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By this Author: SMWiley

Fishing for Fun in the North

Chiang Mai, Pai, and Chiang Rai, Thailand

View Map of our Journey on SMWiley's travel map.

After the constant movement in Vietnam, Stets and I were excited to head to northern Thailand for some rest and relaxation. Ah! Life is hard! We arrived in Chiang Mai about midday and checked into our hotel. We decided to stay at a place that was nicer than most of our other guest houses and found a hotel with a gym and a pool. Paradise! Chiang Mai is located in the hills of northern Thailand and therefore the weather is a bit cooler than most of SE Asia, which we were extremely grateful for. We headed out on foot, had some lunch, and stopped by the Muay Thai Boxing stadium to grab some tickets for that evening. I was excited as I have never been to a boxing match, let alone, Muay Thai Boxing. We walked the city for a while and then headed back to our "home" to get ready for the night. After a delicious dinner of tacos...yes we found tacos and they were delicious...we made our way to the stadium and found our seats. The agenda said there would be 8 different fights for the night. The first set came on and the men looked like they were about 15-16 years young. The boxing is made up of punching, kicking, elbows, and knees. At first, I wasn't too stoked about the fight. I thought the boys were too rough and too young to be fighting this way. After two or three fights, the men got older and I realized that this style of fighting is traditional and well respected in Thailand. The men were very respectful to each other, hugging after fights, and actually making sure they were okay as each round ended. It was a great night out and a fun insight into northern Thai culture. The rest of our time in Chiang Mai was spent riding around town on our motorbike, walking through all the markets, and also looking for fabric to have a two person sleeping bag made in preparation for our Everest Base Camp Trek. Success! On one of our motorbike excursions, we made our way to a temple called Doi Suthep. This is a Buddhist place of worship that dates back to 1383. We road our bike about 15km out of town and way up on the mountain. We then hiked up about 300 steps. The views were beautiful, the temple is stunning, and the monks blessed us. We road around for a while at the top of the mountain where the air was cool and the fog was eerie. Our time in Chiang Mai was just what we needed and so we headed off to the land of piranhas...Pai.

Three and a half hours on a bus through winding mountain roads and we arrived in Pai. We had already reserved a bungalow at the Pai Piranha Fish Farm so after grabbing some lunch, we called the owner of the farm and he gladly sent his girlfriend to pick us up. As we drove onto the property, Stets was excitedly checking out the three ponds looking for fish rising. We settled into our bungalow and grabbed some bait and spin rods to test out the water and fish. Almost immediately, the line started to unravel and I knew Stets had a fish on the line! A carp. He was happy to catch it but looking for the monster Piranha and not settling until he hooked it. Our time in Pai was mostly spent fishing and exploring the surrounding area and the town of Pai itself. The town is very small with many tourists and lots of young westerners who come to visit and end up staying due to the low cost of living and the endless partying. We weren't too excited about town itself so we stayed mostly at the fish farm. After a couple days of spin fishing, which is the way the owner fishes the ponds, Stets pulled out the fly rod. It was dusk and sunset was lighting up the sky. He made a few casts and then settled in for a spot in the middle of the pond. Bam...a fish on the line...and it was putting up quite the battle. Stets fought it for about five minutes and finally had me get a net and get this fish in. Finally...a piranha. And it was huge! Now he was on a roll. He stayed out for at least another hour and caught several other fish. That is the recipe for a happy man.

Our next and final stop in northern Thailand was Chiang Rai. This town is known as Chiang Mai's little brother. The town is small and quiet. We found a guesthouse that felt like home. The owner was very friendly and helped educate us about the town and fun things to do while we were there. We spent a lot of time on bicycles getting to know the city. We had researched the area before arriving and learned about "The Golden Triangle" which is an area where Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar meet. The area has a lot of history and is also know as "The Opium Triangle" as lots of opium was grown in this area for medicinal purposes. We booked a day long tour that took us through the country side, tea plantations, hill tribe villages, to the Golden Triangle, into the museum and also to the border town of Thailand and Myanmar. It was a long, educational day and we enjoyed every moment.

Our time in northern Thailand was fantastic and we were happy to once again be in the land of smiles.

Posted by SMWiley 20:32 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Getting hustled.. Again.

A homestay in the Mekong Delta

View Map of our Journey on SMWiley's travel map.

The ferry dropped us off in what I would call the heart of the Delta. We were the only westerners in sight. In a town that we didn't know the name. The only thing we knew for sure was that our destination for the night was a few hours away in My Tho. We were told that there were no tuk tuks, songthaews, or taxis. The only way to get to the bus was by motorbike. Reluctantly, but with no other option we each hired a bike for $2. The men were excited to have our business. They put our day bags around their chests and put us on back. The ride was 20 minutes long. It was a very scary experience, they drove what seemed to be faster than anyone else on the road. There was no care for avoiding speed bumps and pot holes. Being on the back took every ounce of strength to hold on with the extra weight of the bags. There were times when we all wanted them to stop and take rest. We eventually made it, all covered in sweat and some of us in tears. We were dropped off at a very sketchy restaurant and were told to eat while we waited for the bus. I wouldn't dare try anything but fried rice with an egg. We waited on the side of the road with a warning from the restaurant owner to hang onto our belongings tight. There is a lot of crime down in the Delta. We jumped on the bus and there was only one seat open. We stood next to our bags and hung on tight. We had to pay for ourselves and our bags! The ticket collector on the bus grabbed a large box from the front of the bus, drug it through the passengers and placed it next to Megan. It turned out to be an old US Army ammo box, that was Megan's seat for the ride.

My Tho was a much bigger city than I had thought, with motorbikes wizzing by and boats coming in and out with their goods. Right away we got a feeling that it was not safe and we should head out the next day. But first we needed to find someone willing to give us a tour of the Mekong Delta via the Mekong River. Reception at our hotel gave us the name of a man named Mr. Chung. Mr. Chung greeted us with smiles and a couple of different itineraries we could choose from. We decided on one that would be two days on a boat tour with a homestay at his uncles home. Mr. Chung showed us a brochure of our trip which included, a visit to four islands. We were supposed to tour a rice paddy on bicycles, visit a fish farm and fish for our lunch, tour a coconut candy factory, a honey farm, see local music, and visit sacred pagodas. Followed up with a four hour boat ride to his uncles home where we would stay with his family for the night and bike around his village. The next day we would visit one of the famous floating markets after we fished in the river that morning. When we finished the tour of the river and villages we were to have a taxi waiting for us at the spot where lunch was provided. The taxi would then take us to an air-con mini bus which would drive us back to Saigon. We signed off on the tour, being assured that he, Mr. Chung would be our English speaking guide for the next two days. Extremely excited we went to sleep dreaming of the adventure to come.

We awoke to a beautiful bluebird day, ate breakfast and shuttled to the river. Mr. Chung told us that his mother was very sick and he couldn't be our guide. He quickly pawned us off on a man who didn't speak a word of English and told us the boat captain would be his wife. Disappointed but understanding we set off intending to have a great day anyway. First stop was island 1. We stopped at the honey farm, which was a square meter of honeycomb. Pretty unimpressive. But we were able to try different candies and drink 3 or 4 cups of tea. Next was the traditional music. 3 or 4 more cups of tea, fruit, and 3 songs from the villagers. Pretty unimpressive. We moved down the island to the coconut candy factory. This was cool to see as we saw the locals making a soft, chewy delight. The candies come in many different flavors, I was keen to the coca. We took a small canoe down a tiny canal, which brought us back to the Mekong where our boat was waiting for us. We motored over to the second island. A temple towered over the trees and gave us light to where a monk had once lived for 70 years. He survived on only coconut water and coconut meat. Pretty impressive. We rounded the corner and had lunch at the fish farm. The fish farm was a restaurant that had a small pond with some stinky Mekong fish. Lunch was served, a whole fish, crispy as could be, and a few soggy greens. I was under the impression that we would fish here and eat our catch, the guide didn't know that, and apparently they have never done that. Little did we know that this was the end of our day tour. Two islands instead of the four we signed on.We got back on the boat and embarked on what should have been a 4 hour ride. It took nearly 6 as the captain had to battle the fierce headwinds and strong white caps. The water was coming at us with every wave. Well aware of the fact that the locals use the river as their toilet, we pulled out the umbrellas and put on the raincoats. When we finally made it to the home stay we were a little surprised to see lunch tables sprawled around the property. This was obviously a place that many tour companies visit during the day, it was hardly what I would call a home stay. Using the bicycles that were provided we set off for the last 45 minutes of daylight. We were going to the banks to watch an epic sunset unfolding in front of us. Half way there we were turned around by a handful of snarling dogs coming our way. Back to the house it was. This is where we found out that we were not staying with Mr. Chung's uncle, in fact they didn't know him at all. Upon further investigation we found out that our captain wasn't his wife. We were sure that his mother had not been sick either. One lie after another. Determined not to let this ruin our experience we tried to make the best of what was around. Our guide assured us that we would fish the following day! But, the fish will only bite on bananas and not flies, so we were to fish the traditional way. We had a lovely meal, burnt fish and egg rolls before dozing off at 9 P.M. hoping for a better day tomorrow.

The eggs had been made an hour earlier and flies were swarming the stale bread, but we woofed down our meal, packed our bags and got ready to fish! We launched the boat and motored to a perfect looking spot with tangled Mekong grass in a back eddy. Our guide told us to fish. We exchanged glances wondering how, without a rod, line, hook, or a banana. Understanding that there was nothing for us to use except my own gear packed deep in my bag, with a time frame of 30 minutes. So far the trip had been composed of mostly lies. Disappointed and feeling completely ripped off we told our guide to continue to the floating market. We cruised the market up and back 3 times, happy to watch the locals perform their daily trades. We stopped at a place where they made rice cakes and talked with a local lady who had lived there her whole life. She was happy, old, and content. We asked her what her views on America were and she told us, they are rich. This is where the tour on the Mekong ended. We got off the boat and waited for the taxi that never showed up to pick us up. We walked a kilometer or two with all of our gear to a street stall restaurant where we were served lunch. It was 9 A.M. Our spirits were low and we were ready to get back to Saigon and erase this from our minds. We walked to a gas station and waited for our mini bus to take us back. Since we were told the bus would hold 10 people we expected that. The bus showed up and we were the last seats on a 25 passenger bus. There was no A/C and our bags were jammed below our feet. Reluctant to get on but in need of leaving we boarded and got out of there.

This is what memories are made of. We shook off the bad, kept our heads high and got ready to go back to Thailand. Ah, the land of smiles!

Posted by SMWiley 22:08 Archived in Vietnam Comments (2)

You don't want to but you have to...

Transportation in Nam

View Map of our Journey on SMWiley's travel map.

Late, disgusting, unsanitary, slow, loud, these are the main words I would choose to describe getting around Vietnam. The most direct route to Saigon from Hanoi is 1,777 kilometers. Traveling via the coast and into the mountains make the journey much longer. There are many ways to explore the countryside and to get to different locations. Trains, planes, mini buses, large "VIP" buses, long tail boats, you can even take hogs along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In order to see the whole country you can't avoid these modes of transport.

At first it was fun being on the train for 10 hours, sitting on hard wood seats, getting to communicate with some of the locals. Even getting a chance to throw the UNO cards down on the table. Then came the "first class" overnight sleeper trains. I prefer to stretch out when I sleep. These beds are clearly made for the smaller Vietnamese people. I found it was difficult to sleep at all with my knees jammed into my chest and my day bag at the foot of the bed. This was the one and only overnight sleeper train we took. A group decision was made to take the long train rides during the day. The next train ride we were stuffed in the seats with our bags in the aisle and under our seats. We were forced to sit cross legged for the whole ride. Luckily for us this was only a 2 or 3 hour ride. It is a famous ride from Hue to Da Nang that follows the coastline and offers spectacular views of jagged rocks jutting out of the cobalt blue waters. Only we didn't get to see any of it as the locals on the window side of the train shut the drapes closed. We asked them politely to open them a little bit. So the young man scoffed and opened them 1/4 of the way, only to close them a minute later. I could only imagine the beauty we were passing. After that another group decision had been made to only take sleeper trains, but during the day. So the next 2 train rides were more enjoyable as we could "stretch out" and comfortably have space around us. Even though the sheets and pillow cases were not changed, which made us cringe, we were able to find humor in the situation. We only had one train that actually left on time. The rest were at least an hour late.

The buses were a completely different story. We boarded a mini bus in Hanoi heading for Ninh Binh. After being harassed and grabbed by the touts who don't speak English, we hopped on a bus that was to leave and be there in 2 hours. An hour went by and we were still sitting on the bus in the same location at the bus station. Eventually the seats started to fill up, all but 2 or 3 were taken. The bus fired up and it was time to go! Ooooohhhh no it wasn't. We drove through the streets at a crawling speed looking for 2 or 3 more people to fill the empty seats. It took another 20 minutes to do so and away we went. A decision was made to take a night "VIP" sleeper bus to Hue because I couldn't sleep a wink on the sleeper train. VIP means that you get more leg room and perhaps the seats recline a bit more. There was no way to fully stretch out your legs and get comfortable. We were given a small blanket that hardly covered our upper bodies, we were in for a hell of a night. The big bags go under the bus and the day bags take up your extra leg room. There were disco lights lining the ceiling and the floors and club music bumping on the system. Trying to read was almost impossible until the music shut off. When it finally did the lights turned off with it. It was 8:00 P.M. and apparently time to go to bed. The bus driver was a maniac, honking and slamming the brakes all night. Somehow I slept better than I did on the train, but Megan didn't sleep a wink. My old man, being the seasoned vet that he is was able to catch a few Zzz's.

Many restless nights and unsanitary sleeping conditions was the cause for a few cranky days. It was nice to have transportation throughout the country and the experience out weighs the negatives. Overall, there was nothing we could do about it but keep on keepin' on!

Posted by SMWiley 22:00 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

War. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.

Long Thanh and Vung Tau, 'Nam


Upon entering Vietnam, I knew that I would want to take some time to explore the areas where my father was stationed and also vacationed back in 1969. I made a couple phone calls to him once we started working our way into the south and also pulled out a map to get an idea of where he spent his time. He told me that he was stationed in a town called Long Thanh. He was in the Army. Fighting for freedom from good 'ole "Uncle Ho."

We arrived in Saigon by train and started to haggle with the taxi drivers and tour agencies to see who would give us the best deal on a private car from the city to Long Thanh and then down to Vung Tau. Our plan was to head to Long Thanh, which is now a very small, very poor town with an extremely nice golf course, hit a couple balls on the driving range, and then head south to Vung Tau, a beach town where my dad vacationed during his stay. After much haggling and asking around, we found a taxi driver that would spend the day with us for $20 each. We hit the road at 9am and found ourselves at the golf course by 9:45. We rented some clubs, grabbed a basket of balls, and took turns hitting the balls in the name of my father, America, and freedom. It rocked. While we were whacking away and baking in the brutally hot sun, I couldn't help but think about my dad, dressed in his full army gear, melting in the sun while trudging through the rice paddies. Before this day, I never really thought about "the price of freedom." All of the men and women who serve our great country have paid and we, as citizens, reap the benefit. It struck me pretty deep, standing on top of that hill, and I stood and thought of what may have happened right here on this ground.

After a while, we loaded back into the car and drove a few more hours until we arrived in Vung Tau. There are two main beaches on this peninsula, Front Beach and Back Beach. Back Beach is where we made our home for the night and it seems likely this is where the soldiers would have come for a rest from the every day happenings of war. We rented motorbikes and headed out to explore. One of our main goals while here was to find a boat that would take us along the water and into the Mekong Delta. We weren't sure if we could find such a thing, but we started asking around. Our first stop was at the ferry dock. The nice lady there informed us that they have one route - Vung Tau to Saigon. We wanted to be off the beaten path and so she handed us a card of a private boat company that may be able to accommodate us. We phoned them, put in our request and were told we would receive a call back. While waiting, we moved on into some local neighborhoods looking for a fisherman who may be able to take us across the water in his boat. We came upon a group of men sitting by the water and struck up a conversation with them. We explained what we were trying to accomplish and the men thought it over. They called in a couple of captain friends and while we awaited their arrival, the local neighborhood kids started to swarm around us - I guess we were quite the sight - the white people who happened upon their quiet fishing village! After some time and much discussion, the fishermen decided they could not take us across the water. They all agreed it was too dangerous and way too costly. They then sent us to a local pier to see if the local ferry could help. We said our goodbyes and headed in search of this local pier. Along the way, we found ourselves more and more immersed with the locals. We stopped several times to ask for directions and finally came upon the correct street. As we headed in, the crowd became thicker and thicker. This street was a full blown market! There were fresh veggies every where you looked, fish of every kind, and people every where! With some frustration, we came to the end of the road where it seemed we had reached a dead end. Some local women approached us and informed that we were indeed in the right place and that the boat leaves every morning at 9am. If we wanted good seats, we should arrive between 7 and 8am. We thanked them, headed back through the market, and knew that our trip on this local ferry was going to be quite adventurous, but we were ready! We left the following morning and headed into the delta.

It was a great day to honor the men and women who have fought for our country and I will never forget the deep feeling of gratitude for living in a country that honors freedom the way we do in America!

Posted by SMWiley 23:43 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

Living Life in the DMZ

Hue, Vietnam


Vietnam has a lot of history, but what intrigued me most about this country was learning more about the Vietnam War. The city of Hue played an important part of the war by being the place of the DMZ or Demilitarized Zone. This was the line in which the North and South were separated. Once the DMZ was established, citizens of Vietnam could not cross over that line. According to the Geneva Agreements, the line was supposed to be established for a short period of time until the country could become unified through elections. The elections never took place and the north and south ended up divided for over 20 years. Citizens of the north that had husbands or children who had traveled to the south, and vice versa, before the agreement were now separated and unable to reunite. We toured this whole area with an English speaking tour guide. We learned about the ways in which the Americans fought with the Vietnamese through words, sounds, sights, and guns. We drove on the Funk Highway, where hundreds of soldiers were killed and the road was cursed until a group of monks organized a vigil to pray for the spirits to ascend to heaven and stop all of the accidents that occurred on the highway year after year. We also took a tour through tunnels that were dug by the Vietnamese in order to hide from the war. They lived in these tunnels for years without sunlight and fresh air. Babies were born, elderly died, and children grew up. The history of this war and these people amaze me.

The rest of our time in Hue was spent exploring the beaches, riding around the city on bicycles, and exploring pagodas. One evening, we boarded a small boat and headed downstream to see just one of Hue's many pagodas. Stets' brought his fly rod along hoping to convince the boat captain for some fishing time later in the evening. The pagoda was small, but beautiful, and set on top of a hill with some great views of the river. After our exploration, we stopped for a fresh coconut and then re-boarded the boat. Stets and Steve worked their magic and were able to convince the captain to stay on the water for one extra hour and if they caught a fish, they would give it to her for dinner. The whiskey and fly rod appeared on the scene and a great evening of casting into the murky waters was upon us. The sun set, the lights of the city appeared, and we all had a great time. No fish were caught or even sighted, but that sure didn't deter us from a wonderful night on the water. We thanked the captain for her time and set out for dinner.

The cuisine in Vietnam is outstanding. Hue seems to be a great place to learn about food as it combines food from the north and south in one central location. Knowing this, we decided to take a cooking class so that we could bring home a taste of our trip. We searched online and found Missy Roo's cooking school. After a quick phone call, the class was scheduled. I was looking forward to it. On the morning of our class, we walked to the restaurant and met our teacher, Thuy (twee). She loaded us all in a taxi and we headed to the local market. Here, we learned of all the ingredients and bought everything we would need fresh from the locals. We headed back to the restaurant where a table was prepared with spices and cooking pots. We made four dishes over the course of the next few hours and then sat down to a magnificent lunch with the food we had prepared. It was a fantastic experience and hopefully I will be able to make these dishes upon my return to the US!

Posted by SMWiley 06:43 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

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