Hello from England!

Monday, October 11, 2004
Hello from England! It was sad to leave Russia… but a month there is the most you can get on a tourist visa, so we said Das VeDanya and took a bus to Tallinn, Estonia. I went to Tallinn a few years ago and it was one of my favorite places and this visit was just as good as the last time!

Tallinn has a medieval wall around the old part of the town and the city looks like a storybook. It’s just so cute! The only thing that was really different from last time (other than the prices!) is that they are now part of the European Union… which doesn’t really seem different at all. We spent a few days there enjoying the non-Russian restaurants and soaking up the medieval atmosphere; they really play up that aspect for tourists and the staff at many restaurants and cafes are dressed for medieval success! I am also now familiar with the tunes of that era as well.

We booked a flight from Finland to England so we took the ferry across the water to Helsinki. We only had a few hours there, so we quickly dropped off our bags at the station and ran around the city. There was a herring festival at the waterfront; did you know you can fry herring?

Anyway, we’ve been back in England now for about a week. We spent a few days with Rob’s parents and have been staying with his brother in London ever since. About twenty people I know came to London for the weekend for a wedding of a friend of mine. It was really good to see so many people that I know after not knowing a soul for so long! So, hello to everyone who came to London this weekend! Per, Pam, Laura, Beth, Carla, Claudia, Bridget, Pete, Karen, it was great to see you!

Anyway, to change the topic, Rob somehow managed to keep track of how long we spent traveling from place to place. Here is the tally from the time we flew from London to Bangkok to the time we arrived back here to London: 16 days on buses, 10.5 on trains, 2.5 days bouncing around in jeeps, 2 days in boats and 1.5 days in planes. That comes to a grand total of more than one month! It excludes local transportation, taxis and motorcycle rentals… because who could possibly remember to write all that down?

I have a few more destinations before my flight home to Boston at the end of the month, so you will be hearing from me a few more times. Also, I’ve posted the photos from Russia, Estonia and Finland if you are so inclined to check them out! You probably already know, but the website address is http://www.crazyhappenings.com

Until next time! Alison

With Love From Russia... and Siberia!

Wednesday, September 29, 2004
Where to begin after almost a month in Russia?!?! Here are some highlights!

  1. The train ride to Siberia - discounting of course the endless hours of non-motion and never available toilet! This was the two day train ride where the provodnitsa smuggled jeans and blankets! All the Mongolians were "issued" two pairs of jeans and one blanket at the start of the journey. This doesn't seem like something worth reporting, but it was so funny - and so systematic! She had a clipboard noting who had what and as soon as the Russian border patrol people had left the train for good... she collected her goods and packaged them back up again. I'm not finished!!!! There was a secret compartment under the hallway carpet where she hid them all. Rob even helped her to store them there since the hiding place was directly in front of our cabin. The secret compartment was large enough to hide away two full grown adults!!
  2. Blending in. I know it sounds stange - but all of a sudden, you cross from Mongolia to Russia and you no longer stick out. In Asia you are ALWAYS the white or Western person.... but suddenly we took one more train and voila! Sometimes we are on the metro or walking down the street and someone asks us a question... they are surprised to realize we are not Russian. It's a nice change! And, it's funny to see people's reaction too.
  3. A visit to Lake Baikal, the largest and deepest lake in the world. It doesn't officially hold the record for the clearest lake in the world, but it certainly seems it! Looking into the water is actually strange it is so clear. Any realistic concept of figuring out depth is out of the question.
  4. Staying on Olhon Island in the middle of Lake Baikal. This place is remote even for Siberia! But, we found a guy named Sasha who spoke great English and he befriended us. We went fishing and for a jeep ride around the island. We stayed with Sasha's grandmother.
  5. Eating omul. Omul is a type of fish found in Baikal. No self-respecting Siberian calls it Lake Baikal, so neither will I, I will call it Baikal, just like them. They smoke the omul for a while at the market by the lake in Liskvyanka and then all the potential buyers stroll past examining each and every fish - most residents of nearby Irkutsk come here for a breath of nature. After a full circuit of fish examining they choose the fish they want... since we weren't really sure about the correct examining method we picked an old lady who looked really nice and smiled at us.
  6. The acrobatic flight in Novosibirsk. It took us two days to find this place and organize an actual flight, but it was worth it. Andrei, the onsite mechanic learned "Pilot English" and was so happy to have us turn up. He was great! In addition to a death-defying flight of amazing stunts in an old Russian plane he also gave us a great tour of tiny airport.
  7. MTV Russia is fantastic. It's the best programming I've seen since the China progaganda channel! It makes anything you see on American television (HBO or otherwise) seem tame. The videos are wild and the tunes aren't bad either. We bought an MP3 CD in the metro yesterday hoping to prolong our Russian music experience.
  8. Visting the Kremlin and Lenin's mauseleum.
  9. Visiting Anya in Moscow! Last time I came to Russia I met Anya through another Russian friend and I got to see her again this time. It's great to see a friend after so long without seeing anyone I know. Her and her boyfriend taught us how to play Russian pool! If you want to know how to play, here's a link, but good luck finding the gigantic table! http://www.wordiq.com/definition/Billiards
Russian Sterotypes and "Facts"

  1. So many Russian women seem to be SOOOO tall. And, they all wear skyscaper stillettos. How they manage to walk through the mud and cobblestones I'm not really sure, but wow, I could sure use a lesson or two.
  2. Babushka means grandmother. If someone is a grandmother, or of grandmother age she gets this title. It's a title of respect. After a week or so we realized that if someone calls a woman babushka - it's likely that it is NOT really her grandmother - it's a title!! In Russia, it's a hard earned one.
  3. Anything you have ever heard about Russian sterotypes... they are rarely true nowadays. Not only do they charge Western prices (or higher), they also dress the same as us, sometimes speak fluent English, and they also smile! Sometimes you do encounter the NYET person - someone who always says "NO" regardless of what you ask - but nowadays there is always someone who says "Da". And, it's likely they'll smile and try to help you. The most common stereotype about Russians that is true is in regards to their education. Most people we have met seem to not only have college educations, but they work as architects, economists, engineers, linguists or scientists... and the odd network marketer?!? No one seems to thing this is very extraordinary.
Anyway, about the tourism part... it's great! Especially St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg is one of the best places to walk through a history book. Every place you go, every sight you see - there's history involved. Plus the city is filled with canals and beautiful buildings. It's such a perfect place to visit you can't believe you haven't been here before... oh, wait! I have been here before! Even when you have been here before, there's just too many things to see that you haven't the time - even on your fourth or fifth visit. Just make sure you get to the Hermitage on your first visit!

The only bad thing about Russia is the fact that I do not speak Russian. I have learned most of the alphabet (Cyryllic) and can prounce most things... but it is just not the same. Although, I did meet an old retired military guy who learned Spanish to speak with the Cuban army. Speaking with me on the bus that day was the most Spanish he had spoken for 20 years!!!

Of all the places I have been to, I would most like learn Russian and Portuguese. Whether or not either of these will ever happen I can only guess! I promise to keep you posted.

For now, Das Ve Danya! (Goodbye!)

Love, Alison

Gobi Desert Greetings!

Wednesday, September 1, 2004
From giant sand dunes almost a kilometer high to flaming red cliffs and grazing camels, there is a lot to see in the Gobi desert… you just have a few hundred kilometers before the scenery changes! On the first day we even got to drive through a dry canyon. We spent each night with local herdsman families… all of whom keep goats, sheep, camels and horses. Hundreds and hundreds of them! Those camels really stink and you especially notice the smell when the entire herd parks themselves outside the door to your ger.

There are so few people living in the Gobi desert (.3 per square kilometer to be exact) we only passed six vehicles in five days we were there. Four of those were full of tourists and the other two were locals that our driver knew. It’s good to have the tracks all to yourself though because every car leaves a dust storm their wake. The scenery in the desert was breathtaking. Everywhere you looked was a picture perfect postcard! Coincidentally, the airport in the Gobi was also the only place in the country we managed to find postcards.

Now that we are back in the capital and have taken a much deserved shower we are heading to the Natural History museum where they house all the dinosaur bones found out in the desert. Those bones not located in this museum can be seen in New York’s Natural History museum. It’s where the archeologist who discovered the pre-historic existence of Gobi dinosaurs went to work when his expeditions in Mongolia came to an end. Is it still called smuggling if it ends up in a museum?

Anyway, we hop on the train again tomorrow! After just a mere 38 hours the train will arrive in Siberia. From what we have heard, the train actually spends nine hours at the border between Mongolia and Russia!

Sain Bain uu from Mongolia!

I should have sent this email about a week ago, but I had no access to the internet....

After a seven day Mongolian tour in a Russian jeep, we are pooped! Outside the city limits and surrounding area there are no paved roads, only dirt tracks. You quickly learn that there are good dirt tracks and bad dirt tracks. Often times your head just bumps the top of the jeep and mostly the journey is more tiring than the actual arrival and activities! Anyway, it was well worth the trip. The Mongolian countryside and its people are extremely welcoming. But before I continue let me define a few Mongolian vocabulary words that will be pertinent to what happened on the trip:

GER: A large, round, white, felt tent used by the nomadic people of Mongolia. There is a hearth or a fire in the center of the tent with a hole in the roof to let out the smoke. The hole is covered by animal skin when the fire is not burning and the sun is not shining. Most of the time there is no electricity but occasionally they have a satellite dish! A photo of a ger is attached.

AIRAG: Fermented mare’s milk. A fizzy, sour, mildly alcoholic beverage brewed by herdsmen. It is consumed in mass quantities and can be bought by the roadside anywhere in Mongolia, especially when a ger is in sight. I compare the taste to yoghurt past its due date, although others love it!

OVOO: A pyramid shaped collection of stones. Mongolians rarely drive past one without making offerings of vodka bottles, blue silk or small denominations of togrog (the local currency). Sometimes there’s an animal skull on the top of the pyramid or occasionally a pair of crutches. You always walk clockwise around these sacred sites. A photo of an ovoo is attached.

DISTILLED WATER: At first glance we thought the bottle was filled with boiled clean water. We thought they were being kind so we wouldn’t get sick from the regular tap water. In fact, they were being kind… they brought us Mongolian vodka! It’s made from the condensation created by boiling yak’s milk. Comparable to grain alcohol it is almost 100% pure alcohol.

BOODOG: The resulting meal when you roast an entire goat from the inside out by placing hot rocks inside the sealed, skinned carcass of the animal. From the outside you use a blowtorch to scorch off the hair and other stuff. It takes all day to cook and all night to eat! It is considered good luck to play “hot potato” with the hot rocks when they remove these greasy items from the goat’s innards when the cooking is complete. A photo of a boodog is attached.

Everything about our trip was fabulous. We recruited a Korean guy named Jae to join us in the jeep and he was just as fun as our driver. The driver didn’t speak any English, but he was extremely good at communicating with signals and facial expressions. By the end of the week we were having complete conversations in two different languages with very few misunderstandings!

We went to see the few sights that Mongolia has to offer – mainly the oldest monastery in the country as well as the nearby protecting penis. Yes, that’s right. Apparently, the locals believe that the local hillside is shaped like a vagina… so the penis protects the monks from temptation. I am just repeating what I heard!

The highlights of the adventure really were meeting all the local people who welcome you like a long, lost relative and seeing the countryside. And, just while driving you stumble across amazing things… the roadside ovoos and gers, and the marmots that dot the terrain and scurry away when you drive within earshot. We stopped to peer into their burrowed holes, but they refuse to come out ever again once they know you’re nearby. It’s also not unusual to see the occasional camel and despite the fact that our driver lives in the city, he knew how to bring the camel to its knees so we could hop on for a photo opportunity!

Roadside is also how the boodog began. Our driver stopped as we neared our destination for the day and we picked up a goat to roast. When we met the circus on the train they told us that we could not leave Mongolia without having this traditional barbeque, and so we did! If Mongolians had a Thanksgiving, this would be it. It took all day to prepare – from taking the hammer to the goat’s head to the slicing of the stomach when the meat was fully cooked, to the five liters of distilled water they served it with. I’m sorry to say that there were vegetarians staying in the next ger over from ours and they hardly ventured outside that day.

One day we saw a full double rainbow and on another there was a hailstorm! Whatever the weather, you always get to see the beautiful blue sky at some point during the day, and if you are lucky it will be during the sunset.

We arrived back to Ulaan Bataar last night expecting to spend a day or two in the nearby national park and book our train tickets to Russia… but the train was sold out for days and days! We have so much extra time here that we booked another jeep tour around the Gobi Desert. It really wasn’t in the plans, but the only other option is to sit around in the capital where there really is not much to do. So, we leave in the morning. Hopefully it will be just as fun as the first one! Supposedly the desert has much unchartered territory and archeologists are still finding new species of dinosaurs. I’ll be happy to just climb to the top of the sand dunes!

Love, Alison

Hello from Mongolia!

Wednesday, August 18, 2004
We arrived today to Mongolia by train from Beijing. It was the first of many legs on the Trans Siberian Railroad! It was a great ride, really interesting. We woke up this morning to the sight of the Gobi Desert rolling by. It was flat as far as the eye could see. Occasionally there’d be a ger, which is a round Mongolian tent used by most people, and maybe we’d see a bird. That’s it! The scenery was beautiful and the other people on the train made the time pass quickly ?we shared our cabin with an Australian and a Japanese guy. In the 2 cabins next door was the Mongolian State Circus. They were coming back from a tour in Taiwan. Tomorrow we leave for a week jeep ride around the country, but when we return they offered to take us out for a night while we are in the city of Ulaan Bataar, the capital. I’m sure a night out with the circus will be fun!

Beijing was our last stop in China and by far the best place we visited in the country. There is so much to do there! We climbed the Great Wall of China, visited the Forbidden City and went to the Summer Palace. China may be communist, but they have fully embraced capitalism. Did you know that you can now buy a Starbucks coffee at the Forbidden City? This is a place that for thousands of years the entire world was kept away from?and now thousands of tourists pile through every day and Western products are sold! Anyway, it really is an interesting place to visit. We got to see where the emperor kept his harem, all 33 of them!

Beijing also has fantastic food! We ate Peking Duck - the city’s specialty. They stuff it, fill it with broth, marinate it and then roast it. Then you eat it with plum sauce and thin pancakes. It ends up being like a Chinese duck tortilla! I also believe we stumbled upon the best food court in the world. It’s just like your normal food court, but Chinese style and much more crowded. They gathered up all the different kinds of street vendor type food, cleaned it all up, use the best ingredients ?and voila ?you have Chinese food heaven. We ate there 3 times in five days. Beijing is also the site of the 2008 Olympics, and they are already gearing up for it. Everywhere you look there is construction ?they are building or rebuilding everything, including lots of new metro lines.

I'll write again after our trip through Mongolia!
Love, Alison

Ni Hao from China!

Tuesday, August 10, 2004
Greetings from China! Before we arrived to China we heard so many things from other people who had been here - some hated it and others loved it. One thing is for sure though, if you were here more than a few years ago, China has become a different place. They've just knocked down whole blocks of buildings are replacing them with skyscrapers. It is changing so quickly that even some of its own people don't know what to do about it. In the subway in Shanghai they use a card system for paying the fare, and there is almost always confusion at the entryway. The first time we used the subway there was a woman in her forties or fifties who just didn't where to put the card! Also in Shanghai, while walking down one of the main pedestrian shopping areas, we saw an older couple going for an evening stroll in their pajamas. This is common thing to do in Asia, wearing your PJ's outside in either the daytime or the night... but in such a modern looking place it seemed odd.

We have been taking the train from place to place in China, and unlike most other countries we have been to on this trip there are many local people on the long distance hauls with us, not just other tourists. And, since we have been on so many trains, it has been a really easy way to get to know some Chinese people. On our first Chinese train we went from Hong Kong to Guilin. Some of our traveling companions turned out to be local high school students on their way to English camp. This scenic area is very popular with foreign tourists and many Chinese students go there to meet foreigners and practice their English. The "camp" invited us to go sightseeing with them for two days, and so we briefly became part of a Chinese tour! It was great! They also taught us a few words in Chinese. Thank you is "sheh-sheh"?

After taking so many uncomfortable bus trips around South East Asia, it has been a luxury to be able to sleep in a bed while plodding along to our next destination. On the train they have lots of things to keep you comfortable including comfy pillows and a duvet for your bed, and an endless supply of boiling water so you can eat your endless supply of noodles and endless cups of tea.

Today we went to see the Terracotta Army outside the walled city of Xian. It was amazing!! Two thousand years ago an emperor had 6,000 soldiers buried with him to protect him in his afterlife. In 1976 a peasant digging a well happened upon one of them and within a few years the site was excavated and history was made! The site is really interesting and although we have been looking forward to visiting this place since planning the trip, we were not disappointed. They even had a photo of Bill Clinton and his family's visit to the historical site on display in the museum.

Another highlight of our trip to the People's Republic was the few days we spent in Hong Kong. What a skyline!! I knew it was supposed to be spectacular, but it really was impressive. Every night there is a lightshow projected onto the buildings that you can watch from across the water at Kowloon. It's one of the tallest places you could imagine. One of my favorite things there was the escalator. It's used a form of transport! It's about 800 meters long and people use it to get to and from work everyday... there are lots of super-duper high rise apartment buildings at the top of the hill and they all have to work somehow. There's also a practically vertical tram to get you up and down, but is mostly a tourist attraction now.

Soon we will be climbing the Great Wall of China so stay tuned!

Love, Alison

WOW Philippines!

Friday, July 30, 2004
Wow Philippines is their tourist slogan and we saw it everywhere. We went to the Philippines mainly to check out their beaches… and that we did! We only made it to two beaches though – Boracay and Malapascua. We had intentions of visiting more of them, but they we just too fantastic to leave!! Plus, it usually takes a day of bumpy bus rides to arrive at your next destination… so we were having a hard time finding a good reason to go anywhere.

Boracay is touted as being the best beach in the world… and after visiting I would have to agree. It’s amazing. They have wide, white sandy beaches with great restaurants, lots of bars and tons of activities. Not that I participated in many… mainly I just soaked up the sun and the atmosphere.

Malapascua was much the same as Boracay – which is to say it was fantastic as well!! The only difference is that there are hardly any people on Malapascua. Everyday you have the beach almost entirely to yourself. It’s ideal – you get first dibs on the shade under the mangrove trees when the sun gets too hot!

Many people might tell you not to visit the Philippines during this time of year since it is monsoon season. But, other than a little nightly rain and the occasional passing shower, it wasn’t bad at all. It was a good respite from the blazing sun. In fact, it was more of a benefit than anything else. Accommodation was always available at the nicer places for half price, the beaches were quiet and the mangoes are in season!!! I have never tasted better fruit than a ripe mango in the Philippines. It’s a reason to go back there every year.

A beach is a beach though, so not too much to say about that. What you might find interesting is the Philippino fascination with cockfighting. It’s the most popular sport in the country and with just a little travel around the country, you can see proof. Philippinos have been known to buy the little birds their own seats on buses when transporting them to their next fight. And although we never witnessed that, we did see one guy who carried his bird in his arms on the ferry and then tied him to his foot for the four hour bus ride into the city. Talk about dedication! I hope he won.

Meric, your people say hello and they miss you!!

We have just arrived to Hong Kong and have finally bid farewell to South East Asia. I hope they will miss us as much as we miss them.

Love, Alison

Taiwan and the Philippines!

Tuesday, July 13, 2004
Hello everyone! We just got back from visiting the Banaue Rice Terraces in the Philippines. I'm not sure what possessed us to do so, but after spending the whole day flying to the Philippines from Taiwan we decided it would be a good idea to take a taxi from the airport immediately to the bus station. We took an nine hour overnight bus journey up and over the mountains to visit the rice terraces. Of course, after 24 hours of travel the last thing we wanted to do was climb terraces!! We arrived at six in the morning and went right to bed. Fortunately, you can see the rice terraces from everywhere in the town, so we did get to see them when we arrived. They looks like most other rice terraces (Peru, Indonesia, etc), except that they are everywhere. We also visited another rice terrace town called Sagada which was three hours from Banaue - we saw rice terraces during the entire journey!!

In case you were wondering, tourism in the Philippines touts this site as the eighth wonder of the world. Personally, I will remember the night there and back on that god-awful bus before I remember the rice fields. Rob and I ranked the bus journey in our "Top Three Worst Overnight Buses Ever". Anyway, it was beautiful and I'm glad we went. Now we are in Manila where the pollution is unbearable!!! In supermarkets here you can buy a "Pollution Protector" shampoo for your hair! Thankfully it rains for a little while every day and washes away some of it. We probably would have left immediately for the beaches down south if it weren't for that russian visa we have to get tomorrow!!

As for Taiwan, we stopped into Taipei for 4 days on our way from Japan to the Philippines. It wasn't really in our plans to do so, but the flight had a stopover there... so we stayed! We didn't really have time to leave the city, plus they are in the middle of having horrific floods and tornadoes right now and according to the news that I couldn't understand (it was in Chinese) it seemed like a lot of the roads had been washed away in the affected areas. Taipei was nice - we went to a few parks, memorials and view points. They also have a Chinese Artifacts museum. It's the largest collection of Chinese stuff in the world. It ended up there (temporarily) in large crates during World War Two and the Chinese planned on moving it later. Somehow that never happened... and since possession is nine tenths of the law, Taiwan decided to build a museum to keep it and show it off. China was not pleased.

One of the most interesting things about Taiwan is it's status as a country. Is it - or isn't it?! According to the United Nations, Taiwan is not a country. The UN claims there are 191 countries in the world - leaving out the Vatican and Taiwan. The Vatican chose to remain independent and has chosen not to become a member of the U.N. Taiwan however, due to political reasons, is not recognized by the United States and most other countries. Taiwan used to be a member of the UN until 1971, when mainland China "replaced" Taiwan. Taiwan continues to look for for recognition by other countries, but China claims that Taiwan is simply a province of China. When you are in Taiwan you often see the word "R.O.C.". This is what Taiwan calls themselves. It stands for Republic of China - not to be confused with mainland China. Mainland China is called the People's Republic of China. So there are two places called China. For example, when you fly with China Airlines, you are flying with a Taiwanese company. Taiwan does some things to placate China, but not everything. We found out that you can not process any visas in the country. They send them all to mainland China so as to not piss them off - but hey, at least they built the museum!

Okay, that's all for now. Next report will be from the beach!!!

Moshi moshi from Japan!

Friday, July 9, 2004
The two weeks we spent in Japan were fantastic! It's easy to make comparisons between many different countries, but Japan is just different. There's just nowhere else like it! If it weren't for the extraordinarily high prices we would have stayed much longer.

Here are some interesting highlights:

  1. We ate lots of sushi! A few times when we asked for the bill, they whipped out this little scanner thing. They used it to count our dishes as though there was a bar code, but there wasn't. It was like a little magic wand that told you how many dished you consumed and how much it cost!
  2. We took a taxi out to a brewery (tour participants included us and 25 drunk businessmen!) one afternoon... and the back door of the taxi automatically opened and closed for me. It was like having an invisible chaffeur.
  3. We checked out the Sony Center and Toyota showroom. Both places have stuff on display that won't be available at home for awhile... but you can buy them in Japan!!
  4. The cost of real estate is so high in Japan and there are so many people there that the place we stayed in Tokyo had triple decker bunk beds! There were twelve people staying in the room that was a normal sized bedroom at home. Somehow, it was still pretty quiet and neat! It felt like camp all over again... except with a 100mg internet connection in the living room!
  5. We visited Hiroshima where they have a museum dedicated to remembering the victims and the atrocity that occurred there. Actually, the whole city has memorials, including the preserved site of the only building left standing after the bomb exploded. Japan keeps no nuclear weapons and actively promotes it's stance on being anti-nuclear. It's a fantastic place to visit and a great city. they boast more bars per person than anywhere else in Japan.
  6. I slept in a capsule!!! That's right, those ones you have seen on TV. It was random. It's like sleeping in a bunk bed but it's closed off like a phone booth. Complete with television, remote control, phone and alarm clock built in.
  7. We rode the fastest train in the world - the bullet train. In Japanese it's called the shinkansen. Wow, it is fast.
  8. We also soaked in a traditional bath, slept on tatami mats, visited castles and became part of a school project. An elementary school class was visiting the airport in order to practice English. Some little girls asked our name and country then took our picture. There was much giggling involved.
It's hard to give you highlights of the visit there, it's really just a place you have to go and experience for yourself. The Japanese are very welcoming and are extremely helpful when you are standing there looking entirely confused, anyone can get around if you are willing approach strangers. That seems to happen a lot despite the plethora of English signs they have posted to help out. When you are in the busiest train station in the world, it's inevitable you will make a wrong turn or get swept away by the crowds. It's an adventure no matter where you end up though! Bye for now!!

Regards, Alison

PS. Japan photos are posted on crazyhappenings.com!

Hello from northern Borneo!

Saturday, July 3, 2004
After the peacefulness of Brunei it was nice to arrive in bustling Sabah, the northern part Borneo. After spending a night in the capital, the first thing we did was take an overnight bus to Semporna. Our bus arrived at five in the morning - just as the sun was rising. And, lucky for us, we were staying in a stilt village resort hovering right over the water and the view was spectacular! I'm not really into sunrises or sunsets all that much, but wow! That one was amazing. It even came close to making up for the complete lack of sleep that night. The bus followed the road along the Indonesian border, so every hour or so police would come on the bus demanding passports, and being the only foreigners aboard we usually got harassed first.

Then we went to Sipadan Island. It takes 10 minutes to walk entirely around it (without your shoes on) and it is gorgeous. It's also known as one of the best scuba diving spots in the world due to the 600 meter wall that drops off the island 25 feet off shore. What that actually means is that it goes from white and sandy straight to black and inky! It is basically an underwater cliff. It also means that even as a snorkeller (like me) you can swim around and see tons of fish. Big, huge, colorful fish everywhere you look. There is also a turtle hatchery. Almost every evening or morning turtles are hatched and released into the ocean. As you are sitting at breakfast, someone will come by and say, turtles, 5 minutes!! That is when the turtle race begins. You have probably seen it on television - turtle moms lay eggs and bury them in the sand, swim away and are never seen again. So, when the turtles hatch out of their eggs, they are born knowing that they need to bolt into the ocean as soon as possible. Normally, many turtles are killed by birds and other predators on their way into the water, but with the hatchery most make it into the ocean alive and well... and now there are tons of huge ones!

We even climbed Mt. Kinabalu. Finally, we climbed a volcano! It was our third attempt, and like they say, the third time is the charm. Anyway, the rest of the trip through Borneo was pretty fun, and now we are in Japan. I wrote this newsletter and then kinda forgot to send it! We have been in Japan about a week now, so more to come soon. It is fantastic here!

Borneo and Brunei!

Friday, June 11, 2004
We arrived to Malaysian Borneo hoping to see the world’s largest flower, wild orangutans, lots of jungle and animals… and we have not been disappointed! Borneo boasts the largest of many things, one of which is the rafflesia flower. This bizarre flower is found only in Indonesia and Borneo, and it only blossoms whenever it feels like it – no particular season, nothing. And since it doesn’t have its own plant to flower from (it’s parasitic!) you never know where one will burst (that is actually how they bloom; pop!). Fortunately, you have the Tourist Information Office to tell you. We walked into the office; saw a big sign that said, “Rafflesia in Bloom!” and hightailed to the National Park. Only twenty rafflesias bloomed throughout 2003… so we were pretty lucky.

The other thing that’s only found in Indonesia and Borneo nowadays is the orangutan. They used to be found all over Asia, but like most places, people are encroaching on the surrounding woods and wildlife. They have a reserve where they rescue the orangutans from all sorts of situations and then help them back into their natural habitat. Before the orangutans go back into the wild completely, the park feeds them twice a day. It’s during these feedings that you get to see them; then they go back into the jungle. The visitors get to “hide” behind some trees while the animals come up for food. We saw eleven orangutans!! Four of them were babies. It was fantastic! Orangutan means “man of the forest” in Malay. We’ve been on lots of hikes – they have about a billion National Parks, so we went to a few. We’ve seen loads of bats, lots of random brightly colored LARGE insects and even a wild bearded pig!

Since the day we arrived, Borneo has been celebrating the Gawi Festival. It represents the end of the rice harvest and it’s their biggest celebration. This means that all the kids have two weeks off from school and ALL Malaysians are trying to visit the same places we are! Other than the buses being full, this has been great! The people of Borneo, most of whom have grown up in longhouses (big, long communal houses with extended family), are extremely friendly. One night we got invited to a huge family BBQ and the Mom insisted that all six (!) of her little girls call Rob uncle.

In contrast, we just spent the last two days in Brunei. The people there are still friendly, but the country takes on a whole different feel. Brunei, one of the world’s smallest and richest countries, has an almost eerie quality to it; at least in the capital of Bandar Seri Begawan, where we went. The whole country has about 330,000 people living there and the sultan pretty much is their government. He is one of the richest men in the world – the sultan and Brunei get their money from oil, and we get our oil from Brunei!

While we were there we checked out a few museums, meandered around the city and peeked at a few mosques. The best part though was the speedboat ride through the Stilt Villages. Overlooking this modern capital is a village built on stilts in the shallow water of the river. The other side of the city sports the $350 million palace of the sultan. Complete with gold dome and everything. It’s pretty cool. We rented the boat for an hour and he sped us past all the sites.

Fun Facts About Brunei:

  1. The country’s full name is Negara Brunei Darussalam which means, “Brunei – the Abode of Peace”.
  2. Islam is the national religion and about 99% of the people there follow this religion.
  3. Alcohol is not for sale (since 1991) and there is no nightlife.
  4. They were a colony of Britain until 1984. Even then, they were reluctant to gain independence. And, when they are not pumping prayers through their radio stations, they are listening to London radio.
  5. The sultan is no scrooge either. He appears to take good care of his citizens; everybody gets a pension, free medical care, free schools, free sport centers, short work weeks, subsidies for purchasing cars and, best of all… no taxes!
We are now in the northern part of Borneo, and will be here for another 2 weeks. Then we go back to Thailand for a few days to eat at our favorite Thai restaurants in Bangkok before we head off to Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Hong Kong. We bought those flights the other day, so it’s pretty definite! It’s also definite that we will head through China, Mongolia and Russia before getting back to England for Carla’s wedding in October! Congrats, Carla!

Beautiful Bali!

Tuesday, June 1, 2004
Bali is one of those places you always hear about – a tropical paradise on the other side of the world. For me, the image it conjured up was exactly that, a tropical paradise. But the reality is that despite the fact that Bali is a tropical paradise, it exists in a country with more than its fair share of crime, corruption and poverty. Add to that the terrorist bombings of recent past and it becomes quite easy to forget sometimes that you are really in paradise, especially when you are in Kuta (where the bomb in the nightclub went off last year). There is a gigantic hole where the club used to be, plus the World Bank is sponsoring a renovation of the Kuta sewerage system, Indonesia style. The sewers are directly below all the sidewalks. They’ve got every sidewalk in the entire area torn up with giant holes everywhere. And, it appears that there are less than a dozen people working on the project. The work is so slow it practically looks abandoned!

One place in Bali that still does seem like paradise is the town called Ubud… where we spent five days! It’s tropical in all the ways you would think of – complete with monkey forests, temples, and palaces. One night we went to see the traditional Monkey Trance Dance, which was cool. And, you get to stay in traditional Bali family homes. These homes are big tropical gardens where the whole extended family lives. In the ones where the tourists get to stay, the families still live there but they add a couple of rooms for extra income! There are all sorts of intricacies about the traditional home as well; it is shaped like person - with a head, body and anus… that’s where they put all the trash and the compost heap. There is always a giant doorway complete
with grimacing statues to keep out the evil spirits. Also, the little paths leading around the family complex and to the rooms are extremely curvy and practically overgrown with tropical jungle. This is to confuse any evil spirits that make it past the grimacing statues! And, apparently evil spirits can’t make 90 degree turns, especially if they can’t find the path in the first place.

After soaking up the atmosphere of Ubud, Rob and I and a Nepali Peace Corps Volunteer named Trey, rented a car for two days to avoid the typical tourist extortion. We wanted to go to the wreck of the U.S. Liberty and hike up one of the volcanoes. The wreck was fantastic, and I only went snorkeling! I think it is one of the few wrecked ships that can actually be snorkeled. Rob and Trey went scuba diving and said it was the best dive site they have ever been to. It is an American cargo ship that the Japanese torpedoed in World War II. The Americans towed it to shore so that the Japanese wouldn’t benefit from its contents. It sat on that eastern Bali shore until the force of nearby volcanic eruption tossed it into the ocean. It plunged just far enough so that it is entirely immersed under water. It is now home to an abundance of coral and fish! You can have a look at Rob’s website if you want to see underwater photos from the wreck.

After going to the ship wreck, we spent the day driving to the volcano and all the while admiring the unbelievably gorgeous views of the ocean, volcanoes, and rice paddies galore. The road map we bought was very unspecific and the roads we were driving on were virtually unmarked, so we took many wrong turns. We even thought that we went to Bali’s most religious site which is perched halfway up a volcano at the end of a road. But, as we found out from a local when we stopped for directions all the roads go in the area go halfway up the volcano and have a temple perched at the top! Of course they do! We just chose the wrong road.

That night after NOT going to Bali’s most religious temple we went to the volcano and were accosted by the local volcano mafia. There is only one road into town and when we arrived at that intersection there were THREE men on motorcycles there waiting. We promptly ignored them and carried on trying to find the hotel we found in our guidebook. Those three motorcycles followed us the whole way yelling, “We are not mafia! We only want to help! We will show you a hotel!” Sure, we believe you. They tried to block the road, they tried rolling down the windows, etc. but fortunately Rob just plowed through them. Our hotel was renovating their restaurant, so they let us eat on the balcony of the room… and sure enough… who comes sauntering in eating food provided our hotel but the most persistent of the moped drivers. Trey chased him out.

All of the touts have gotten together and forbidden hikers to go up the mountain without a guide – and you can only get a guide from the mafia. When we tried driving to the parking lot where we intended to start our hike from, the same thing happened, only this time the mafia moped man (MMM) prevented us from finding that parking lot and from actually climbing. He told us that we’d fall off the mountain if we didn’t use a guide and then proceeded to show us photos of bloody people being carried off in stretchers because they didn’t use a guide. And (even though he claimed to not be mafia) he threatened to have fifteen of his friends block the road if we didn’t pay him as our guide. After at least an hour of driving and getting followed, we decided to just enjoy the scenery that was near us and went tromping through the lava, going no further than 10 feet from the road while Rob stayed with the car. The best part was, one of the Swedish tourists we picked up from the side of the road (miles from their destination) actually spoke Indonesian! She talked to MMM and eventually he drove away. All in all it was still a fun two-day road trip, but I can’t say I’d recommend it!

We have just happily arrived to Malaysian Borneo for the next few weeks!

Love, Alison

Greetings from Indonesia!

Sunday, May 23, 2004
In my last newsletter we were about to board a bus to go visit a giant volcano and crater. The bus was scheduled to arrive at our destination at 2 in the morning… but upon further inspection of our guidebook and lengthy discussions with our Indonesian friend in the row in front of us… we decided not to go. Like many places here, it is not really safe. It’s not an unusual situation, but the bus station is known for being really shifty and we were going to have to wait there until daylight, since that is when the first bus departed to the gunung (volcano). Lucky for us, the bus was headed to Bali, and as it turns out – so were we! As soon as we got to Denpasar’s bus station (Bali’s capital) we took another bus out to the port town. We decided to spend the night there since we had already racked up about 20 hours of traveling time.

In my first newsletter I mentioned that most people had been really nice and very helpful – but unfortunately that was because we were in relatively non-touristy areas. Since then people have done nothing but harass us… trying to sell us everything under the sun… and in Indonesia everything IS under the sun! It was so bad a couple of times that they wouldn’t even tell us which bus was the public bus that we wanted. Nothing was really posted with signs, so we were at their mercy, and they like to charge about a billion times the going rate to tourists. Once we paid a negotiated fare and the other time we just didn’t go!

One of the major reasons we came to Indonesia was to see the Komodo Dragons – the largest monitor lizard in the world. But, keeping in mind some of the transportation issues that we have been having… it seemed like a nightmare to spend 3 days getting somewhere, only to spend two days there. Also, they discontinued the ferry service we were going to have to use for the last leg of the trip… so you have to go fours hours PAST the island and the charter a boat to take you BACK to visit Komodo… and then reverse the trip!

While on the first leg of the three day trip, it just didn’t seem worth going to Komodo, so we abandoned our trip and decided to go to a place called the Gili Islands… and the best part was – we were almost there!

That was an absolutely fantastic decision! We spent 10 nights because we liked it so much. It was like a vacation from traveling! Carla – it was like our trip to Club Med Tahiti last year… except the hotel cost three dollars a night! And, despite the fact that you can walk around the island in less than two hours (including time for two swim breaks and one beverage break) there are great restaurants and a good nightlife. Almost all of the restaurants and bars are all located one little part of the island and the rest is virtually empty except for the village in the center. Other than the tourists only one hundred people live there.

There are no motorized vehicles on the island. There’s not a moped to be found! No engine revving and no fumes. All travel around the island is done by bicycle or horse and buggy (even the trash removal). It’s hardly considered an inconvenience, given that there is only one dirt road around the perimeter anyway! There are also no dogs. This has lead to the proliferation of many, many cats. Apparently, it is considered good luck to feed the cats. No one claims actual ownership of the cats, but they are all very well fed and groomed. A cute little kitten curled up in Rob’s lap one night while we were watching a movie at a bar. That bar was great – they had these Japanese like floor cushions in a semi-private setting with your own TV and DVD player. You could choose from the couple hundred titles they had. Not only are there no vehicles or dogs - there are also no police on the island. Had I been an avid drug user, I would have anticipated the plethora of available drugs on the island… but I’m not, so it never occurred to me! I have never been offered so many drugs in my whole life.

Random Things About Indonesia...

  1. Most Indonesians learn to make kites when they are children.
  2. On buses in Java a group of “professional” musicians will generally climb aboard to play two or three songs and then most passengers will give them a few rupiah. One band included an instrument (worn like a harmonica in front of his mouth) that was a comb nailed to a piece of board.
  3. Tourism has dropped since the World Trade Center bombings in New York, and then dropped even more when the bomb exploded in Bali in 2002. The level of visitors has fallen 75% of what it used to be. I hear that the numbers are headed back up again, but after the visa changes, who can tell!
  4. We met a guy on a ferry whose brother works for the United Nations in Indonesia. His job relates to education and he visits different islands doing whatever he does. The government places education so low on their list of priorities that the UN has to pay the government every time they hold a meeting with them. Also, the UN bought thousands of books to give to schools and they are currently sitting in warehouses unused. The government doesn’t wan to waste their resources distributing them… they say that if the teachers want them, they can come pick them up on their own. But, most teachers don’t know about the books and if they do, they can’t afford to come and get them in the capital city.
  5. In Bali, the beach town of Candidasa was very up and coming and had a beautiful coral reef. So, they started building some big hotels there so they could accommodate more people. In order to get limestone for the concrete to build the new buildings they tore up the coral reef – which contains limestone. The reef acted as a barrier to prevent beach erosion. Without the reef, the beach disappeared. Now there’s no reef and no beach! Apparently they have constructed some large concrete barriers in the water to build the beach back up. I wonder if they used coral for that concrete…
  6. They are Hindu in Bali and make constant offerings of these tiny little banana leaf trays filled with rice, flowers and miscellaneous biodegradable pretty looking stuff. They put them in every doorway, at the crossing of every street, and lots of other places. You have to be careful where you step!
Regards, Alison

Crossing the Equator to Indonesia!

Friday, May 7, 2004
Our plan of taking a short ferry from Malaysia to nearby Sumatra, Indonesia was foiled for many reasons. It is actually the first time since I left to travel 2 years ago that I have had to change my plans due to safety reasons. We wanted to go to the north of the island of Sumatra called Aceh to go to the famous turtle reserve and the best surfing beach in the world, among other things. But, as it turns out, the region of Aceh is under martial law! A place with martial law and mostly Muslims just didn’t seem like the ideal holiday spot, so we skipped it.

Indonesia also changed their visa policy 3 months ago. It used to be that they were quite liberal; you could arrive for 3 months at a time and enter and enter by land, sea or air at any one of their borders. The new rule (in addition to levying a fee) is that you can stay only for one month and you "probably" have to enter and exit from the same place. I say probably because virtually NO RULES have been issued by the government, so rulings have been arbitrary and based on the mood of the border guards. We have had to follow the updates from other travelers on an internet message board. Some people have been turned down when trying to leave the country - border patrol saying that they have to go back where the came from. Others have said that they weren’t allowed into the country unless they had $2,000 in cash or traveler’s checks. Others have been denied entry if they didn’t have an onward flight.

All this considered, we decided to buy a return ticket to Jakarta, the country’s capital. Fortunately for us, a new low cost airline just started! In case you are interested, it’s called AirAsia and it’s kind of like Southwest Airlines in the US, but more like Ryan Air in Europe. It was actually cheaper to fly than take the ferry!

Between the new visa rules, the bombings in Bali last year and general unrest in certain regions, tourism here is at an all time low. Yesterday we went to Indonesia’s number one tourist destination, called the Borodur Temple. It’s ancient Buddhist temple; something like a mini Angkor Wat. We were two of 10 foreigners that visited the temple while we were there. Even the souvenir vendors have packed up and left the site! There must be hundreds and hundreds of empty stalls. The hotel we are staying in was listed as the number one recommended place in the city, and for the first night we were the only people staying. Since then, one other girl has checked in. The price we paid for the room is 25% of what is listed in the brochure. It appears to be the same all over Java, at least it was the same at Pangadaran, the now deserted beach resort in the south of the island. You can have it all to yourself if you go now!

We arrived to this Muslim country on the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday. I think he’s the one that created the religion of Islam. I don’t know much about this religion, but have learned a little. Did you know that they pray five times a day and the first time is at dawn? Most mornings that’s how we wake up here in Indonesia.

Since we arrived we have been on the island of Java - home for half of Indonesia’s 230 million people. Java is half the size of the United Kingdom and has twice the number of people. It’s packed! And, as we discovered on our first day of bus travel, not a highway in sight. Nearby large cities seem to have a few miles of toll highways, but nothing to get you from city to city. In the past week we have spent 25 hours on local buses navigating the two lane roads from Jakarta to Yogyakarta!

It’s unfortunate for the locals that the place is so deserted, but we are certainly appreciating the lower prices and always available best hotel rooms! The people have mostly been really friendly and we are really looking forward to Bali and the Komodo dragons! This afternoon we are taking a bus to a large crater that contains three volcanoes. The installment will hopefully be from the white sandy beaches of Bali!

Greetings from Malaysia & Singapore!

Saturday, May 1, 2004
We planned the end of our stay in Burma to coincide with the arrival of Rob’s friend, Nick in Bangkok. We weren’t really sure if he was coming or not since he doesn’t have email and we don’t have a phone, but we knew if he was coming, April 5th was the day. As it turns out, his plane was taxi-ing down the runway immediately after ours. We could see his plane before we even got out of our plane! Then we bumped into Nick at customs. It was a real surprise for him – he had no idea we were coming since we only booked our flight the night before. The next coincidence was that their friends (who got married only the day before) were going to be honeymooning in Thailand, first stop Bangkok! So, even though Rob missed their wedding – we joined them on their honeymoon for 2 days.

After spending time in Burma, it was great to take advantage of modern Thailand. We did some shopping, some sightseeing… but mainly we ate. We ate a lot! Nick’s girlfriend, Anne, is Thai and knows lots of great places to eat – and what and how to order them too. We also went to the Floating Market and a Thai Boxing Match. When we were filled to the brim with Thai food, we took an overnight train heading down to Malaysia with Nick and Anne.

Last time I was in Malaysia it was rainy season. Note to self: don’t go to Malaysia in the rainy season. I heeded my own advice and this visit was a thousand times better! First we visited some gorgeous islands called the Perhentians, complete with a coral reef outside our bungalow, falling coconuts, and nightly fish barbeques.

Despite the fact that most of Malaysia is covered in palm oil plantations (their biggest export), they created a national park called Taman Negara to preserve some of the oldest rainforest in the world. Apparently the Malaysian Peninsula was never hit by the Ice Age and all other earthly rainforests were, so it wins the “oldest” title. While we were there, we got to walk the length of longest tree canopy walkway in the world! It’s a bunch of rope with planks strung through them and you walk from treetop to treetop. Carla – it was nothing at all like the one sturdy metal canopy we went on in Tasmania! Taman Negara is also where we spent my 30th birthday! Fun fact: 3 birthdays have past since I got laid off from my job.

In Kuala Lumpur, we tried going to the Petronas Tower three times, but all three times the tickets were sold out! Also, I bumped into a friend of mine that I met last year while in India! His name is Natesh and he lives in Bombay. It turns out he was in Kuala Lumpur on business. He had some time between meetings and was taking a bus somewhere when he spotted Rob and me walking back from the Petronas Towers (again). He couldn’t find me when he got off the bus, so he went to an online café and emailed me right away. I happened to check my email about an hour later, so I called him and we met for dinner! Amazing! It’s not the first time we’ve had such coincidences in the past few months – and hopefully it’s not the last!

Now here we are in Singapore, the fine city! Okay, I know it’s the same joke as last time I wrote a newsletter from Singapore, but I still think it’s funny. I learned a few more things about how “fine” it is: apparently some years ago they did not allow men to have long hair and if you arrived at the airport with long hair they would not let you through customs if you didn’t immediately let them chop it all off. They no longer have this rule, but you still aren’t allowed to chew gum. We were also noticing today that no one has any pets… maybe it’s a law around here or maybe a preference. I plan to look into it. It also turns out that they only open the palace to visitors on selected national holidays. One of which is Labor Day... which is today! So we got to check the place out. It's smack in the middle of the city, very modern, and they turned most of the grounds into a golf course!

Love, Alison

Mingalaba from Myanmar!

Friday, April 9, 2004
To go or not to go to Burma was the question - their government is a militant regime and some people say that visiting the country is supporting the government. Others feel you are only deserting the people of the country by further isolating them. We read up the subject, weighed the pros and cons and decided that we should go. If you are conscious about the way you spend your money, most will go to the people, not the government. Before I came to Burma I didn't really know a lot about it, and so maybe neither do some of you. You might find a little background information interesting so you know how the country arrived at it's present state...

For over 100 years, Burma was a colony of Britain. Then, World War II broke out. After the war was over, Bogyoke Aung San, a Burmese military leader, went to London to request freedom for his country. The Queen granted his request and he is now considered the father of Burma’s independence movement. Unfortunately, one month later, he was assassinated in a military coup. This military regime has been in power ever since.

The government controls all newspapers, radio and TV. Email and internet is forbidden as well as any foreign news. There are virtually no hospitals for any civilians, only for the military. School is not free so most can not afford to go, plus there are no jobs for them when they finish anyway. Passports are not issued and people can not leave the country. There is no recognized legal system; the government just does whatever they want and slave labor is one of the more pleasant ways they treat their people. In 1988 the people got sick and tired of the regime – the students staged a peaceful protest outside the university calling for democracy. Within six weeks over 3,000 men, women and children were killed. They even shot the nurses who trying to care for the wounded. The university was shut down.

Even though this all happened, the regime was blind to the fact that they were hated by the people, so they held an election in 1990 expecting to be re-elected. But they weren’t. Bogyoke’s daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, ran for president of the democratic party and won by a landslide. The military regime threw Suu Kyi and forty members of her party in jail. Some of the prisoners were killed, others tortured. Some still remain in jail, some are “missing”. Suu Kyi was eventually released from jail, only to be placed under house arrest.

Not much has changed in Burma since the military regime took over; the government just sucks the country dry of it’s resources and keeps it’s people down. Burma is the 5th poorest country in the world despite it’s plethora of oil, precious stones and other natural resources. Many of the students fled to the jungles and borders of Burma and are fighting the regime from there. This (and a thriving opium and narcotics trade) is the reason why as a tourist you must only visit “approved” places in the country. Almost all borders are off limits to foreigners. Day trips are allowed at two places along the Thai border but to visit Burma for longer than an afternoon you must fly into Yangon, the capital, or take the occasional flight to Mandalay, a northern city.

The military regime has done a good job of hiding the reality of their country from foreigners. The unsuspecting visitor may not even notice that anything is amiss, especially if they fly from place to place. We spent almost 3 weeks taking buses around the country and if you look you can not miss the open quarries where women and children are turning boulders into rubble so that roads can be built. Then, on the roads, you see children not even 10 years old placing these small stones a handful at a time onto the road to make repairs or widen the lane. Everything involved in making a road is done in the most manual way possible; and all under the scorching sun. Food and accommodation for the workers all takes place under tarps on the side of the road. They eat, sleep and breathe the dust of that road. Evidence of this work could be seen on every inch of every road we drove on.

Even in a society such as the one I have described, there are many who have managed to defy the regime either through friends in the right places or through people supporting them from around the world – or maybe both! We were lucky enough to meet just a few. We met a very outspoken man who boldly described his reality and the reality of his country to us. He talked to us about how aggressive the regime is and how it has affected him and his family. Not all of them are still alive.

We met another interesting troupe of people called the Moustache Brothers. They are a trio of comics famous among the Burmese. They incorporate satire (political and otherwise) and dance into their act. They had been famous for years and years traveling the country and entertaining the Burmese people. For some reason, their political satire was tolerated by the regime for all this time. Then, they decided to stage a very public performance in front of the house where Suu Kyi was under lock and key. For this act they were given 7 years in prison (mostly hard labor). They also achieved notoriety around the world. Major newspapers on every continent ran articles about the brothers. Some have even interviewed them since their sudden release from prison in 1991. Most of the edgy stuff from their routine has been removed, but they welcome foreigners into their home every evening to meet them and stay for some comedy and dance. The Brothers claim that the media has saved their lives. The worldwide media attention given to them has protected them from the regime. If anything were to now happen to them, the world would know about it the next day. They were pretty funny too!

Despite their government, we had a fantastic visit to Burma… you don’t meet the government (fortunately!) you meet the people and the Burmese are among the most friendly and welcoming people in the world. They are actually excited to see you and everyone says hello. Little kids are wide eyed when they look at you and they always smile. Maybe foreigners give them a little hope and insight about the outside world they are isolated from, or maybe they are just laughing at the way we dress. Some just want to sell you bananas or postcards.

After the serious tone of this newsletter, here’s some FUN facts about Burma:

  1. Almost all men and women wear a longyi (pronounced lawn-gee). A longyi is kind of like a skirt except there are no curves in it for your hips! It's very wide at both the top and bottom and is always floor length. One size fits all! They have a certain way of folding and tucking the extra material at the waist. If you are royalty, you fold and tuck your longyi differently.
  2. In Burma, handmade cigars are called cheroots. I don’t know much about cigars, but a retired New Zealander we traveled with for a little while claims they are fantastic and he smoked them non-stop. Dad – you can expect a few in the next package!
  3. The betel nut is probably the worst thing about the Burmese – I think they learned it from the Indians. The betel nut is this brown nut that they chew up until it is full of saliva and then they spit it into a leaf and wrap it up. It is then shoved back into their mouths. They suck it like a piece of hard candy all day long, occasionally replacing it with another. The thing is, it’s NOT like hard candy. It turns your spit brown and you constantly need to spit. And they do. Everywhere. Even the women. You can tell who chews and who doesn’t because your teeth turn almost entirely brown from this lovely habit.
  4. Many Burmese women, and some men, wear a pale yellow paste on their face called Thanaka (pronounced tin-akha). They wear it to keep their faces out of the sun. It's a kind of sunscreen and skin whitener all in one. Basically though, it looks like war paint! Most women wear it brushed on both cheeks - not like blush though, it goes straight across the cheek. Others just smear it all over (including ears sometimes!) and it looks like they never washed off the soap from their shower.
  5. Burma has most of the world’s teak trees. Teak is the world’s hardest wood and is very desirable. The regime is trying their hardest to cut down every teak tree in sight and is selling them to the Chinese. They seem to be doing a pretty good job too, because often enough we would see giant piles of “inventory” stacked up on the side of the road awaiting shipment. We saw thousands and thousands of trees in these stockpiles.
  6. There used to be so many rubies in the rivers that it appeared that the rivers were running red! The area where those rivers “flowed red” is called Mogok. Foreigners are only allowed to visit here by permit only. A permit basically means that for a mere few hundred dollars a day you get a government escort, car and driver to accompany you on a pre-planned government-approved itinerary. The escort takes notes about your every move.
  7. The most religious site in Burma is called the Shwedigon Pagoda. It’s a gigantic temple covered in 60 tons of gold leaf. Even if you are not a Buddhist (um, like me) it’s still an amazing place to visit. How often can you watch an orange sun set on 60 tons of gold leaf??
  8. A stupa is a Buddhist religious monument that is kind of cone shaped and pointy at the top. Usually they are covered in gold or whitewashed. In Burma, there are millions of stupas everywhere you look. I’m not exaggerating when I say millions either. Anytime you look out into the countryside, the whole landscape is dotted with them.
  9. In 1989, the country officially changed the English name of it’s country from Burma to Myanmar – which is what they call their country in their own language. Coincidentally, their language is called Myanmar as well. If you were a Burmese person, you are now a Myanmar person. It doesn’t appear though that this change has caught on in most of the world – just today, a mere 15 years after the name change, I read an article in Thailand’s largest paper about the country. There was no mention of Myanmar… only Burma!
  10. Monks are everywhere. In Burma they all dress in red robes and they seem to be more traditional than other South East Asian countries. The women wear light pink robes with some brown. Most monks and nuns carry umbrellas – the sun would burn their always shaved heads if they didn’t. You actually see both the monks and the nuns walking in groups from house to house chanting. They are not supposed to have any money, so the people feed them. They get a little spoonful from each house they visit.
  11. Like other countries around here, most of their vehicles come from Japan. Except in Burma, there are no junkyards. It seems that cars and buses never come off the road. Despite the fact that there are a reasonably small number of cars for 54 million people, the pollution plumes out of the exhaust pipes at an alarming rate. The stuff that comes out of the back of buses and cars is thick and black. One hour of walking around a city and your skin is coated.
  12. In a country of 54 million people, there are only 700 foreigners living there - and even they have a hash, which we went to. We met 40 of the 700 foreigners in one afternoon!
As for tourism, we got to see quite a bit in 3 weeks. At Inle Lake we got to see the famous leg rowers and the floating tomato gardens. In Bagan we took a horse and cart around the 3000 temples built there. We only went inside about 15 of them though! In Mandalay we hiked barefoot up to the top of the hill and peered into the former palace. Also, we were two of 16 foreigners to visit the Golden Rock Pagoda on the day we hauled ourselves up that mini mountain. Down south we went to see the world’s biggest reclining Buddha. It’s been a work in progress for over 10 years and they are nowhere near completion! We also went to the beach on the Andaman Sea and at an ancient capital city we walked across the longest teak bridge in the world.

Now we are back in the “civilization” of Bangkok where we met up with Rob’s friends Nick and Anne. We will be traveling to Malaysia with them in a few days!

Hope all is well! Regards, Alison

Elephants, Smiles and the Northern Smokeout!

Thursday, March 18, 2004
Laos is known as the Land of a Million Elephants and Thailand is known as the Land of Smiles. Although we have seen many, many smiles here in Thailand... there was not an elephant to be seen in Laos. Rumor has it that there is still a village somewhere who uses elephants to do work, but that is only a rumor!
About the smokeout - our last destination in Laos was called Luang Prabang. The United Nations declared the entire city a World Heritage Site and we had heard nothing but fantastic things about the place. BUT, apparently everyone we spoke to must have visited the city during the wet season because in the dry season, which we are now in the peak of, they practice slash and burn. That is a practice that is just as it sounds - you set fire to all that is around you and then you might grow something on it. In Northern Laos we turned into chain smokers - without the cigarettes! It was a fantastic city, but the smoke covering the city really put a damper on the place (no pun there!). As we were taking the bus from Ponsavan to the city we literally drove
through some fires. Embers and a few small flames were still burning on both sides of the road we were on. And, while in the city, we awoke every morning to the smell of smoke. They pretty much burn everything in sight (it seems) from dawn til dusk and then they take a rest and start all over again. Apparently, you have a beautiful view of the mountains from every vantage point in the city... but not in dry season!!!

Anyway, we had a great time there visiting the holyland of Laos. It's a small, enchanting city filled with temples, waterfalls, caves and occasionally a little smoke. We even got to see 2 little black bears and a tiger they rescued from poachers. They named the Indonesian Tiger, "Phet". Pronounced "pet". Probably not a coincidence!

We opted for a flight to Thailand's Chiang Mai due to the low levels of the river and lack of roads. We could have taken a slow boat which lasted 2 full days, or a fast boat which arrived after only one... but sped down the river at 60 miles an hour. It might have felt like Frogger the video game! But, as it turns out, the Luang Prabang airport does not have radar, so it was a bit hard to land and take off in a big cloud of smoke. We flew Thai Air thinking they would be more reliable than Laos Air... but our flight was canceled and we were bumped to Laos Air anyway. Apparently (as we found out in the airport) Laos Air will fly no matter what! The best part of being bumped was there is only one flight per day... so, we spent the night and 3 meals in a four star hotel, courtesy of the airline.

Since "The Bump" we have been in Chaing Mai, Thailand. We have been quite busy! We took a cooking class (just like last time), a massage class, and visited the temples and the panda bears! The zoo here has one panda and one baby panda. Tomorrow we take off (not with Laos Air!) to Burma. We have about 3 weeks there. I hear that it MIGHT be possible to use email, but maybe not. The government there is not too friendly and not too open so, I'll let you know how it goes!

Hope everyone in Boston is all shoveled out!!

Love, Alison

Sabaidee from Laos! Part 2

Saturday, March 13, 2004
We may not have even stopped in Pakse, except that there were some ancient ruins on the Pakse’s outskirts and Rob’s aunt was in town! It was a coincidence that she was going to be in Laos at the same time as us, but not a coincidence that we would find her in Pakse, we planned to meet her and her friend there. We organized to meet at a restaurant for dinner, but given that there were only a handful of foreigners in town anyway, it really shouldn’t have been a surprise that we bumped into them at the afternoon market. We went out for a few drinks and she took us out for a great dinner. Thanks, Pam! The Angkor era temple was interesting as well, but even more memorable was the rice paddy irrigation ditch we stopped at on the way back. It was so hot on that day that when we saw the water pouring out of the large pipe and lots of kids splashing around in the “pool”, we couldn’t resist. They couldn’t believe it when Rob hopped off the motorbike and jumped straight into the water. They were even more surprised when I jumped in! Bathing suits are considered really improper (especially on women), so we went in fully clothed like everyone else. It was great to ride the 30 kilometers back on the bike soaking wet!

In Vientiane, the capital of Laos, we went to a Buddha Park. Sounds boring enough, but it was great! Usually Buddha statues are really old and venerated, but these ones were concrete and built in the 1950’s… so no one cared if you climbed on the sturdy ones and posed like them all. So we did! And it was fun! I think we were allowed to do it at our own expense though, people generally stare a lot, but we became the afternoon’s entertainment for everyone else in the park! And, if you are ever in Laos, make sure you go to a BBQ restaurant. It’s like fondue, but it’s your whole meal!

Another place we stopped in at was called Veng Vieng. Since Laos is a landlocked country, we were eager to go somewhere that had water you could go in (other the the irrigation ditch). Veng Vieng is known for river tubing! You rent a tire and then they drop you four kilometers away from town along the river’s edge. You hop in on your tube and float along the river… all the while gazing at the large karst formations (which are kind of like big rocky hills) until you get thirsty. When you get thirsty, you just let someone from one of the many riverside “bars” pull you in with their long bamboo stick and you can get a beer! Only beer, that’s all they have. By the time you about ready to finish, you have arrived into town! It’s a fantastically lazy, non-culture activity that I highly recommend.

We went to Phonsavanh to check out the Plain of Jars and to see what the local people have done with all the stuff leftover from the war. Laos has the distinction of being the most bombed country on earth. This province is known for being extremely resourceful in using all the leftover parts from the war. Even 30 years later they are gathering up metal for scrap. One night we were sitting having dinner on the main road when a rice paddy tractor full of cluster bomb shells came down the road! Soon after we saw a water buffalo whisked by going god knows where. We have seen war paraphernalia used as benches, fences, lights, barbeques, and general building material. Plus, someone decided to make spoons out of old aircraft aluminium; everyone uses them. Some of the bombs have not yet detonated and we actually saw the Lao UXO (UnExploded Ordinance) team in action. A group of people were fanning out over a field using metal detectors. And, in the short while we were visiting the Jars, they detonated two bombs… just off the side of the road from where we were. Needless to say, we heeded the warnings to stay on clearly marked paths.

Anyway, about these Jars. No one knows exactly what they are or where they came from but there are these gigantic stone jars strewn about the province. Some of them weigh six tons! Some have lids, some are broken, and some are fully intact. Most of the little ones have “disappeared”. One is even placed on a giant pedestal in front of a construction company on the main road. All they really seemed to have figured out about these jars is that they are probably 2000 years old and probably had something to do with death. Maybe they buried people or their ashes inside these sarcophagus sized jars. Maybe we will never know! All I know is that we spent 7 hours on the mountain’s edge getting there, and seven hours getting to our next destination. It might be the most random trip I’ve ever taken… except spending 50 hours on a bus getting to a swamp.

You'll hear from me again soon!

Love, Alison

Sabaidee from Laos! Part 1

Sabaidee from Laos!

After a long trip through Vietnam we took an overnight bus from Hanoi to Tha Khek in Laos. We were mules! We took this bus that not only did they fill to the brim with people, but was also chock full with chicken feed and cigarettes. At about three in the morning they asked us all to get off the bus so we could eat and use the bathroom – but as we had JUST done this a half an hour before, none of us foreigners were too inclined. Then they claimed that there were problems with the tire, so please get off anyway. So we did… all except Rob. So, the bus (that didn’t actually have any tire problems) went careening off into the night with Rob and all our stuff in tow. The rest of us were left on the curb. According to Rob, the bus drove faster than it had all night and then suddenly it stopped. They opened the door to a little hut and started stacking in the chicken feed and cigarettes. After about an hour, the bus finally returned to pick up all the passengers and we were off again, headed toward Laos. The next morning it took us about an hour to go through Laos customs and get back on the bus. We then proceeded to sit on the bus without moving for the next 2 hours while the Laos border patrol examined the cargo of the bus. The longer they stayed, the more cartons of cigarettes they received. Last but not least was the fact that everyone on the bus was headed to the capital… except us. We were headed south (in the opposite direction). At the last minute (after I called the drivers all liars, that is). They flagged down a local bus and we made it to Tha Khek within two hours. We were so happy to be done with the Vietnamese buses! We got on the local Laos bus and people were so friendly! One guy on the bus spoke English and he wanted to know everything about us – who we were, where we had just been etc. Then he told everyone else on the bus what we had told him. I think it was some kind of initiation.

We spent the next few days going south to Savanakhet and down to the Mekong Delta and along the way I feel like we met half of Laos! It was unbelievable how many people got on and off the buses we took. We even saw the same lady twice! The best part of all this was the food we saw every time we pulled into a town station. Most everything that takes a solid shape gets speared like a kabob. This includes flattened chicken (all parts included), giant bugs (just make sure you pull off the wings first) and eggs (fermented). If you buy the sticky rice, that comes in a little plastic bag and you eat it with your hand. There was also lots of stuff wrapped in banana leaves whose identity has yet to reveal itself!

Also, at our hotel there was a wedding going on outside our room. There were at least 500 guests in attendance! I should mention there was a giant field outside our room. We thought it might be fun if we hung around to see a Laos wedding, so after dinner we came back to check it out. There were a few people dancing – but nothing different than a normal wedding, so we didn’t get to see any Laos wedding traditions. Although, we did discover that it is possible to sleep right through a wedding with loud DJ and all. After so many hours on buses, we just proved we can sleep through anything!

Don Det, an island on the Mekong Delta, became home of my first experience taking a shower using a bucket instead of running water, the dollar a night bungalow, and where we found the elusive freshwater Irrawaddy dolphin. Elusive because it seems to only live in the Mekong River, and the Cambodians seem to blow them up. Apparently there are only about 50 of these little guys left… and most people who try to go see them might catch a glimpse of a fin or see a splash but we turned up in time for the equivalent of a Primetime Seaworld Show. That’s what it seemed like anyway. We saw constant dolphin action for the entire hour that we spent paddling around the Cambodian border. A total of probably ten dolphins – a pretty high turnout!

Part II from Laos coming soon..... love alison

Last Day in Vietnam!

Tuesday, February 24, 2004
We were all set to go to Laos last night on an overnight bus and we were just doing a few last minute things when we bumped into a friend of Rob's from high school! We ended up going out for lunch with him where he volunteers and decided to stay one more night to hang out with him. It also allowed us to visit Ho Chi Minh's mauseleum... he is affectionately known as Uncle Ho! I was able to go get a haircut. I can confidently say that is the WORST haircut I have ever had!! It's like a throwback to the 80's. I have so many layers it's unbelievable! So, as much as I would recommend visiting Vietnam, don't get your haircut here.

Anyway, moving on... we will be headed to Laos tonight, for sure! And, I promised a few Fun Facts about Vietnam, and here they are...

  1. There are rules on how to cross the road. Pick a pace and and don't change it. Don't slow down, speed up, and never stop! The millions of honking motorbikes will just steer around you. One Vietnamese guy told me you are just as safe (unsafe?!) if you close your eyes while crossing.
  2. Foreigners get different license plates.
  3. Foreigners used to not be allowed on public transportation. Now they let you, they just charge you a lot more!!
Okay, the guy from the bus place is here to pick us up. Bye!!!!

Sinh Chao from Vietnam!

Wednesday, February 18, 2004
Hello everyone! We are still here in Vietnam and having a great time.
We spent a few nights (including Rob's birthday) at a beach called Mui
Ne. I tried to order a birthday cake for him for dessert... I even
went to the restaurant that afternoon so I could order the cake... and
maybe have them be discreet so it would be a surprise. No such thing
at the Giggling Girl Restaurant! The waitresses are teenage sisters
and they couldn't take your order without giggling. The whole time.
So, throw in a cute foreigner's birthday and they could hardly contain
themselves. Plus, one of them has the same birthday as Rob... so we
saved her a piece of banana pancake (which is what the cake turned out
to be).

After 4 days at the beach we headed up into the mountains to Dalat.
Atop the very summit is where Dalat sits and we expected it to be a
small little place considering the long drive and curvy cliffside
roads... but no! Dalat is a large university town and Honeymoon
Headquarters. Apparently, most Vietnamese people spend their honeymoon
in this random little place. It is VERY apparent when you go and check
out the sites there. At the waterfall you can dress up like Indians
(for a photo shoot) and in the Valley Of Love (no joke) you can sit or
stand in little heart shaped trees and benches (for a photo shoot).
You can even rent little swan paddleboats or get guided tours by
Vietnames men dressed as American cowboys!

Our next stop was Nha Trang, another beach town on the South China Sea,
where we signed up for a boat trip to the nearby islands. Usually when
you sign up for local tours they are filled with Europeans, Australians
and the occasional North American. Except this tour! There were about
30 Vietnamese people and 10 foreigners, although most of the Vietnamese
people were actually Americans visiting their former homeland. I
suppose they are former refugees. One Vietnamese-American guy (a casino
worker hailing from Iowa who visits every year) was there with his
extended family of 10 people.

The "captain" of our boat also played songs for us on his guitar - one
song for every nationality represented on the boat. The Americans got
This Land Is Your Land... a song I haven't heard since the 2nd grade!
He also concocted a little floating bar for "happy hour". His beverage
of choice was mulberry wine from Dalat; a very eclectic brew! The day
was one hilarity after another - at one place the wind and current were
so strong that when people jumped in that they couldn't swim back to
the boat! We had to throw out ropes and buoys to get everyone back.
There were shouts and laughs half in English and half in Vietnamese.
It was great!

Immediately after our voyage at sea, we propelled ourselves onto an
overnight bus to Hoi An, a town boasting over 200 tailored clothing
shops. How we left there without buying anything is miraculous! This
place had lots of atmosphere to it in a Chinese-y sort of way. The
market had so much going on that we just sat and people watched for
hours one day. Another day we rented a moto and drove out to the Cham
holyland. It’s like the mini Ankgor Wat of Vietnam... lots of
temples in ruin!

This morning we arrived in Hanoi. We booked a 3 day boat trip to the
Cat Ba Islands and Halong Bay; you have heard of these if you have ever
watched a National Geographic special on Vietnam. By the time we get
back in a few days our Laos and Burma visas should be ready – and
that’s where we will be headed next! I also have lots of Fun Facts
about Vietnam to share, but I’ll save those for the next installment.

Love, Alison

PS. Happy 30th, Laura!
PPS. For those of you who asked – they speak Vietnamese in Vietnam,
not French. Lots of the older generation does speak French as well,
but anyone under 30 usually knows at least some English if they live in
a city.

Hello, Vietnam!

Saturday, February 7, 2004
Hello Vietnam!!

We've been here in Vietnam for a few days now and despite it's
proximity to Cambodia, it's very much a different country. Plus, just
to reinforce this change, we spent over an hour actually crossing the
border! When we arrived into Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City - take your
pick!) we promptly took a tour of the Cu Chi tunnels. If you are a war
buff, then you will have heard of these. If you are like me - you've
only just heard about them. These tunnels (among many other inventive
strategies) are how the Viet Cong beat the Americans in the Vietnam War
(which here in Vietnam is called the American War).

They built 3 layers of these scrawny tunnels (scrawny is defined by
12cm x 30 cm) underneath the ground and launched their operations from
the tunnels at night. So effective were they that that us Americans
didn't know about them or know where they were for most of the war. We
even built our military base right on TOP of the tunnels. When we did
find them, we couldn't fit inside!! The entrances are are smaller than
average military person. Their shoulders just can't fit!

Also, most of their weapons were born out of leftover American stuff.
They turned all remaining metal into something that either contained
explosives or something really, really sharp for us to land on. If you
care to see examples of their creativity (or me climbing into the
tunnels!) I'll let you know when I post the photos.

We also went to a Caodai ceremony at the religion's oldest temple.
This religion (if you choose to call it that) involves 10% of all
Vietnamese people and was "created" by God through sceances in the
1920's. God speaks to the religion's founders and leaders and tells
them what he wants. Here's what he wanted: one of the tackiest looking
religious halls known to mankind. He also wanted the religion to
include selected ideas from OTHER major world religions.

If you are a long standing (male) member for some number of years your
get to change your ceremony-attending garb from white to either blue,
red, or yellow. The decision on which color you get is much the same
as how Harry Potter uses the Sorting Hat to choose his house - you just
reach in and get what you get. This religion also has a pope - not THE
Pope, but another one. He died years and years ago but apparently God
is indecisive as well as having bad taste because the "pope" position
is still vacant! Hmm, I'm unemployed!

... While back in Cambodia we visited an abandoned hill station. The
description in the guidebook sounded fantastic - gorgeous scenery,
french architecture, hiking, etc. The reality is that they also
abandoned the road to the hill station - similar to MOST of Cambodia's
roads. Sitting in the back of a pick up truck is NOT how to you want
to make this journey. These buildings are well suited for a ghetto
somewhere. We had a great time anyway, but are not looking to repeat
this experience any time soon.

During the short time we spent in Phenom Penh we visited the Killing
Fields and also the Museum dedicated to this atrocity. Pol Pot and his
Kmher Rouge were much like the Nazis in the way they killed people -
systematic and very cruel. Although, the Khmer Rouge preferred to kill
their own people and often times didn't kill them before burying them.
After all this - our moto driver asked if we wanted to go shoot guns on
the military base. We said yes - and then there we were, shooting
AK47's and M16's. No joke, we really did. Were they loud! BANG,
BANG! We also had the same opportunity again while touring the
tunnels... Rob picked an M30 and I just watched with earplugs on. Once
WAS enough for me.

On a more upbeat note - no trip to Cambodia is complete without a visit
to Angkor Wat, but since I went there last year I won't bore you with
the details again. If you want to know more, check out previous
newsletters at my website!

Anyway, we are now in Mui Ne. A beach about 5 hours from Saigon. It's
gorgeous here and the windy beach is FILLED with people kitesurfing...
including Rob. What is kitesurfing you ask?!? Kitesurfing is like
surfing, but you are attached to a 30 meter kite (maybe bigger). You
use the air instead of the waves to get you moving. If you are REALLY
good, you jump and twist in the air and use the waves as well as the
wind. It looks pretty cool... from the sidelines!

Cambodia Fun Facts:
- Sometimes 3 hour ferry rides take 8 hours in the dry season.
- ALL children see you and say, "HELLO-WHAT-YOUR-NAME!"
- The shooting Gallery in Cambodia is called "The Happy Shooting
Gallery". They were right, people were very happy there.
- Angkor Wat means Temple District. Angkor Wat has 129 temples!
- The Mekong River actually reverses it's direction. When the lake
fills up in the rainy season, the water just comes right back out
- Cambodia has more holidays than any other country in the world.
- Cambodians make scarecrows for the rice paddies... they have coconuts
for heads.

PS. Happy Birthday, Mom!

Hello from Cambodia!

Monday, January 26, 2004
Hello again! I'm back in Cambodia again... who would have thought I'd
be here twice in two years?? Anyway, here I am. Before we arrived
into Cambodia we spent 5 days in Bangkok meeting up with some friends
and doing some work for Silversisters. Then we spent a few nights on
an Thai island having seafood BBQ's every evening... and that's when we
came to Cambodia.

Perhaps you remember my LAST description of crossing the overland
border into Cambodia? This one was just as bad. It turns out the
ferry we wanted from the border only leaves once a day at 8am. We
arrived at 11am and therefore had to spent the night in the worst town
imaginable. It was here that we found out about the moto mafia. Motos
are just little mopeds; it's an easy, common wasy to get around. But,
the people that drive them seem to wield some sort of power. We
couldn't even buy our own ferry ticket without using a moto driver as
our go between - they get a cut of everything. We bumped into a
Bostonian (?!?!) who lives in the town and he helped us out with how
things work around here.

Finally though, we got to our desination of Sihanoukville, a coastal
beach town in the south and it was worth it. It was Chinese New
Year... and to me, it was just another day. But, to all the billions
of Chinese, it means vacation time! I think they all came to the same
beach as we did. The place we stayed in came eqipped with it's own
cow, pig, donkey AND dog. One night they locked the front gate and we
had to wake up poor old grandma sleeping in the mosquito net in their
outdoor living room. I imagine she can sleep through ANYTHING given
the 24 hour karaoke bar next door. We had to really yell loudly. Here
we discovered more about moto mafia: if they pick you up from the bus
station, ferry etc and take you to a hotel, they "own" the right to
moto you around for the duration of your stay. We walked to the beach
the first morning and came back after sunset... only to have "our" moto
driver yell and say to us, "Where have you been all day?" We never did
take a moto ride from him.

Today we rented our own moped. I was the passenger and Rob drove. It
was a little nerve wracking at first and even the pair of oxen carrying
pottery seemed to be going faster. After getting used to the potholes
- we were on our way. Just like India - Horn okay please. You just
beep if you are going to pass someone. Most traffic is on bikes
anyway, but beware of cattle etc. It was great! We tooled around,
check out the town of Kep which is a deserted beach town. It was where
the ruling French built mansions. But, in the late 70's there was a
famine and the locals took everything of value and sold it to the
Vietnamese for food. Fair enough. The basic structure of the building
is still there though and we snuck in to have a peek.

That's it for now! Must go! To everyone who has written... I will
respond soon! Thanks for writing!


Fun Facts:
- All Cambodian moto drivers wear baseball caps.
- The Kmer (Cambodian) word for thank you is "akun".

Hello from Thailand!

Thursday, January 22, 2004
Hello everyone! After a four month hiatus of not sending updates, I'm
finally back! I left Boston way back on Octber 30th. I spent a week
in Iceland before heading over to England. I stayed in England for 2
and a half months where I stayed with Rob. I met Rob last year when I
was in a swamp in Brazil! We really hit it off, he visited me in
Boston over the summer and then I visited him... then we decided to
take this trip together! I arrived into England in the beginning of
November and went with him to different cities around England while he
worked - Manchester, Reading, and London. We spent most of the rest of
the time in Ipswich, where he lives. My parents and sister came over
for Christmas and we spent New Year's Eve with my sister and the
Mannequin Piss in Brussels, Belgium. Rob got laid off from his job (as
he knew he would) and a few days later - we came to Thailand! We
bought a one way ticket. The plan is to travel around South East Asia
before going up to China and to Russia. From there we will take the
Trans Siberian Railway across Russia into Eastern Europe. I just have
to get back to England by July to go to the World Interhash in Wales.

I'll try and write as regularly as I did last year, and please stay in
touch. It is always great hearing from everyone! I posted lots of
photos on my website from anything between April of last year and
January of this year. You can see them at

Bye for now! Alison