Another direction in Luang Prabang

If you have thought about going to Lao, I would really suggest including Luang Prabang. The city has this wonderful soul and feeling with its huge night market, bustling public markets, nice people, and good restaurants. The city also sits at the confluence of two rivers and there are nice park areas, restaurants, and bars along the river. Sidewalks are pretty much everywhere. Motorbikes do not ride on sidewalks here that I have seen which is a nice change. Walking can be the only mode of transportation here since the city area is easily reachable. There are an inordinate number of temples and cultural sites in the city so besides the rivers and waterfalls out there, there are a lot of beautiful cultural sites to visit. There is a museum I have not been to that I am saving and some temples that are completely open but they ask you to be respectful, dress modestly, and be quiet. Most are active temples so you will see Monks doing their duties.

Today I saw a microcosm of the whole thing so I want to share what my camera found today both little and big.

What you see are a few temples including the oldest property in Luang Prabang. The white stupa of this Wat is easily seen down the street and its just beautiful to view with the blue sky behind it. You can also see smaller temples and park areas so its pretty to see that the areas are pretty well maintained.

My time is running here though and I’ll go back to Vientiane for one night this Sunday and then fly back to Phnom Penh for three weeks. I decided to go to Saigon to see L and have some fun with her and some other friends there so I spend a week there and then on October 19th I really go. Once I leave for Taiwan, I’m done with Southeast Asia for over 6 months. I don’t know what I will do when I get back. I am tempted to move to Vietnam and stay but I have also decided to not decide until the time gets closer. I have a lot of places to see in the next months. Places in the world I have never been and dreamt of going to. Things like a Nile cruise, the mystery of Morocco and Turkey, and then the bustling bit city and a friend in Dubai. I also will ride the Amtrak and have a sleeperette almost completely across the US which is another dream I have wanted to fulfill. So many things that take me away from Southeast Asia but I have to say that my heart and soul area here in the countries and cities and with the most wonderful, friendly, and authentic people I have ever met.

Onward though. Like a sign said over a colleague’s desk at work:

Don’t look back. We are not going that way.

So I won’t.

Its the Little Things

I’ve been messing around with how I can transit the Phnom Penh International Airport for two flights that are not really connecting but I will leave it to your wisdom to see. Here’s the facts:

  1. I fly from Saigon to Phnom Penh International Airport on 19 October after a delightful week seeing L and a few others. I will have my travel backpack checked because I am lazy.
  2. About 5 hours later the same day I get on an international flight from Phnom Penh to Taiwan. I have to get my ticket, check my bag, and do all the normal stuff.

So the question came up whether this is considered a connecting flight or a layover even for hours. If its a connecting flight I have my tickets and can check my baggage on through. This is not that. So bingo! I need a visa even for hours. I need to basically exit the transit area and then proceed to my next airline to get a ticket, check my bag, etc.

The visa laws are rather grey on this when you read about it online but I think the key difference is the “connecting flight” part. If I was ticketed through to Taipei, I could just board the flight in Saigon, connect through Phnom Penh and then go on. This is not that. So I need to get an e-visa for Cambodia for hours. The e-visa can be done online easily for only $30 and I have no worries that customs will boot me somewhere else. I also could have just renewed my retirement extension of stay but it costs so much and I won’t be here in SE Asia for 7 months so I started questioning why would I do that? Now there is a gap (gasp) of three days from the time my retirement visa expires to when I come back to Cambodia. I could just pay $10 a day to overstay if I were in country but I am not. I will be in beautiful Vietnam entertaining and having fun with Vietnamese friends.

Definitely a grey area sorta kinda but the kind that will cause problems because of how visa laws work or don’t work. International travel here is full of those areas. Some countries have no visas needed like Malaysia. With a US passport you just get 90 days with no questions asked. Singapore is the same. Some places like Thailand have exemptions but the entire visa process is confusing once you get to the airport. The scenario in Bangkok is:

  1. Stand in wrong line for 30 day tourist visa and then realize as an American I can enter with an exemption. Of course the signs don’t mention who and what.
  2. They want me to show my airbnb reservation. how to do that with no wifi and cellular? They are confused by Airbnb. Not a hotel but a condo I tell them. You will live here? No. (thankfully.  BKK would drive me crazy). They tell me I am in wrong line
  3. Go to right line. Its short. But sign only says Visa Exemption and nothing else. Leaving it all up to the imagination of travelers.
  4. Land of smiles? No. Easy to transit? No. Level of Stupidity? High.

I’ve mentioned Bangkok is on my never again visit list but these little things can drive you crazy.

Here is another little thing from years ago going in and out of Chennai India for work dozens of times. Coming in to get flight to Singapore, you need to check in and get a specific baggage tag for your airline. You are told to go back and get correct baggage tag if you just grab one. I complain to Singapore Airlines and they sympathetically nod and let me know its India. I am asked to show my passport at least 10 times from the time I get my ticket to when I get to the gate to board the plane. One time when coming in I am told I do not have a 10 year business visa. It says right on 10 year multiple entry visa. Customs officer calls manager. Manager berates officer and sends me on my way.

So here is my advice for the little things with all this. Don’t try to game the system and make it do a grey thing. Its simply not worth the hassle. If you think you need an e-visa just get one. I don’t know the rules for connecting flights and I bet no one really does but if you do not have a connecting flight ticket in hand I am willing to bet you have been bit by a small thing. Just do the needful as my friends in India would say. You may find little things come up often as you bounce around between countries in SEA. Little grey things like:

  1. suddenly a debit card cannot be taken for a room. Find an ATM and withdraw cash. Its best to have an account that reimburses the fees!
  2. the guesthouse asks to keep your passport the length of your stay. Tell them no and that they can have a copy.
  3. someone tells you to carry your passport all around with you. Don’t do that. I have yet to be asked anywhere except at a bank in Vietnam when I was depositing money into a Vietnamese friend’s account for my passport. The bank teller was satisfied with the PDF of it.
  4. just carry your wallet around with all the credit and debit cards and a huge wad of cash in your back pocket or backpack. It will be ok. NOT! This is a little thing that can turn into a major thing. Like your passport, leave the wallet at the hotel. Just carry local currency to last you for some days. Forget using the card for purchases at 7/11 or VinMart. Why the heck people do this is beyond me.
  5. the last little thing involves ride hailing services, SIM cards, and being safe. As my friend L says its important for Mike to be safe at all times. So always use GRAB for ride hailing. its easy to hail a tuk tuk or taxi and you know what it will cost up front and the route. You need the other little thing which is a SIM card. To get the card, you need an unlocked phone. Why people would elect to travel to the frontier places in Southeast Asia and not have an unlocked phone is beyond me. Its a simple thing that can cause major problems in airports with no wifi, on the streets with no working google maps. In other words its a simple thing that can become huge. For heaven’s sake, just get a SIM card and some data on it. You can satisfy all the things about ride hailing and being safe.

I don’t have an exhaustive list of the little things or the grey things. I just know they sometimes frustrate me and I do think of gaming the system. Its not worth it. Telling fabrications to customs officers is a sure way to get yourself in trouble. So the final little thing is tell the truth at all times to customs and immigration officers. If you feel like you want to do some gaming, get the phone out and play some Pokemon Go!


Last day in Vientiane

Today is about it for me in Vientiane for the longer stay. I have one night back here before going to back to Cambodia in a week and some. Today I fly to Luang Prabang for a week, take a day tour, walk around there for awhile, and then go back to a few things demanding my attention in Phnom Penh.

Here are some last day photographs of the walking aimlessly around the city and just doing whatever I wanted to do.

As you can see from above mostly buildings and billboards and things that fascinate me about the buildings like their geometry and shape and how they combine with basic elements in front like fences. You can see the Sacred Heart Catholic Church and a nice 7up sign and a few cool looking buildings that captured my fancy.

Last night I went to Tyson’s Restaurant which is an American place down the street and had a bbq pulled pork sandwich, french fries, and two large BeerLao beers. I met the owner who is a fascinating woman from Vietnam that came here long time ago. We talked a lot about wandering around Southeast Asia and compared favorite places in Vietnam. We also discussed countries we either like or don’t like. I won’t name specific countries but there is one big one over here that it seems most Southeast Asian people do not like much. Over the course of her time here she has learned 4 different languages which is amazing to me. Her native Vietnamese, Thai, Lao, and English. She was very conversant in English and had a wonderful sense of humor bordering on the sarcastic. She told me a bit of her life story and what attracted her to Laos.

So that’s the end of the story for Vientiane for a longer stay place for me. I always ask after each place if I would go back. I really liked Vientiane but I don’t think I will come back. I have had a lot of fun here eating, drinking, and walking the city each day but I have other places to go and things to see and miles to go before I sleep. Today especially!

Gonna pull the plug on things here shortly and head the few KMs to the airport and get going soon.

The journey of many retired guy steps

Life is a journey so they say. There are way points along the way where you can stop and refresh. Or perhaps you find someone or they find you and you halt yourself for awhile. But even if we stop, the path and journey continues. Just other paths become available perhaps some dim their lights. My friend and companion L says it is destiny we met and that the Buddha determined that she and I should be together. I agree. I think we are destined to find things and people at either good or bad times as we begin, transition, change or even end our participation in the journey. Yet the road goes on.

I’ve stopped a few times and thought this would be a nice place to kick off the path I have chosen. If I had done that before meeting L I would not have met her yet other things good and bad would have undoubtedly happened. Instead my journey took me to a certain hotel in a certain district of Saigon where I met L. Its a interesting thing how people cross your path and how you cross their’s. L believes its all destined to happen and that our paths were carefully woven to meet. So we did meet. All of this requires steps and decisions and other things that all have to line up. But they do line up and sometimes it feels like life stopped for me in 2009 with divorce and I had to spend 10 years in some kind of dark Hellish place to be able to find the new path that had opened when I retired from IT. All of these are steps guys. Steps we choose or that somehow are chosen for us. Perhaps someone or something works on our destiny.

Its also amazing how the steps add up. Thousands and thousands of steps in many cities and countries have I done. I am unsure how many miles and steps I have done in all of 2019. My iPhone can help me:

  1. In 2019, I have walked an average of 5.5 miles every day. I have taken an average of over 12k steps every day of all of 2019.
  2. In 2018, I was not walking the same way all the year. I walked an average of 4.7 miles in 2018 and my average count of steps was over 11k.

The basic fact is that once I started doing this kind of walking every day in 2019, my mileage picked up and so did my steps. So my steps and miles have gotten better since retirement. That is pretty cool! The real fact though is that I stopped counting the steps and miles after 28 February 2018. From then on I walked each day to see the city much like I had done before seeing Vancouver or San Diego or wherever. No more GPS coordinated and times to get in. It became a thing with no goals or requirements much like the rest of my life.

So in all those physical steps, there were some mental steps to be taken too. Nothing lives in isolation and it took me some months to get over 20 years of doing brain damaging Information Technology Program Management. When I got on that plane on 1 March 2018 heading to Japan, I had planned out a series of adventures that would get me through end of the year. Then I started working on the first 5 months of this year. Next it was 2 months in Vietnam with respites at home in Phnom Penh as needed. I would then visit Vietnam again and now I am Laos. Soon I will go back to Phnom Penh and visit Saigon and Can Tho to see friends but then leave Southeast Asia on more steps. I won’t be back to Cambodia until June 2020. Still more steps.  So many steps. So much walking with the camera to see things. Many things have changed that are vehicles so to speak to carry me on my wandering ways. Cameras have changed. Shoes have changed. The camera voyage has been rather frustrating but I ended up with the X-T30 which has treated me very well.

What about shoes? I first started with Merrill Moab Ventilator shoes and thought they were great. They would last about 6 months and then would lose support or would wear through. I went through three pair of them. I got tired of them though because they gave me calluses across my poor retired man’s feet. Then I tried Birkenstock Arizona sandals in Malaysia and they lasted two months before falling apart. They also are the most uncomfortable sandals I think I have ever worn. I tried cheap sandals and got the same amount of wear time.

I ended up with these beasts.

Image result for chaco men's mega z cloud

These are the Chaco Mega Z Cloud sandals. Of course you cannot easily buy them in Southeast Asia. They take some break-in time and don’t believe anyone that tells you that you won’t get blisters. You will. I got them between toes, under my feet, one on my big toe and now I have one on my heel from when they got wet and rubbed my ankle. But let’s just be honest. These things are tough and when you get them broken in, they work. Are they comfortable though for the everyday miles I do with the camera? Yes. I don’t mind the small blisters every so often because they heal up and then get tough. But they will keep you going and I truly believe they are indestructible. Its probably the way they are made that make them that way.

It ain’t some overnight love affair no matter what the reviews and reviewers say though. Your feet will hurt and your tender skin spots will get bloody. These shoes whip the hell out of your feet but they give you something back. You get a sturdy and reliable pair of shoes to take you to the limits.

You want some break-in advice? Here is some:

  1. Wear the sandals barefoot for a limited time every day for the first few weeks. Say for an hour or two to a nearby coffee shop. Let them and your feet get to know each other a bit and say hell-o. And there will be some hell. Now put on socks to interpose a soft layer of protection the rest of the time. Forget what everyone says about socks and sandals. Just do it. Your feet will thank you as you do the break in.
  2. Be sure to get them fitting right. Remember its just one strap all the way around so you have to pull and adjust to make them fit. I get them the way I want and then just release them and then try to never adjust them again. Keep on with the fitting stuff though in your first weeks.
  3. Now go longer after 2 weeks to a month. Try longer walks but perhaps carry some socks in your backpack to ease your tired feet.
  4. Been over a month and perhaps, just perhaps, these beasts are gonna give you some good times. Maybe they will also decide to be bad to you and let your feet or ankles or soft skin parts know they are still there. Try bandaids under the sandals or continue with the socks.
  5. Soon months. Now you have the distinctive barefoot tan lines that marks you as a Chacoan or whatever you want to call it. Your feet and the sandals have gotten somewhat at peace.

I am at Stage 5 and still I find that I will get something like a small blister that turns to a callus. But they give me the steps and I believe they give me a respite from ordering shoes or replacing cheap ones. Are they good? Hell yes. Do they last? I think so. Are they the best travel sandals ever? Could be. Your feet may decide that they do not like the Chaco’s though. You never know until you know.

So this lets me bridge the gap from the metaphysical journeys to the grunt force physical ones and its a continuum. Steps lead to steps. For me it has taken both of the kinds of steps to reach a balance of sorts. I’ve done more in 2019 than 2018. I have found something of value with the steps in L and others along the way. Life has also taken its steps along with me. Happiness and joy go along with me each day walking and taking photographs with the camera. Whether its in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia or Vientiane Laos; its been steps.

Both kind of steps. Those that let me see these neural connections of things and events and then the physical steps that lead me to the mental connections. Assuredly one leads to the other but that’s for another post.

I’m leaving Vientiane tomorrow so will sum up my adventures and share some final thoughts. My steps go on.

Reading the in-between parts of lines

I don’t always think of the wandering or the places or alleys or even the prostitutes that offer services in Hanoi. I like the small parts of writing a blog and I touched on some of this the other day. Popularity or numbers of page views or likes or dislikes or following are not important to me. If you follow or you don’t follow or like or don’t like, its grist to this mill. I read really only a few blogs these days but my friend Mikka maintains one that illustrates the point well. Here is what he had to say. I like his title for the post. We all get sucked into the parts of this where we effuse and want and desire the followers. We publish and get published and gush about what we are doing or what someone else is doing on some platform. The two candidates are instagram and twitter. Both offer “likes” but wordpress offers likes too. Consider what a like is and whether you exist for likes and followers and you gush over how many page views or what your domain ranking is and whether your pinterests are attracting and your instagrams are engaging.

This is not where blogging started though. It started in a rough and tumble world where the few, brave, free, showed themselves. We wrote on different platforms now gone like Advogato which combined news posts, blog entries, and almost a diary-like format. People were voted by their peers at different authority levels. You probably never heard of it. Between the lines though were the people folks. I have never written nor will I to garner your likes or become smitten with your comments or gush over how many people follow me. As a point in fact I don’t follow people but I do read their blogs. I choose to read between the lines and find the important parts for myself. I don’t need social media likes or follows to tell me anything. I do like what Mikka said here,

I’ve always been the type who doesn’t do things to write/film/photograph about them, but just does things, makes media about that stuff, and sees what happens. If no one reads, watches, or listens to me, that’s OK. And, hopefully, it’ll stay that way.

Source: Mikka Luster The Like Trap, 2019

I advise you all to consider carefully what you are looking for between the lines when you write these things. These days, writing to create or have fun or to share but not expect any followups is on the decline I feel. We do not create for its own purpose and I think its sad. Instead we are fashioned and pushed and create for other sakes. I have a choice to. I can choose to read the lifestyle and travel blogs or not. I am but a little voice in the wilderness. I would like to see more content for its own sake and not depending on the whims of others. I want less subsidized posts and more “you” posts.

So ask yourself the same question. What’s between the lines for you? If you do it for money and fame, I get it. If you want to be a digital nomad and find location independent work streams, I hear your story. I’ve met a few. One named Lauren that I met in Hanoi was pretty open about talking about doing the Digital Nomad thing for two years across Southeast Asia. I don’t know what pulls your strings though. What you see between your lines.

Do you?

The beauty of the most wondrous temple complex in Laos

Here in Vientiane is the most treasured and important temple complex in all Laos. It has been damaged in brutal wars and rebuilt. Now its acknowledged here as the most important cultural site in all of Laos. Its a beauty of a site. Admission is free and the temple complexes are simply stunning. So instead of gumming up the works with a bunch of BS words. Here it is. The incredibly beautiful and historic Pha That Luang.

Now the real question is when the hell are you going to get here? Its waiting for you. Its been through wars and history. Wandering the site is free and its just so beautiful and peaceful and quiet. The architecture is incredible. Stretch out and come to Laos. Its beautiful and different. Take some time here. Vientiane has your temples.

As a note, all of these were shot with the exemplary FujiFilm X-T30 camera with the 18-55mm kit lens. What a magical device for me!

How we wander

There are the usual questions. Difference between tourist and traveler. What is a digital nomad? How does a gap year work and why do you want one? What is a RTW? In a previous twitter existence I met my share of all the above. I read a few of their blogs. I was not amazed. I would say I was disappointed but that’s still too positive. Where the hell is the real content I have wondered. Where is the You in the Blog. Where are the things you feel when you wander? I see the 5 things to do in 24 hours and the three days in Taipei things. So where is the you? Where are your feelings about what you do, see, find? Your happiness, joy, sorrow. Consider that it is you doing the traveling not your affiliate link or your sponsor. Its fucking you. Your feet wandering. I would love to read travel blogs that focus on both worlds. Like tell me your feelings on the road. What was the first thing you saw yesterday when you left the hotel or hostel? How about a post on a single thing you found off the beaten path? Maybe an alley in Hanoi where the people sit laughing and waving. The small coffee shop selling egg coffee you just must try. The Vietnamese Grab driver that offers boom boom to you. Its all the human condition but it seems how we wander is all worn down into the categories and the Pinterest and the Instagram.

Why? I wonder where the real content is. Your spirit and soul. How you felt that day when you get lost in Saigon? Or maybe the beautiful small streets in Kuala Lumpur where there is nothing of note or consequence yet you are there anyways. You are there because you are intrepid and a wanderer. You are there to see and feel and think. Not just to write sponsored posts, jealously count your page rank and followers and visitors and click throughs and google page rank and SEO. Or to take your acclaim and post the 5 things to wander against on your 24 hours in Phnom Penh Cambodia. Assuredly, you cannot see Phnom Penh or Siem Reap in one day or three or even a week. There are streets to see with nothing on them at all that are asking. Friendly people that want to wave at you and give away smiles and laughs.

So big time travel blogger and influencer and lifestyle blogger; where are your posts about you and the ones that matter? Not the travel itineraries or how to do a quickie in Seoul Korea. Where is the you in the blogging?

You are doing the wandering for heaven’s sake. You are in control.

I gave up on the twitter feed with the handle @mpmilestogo because it was littered with so many different kinds of travelers and I realized I am not a traveler. Or a tourist. Or a gap year, or a RTW or a digital nomad (whatever the hell that means). I live here but I wander. Wandering and getting lost and thereby finding more of value.

What do you do?