Four Days in Thailand: A Monk, Meditation and Mindfulness

Scenes from the Buddhist Meditation retreat in Chaing Mai, Thailand

I stopped by the Wat Suan Dok in Chiang Mai, Thailand for Monk Chat, a thrice-weekly session offered by Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya Buddhist University (more familiarly known as MCU).  Here is where monks, typically students at the university, practice their English.  And we travelers get a first-hand account of the daily life of monks and their work in Thailand.  It’s a superb and rare opportunity that provides incredible insight into the world of Theravada Buddhism that predominates in this region.

Each week Monk Chat runs two-day meditation retreats.  At the end of the month it offers a four-day retreat, which coincided nicely with my travels there in May.  I was eager to get off the tourist beat for a few days to enjoy quiet and contemplation in a rural setting far from the hustle and bustle of busy Chiang Mai.  So I signed up, paid the modest 1,000-baht fee (about $30 USD) and was promptly handed a white t-shirt and baggy trousers.

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10 Gifts from Cambodia

Unfortunately my visit to Cambodia was just short of two weeks.  It was hardly enough time to take in all the sights and appreciate the people as much as I had hoped.  Yet I loved what I saw and know I will return again to enjoy the country with a more leisurely pace.

Here are some of the highlights of my travels in Cambodia:

1 — The temples of Angkor

Angkor Wat at sunrise ~ Children admiring the sculptures at Bayon temple ~ Temple overtaken by the trees ~ Gods in front of the gate of Angkor Thom

I simply cannot put to words the magnificence and marvel of the temples of Angkor.  This sprawling, massive concentration of architectural richness is one of the most extraordinary places on earth.  My days exploring the ancient sites were exceptional and enjoyable.

Spanning three periods of the great Khmer empire which prospered from the 9th to the 15th centuries, the temples that remain are awe inspiring.  I spent three exhausting days trying to take it all in: the early Hindu temples and terraces, lofty imperial palaces, the enormous playgrounds and pools of mighty kings, the later Buddhist temples and stupas.

There were crowds aplenty at the significant sites: iconic Angkor Wat, enormous Angkor Thom and the surreal Bayon, and the root-ravened Ta Prohm.  Yet I found many other temples and structures that were completely off the tourist beat so I enjoyed these sites in complete solitude.  These were my most magical moments.

I visited the sites early (setting out between 5-6 am) by bicycle and pedaled over 30 kilometers per day.  Tired and sweaty by lunchtime, I returned to my hotel and to laze away the afternoon hours, reading by the refreshing pool.  The good restaurants of Siem Reap (the gateway city to the temples) kept me well nourished for the energetic sightseeing.

I did not come close to completing all there is at Angkor, but it was a great introduction.  I look forward to the day I return to this unquestionable Wonder of the World to further explore and admire its splendid beauty.

2 — The superb yet solemn torture and genocide museums

Stark images of the Killing Fields and S-21 Torture Prison in Phenom Penh

Nearly one out of every four Cambodians died in the brutal and bloody civil war and the genocide of the Khmer Rouge that followed.  When the ruthless regime was defeated in 1979, the country was collapsed with no infrastructure, the people were starving, and communities and families were broken apart.  The Academy Award-winning filmThe Killing Fields and numerous acclaimed memoirs such as Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father and journalist Jon Swain’s River of Time document the horror, bloodshed and suffering of those dreadful years.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived in Cambodia.  Only one generation has passed since this tragedy so the Cambodian victims’ memories are still raw and injuries healing.  Yet I was impressed by the outstanding museums in Phnom Penh, notably the Killing Fields Genocide Museum of Choeung Ek and the Tuol Sleng Torture Museum.

The Killing Fields, on the outskirts of the city, is where victims by the thousands were taken secretly and brutally killed and today a reverential temple presides over the sacred ground.  Tuol Sleng, a former high school, was converted to the notorious S-21 prison where countless genocide victims were processed and tortured before execution.  The extremely detailed records left by the Khmer Rouge document the indiscriminate war of terror waged against its own people.

These were weighty and sorrowful visits but a necessary part of my travels through Cambodia.  I am thankful that this country is keeping the memory alive in appropriate and respectful ways;  an important aim is that the Khmer people and the world can learn and prevent this from happening again.

The memorial sites are presented with dignity and sincerity.  Cambodia rightfully honors the millions of its people who died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge and those survivors who continue to live with these nightmares today.

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Leaving Laos

Sunrise over the Mekong from Don Khong Island in Si Phan Don ("Four Thosand Islands")

A golden sun rises over the Mekong, I am on the eastern edge of Don Khoung Island in southern Laos.  Fishermen in slender pirogues line the river and toss their glistening silver nets, each day their labor starts well before daylight.  I hear the scratchy screeches of distant roosters heralding the dawn.  A small herd of goats pass noisily below, water buffalo graze in a field just at the end of the street.  The electric chorus of insects is gradually replaced by birdsong which mixes with the drone of distant scooters and outboard motors on the river. The air is cool and moves with a gentle breeze from the river.  The sun strengthens and warms face.  Lifeless white clouds hover above me, still asleep.   The sun brightens the hilltop stupas on the far shore of the mainland.

Walking to the balcony I surprise a huge frog in the hallway which jumps quickly out of my way.  Everything in Laos is open to the elements thanks to its doors ajar, broken windows, and holes in the roof.  Critters commingle with human creatures without the forced separation of my world at home.  Sparrows play on the balcony bannister, cartoon-like geckos with fat fingers fill their bellies with flies and moths, ants run over my feet as they attend to their all-consuming business.

I glance towards the temple and notice its unusual Buddha, serenely meditating as daylight warms his oddly decorated head.  A lone bell sounds from the temple; it is the morning call to alms.  In a few minutes monks in saffron robes file through the street carrying silver urns under their arms, silently and in single file.  A few villagers sit and pray by the roadside, fruit and sticky rice before them, an offering to the passing monks.  This daily ritual feeds the monks who must eat before noon; anything left over is given to the needy.  This is good karma for the village donors and enhances their chances of a better reborn life.

In this southernmost corner of Laos, I near the end of my travels here.  After nearly a month, I reach Si Phan Don, or the “Four Thousand Islands” on the Cambodian border.  I am worn by three days of rough road travel: from the capital Vientiane on Highway 13 to the Kong Lo cave, through Tha Khek, Savannahket, and Paske on a series of bumpy local buses, tuk-tuks, sorngtaaou (a pickup truck with two rows of seats in back), and boats.  My backside is sore from the hard seats and endless hours on old school buses, my shoulders ache from being jammed in a row of six people designed for four, my hair dusty and skin dry from the beating sun in this hottest month of the year.

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Tin’s Cambodian Nightmare: Battambang, the Khmer Rouge and a Lost Childhood

Tin on our tour of Battambang, Cambodia discussing a Khmer Rouge "example home" used for propagandistic purposes

When I was ten years old, my time was occupied playing with my Star Wars action figures in the yard, setting up jumps for my banana-seat bike and saving my weekly allowance for summer camping trips to the woods of Wisconsin.

Yesterday I met Tin, a Cambodian living in Battambang and a tuk-tuk driver for tourists.  In 1975 he was orphaned and marched into a forced labor camp for children where he toiled for four years.  His memories as a ten-year-old suffering under the Khmer Rouge contrast profoundly with my years in green, growing Iowa buoyed by comfort, care and stability.

Since I met Tin yesterday, I have been haunted by the profound difference of our respective childhoods, living not just on opposite ends of the globe but a universe apart. Here is his story.

Tin is just about my age, born in Phenm Penh in the mid-1960’s.  In 1975 the capital city fell to Khmer Rouge communist forces after an arduous and bloody civil war. The next day the Khmer Rouge began evacuating all residents from Phenm Penh and the other cities to the country to work in forced-labor camps.

For weeks the roads were filled with the mass exodus from the cities: Women walked for days carrying crying infants and running out of food. Hospitals were emptied, the sick and infirm were forced onto the roads, some holding IV’s and being pushed in wheelchairs.  Many elderly struggled and died in the forced march to the countryside.  Year Zero had begun, ushering in a brutal new era of radical restructuring of Cambodian society into a peasant-dominated agrarian cooperative.

The Khmer Rouge rejected the rich cultural past of Cambodia as a suitable model for the new society.  Schools were shuttered, money officially abandoned replaced by a “barter” system, libraries burned, Buddhist temples shelled and ancient monument sites scavenged for works projects.  The borders were sealed, no one was allowed in or out.  International aid assistance was denied.  Anyone with an education, contacts with the former government or links to other countries, who spoke a foreign language, wore glasses, or lived in a city was considered “bourgeois” was taken away and likely killed.

The others were forced into labor camps structured by age and gender; families were torn apart with children and parents in opposite parts of the country.  Conditions everywhere were appalling and treatment was brutal.  Children were often questioned separately by the Khmer Rouge; they knew the young were less likely to cover up important family details.  Anyone accused of insubordination or suspected of moral weakness was simply exterminated; there was no justice or rule of law.

Almost 2 million people were killed by the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal reign of terror.  In fewer than four years, nearly one out of every four Cambodians died.

Billboard at a mass killing location outside of Battambang, Cambodia documenting the expulsion of people from cities to work on forced-labor camps in the countryside
Billboard at a mass killing location outside of Battambang, Cambodia documenting the expulsion of people from cities to work on forced-labor camps in the countryside

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Vagabonding in Vietnam Part II — Creeping Northwards

Hoi An – Graceful and Genial Town

We had high expectations long before arriving in Hoi An.  Many travelers we met previously raved about the place and from the get-go the town did not disappoint.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the old town packs in an impressive assortment of historic temples, bridges, merchant homes, picturesque alleyways, grand French colonial buildings, and creaky wooden boats along the riverside docks.  Paul and I were happy to be in the thick atmosphere and elegance of this stunning town in Vietnam.

Once a thriving port town, the Thu Bon River silted up in the late 1800’s basically turning Hoi An into a ghost town, its old quarter effectively locked in time for a century.  After the economic rebound of Vietnam in the 1990’s, Hoi An was well positioned to gain restoration funds for the historic buildings and a flood of tourists followed suit.

Today Hoi An is a heavily touristed town but it fortunately maintains a delicate balance between the needs of visitors and the laid-back locals.  The old quarter consists of a relatively compact area, filled with monuments and buildings worth visiting.  Another highlight of Hoi An is its culinary richness.  We were immediately smitten with the food offerings in Hoi An, remarkable in a country celebrated for delectable food on every corner.

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Vagabonding in Vietnam Part I — Southern Sojourns

In all we spent just under a month in Vietnam.  It was enough time to traverse the long, thin nation from south to north, hitting all the major tourist destinations while leaving enough time to dawdle in some areas.  While I was not able to keep up with regular updates on each place (thereby sparing you all the details), here’s a summary of the main areas we visited in Vietnam that I did not post elsewhere.


A welcome relief from the scorching heat of Saigon, alpine Dalat in the Central Highlands was our first destination from Saigon as we slowly headed north.  After a wild ride that Paul so eloquently (and entertainingly) documented, the tranquility and cool temps of this city were exactly what we needed.

Founded as a French hill-fort town in the 1920s, Dalat soon became the most desired getaway from the steamy Mekong delta for the colonists.  The many French villas that sprung up in subsequent decades have been converted to either Party offices or hotels.  The city preserves its holiday appearance with a lake, parks and green spaces, and a lively evening market with grilled foods, clothing, and handicrafts for tourists.

We chanced upon the Peace Hotel, a backpacker haven conveniently located in the city center and right next door to the Easy Riders, known for their expert cycling tours through the region.  We had a comfortable twin room quietly facing the back patio with a nice hot-water bathroom and mosquito nets for only $10, an incredible deal after several days of Saigon city prices.  I was still heavily congested from the cold I had been battling so an agreeable room in a mild climate was just what I needed.

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The Roof of Indochina: Atop Mount Fansipan (Phan Xi Păng) in Vietnam

Mt. Fansipan, Vietnam

I always enjoy a good climb so the prospect of summiting the highest mountain in Vietnam (and indeed all of Indochina) more than piqued my interest.  Mount Fansipan, or Phan Xi Păng in Vietnamese (we referred to it as “Fancy Pants”), is part of the Hoang Lien Son mountain range and the easternmost end of the Himalayas.

When I learned this I was sold — to stand at over 10,000 feet atop the last major Himalayan peak before the ocean proved too hard to resist.  And the weather was improving in the region so Mt. Fansipan, which was hidden in clouds earlier in the week, was now starting to show its face.

Objective: The top of Mt. Fansipan in Vietnam

I learned from local agents in Sapa that the climb is not extremely technical but is strenuous and steep so most trekkers opt for a 2- or 3-day ascent.  I was feeling strong from our rigorous valley walks so shopped around for a guide that would do the climb in a day which I was assured is reasonable if starting early.

Unfortunately there were no group 1-day trips leaving (which would have lowered the price) so I engaged a private guide for $65 which I thought was fine, especially given that the National Park entrance fee costs $20.  So $45 for a private guide, transport to/from the trail head, and all food/water I figured this was quite a deal.

I ate a hearty pasta dinner in preparation for the trek.  Just before bed, I glanced at Mt. Fansipan from my hotel terrace.  Its cloudless silhouette under a starry sky filled me with anticipation for tomorrow’s lofty challenge.

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Getting High on the Villages, Valleys and Views of Sapa, Vietnam

Sapa, Vietnam

After a long, restless night on a cramped “sleeper” bus from Hanoi, at 5 AM we pulled into Sapa, Vietnam as the rain poured down on us.  We drowsily slipped into a cafe to warm and caffeinate our bodies.  When the sky brightened for a moment we were off to find a hotel in the mist-ensconced mountain town tucked high in the northern highlands, not far from the Chinese border.

This was not the most ideal introduction to Sapa, but after a shower and quick nap we soon experienced the many wonders of this town.  It attracts tourists mostly for its rugged alpine landscapes with soaring mountains and for the many hill-tribe villages of H’Mong, Dzao and Tay ethnic minorities not far from town.

With less than a week remaining of Paul’s vacation we had wanted to get partway into Laos but the realities of time sank in and instead we opted for Sapa as our final destination together.  He would be just an overnight train ride away from Hanoi and could easily fly to Hong Kong for his return home.  Getting to and from Laos would be a much trickier (and rushed) matter.

And we were more than pleased with this choice: within a day the rain stopped and sunshine lit up the valley.  Our remaining days were filled with excellent and interesting walks, fine meals and relaxation in the friendly and outdoorsy town.  Restaurants offer delicious local specialties, such as H’Mong sticky rice (roasted in bamboo stalks), roasted vegetables from nearby farms, grilled fresh-water fish, and delicate soups and hearty stir fries brimming with indigenous mushrooms from the hills just outside of town.

And the climate is especially agreeable: days in the 70’s and low 80’s with dry air and afternoon valley breezes, and chilly nights (often requiring electric blankets).   Occasionally dark clouds would roll in and produce a gentle rain or downpour, usually not lasting an hour and soon sunshine would return.

This constant cycle of washing rain and dry mountain sunshine lends Sapa a cleansed, refreshing feel dissimilar to the hot, dusty feel of the lowlands.  I would soon journey to Laos and Cambodia where temperatures are hottest in April reaching 100°F with high humidity.  So I enjoyed the ideal Sapa weather of mild days and cool nights while I could.

The vibe of Sapa town is great – a healthy mix of travelers (lots of backpackers and outdoor enthusiasts) and good-natured locals.  And the plucky hill-tribe vendors from the valley villages ply the streets with their textiles, beautifully hand woven and embroidered in the style of their particular tribe.  For example, the H’Mong wear darker clothing with subtle yet colorful patterns that identify their specific tribal group: Black H’Mong, Red H’Mong, White H’Mong, etc.  Dzao women shave their heads above the forehead and the sinuous lower locks are tied around bright red hats.  Most younger hill-tribe men wear western clothing, while the older men still dress in the traditional long vestiments of their ethnic group.

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A Farewell to the Best Companion Ever

Fond Farewell to my Favorite Travel Buddy

Yesterday was a sad day for me.  My travel companion and mate, Paul, left to return to the USA.

This past month we spent practically every moment together.  We shared meals, enjoyed amazing sights, dealt with frustrations and moments of hilarity, entertained each other on long bus and train rides, watched countless sunsets, hiked/cycled/paddled through some of the world’s most spectacular scenery, looked out for each other as we made our way through city after city, sat together over coffee and beers, helped each other through illness and injury, planned logistics and shared the mundane burdens of travel, and kept each other sane and grounded day in and day out through Vietnam.  His company will be sorely missed in the weeks to come as I move on to Laos and Cambodia.

I look forward to the freedom and independence that solo travel entails, and I know from past experiences that this is surprisingly satisfying for me.  But I will at times pine for the comfort and companionship of being with a travel partner.  And as partners go, Paul is the best there is.

Thanks, Paul.  You made our superb journey through Vietnam a sunny and gratifying joyride!

Easy Rider in the Northern Highlands of Vietnam

On the saddle of a Honda 125 in Sapa, Vietnam

One of my goals in Vietnam is to learn how to ride a motorcycle.  Since rentals are so simple and cheap (no paperwork or license required, just hand over $8 for the day), I figured this is as good a spot to learn.  Most motorcycles are small (110-150 cc) and maneuverable and I had been riding a manual scooter for a few weeks so was familiar with the gears.  But best of all, I had Paul as a seasoned rider to help me along.

Picturesque valley of hill-tribe villages and terraced rice paddies

So our first day in beautiful Sapa in the northern highlands of Vietnam on the Chinese border, I was off and running (after a few stalled attempts!) with my Honda 125 cruising down Highway 152 to the valley from the hilltop town of Sapa.

The landscape was stunning since Sapa is perched high in the mountains just beneath Mount Fansipan (Phan Xi Păng), the highest point not only in Vietnam but of Indochina as well.  The valley is sprinkled with terraced rice paddies and hill-tribe villages of the colorfully attired H’Mong, Dzao and Tay peoples.

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