Saturday, October 30, 2010

I’ve come upon a theme concerning ‘time’ since coming to South East Asia – perhaps not quite ready for a Nature article, but certainly worth note. It appears that time here moves both incredibly slowly and incrediably quickly, despite these being contradictory statements. There was a time that a three-week vacation would have seemed enormously long. Luckily it still is - in a way, it just also transpires so rapidly that I find myself asking: have I really been away from Chiang Mai for close to a month? But I have, and I did, and I find myself, once again, in front of a classroom pretending to know what I’m talking about and pretending that I am more than just two or three years older than my students. But what of those three weeks? While I will refrain from detailing every single adventure here are some highlights / snapshots/ random occurrences (the kind that are the norm here):


First of all I’ve got to mention how amazing it is having friends scattered throughout Asia. An hour flight, three hour flight, thirty minute taxi ride and suddenly I’m in a market at night, somewhere in the middle of Ho Chi Min city meeting Carolyn Smith-Lin a fellow PiA-er for dinner! That night we chose to sample one of the street restaurants – an indoor restaurant combined with a food stall, there being table clothes and china on the plastic tables that lined a bustling market alley. We dined on avocado shakes swirled with condensed milk and surprisingly tasty, a massive rice puffball, and an entire fish stuck between poles so as to stare glassy eyed at us.

Riley flew in the following day and from there we set out to explore southern Vietnam. Saturday was for the reunification palace and War Remnants Museum (originally called the American War Crimes Museum), which presents a disturbing picture of American atrocities during the war. Sunday Riley, Caroline and I drove out to the Cu Chi tunnels – an extensive series of underground tunnels that were built to resist the Americans. Some have been widened since, for foreigners to be able to experience. Crawling on hands and knees, or sometimes shuffle squatting in the dark, it is near impossible to imagine the tunnels being any smaller or for anyone having to have lived down there for months.

Sunday night we hopped on a three hour bus south into the Mekong Delta and the city of Can Tho. Good news – the bus played Avatar, bad news – they turned the volume down and over it had a single high pitched female voice translating the whole movie into Vietnamese. We stayed with two awesome PiA fellows in Can Tho who let us in on the secret restaurants of the city and we woke up at 5:30 to zoom our way via motorbike taxi to the wharf where we bargained our way onto a boat that took us to see the floating markets! Boats upon boats selling everything from dragon fruit to soda, French baguette sandwiches and enormous knobble skinned pumpkins. So that no one is in any doubt of what a particular boat has for sale, a sample is hung high from a pole and strapped to the boat so that the result is an airborne menu of onions, pumpkins, long beans, pineapples.

Heading farther south, we caught another bus and then a boat to the island of Phu Quoc where we rented a motorbike and explored the rutted dirt roads and the white sand beaches the island had to offer. While swimming we came across what we thought was a coconut, but turned out to be a jellyfish– dark brown with stubby tentacle. And then immediately after we emerged from the water and started walking down the beach we witnessed a mob of jellyfish two hundred strong floating their way to where we had just been swimming…On further exploration we investigated the insides of a large fish sauce factory. It looks much like a wine distillery, minus for the incredibly pungent smell. We also did see our first roast dog on a platter…

Then it was back to Rach Gia along the coast where we dined on shrimp muffins, fresh spring rolls and sugar cane juice squeezed with lime. Then back to Can Tho and finally back to Ho Chi Minh by Friday morning.


Arriving off the plane in Singapore Friday night I was met by none other than Megan Schoendorf! Together we met Denali who has seemingly magically flown in at the exact same time from Chiang Mai. Over the next two days we proceeded to eat our way through this very small country – hobbit style: first breakfast, second breakfast, brunch, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, supper, midnight snack, etc. What did we consume?.... Shanghai soup dumplings, Malaysian cheese roti with curry sauce, Chinese rice rolls soaked in soy and savory sticky rice bundled in banana leaves and steamed. We consumed bento boxes of sushi, green tea soba and crispy tempura in a bustling down town mall and bit into rectangles of chocolate, blueberry and raspberry ice cream between thin wafers while sitting on the grass out by the wharf. We sipped Star fruit juice, pineapple juice, rock melon juice. We tasted “carrot cake” lacking cake or cream cheese frosting, but rather consisting of a white tuber that has been mashed and then flattened and then fried on a griddle before being chopped like hash with scallions and soy sauce. In the quiet streets of the Arab quarter we found a dimly lit café were we had a feast of kebabs, yogurt dips, pomegranate couscous salads, pitas, and of course ice Moroccan mint tea. Then immediately after that feast we waddled our way to the bustling Indian quarter to one of the best south Indian restaurants were we ordered extra long paper and masla dosas, coconut curries, masala chai, mango lassis, and, need we forget, plump sugar soaked gulab jamun!

Least it seem like we only dined for 48 hours straight, we did indeed see a little more of what Singapore had to offer besides what came from its kitchens. We visited the beautiful and pristine botanical gardens (complete with a gift shop that reminded me of being back in the states). We hiked up a small hill/mountain in the early morning heat and happened upon some small, possibly poisonous, snake that lay draped between branches, we viewed the city from the height of one of the taller skyscraper restaurants, and we became well accustomed with the jingles that play on the subway…how the community population of Singapore has remained sane is beyond me. And best of all we met/re-met a whole host of awesome PiA-ers who I only hope will now come visit us all in Chiang Mai!


The last two weeks of freedom were spent island hopping in Indonesia with mom! First stop was Bali. Not having been able to ride a horse in almost two years I found myself on the second day cantering along the beach at sunset and watching, from horseback, a funeral disperse (Balinese funerals end with everyone going down to the sea, before dispersing back to their homes).

After two days along the west coast near the sentinel temple Tanah Lot we drove up to our favorite village of Ubud – the art center of Bali. We spent our days walking through the monkey forest and the local markets, making friends with many of the women and buying breakfasts of bright pink and white coconut cakes, babi guling (whole roast pig), tiny succulent chicken satays, and mini green pancakes filled with coconut shavings and palm sugar.

One of our favorite things to do in Bali is to attend temple festivals which are almost literally happening every day somewhere, as there are temple birthdays, weddings, tooth-filing ceremonies, full moon celebrations, rice celebrations, celebrations of metal objects. On our drive to Ubud we drove through a town called Tebonkong where we notice the tradition braided palm frond decorations. So of course we stopped a little ibu (grandmother) and asked what the ceremony was. Apparently there was a big celebration at one of the three village temples starting that evening! We never did really find out what the celebration was for – a cyclic ceremony that happened every 25 years, or every 30 years, or every 50 years. One person even told us – once every 200 years. From another person we were told it was a ceremony to celebrate the completion of reconstruction on some part of the temple. Whatever the reason we returned each day (the Balinese are very welcoming of outsiders at ceremonies as long as you dress appropriately: temple sash, sarong, and a head scarf thing for men).

The first day we seemly walked into Clifford Geertz’s famous essay. In a back corner was a ring surrounded by men smoking clove cigarettes all avidly watching the men in the ring who were preparing for a cockfight. After much talking a signal was made and the betting began. Men waved their arms in the air, calling out certain sounds to signify how much money they were putting on the table (chukachuka, chachacha) with the result sounding like an adaptation of the traditional kecak dance. Then there was silence the cocks were bounced twice on the ground and then brought back to the starting lines. The whole fight lasted less then two minutes, aided by the spurs attached with red string to the cocks' feet. The fight is to the death and the loser, a brown rooster, was than unceremoniously hauled over to the side of the ring where a man beheaded and plucked it before returning to the owner. Cock fighting is technically illegal, but during festivals they still manage to slip into the program. Other nights we attended the services, watching women in long white Kebayas carrying towering offerings on their heads and gamelan groups playing exuberant musical pieces.

From Bali we flew first to Jogja, Java then a drive to the other side of the island to catch another flight from Semarang to Pangkalan Bun, Kalimantan. From there we drove to Kumai with our amazing guide Jenie where we boarded a small boat that would be our home for the next three days and we set out up the Kumai river and into Tanjung Puting National Park. Thirty years ago my parents followed a similar path on their way to spending a month volunteering at Camp Leakey. Why were we heading into the Kalimantan rainforest? To look for Orangutans of course! Over the next three days we hiked into the rainforest to feeding stations to visit and watch some of the most fascinating and captivating animals I have ever seen. Orangutan in Indonesian means “people of the forest” and they truly are – curious, playful, intelligent – you see it in their movements and you see it in their eyes. We spent hours watching them stuff bananas into their mouths, swing between trees and hang one handed as they peered down watching us! Our guide Jenie has grown up with the Orangutans and knows all of them, their age, personality, family history – all of which he would tell us as individuals swung into get food at the feeding stations. (They are fed once a day). Easily the best day was when we went to Camp Leakey and on the dock we were met by Pan – a 17 year old, particularly playful Orangutan who proceeded to wrestle with Jenie and then guide us along the dock holding mine and Jenie’s forearms in his large soft skinned hands. Pan is a particularly smart Orangutan – he has figured out how to paddle a canoe and when it rained (like it did that day on the dock) he created an umbrella out of a leaves and branches he piled on his head.

We also saw Tom, the current king, who is also enormous, and Siswi, the current queen, who was seven years old when my parents were at camp and who my mom remembers playing with all the time. At one point Tom got into Jenie’s bag and found a container of shampoo, which he proceeded to open and use on his arm getting a nice lather and then eating it all up! In the mean time Siswi found and opened an umbrella, which she held over her head until she got bored. Still hungry Tom and Siswi followed us back to camp, trundling along behind us. Back at camp Siswi relaxed on the porch eating bananas and at one point getting into the ranger’s sambal, which she found very hot and which she washed down with some coffee!

We spent our final days in Jogja, first visiting the stunning Borobudur temple (we had it basically to ourselves because a little thunder, lightening and rain deterred almost everyone else) and then turning to art and a two-day batik workshop where we learned about both drawn wax and tjap (printing wax) designs.

And then seemingly suddenly we were on a plane back to Singapore, I was saying bye to mom, and I was finding Denali in the Chiang Mai airport. And now here I am again standing in front of new classes, figuring out lesson plans and trying to learn a whole new set of a 150 students’ names: Pink, Tar, Gong, Mint, Pin, Bee-Bright…


  1. Sounds like a great time! Thanks for updating!

  2. We love the pictures, especially the photos of you and the orangutan holding hands! What a great trip!