Sunday, August 4, 2013

Lazy Laos Sunday

Sunset on the Mekong River
Nothing much to do on a lazy Sunday in Vientiane except walk along the Mekong...not that there's anything wrong with that!

Fishing the muddy Mekong

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Better Late Than Never?

Time for soup!
Things I wish I had been told a little bit earlier:

"I've heard some of the roti vendors have TB."
"The long boots [you forgot to wear] are helpful because there are cobras."
"If you eat too many of those and you're not used to them, you can get food poisoning."
"The woman next to us just found a [mollusk] shell in her soup so I don't trust the water in our soups."
"It's the rainy season." Oh wait, I knew that one already.

 Sabai Sabai!

On the Western Ostrich

Great Smiles: Sanook in Khon Kaen
I was watching a vendor make my banana and egg roti, when the white couple walked up. It was a long holiday weekend, when the historic Wooden Bridge and Sangklaburi town itself were full of tourists, but these were the only farang (westerners) I had seen all morning.

From their accents, it was clear they were from the States. They stood next to me, occasionally exchanging a few words with each other, but never acknowledging my presence, which just seems weird to me.

It's certainly not the first time I've encountered this sort of thing - another westerner, perhaps the only other one in a remote town, will studiously examine the ground as we pass by each other on a narrow sidewalk - but it still bothers me. It's especially perplexing in Thailand where residents almost always return my smile with a warm expression of their own.

Maybe it's just the tourists' determination not to let anything familiar intrude upon their immersion in a foreign experience. An insistence that what they are doing is unique, despite evidence to the contrary. But it seems a bit rude, if not plain delusional, to not at least give the "Hey, you're riding a motorcycle too" nod that recognizes shared experience, especially
if you're standing next to each other at the same food cart.

Heck, I would have said hello to anyone in that situation. Maybe I'm a sap, or just more inclined to talk to others because I'm traveling alone, but we're all waiting together so why not be friendly, especially in a place that values friendliness and the concept of "sanook" (roughly: life should be fun). I've had great conversations with Thais and tourists alike while waiting for buses, food, flights, and most everything else a person finds himself waiting for.

So after a minute or two, I looked over at the couple, smiled, and asked, "So where you from?" "Ratchaburi," came the unexpected response. "Really," I wanted to say, "I could have sworn from your accents that you were from Chiang Mai." Instead, I made polite conversation, learning they were teachers who had lived in Thailand for less than two years and eagerly awaited their imminent return to the States. We chatted a bit until I got my roti and left.

Nothing earth-shattering or particularly memorable, but still pleasantly sociable. Was that so difficult?

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Close Encounters of the Bangkok Kind

The stray cat approached and began confidently rubbing against my ankles as if we were acquaintances of long-standing. Normally when wandering around Bangkok I carry something to feed street dogs and cats, but I had nothing to offer that afternoon.

I desperately wanted to give the beautiful friendly cat a meal, so after playing with it a while, I walked quickly to the nearest 7-11 (there's always one nearby in Bangkok), bought some fishballs and rushed back to where I had left the cat. Amazingly, he was still there and happily began to gorge on the fish.

Most of the people walking by smiled at the cat enjoying his meal, but one did even more to show his approval. A shirtless, barefoot older man shuffled up and paused in front of us. Catching my eye, he grinned toothlessly. In that moment I felt a connection; I sensed his shared joy in my simple act of feeding this stray animal and I smiled at the magic of Bangkok.

At which point I noticed that the man was peeing his shorts. Once finished, he trudged off. Sometimes the magic can be a bit elusive, even in Bangkok.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

I'm An Exhibitionist!

Hmmm, maybe I should re-phrase that title. What I meant to say is that there are only a few more days to see some of my photos on the wall of Beaner Bar, a great coffee spot in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. As their Artist of the Month, I put up an assortment of photos from such exotic spots as Southeast Asia, subarctic Hudson Bay in Canada, and Grand Central Terminal. All proceeds from the sale of any of the photos, greeting cards, and magnets I have available at Beaner will go to charity. And if you're thinking it's too hot to be thinking of coffee, try one of their iced drinks. The Mexican Mocha (pictured above in its non-iced form) is amazing at any temperature! Can't make it down? You can check out my photos at  I'll put up a fundraising gallery online of the shots I have at Beaner Bar when I take that exhibit down.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Brooklyn Gets Even Hotter

Brooklyn is already so hot it's as much a brand as it's a borough, so it is only fitting that it host the first annual NYC Hot Sauce Expo on April 20th and 21st. No idea how good it will be (hey, it's only the first one), but with admission only $10 I'm willing to give it a shot.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Don't Forget to Take a Towel!

Today's Google Doodle was a poignant reminder that today would have been author Douglas Adams' 61st birthday. In addition to writing the five books in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy 'trilogy', Adams, who passed away at the age of 49, wrote Last Chance to See, a nonfiction account of his travels to see endangered animals. I have to admit that, despite my interest in animals and travel, it took me years to finally read that book even after I bought it; having loved the first three hysterical and whimsical Hitchhikers books, I was nervous that I might somehow be let down by it.

Stupid, stupid, me. I think the book is easily as funny, entertaining, and clever as any of his fiction and may be more important, at least in terms of content. Written in 1990, the book is still all-too-relevant today. Sadly if Adams were still around he could easily record  (the book was based on a BBC radio series he did) yearly installments visiting imperiled animals. Indeed, in 2009 Stephen Fry filmed a follow-up with Adams' original collaborator Mark Carwardine.

The book is well-worth tracking down, but thanks to iTunes U, you can bring Adams and his hysterical descriptions of his journeys along on your next trip. Shortly before his death, Adams recorded a talk at University of California, Santa Barbara about his travels and observations. Parrots, the Universe, and Everything is easily found by searching for his name in the iTunes store and then looking for the video under the iTunes U tab. The segment on New Zealand's hapless Kakapo bird would alone be worth the price of admission if there were any - the download is free. Adams is a  charming and informative speaker; his enthusiasm and sense of wonder are obvious throughout his talk. He's a perfect travel companion, but if you don't want to wait, the lecture is also available on YouTube. I've embedded it here:

If you're a fan of Adams' fiction but haven't read Last Chance to See yet - give it a try. Even if you have no interest in animals or the places he visits, you're sure to enjoy the familiar humor you enjoy in his other books. And if you've never read any of his work, DON'T PANIC, just head to a library to remedy the situation. But if you have the chance to detour to admire some wildlife, go ahead and take the long way. I think Adams would have appreciated that.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Cheap Flights Revisited: When to Book

There are a few eternal questions for travelers: Is the water safe to drink? Did I forget to pack something? Should I buy plane tickets now or risk waiting for cheaper fares?

The answers are: No (if you have to ask, then you'll probably feel better not drinking it), Of Course, and I Have No Idea. Luckily does after reviewing a few hundred million fares (poor interns), as reported by Yahoo! Finance.

The site found that purchasing tickets 49 days in advance was optimal for domestic flights, while 81 days was best for international flights. Of course these numbers comes with all sorts of caveats (like purchasing too far in advance may be pricier, and the optimal time may vary according to a variety of factors like booking for a holiday period.)

Naturally there's no definitive answer, but it's nice to have a rough guideline. The article also mentioned that booking on a Tuesday or Wednesday didn't necessarily translate to saving money, which contradicts advice offered elsewhere, as discussed in my previous post.

A good strategy seems to be figuring out what you think is a reasonable, or at least affordable, price, picking up the tickets for that amount or as close to it as possible, and then not comparing prices with your seat mates so you can avoid post-purchase envy and frustration. And don't forget to check in advance whether can save you money if the price of your flight drops after you've already bought tickets.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Eternal Quest for (Cheap) Flight

Airborne in Style with Cathay Pacific

Some of my friends have scored inexpensive tickets recently, so I had high hopes for Outside's recent tips for finding cheap flights. Unfortunately, the article turned out to be website-filler that was posted mainly to generate some traffic. There may have been a couple of less-than-shiny nuggets of information worth gleaning, like airline Twitter feeds sometimes offer flash-fares deals (time for me to get a Twitter account?) or that it's often best to purchase tickets on Tuesday because that's when new fares are generally published, but everything else was relatively pedestrian (pun sort-of intended): who couldn't figure out that it may be beneficial to be flexible with travel dates or airports?

There was no mention of Yapta, which not only tracks flight prices but may also be able to provide a refund if the price drops after you purchase tickets. Nor was there anything about Kayak's recently instituted price forecasting feature.  And how about a reference to mileage earning credit cards? Nothing new there, but surely Outside's well-traveled staff must have reached some consensus on what the best cards are. (If you're looking for input on that, try this U.S. News & World Report article, whose high opinion of the Starwoods Preferred Amex card seems to be held by many, including me.)  

While I'm no expert on the topic of inexpensive flights, I have a couple of minor suggestions. One thing I've noticed is that on short-hop flights in smaller planes it may make sense *not* to check your bag in advance. On a few of my flights last year, I saw other flyers toting sizable carry-ons that had no hope of being wedged into the miniscule overhead storage bins. They were then asked to "gate-check" the bags, either at the gate or on the tarmac, before boarding the plane. It seemed like this was a pretty good way to avoid paying the ridiculous first bag fee if you're only bringing one bag: treat it like a carry-on even if you know it will end up as checked luggage. Not sure if it works consistently though - airlines can charge for overweight gate-check bags, as discussed in this article. But unless the airline charges more for a gate-checked bag, it makes sense to wait. At worst you'll just be in the position you would have originally been in (paying the ridiculous checked bag fee). Of course, if you anticipate gate-checking the bag, don't put anything irreplaceable in it.

Another short-flight small plane technique that I inadvertently stumbled upon was booking a seat right behind the emergency exit row. On several of my flights those seats turned out to be unoccupied, probably because the airline charged an extra fee for reserving these roomier seats. Consequently whoever was in the aisle seat right behind the exit row was moved into the row free-of-charge because someone needs to sit there in case of emergency. So whether I was in the aisle or window seat of the row behind, I ended up with extra room. Obviously I wouldn't count on this if you're desperate for a seat in the emergency row - if the flight is full, you're out of luck - but if you're indifferent to seat placement, try booking right behind that row and you might luck out.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

3-D Travel?

Just a small part of the sunrise crowd at Angkor Wat (Siem Reap, Cambodia)
Ever wonder how countries would be able to preserve fragile national historic sites in the face of increasing tourism? 3-D technology may help protect such places while paradoxically making them more accessible, and perhaps even more interesting, to the masses. Read about China's fascinating efforts here. Speaking of technology granting access to antiquities, click on this link to visit the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library and examine these amazing treasures in incredible detail.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Winter Smiles (part 2: Sangkhlaburi and points south)

Sam Roi Yod Beach, Prachuap Khiri Khan province
Here's some more friendly encounters in Thailand from this winter to add to my series of Thai smiles. After spending a little time in Sangkhlaburi with my students (I volunteer teach English) in beautiful Kanchanaburi province, I headed south of Bangkok to Prachuap Khiri Khan, another of my favorite provinces, where I spent a few amazingly relaxed days at Blue Beach Resort on the outskirts of Khao Sam Roi Yod National Park.
Hanging on the school bus

Students preparing dinner
Bus ride to school
Scooter gang
At my favorite coffee stand in Bangkok
Market outside the park

More coffee at the market

Sam Roi Yod Beach

Beachside entrepreneur 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Winter Smiles (part I: Sangkhlaburi)

Starting the day with a smile at Mo Chit bus terminal (Bangkok)

As a visitor, I have found people in Thailand incredibly welcoming, kind, and ready with a smile regardless of whether I was holding a camera at the time. Here's the latest entrants in my Land of 1000 Smiles series (more posts in the series here) from an all too short New Year's trip. These were all taken in Sangkhlaburi, a small town set on a beautiful reservoir near the Myanmar border in Kanchanaburi Province. The Mon Bridge, the longest wooden bridge in Thailand, connects the town to a sizable ethnic Mon community. It's a great place to watch the sunrise or just observe the flow of daily life as townspeople use the bridge (and boats) to go to work/school, and to socialize with friends and family.

Making new friends on the 7-hour bus ride
On the Mon Bridge
Staying warm on a 75 degree evening

Postcard vendors on the Mon Bridge
Going for a walk on the Mon Bridge

Selling offerings for monks on the Mon side of the bridge

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

I Saw It On The L: The Challenge

I don't have to roam far from home to witness the beautiful, the bizarre, or the just plain entertaining. Traveling around New York City on a regular basis provides me with ample exposure to all three, sometimes simultaneously. Occasionally, even the familiar takes an unexpected turn...

As I approached the L Train the other day, I saw some kids doing acrobatic routines in one of the cars. I got on the car behind theirs, hoping they would head that way. Sometimes I resent performers forcing themselves on captive audiences, but I was in the mood for some entertainment.

Sure enough, the troupe entered my car and launched into its routine. The kids quickly won over the riders with their moves and high spirits. It was fun, but nothing I hadn't seen before until a female passenger good-naturedly challenged one of them to do a handstand against the pole. He readily complied, but she claimed she could do better. When the kid and his buddy strongly expressed their doubt,  she confidently proclaimed, "Of course I can, I'm a stripper!"

The boys gaped bug-eyed as she got out of her seat and skillfully backed up her boast, capping off the unbilled cameo with a nice version of the worm. She smilingly tipped the kids as she left the train, though it wouldn't surprise me if they appreciated the encounter more than the money.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Happy New Year!

Phu Noi beach (Thailand) at sunrise

Wishing everybody a happy, healthy, and peaceful 2013 full of interesting journeys!
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Gotta Gettaway by Josh Lewis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.