GEEZER TRAVEL


HOW TO ROAM THE PLANET LIKE A TEENAGER WHEN YOU’RE A GEEZER ABROAD

I started wandering whenever possible right after I found out there was no law prohibiting it. I got my first passport when I was eighteen, and visited my first foreign country, Russia. The year was 1968. I celebrated by birthday in Leningrad, and our tour group went to the theater to watch a production of Swan Lake. The sun didn’t set that night, it just hid itself behind some buildings at eleven and rose again two hours later.

I was hooked on travel. Money spent on travel beat money spent buying things. Cars, houses, boats…you can keep ’em. They require maintenance, steadily depreciate, and are forms of bondage disguised as assets. People even borrow money to buy them! Go figure.

I started going to Mexico first. You could drive there. From Missouri it took twenty-four hours, but that didn’t seem like too much for my roommates and I from the University of Missouri campus in Columbia, Missouri. Inspired by a Bob Dylan song, we drove to Juarez and stayed at the Hotel Diamante for two dollars a night, split three ways. A beer cost eight cents. Mystery meat tacos grilled on the street cost the same. I was further hooked.

I made twenty more trips to Mexico until I found you could fly pretty cheaply to other places if you planned ahead. So I went to Ireland, England and France, back when the cost of doing so wasn’t prohibitive. A hotel room in the left bank of Paris was a cheap as a Motel Six in Columbia, Missouri, and a heck of a lot more interesting.

I never gave much thought to making money for most of my life because practical matters left me cold. I graduated from a prestigious graduate school with a degree in Playwriting. There seemed no obvious path to monetizing this diploma, so I moved to San Francisco with five friends and we acted in a comedy troupe. Again, the dollars just flew by but not into our pockets.

Life happened. When I had three kids with another on the way I moved back to the Midwest to see if I could score a teaching job. A few temporary appointments came my way, but nothing that spelled tenure. My kids grew older and so did I.

When I was about sixty I saw the handwriting on the wall, and it said “take action or be doomed to a life as a charity case.” So I widened by travel scope. I went to Argentina about fifteen times, Nicaragua twelve, Ecuador, Peru and Colombia. All excellent places, but then I discovered Thailand, where I now live.

I’ve been lucky, and I know it. Some people have been luckier and some not so much. I have a cousin who is a billionaire. He recently endowed a building at his alma mater’s business college. When he spoke to the students at the grand opening, he advised them to not bother to learn a foreign language, as it was his experience that the international language of business is English.

His sister told me this. It gave me pause. I imagine he was speaking the absolute truth from his experience. When he travels on business, someone meets him at the airport holding a sign with his name on it. He is taken to the convention center/hotel where the staff all speaks English. No matter where he goes, in his world everybody who’s anybody speaks English.

My experience has been the exact opposite of my cousin’s. Nobody I meet in my travels speaks English, because I only go to places off the beaten path in emerging economies that haven’t quite emerged yet.

My cousin is my age, and I hope to compare experiences with him before we both make that last journey to the great beyond.

One benefit I have enjoyed was learning Russian, Spanish and Thai. I suppose if that had been my main goal I could have achieved it far more directly and economically than enduring bus rides where my fellow passengers held life poultry, the bus room being reserved for luggage and hog-tied pigs.
WHY THAILAND?

It’s cheap, it’s interesting, and they have Thai massage. The people are sweet. I like the food better than the rice and beans with a smattering of chicken or pork they eat in most of Latin America.

Heck, you gotta settle down someplace. Not choosing is also a choice, and an expensive one. So I chose Chiang Mai, Thailand, and so far I have no regrets. When I get really old I might choose a mountain village somewhere, but hopefully in a place where I don’t have to learn yet another language.

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Phong Nha Park


I’m referring to Phong Nha Park which is 30 miles from Dong Hoi, Vietnam.

I rode around the park for four hours, and it didn’t cost me even one cent in fees, because I never stopped to pay for an “attraction.” The road and the scenery was attractive enough. These place that charge admission are mostly caves, and at the age of 67, I’m not interested in touring any more caves. Nor did I want to go to a kiddie water park. There are few places to eat in this enormous park, and when I saw a restaurant at the water park I pulled over, where I was promptly charged fifty cents U.S. by a sad man who seemed apologetic about his job. Fortunately, I had recently found some Vietnamese bills by the side of the road. These added up to fifty cents. They don’t use coins in Vietnam, and their money was at first confusing to this foreigner. 100,000 dong roughly equals five dollars.

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But the restaurant I inquired at evidenced the most outlandish price gouging I’d ever seen. Chicken and rice, 300,000 dong. That’s five times what it would cost in a normal restaurant. There were few patrons even at lunch hour, and I can see why. All I had to do was drive a few more minutes and I found a family restaurant by the side of the road where the proprietress called out to me. Mom, Dad, and all the kids in were in attendance. I had a delicious meal for two dollars, and that included a coke. The kids found me quite interesting and stared at me while I ate. Then they forgot about me. I took their picture.

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The park was even more impressive than all the hype I’d read about it online. The caves are supposed to be amazing too, but I’m more into the Tarzan/Lost World thing. If Vietnam wants to get into the movie business, they should promote this place for Jurassic Park V. But if they want to curry favor with foreigners, they should watch the price gouging thing. There were no other Americans to be seen. French, Germans, British, but no Americans. Maybe the Europeans expect to spend more on vacation.

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The next day I decided to walk around until I had to take a cab to the airport. It was pretty warm and sunny, and got more so as the morning morphed into afternoon. I got over-tired, because when I’m home in Chiang Mai I’m either on a motor scooter or a bicycle. I forgot how hard walking is.

After an hour I realized I was lost yet again, but because I’m sometimes good at reckoning my position, I took an audacious shortcut through a neighborhood that looked a lot of Potrero Hill in San Francisco. When it was foggy in the Haight and Sunset, it could be sunny in the Mission and Potrero Hill. And this was not in the least bit yuppified, which is how I remember a lot of San Francisco from forty years ago.

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DSC06272At the airport they had trouble finding my visa for Thailand. They assigned a polite man to come talk to me and ask me questions. How long had I been living in Thailand? Did I work there? I thought it odd that the Vietnamese would show such concern for Thai Immigration. Then he asked me to find my current visa. After half a minute I did and showed it to him. “Ah, so there it is.” Looking back on it, I think he just wanted to practice his English.

I was impressed by the courtesy and dignity of every man I met there. Dong Hoi is pleasant enough, not crowded or crazy, and with a fresh breeze from the ocean. That counts for a lot. A lot of Southeast Asia suffers from air pollution.

Dong Hoi, Vietnam also reminds me a lot of Encarnacion, Paraguay, where I lived for six months. Unlike Dong Hoi, it hadn’t been bombed to rubble by the Americans forty-five years ago. It had simple languished under a stupefying dictatorship. But both places will probably become touristic hotbeds in the future.

THIS COULD BE HEAVEN OR THIS COULD BE HELL


I first came to Thailand on a month-long teaching assignment. Surprised to find that I had four days off over the New Year, I decided to get out of Bangkok and see something of the countryside. After asking around, I decided on a bus to the border of Cambodia. There’s a casino there, as well as a huge market. Foreigners go there to check out and back into the country, thus prolonging their tourist visas.

At the Cambodian border I found a dumpy guest house near a strip of tourist-related bars and massage parlors, and since I don’t drink, retired before that tedious countdown to the new year that is the bane of anyone with a mental age older than thirteen. I managed to doze off for a few moments, but then with all the noise found myself unable to sleep. I noticed that I could hear multiple bar bands from the strip nearby. As the evening wore on, every band at each club played Hotel California by the Eagles, always with the same note-perfect copy of Joe Walsh’s signature guitar solo. In every rendition the singer was phonetically trying to copy the vocals, but without knowing what the words meant. As I lay there, I must have listened to eight different versions of the song, punctuated at midnight by fireworks being set off in a nearby field.

I suppose the Eagles are quite aware of the strange popularity of this song, and how it has become a staple of bar bands all over the world. Here in Indochina I thought it odd that I was forced to listen to a song that was popular back when I was in my twenties and living in California. At no time did I hear an original Eagles recording, but I did hear a variety of Cambodians singing “you can check out any time you like but you can’t never leave.”

Now that I live with a Thai woman and have made Thailand my home, I see more clearly the depth of the United States’ cultural domination of the globe. Wipa likes to watch action movies, and these are almost always made in the United States. The story is simple enough to understand even by reading subtitles, as explosions, gun battles and car chases don’t require translation. Living on the other side of the world, we watch America every day, on TV.

America has won the culture war, and dominates the world of entertainment, but when I was last home I saw an awful lot of angry, frightened and chronically frustrated people who were curious about my life in Northern Thailand. I spent three weeks in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the average rent for a studio apartment is $3,000 a month. All I had to do was tell people that I rent a little house here for $110 a month. That gave them pause. Often people would exhale as if they had been kicked in the stomach.

I’ve heard that sound before. When I was in college, a few of us went to the cinema to see a new documentary film about the Vietnam War. Hearts and Minds included a scene so shocking that the audience around me made that same exhalation. Here’s Wikipedia’s entry:

A scene described as one of the film’s “most shocking and controversial sequences” shows the funeral of an North Vietnamese soldier and his grieving family, as a sobbing woman is restrained from climbing into the grave after the coffin.The funeral scene is juxtaposed with an interview with General William Westmoreland telling a stunned Davis that “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.”

There is another scene in the movie where a man in North Vietnam shows the camera where his house was before the American bomb hit. He had just lost his wife, son and daughter. He shows the camera where each family member was at the moment of impact, and then finds a scrap of fabric in the rubble. “Look,” he says “this is my youngest daughters shirt. She was feeding the pigs when the bomb hit. Now the pigs are alive but she is dead. Why don’t you take this and show it to Nixon, murderer of civilians? Throw this in his face!”

You can see the film on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xC-PXLS4BQ4

Since I’ve been in Southeast Asia, I’ve journeyed to Vietnam and Laos, the places on which we dropped three times more bombs than were dropped in all of World War II by both sides, and I still don’t know what I can do to meaningfully react to this fact. Nobody wanted to kill me in those places, though I don’t know why.

 

 

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I FOUND THE GARDEN OF EDEN


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And unlike what the Mormons think, it’s not in Missouri, but Northern Thailand, just west of Doi Pui, on a little road that doesn’t show up on Google maps. So I guess I found the back door to the Garden of Eden, which is even better, because now it’s a secret that only I can show you. Come visit and rent a scooter. It’s only about eight miles from my front door here in Mae Rim.

A meandering scooter ride in north Thailand


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Took another three day trip, a ramble on the motor scooter, heading God Knows Where, but knowing that it’s all going to be good, because this is Northern Thailand. On our trust steed, the one year-old Honda PCX150, we headed due north.

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Got as far as Fang, which is up near where the mountain range that forms the Burma border comes in from both the west and the north. Went to a shining gold temple up in the hills and tried to relax by meditating. Couldn’t calm down very well after five hours of driving, but found myself amazed by this ultra-modern temple, one that looked more like a spaceship in a fifties Sci-Fi movie than a standard Thai, Buddhist temple. I kept expecting Michael Rennie from the 1951 movie The Day The World Stood Still appear. There were these big crystal balls about 500 centimeters in diameter surrounding this very large glass bell. In a Christian church you would call it the altar, but I don’t know what you would call it here.

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We went into the hills as sun was setting, and noticed that the people who live there are shorter and darker than the Thai people who live in Fang. Maybe they have come from Burma.

The next day we went to a National Park for the Fang Hot Springs, and there was a sign saying the baths would be closed from July 10 to 25, but using Thai numbers for the dates, which was odd, and is often a sneaky way to keep things from foreigners. They also disregarded my Thai drivers license as proof of residence and tried to charge me eight times what they charged my Thai friend Wipa for admission. She talked them down to only four times. Then we drove around and found the place was closed. There was no hot water at this hot springs!

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The big treasure of the trip was the road that ran from Chai Prakhan straight south to Phrao. Amazing scenery, wonderful two-lane blacktop road running along the ridges of mountain valleys. When you get to Phrao, it meets the highway that goes west to Chiang Dao, and the scenery remains spectacular all the way into that town.

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No Birds Can Be Heard


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Laos is the Paraguay of Southeast Asia.  It’s terribly poor with awful roads and the public transportation system tests the mettle of anyone brave or foolish enough to use it. The bus we rode on from Vientiene to Luang Prabang was proudly marked VIP in letters three feet tall, but the air-conditioning was no match for the temperature outside and it had no bathroom. Most of our time we could not ride busses but rather found ourselves crammed into twelve-passenger minivans, and these had no air conditioning at all.

Mostly mountainous, Laos is thickly forested at least for the time being, which made the lack of birds all the more puzzling.  In my week in Northern Laos, I never heard a bird call or sing.  There simply weren’t any for they had all been eaten long ago.  In order to add poultry to their diet they now raise plenty of chickens and ducks. I saw a man happily herding about twenty ducklings down the highway, laughing while traffic stacked up behind him. Like most of the countries I visit, roosters began crowing before dawn, but there were no bird songs, calls or tweets. I suppose they keep ducks because of the rice paddies.

The people I met in the countryside seemed happy and relaxed.  Lots of young mothers with babies.  Intact, large families, eating meals together with both men and women taking turns holding the baby. Like Northern Thailand, Laos is home to any number of ethnic groups, what we call “hilltribes” in Thailand, living in impoverished villages in houses that looked like chicken coops, but they seemed pretty happy, too.  Children would wave and laugh as we drove by on our rented motor scooter.

In such a tranquil setting, it seems hard to imagine that Laos is the most heavily bombed place on earth. We dropped more explosives on Laos than were dropped by the Allies in all of the Second World War. For eight years we spent about eight billion dollars in dropping explosives onto what we called the “Ho Chi Minh trail.”  We were not at war with Laos (for that matter, we weren’t officially at war with Viet Nam either) but nevertheless we bombed them daily.  Even when truces caused us to pause our bombing of Viet Nam, we continued bombing Laos.  As we drove through one area, I noticed that each farm house had a fish pond nearby.  The little ponds were scattered about randomly.  I imagined hard-working farmers digging these ponds until I realized they were bomb craters!

There is still a lot of unexploded ordinance around, especially cluster bombs, which resulted in shiny little balls that Laotian children have been warned not to play with.  There are even a few five-hundred pound bombs lying in the mud, waiting to detonate when a farmer plows his field or walks through the woods. The mechanics of explosives resist corrosion. Heck, there is unexploded ordinance from the First World War still giving French farmers trouble in fields near Verdun.

When our campaign of fiery persuasion finally ended, Laos became a communist state about the same time Vietnam did, in 1975.  Vietnam has since prospered, but I’m afraid Laos has not been as lucky.  Vietnam has the ocean, but Laos is land-locked and extremely mountainous. The Chinese are encouraging the Laotians to cut down their forests so they can practice monoculture, and to damn their rivers so they can build hydro-electric dams and sell the energy to China, but I’m hoping these measures will meet some resistance.

Out of my eight days in the country, I think we spent 22 hours in travel. I seem to have a knack of picking the worst itinerary possible when planning my trips.  I look at a map and think, “well, it only looks like sixty miles.  Can’t take more than a couple of hours.” Then I find that it takes half a day to go that distance, and inside a hot, crowded mini-van, that half-day is spent lurching from side to side down roads so irregular they defy description.

One such morning our companions were two girls, aged about 14 and 11, who were headed back to their home town because their mother had just died.  She was 35. Even though Laotian is closely related to Thai, I was never able to understand the cause of her death. After a preliminary and obligatory display of sadness, the sisters entertained all of us by shrieking with laughter each time the van bottomed out on an especially deep pothole.

It’s a wonderful thing when people can hold onto joy despite their problems. And it was a joyous moment the afternoon we crossed the border back to Thailand where busses were air-conditioned, the roads paved, and my ATM card started working again.  The next morning at our hotel in Chiang Rai, I heard birds in the tree outside our window welcome the dawn.

http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2015/08/laos/allman-text?utm_source=Facebook&utm_medium=Social&utm_content=link_fb20150718ngm-laos&utm_campaign=Content&sf11097960=1

Doi Pui Hmong Village near Chiang Mai


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Like Boulder, Colorado, perched against the Flatirons, Chiang Mai sits right up against Doi Suthep, a mountain that is topped by both a Buddhist  temple and a one of many royal palaces.  This is the summer home for the royal family, should they choose to come this far to sample the bracing, mountain air. Doi Suthep has a twin, Doi Pui, which is about thirty feet higher.  The mountains  are about 5,500 feet tall, and the temperature at the top is noticeably lower than at the base in Chiang Mai. The air is sweeter and fresher on top, as well.    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doi_Suthep

The winding road up the mountain is well maintained, and heavily traveled by bicyclists, motorcyclists and the red trucks that form the backbone of mass transit in Chiang Mai. Most people make it as far as the temple, climb the 306 steps, take a few pictures and then head back down. After the temple you come to Pu Ping Palace, but then the road becomes terrible, full of potholes.

But if you keep going another five miles, you come to a Hmong village that sells handicrafts in order to support its one-thousand inhabitants. Unlike most tourist items, I find these attractive.  I like their clothing and their silver jewelry. I’ve visited the village several times already, usually just as an excuse to ride up the mountain on my Honda PCX150, but this time we rented traditional Hmong clothing and used their beautiful little park for a location.  It was surprisingly fun.  They charge you 50 baht (about  $1.75) per person.