this process I’ve created a two-day shopping itinerary for you. We’ll cover day one in this post…

You’ll start off from the Pavilion Hotel, since that’s where you’re staying. Where else could you find a room with your own private plunge pool for less than $100? Just a block away is Street 240 — unassuming but packed with some of the best shopping in Phnom Penh.

You stop first at Couleurs D’Asie to pick up something from the world’s best collection of essential-oil products from Siem Reap. I’m a fanatic for jasmine essential oil, my signature home fragrance, and I make a beeline for this store to pick up more every time I’m in Cambodia. Try the massage oils and scented travel candles, too! Couleurs D’Asie is better known for gorgeous silk bedding, scarves, and purses. I picked up a lovely scarf with the traditional krama pattern, but in silk instead of the usual cotton.

Next stop is Kashaya Silk/Subtyl Design, a store shared by two designers. Though they have quite a bit of typical product (silk change purse anyone?), I love this place for its belts, which combine raw and patterned silks with great hardware to match some of the most stylish and current belt trends. An excellent find.

Have you ever said to yourself, “What I really need right now is a fabulous frock”? And I do mean a frock, not just a dress. Jasmine creates a unique series of silk, taffeta, and organza frocks, some of them simple and others ornate, but all gorgeous. They’re perfect for weddings and other special occasions. Though a bit pricey for SE Asia, they’re still a steal compared to what you might dish out for something less original at Bloomingdale’s. If you’re the one getting married, consider getting the bridesmaid digs here. The gals will thank you.

Next you’ll head Elsewhere. Mostly known as a stylish bar and night spot (complete with a plunge pool! Yes, they’re everywhere here. Enjoy it while you can…), my favorite things about Elsewhere are its cute clothes and bags. This is, hands down, my favorite place for incredibly versatile, delicate cotton tunics with innovative design. And they’re cheap ($15 to $30 for shirts)! They also have great messenger bags made from recycled rice sacks. Perfect presents for my interns back at the office!

Finally, after walking down the street to the main thoroughfare and crossing really intense traffic, you’ll find Belami. Ahh, Belami, you do torture me. If you’re a size-zero fashion plate, this is your spot. I’m not entirely sure what the deal is with this place, but it sells high-end labels in sample sizes (from Hong Kong perhaps?) for an absolute steal. I still tear up when I think of the $69 Marc Jacobs I left behind because it was a tad small. Oh, who am I kidding? I’m lucky I got out of that dress without having to call for the Khmer version of the jaws of life…

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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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Luang Prabang, Laos — part two

(…continued from previous post)

Back at the guesthouse on Monday afternoon, I awoke just before 5 p.m. from a heat-induced nap, my battery recharged and my wallet $70 lighter (which seemed too hefty a price for the run-of-the-mill, single speed guesthouse bike I’d been relieved of at the wat, though I was in no position to haggle). Unfortunately, pretty much everything in Luang Prabang besides restaurants and bars closes by 5:30 p.m., so I had little to do but find some dinner and plot out the next day, my last in this history-rich town. I resolved to make the most of it, and this time I would do so on foot.

My first stop the next morning (after coffee at JoMa, of course, and a street-stall baguette for breakfast) was the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center, a newly opened museum aimed at giving tourists an appreciation for Laos’s vast cultural diversity. Featuring English- and Lao-language exhibits — like the one pictured above, on the Hmong people — depicting the traditional clothing, tools, and handicrafts of various ethnic groups, of which there are 49 in Laos, it’s a well-organized and informative little museum.

Looming over the Ethnology Center is Phu Si, a 100-meter tall hill topped with a stupa that offers the best views in town, so that’s where I headed next. On the back side of the hill, there is a series of Buddha statues, including the Reclining Buddha pictured above, and a ‘Buddha footprint,’ also pictured above. It’s hard to tell from the photo, but the ‘footprint’ measures more than a meter across: sasquatch enthusiasts, take heart.

The climbing left me hungry and in a lather, so I wandered over to Tamarind for a cool drink and a bite of lunch. One of the few restaurants in town that eschews the pervasive Thai influence, focusing instead on traditional Lao cuisine, Tamarind was a definite highlight of this trip. I opted for an iced drink made from jujube fruit and a splash of coconut milk, which was bittersweet and delicious. Since this would be my only meal here, I ordered a sampling platter consisting of a few different tastes: lettuce wraps filled with crab meat, rice noodles, and cardamom; sautéed bamboo shoots and pumpkin vines; homemade pork sausage; and strips of buffalo meat dried like jerky, then brushed with a slightly sweet marinade and smoked. The platter came with a generous portion of a Lao staple, sticky rice. To eat it, you’re supposed to roll a wad of sticky rice into a tight ball with your hands and pair it with a bite of something else. I savored every morsel; the buffalo meat and lettuce wraps were especially tasty. I had wats to see, though, so off I went.

Sixty percent of Lao people are Theravada Buddhists, and most Lao males will spend some time, usually a few months during their adolescence, away from their families, living in a wat and studying Buddhist texts (and nowadays, Marxist-Leninist thought as well) as novice monks. Ordination into monkhood requires a vow to adhere to some 227 precepts, which govern all facets of behavior. These include prohibitions on sexual relations, consumption of alcohol, and even “tickling with the fingers.”

One of the precepts holds that monks can only eat that which has been given to them. Therefore, each morning at sunrise the monks process through town performing an alms-round, where townspeople and tourists alike line up to press sticky rice into the monks’ alms bowls. Buddhist devotees believe that good deeds like this earn them merit, which accumulates over the course of a lifetime and can be carried over into the next, inching them closer and closer to liberation.

Luang Prabang is home to nearly three dozen wats, and though each of them is uniquely beautiful and ornate, it’s easy to get burned out on them. So I’ll only mention a few of the most notable here. The oldest extant structure in Luang Prabang, the Lotus Stupa at Wat Wisunarat (above at left), celebrated its 500th birthday in 2004. It’s showing signs of age, of course, but it’s a pretty awe-inspiring sight.

Perhaps the most famous of Lao wats, Xieng Thong (below, middle and right) is nearly as old as the Lotus Stupa and just as impressive. Built in 1560, Wat Xieng Thong sits a stone’s throw from the junction of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers and is home to about 30 monks. Finally, in a program sponsored by UNESCO, monks studying at Wat Xieng Muan are trained in skills like woodcarving (above at right), gold stenciling, and bronze casting to ensure that the magnificence of Luang Prabang’s temples is preserved for future generations.

That night I took a stroll through the famous night market, whose stalls line up each evening to span several blocks of Luang Prabang’s main street. Tourists weave through the narrow lanes between them, browsing and bargaining for handmade jewelry, silk scarves and tapestries, wood carvings, handbags, and of course, the ubiquitous “Same Same But Different” T-shirts and hats peddled all over Laos and Thailand. After an excellent dinner at Tum Tum Bamboo Restaurant — a perfect tomato salad followed by catfish stewed in coconut milk, a dish formerly prepared for the Lao royal family — I headed back to my guesthouse for a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow I was bound for Vang Vieng.

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Luang Prabang, Laos — part one

Ten hours after my bus left Vientiane, and with Luang Prabang mercifully near, there was an explosion in the undercarriage directly beneath my seat. “Was that a sniper?” begged the girl in the row ahead of me. Unless we’re all unwitting extras in a forthcoming Tomb Raider movie, it was probably just a tire blowout, I thought.

Having braked the bus to a stop on the right-hand shoulder, the driver and his two attendants climbed down to inspect the damage, and were followed out by a stream of curious passengers. Sure enough, one of the rear, interior tires had blown. Long strips of tread lay like discarded fruit peels in the distance behind us. The attendants got to work loosening the outer wheel’s fist-sized lug nuts as we, the road-weary audience, looked on. Just fifteen minutes later we were back en route. We pulled into Luang Prabang’s bus station about an hour before dark.

On a map Laos resembles a palm tree leaning left, and Luang Prabang sits right in the middle of the crown, at the meeting of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. Home for centuries to Laos’s ruling monarchs, Luang Prabang fell under French protection in the late 19th century, though the royal family remained nominally in power. The French made Vientiane the new capital but maintained a presence in Luang Prabang until the 1950′s, leaving their footprint on the town in the form of countless colonial villas that intermingle with its grandest attractions — more than two dozen majestic Buddhist wats. Oh, and they still make a mean baguette here, too.

After a short tuk-tuk ride from the bus station, I set off on foot with my guidebook in hand to find a room for the night. The first three places I tried were full, and as the last traces of daylight disappeared, the rain started to fall. In another minute it was coming down with vigor. Getting doused and desperate, I ducked under the arch of the next guesthouse I found, sprinted up its open-air stairs, and put my name on its only available room, a triple that would cost me $30 for the night. More than I wanted to pay, yes, but worth it to escape the monsoon.

I fell onto the smaller of the room’s two beds, tuned the TV to the BBC, and let the cold a/c dry me off. After an hour’s vegetation I saw that the rain had moved on, so I shuffled over to Nisha Indian Restaurant, where only the atmosphere was flavorless. I polished off a delicious chicken tikka masala, garlic naan, a garden salad, and two Beerlao Darks for less than $8. Recommended.

The next morning I packed up and found a new place to stay, the Ammata Guesthouse, where I dropped off my stuff and rented a bike for the day. [I should mention that my room that night would cost $25, not the $15 quoted by my guidebook, which was printed less than a year ago. And in the low season to boot? Inflation seems to be the rule in Luang Prabang these days.] I’d have two full days to see the sights, and the bike would allow me to cover most of the town on the first day.

I found and crossed the gapped pedestrian bridge that straddles the mud-colored Nam Khan river, then pedaled out to a tiny village past the airport. The paved road gave way to a dirt path cratered with puddles and serrated with rocks. Fearing another tire puncture and a long walk back, I got down and pushed the bike on foot. A half dozen incredibly cute kids followed me down the road for a few meters, shouting “Sabaidee!” and giggling amongst themselves when I tried to reply in kind. I kept walking until the path narrowed and became thick with growth on both sides, when tomorrow’s newspaper headline flashed through my head: “Disoriented tourist, inexplicably pushing perfectly sound bike, gobbled up by jungle cat previously thought extinct. Town celebrates jungle cat.” So I turned back.

As I approached the Nam Khan again, I caught sight of a gleaming, golden-spired pagoda up in the hills and decided to pay it a visit. The sign spanning the entrance read ‘Wat Pa Phon Phao’. I rode up the driveway, parked and locked my bike, and removed my shoes before entering the wat’s Peace Pagoda. Inside I met a few Buddhist nuns who invited me to have a look around. The octagonal pagoda has four levels, each one smaller than the last as you climb, with walls covered 360° with vibrantly painted panels

that depict “Buddhist stories and moral admonitions,” according to Lonely Planet. Apparently none of the admonitions addresses bike theft, because when I walked outside again, mine had disappeared.
I combed the area around the pagoda, finding nothing but a groundskeeper at work and a few pumpkin-robed monks lazing in their bunks. Quite annoyed, but fearing the karmic implications of casting accusing eyes upon monks and nuns, I started the long walk back to my guest house under a baking sun, hoping it might turn my vexation into muffins. (to be continued….)

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The beige-ing of Beijing

Today the 2008 Olympic Games will finally get underway. Much has been written about the Chinese government’s attempt to remake Beijing in preparation for the Games, from campaigns to scrub clean the streets and clear the air to the razing of crumbling tenements in favor of boldly designed skyscrapers and steel-clad arenas. Even Beijingers themselves are being relocated and refined before the world descends on their city.

The government has peppered walls and billboards around Beijing with posters instructing residents on civility. There are eight subjects that the Chinese should avoid in conversations with foreigners. Taboo subjects include the usual suspects — sex, politics, and religion — and to them they add age, income/salary, health, and personal experiences.

Additionally, Beijing’s Capital Spiritual Civilisation Construction Commission has distributed more than four million pamphlets throughout the city to deliver a crash course in etiquette and style. Here’s a sampling of the dos and don’ts:

“Feet should be slightly apart or in the shape of a V or Y when standing.” Apparently there are enough tripodal Chinese people to merit adding the ‘Y’ into that sentence. Incidentally, this should make them the favorite in judo.

Don’t shake hands with a visitor for more than three seconds. Greeting is not an endurance event.

Spectate, don’t expectorate. Even with violators threatened with fines if caught, this one might be a toughie in a country so collectively hell-bent on clearing its

throat. Just in case the urge is overwhelming, the government has handed out paper spit bags.

Women with thick legs should wear darker stockings to look slimmer. I get the fashion theory here, but I’m just not sure I’d tell that to a power lifter.

More decrees from the fashion police: Don’t couple black shoes with white socks, don’t sport pajamas in public, and don’t wear more than three color groups at the same time. Hugh Hefner might as well go into a fortnight’s hibernation. He’s already dressed for it anyway.

To these I’ll add a couple guidelines of my own:

Don’t talk on your cell phone at such a volume that the phone is rendered useless. To the guy in the fourth row on the eight-hour bus ride to Shanghai: Yes, I can hear you now…. Six weeks later.

It’s OK to get caught up in Olympic excitement, but queuing for a metro pass, preparing to cross a street, boarding a train, etc., needn’t be a Greco-Roman wrestling match.

Hope that helps, but the Chinese may not be able to read this after all. Oh well.

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VRBO® and HomeAway as hotel alternative…

Flashpackers, are you looking for a place to stay during an upcoming trip but want to avoid a sterile hotel room? Consider VRBO® (Vacation Rentals By Owner) or, a pair of websites that connect you directly with owners of rental properties around the world. Dwellings range from one-bedroom apartments to massive villas in just about any destination you might like to visit.

In theory rental properties have the upper hand on hotels for a number of reasons. They tend to be more spacious — claims that rentals generally cost at least 50% less per square foot than hotels — and more cost effective for larger groups of travelers. They come with fully-equipped kitchens, so you don’t have to shell out for restaurant fare every meal. And they offer a bit more privacy. If the hotel you’re staying in is unsettled in the middle of the night by the return of drunken, boisterous backpackers, you’ll probably continue to be disturbed and sleepless until they pass out. If the same revelers return to your private residence in the wee hours, you’re probably among them and at least your off-key caterwauling won’t disturb anyone else.

Here’s how it works: you find a rental in your desired location, size, and price range, and contact the owner directly to see if it’s available for the dates you need. Shown above is a renovated three-bedroom guesthouse in Marrakech, Morocco, that rents for $1,683 per week. Put six people in it and it comes to about $40 per person per night. You can even charter a yacht; for example, take five friends with you on a kayaking and fishing adventure around Alaska’s Prince William Sound on this 40-footer for only $100 per person per night!

Dealing directly with the owner brings advantages and disadvantages. First, the cons. Rental properties may or may not be the renter’s primary source of income, so an individual renter might be less reliable or responsive than a hotel or travel agency, whose viability depends on customer service. There’s also a chance that a given listing is bogus, but if you register your trip with the website, you are guaranteed up to $5,000 reimbursement if the renter turns out to be illegitimate.

On the other hand, being able to contact the owner directly allows for a bit more flexibility. If you’re traveling on short notice, for instance, when a rental would otherwise be sitting vacant, you might be able to negotiate a better-than-advertised rate with the owner. And if you’re going on vacation but refuse to leave your St. Bernard at home, he’s got a better shot at lumbering around the grounds of a private villa than the carpeted halls of the Radisson.

If you’re still on the fence about the privately owned vacation rental, perhaps it will help to know that VRBO®’s mascot is a bow-tied teddy bear who personally (bearly?) stays in and reviews listed rentals, and whose autobiography is longer than Methuselah’s.

Thanks to my father-in-law for the tip!

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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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