How I Dealt With the Effects of Climate Change in Laos

Having to deal with climate change has never been on most travellers itineraries in the past, but I am betting it will be in the future if it isn’t already. I know it will be on mine. When Luang Prabang was experiencing erratic weather such as it did last week, most people I talked to were trying to ignore it by calling it a fluke or quickly changing the subject if it was brought up. Their intention was clearly on what to see and where to eat and not the weather.

Last week when I was packing my bags to catch the bus to Vientiane, the capital, I realised that I really didn’t want to leave Louang Prabang. I wanted to stay and experience the city bathed in sunshine and warmth. I wanted to explore some more of the Hill Tribe villages further north. I wanted just to linger a little while longer and savour its charms and slow pace of life. I have to confess I felt short-changed for I had only two measly days out of nine with clear, sunny skies. The others were dull and grey with maybe a few feeble  rays of sun trying to break through here and there. The worst of it was that each day the temperature dropped a little bit more…down to as low as 10 degrees! Not expecting this kind of weather left us tourists basically shivering in our shorts and sandals.

Over the years I have learned to adapt to travelling to this part of the world by taking as few clothes as possible …. just what I think I’ll need. Other than what I wear when I leave Canada is all I will have for any kind of warmth. So for the time I was in Luang Prabang, it was this outfit every day except for those two days of sunshine. At least I didn’t have to waste precious time deciding what to wear. Instead an easy routine set in: just grab those jeans, a long-sleeved top, my one and only fleece cardigan, my runners with my one pair of socks, and a scarf, which I broke down and bought at the Night Market, and get this on as quickly as possible in the morning. I must confess, I had to resort to wearing this outfit to bed on the night the thermometer went to below 10 degrees. It felt more like zero to me… worse than my  old drafty house in the dead of winter in Victoria Beach.

The five-star hotels probably had some kind of heating source, but my guest house certainly did not, and why should it? This kind of weather is not the norm for Laos. Yes, Luang Prabang is in the mountainous north of this small country where cooler temperatures can prevail in the dry season but apparently not as intense as what I experienced. The one blessing I did have for those cold nights was the fluffy white duvet on my large queen – sized bed. I was able to double it up and make a comfy little nest out of it to help keep me warm. Usually the places I stay will supply you with just a sheet and a light blanket which is quite enough for warm nights so I was lucky to have that duvet.

On our coldest day, I just couldn’t bear to be in my room at my computer making plans for my upcoming travels, blog writing, or wading through E-mail. I had to find a warmer place to do my computer stuff and keep moving. With this goal in mind, I set out. Although my guest house had Lipton’s tea and instant coffee available for breakfast, I have to admit that a cup of good coffee is the best way for me to start off my day. With that in mind, I headed for Le Benneton Cafe which became one of my favourite places to relax and savour a really good cup of coffee along with the newspapers to catch up on the latest Lao news. Fortunately, they provided thick plastic covers for the doors to shelter us from the cold making it warm and cozy. Most eating places were all open so weren’t much better than my room.

After tearing myself away from there, I decided to visit Mount Phousi (meaning sacred hill) in the centre of the city to climb up the 328 plus steps leading to the top. This hill which is over 100 meters high is graced with a golden pagoda which cannot be ignored as you approach the city or from wherever you happen to be while there. Once up to the top, you are rewarded with a panoramic view of the region including the two rivers…the Mekong and the Nam Kham. It’s not surprising that it has become the perfect place to view the rising and the setting of the sun. I regret not experiencing either but at least it helped to warm me up and give me some much-needed exercise. Furthermore, I had avoided the crowds who go up to catch the perfect sunset or not so popular sunrise picture and had the place to myself.

With the stair climbing under my belt, I decided to go to the nearby Indigo Cafe for a bowl of their pumpkin soup. This was definitely a soup day. I wasn’t too disappointed except for the rather small bowl which was, however, accompanied by a delicious, healthy roll.

The next thing on my agenda was to indulge in a massage and hot sauna. The only place that had a sauna as far as I could find was the well-known Red Cross Massage Centre. It wouldn’t be everyone’s first choice for indulgence and pampering because there were absolutely no frills. Everything was basic, but it supported a good cause, and I wanted that sauna to help draw out the toxins which were contributing to my cold brought on, no doubt, by the erratic temperatures. I was on a mission to outwit the weather. As I had hoped, the sauna did the trick even though there were at least a dozen near naked women packed into a small room. The heat and close body contact set up a curiously funny but intimate atmosphere, not just for me but also the young Lao women who were with me. I felt like we had really bonded even though we didn’t share the same language. I love their sometimes child like sense of humour where they take delight in such little things. The Centre does have separate saunas for males and females but that’s it. Everything else is shared. If you are taking a sauna, you must basically fend for yourselves by bringing your own towel, or a sarong as I did, for a cover. The massages were mostly good I would say based on what others told me on Trip Advisor and word of mouth. My masseuse had very strong hands which made things a bit too uncomfortable for me at times. However, she apologized and did try to lighten up when I let out a groan every now and then. It wasn’t one of my better massages; however, the whole experience gave me what I wanted. I felt better afterwards and definitely warmer.

My day ended with a hot and too spicy Laotian soup for me. Nevertheless, I managed to have one of the best sleeps in a while as I bunked down in my day clothes under my duvet tent. Having to deal with the effects of a changing climate in Laos had not only turned out to be my most memorable day of all, but may mean that I will have to revisit this charming and most beautiful country in southeast Asia.

Click on the pictures for the captions.

 

Luang Prabang – Still a Precious Jewel in SE Asia

Sometimes waking up in the wee hours of the morning can be a positive experience. Studies have shown that it is often the most creative time of day for many people. I don’t know what part creativity played in my waking up at this time a few days ago, but what I do know is that it led to witnessing an attraction that has become one of the prime reasons tourists are flocking to Luang Prabang in Laos.

After nine years since my first visit to Luang Prabang, I am back again to see what changes have taken place. I am anxious to discover if this charming UNESCO city has managed to weather the scourge of too many tourists descending upon it, or if by some miracle it has managed to escape that and still be the peaceful place it was back in 2009.

Perhaps several days isn’t enough time to give it a thumbs up for managing to maintain its equilibrium but so far so good. This little city of about 55,000 souls appears to have kept its charm and is still fairly laid back compared to many other SE Asian cities. How has it managed to achieve this when others are struggling to keep up with the onslaught? I would guess it’s mainly for these reasons:

  •  possessing 33 of the most beautiful wats anywhere in this part of the world, not only creating a learning centre for young Lao men and Buddhist scholars, but also a number one tourist attraction.

  •  featuring its original shop houses still in good condition dating back to the time when Luang Prabang was one of three kingdoms ruling this part of SE Asia, thus, enabling it to qualify as a UNESCO heritage site.

  • providing a tranquil environment created by the green forested mountains which surround it, numerous waterfalls, and two rivers…the Mekong and the Nam Kham… which meet up in the middle of the city to form a perfect confluence.

    The Nam Kham River on its way to the Mekong.

In 2009 I was one of the few tourists who managed to drag myself out of bed to witness the daily monk walk for collecting alms. What was once an overlooked daily religious event carried out every day in the wee hours of the morning from 5:30 to 6:30  by the monks has these days morphed into one of Luang Prabang’s top tourist attractions. This is not surprising considering how our world in just nine years has changed. The growth of our social media and the technology that drives it has been the stimulus for increasing the number of tourists who have put this event high up on their list of ‘must sees’. This has, in turn, given the locals in need of income to entice their visitors to shell out money for food to fill the alms pots carried by the monks. The result has seen some nasty incidents of improper tourist activities like snapping ‘in your face’ pictures of the monks…many are just young boys. It’s no surprise that such shocking behavior creating such a circus-like atmosphere has not gone down well with some tourists and locals.

The picture at the top of this page is a close up of the monk walk taken by me in 2009. Unfortunately, my camera would not co-operate in taking pictures this year in the dark.

I don’t know if the unusually cold morning we had here a few days ago proved this observation made by so many others over the past few years to be erroneous or not, but I am pleased to report I did not see any of this. The mini-vans, which pulled up along the route where I happened to be standing to unload eager tourists, was done with a surprising silence. I actually found it all quite eerie to see everyone walking around in the dark. We all had our cameras ready for when the monks would pass and the offerings made, with everyone respectfully staying a good distance away from them. I also witnessed how those tourists wanting to take part in the ritual of offering alms…sticky rice… to the monks were being instructed to do so in the reverent manner that such an occasion calls for by some locals.  As for the problem of other foods going into their pots such as packaged goods with questionable nutritional value being sold by local vendors to visitors and locals alike, this is a problem still to be solved. I read in the local newspaper that there is a movement afoot to address this problem by encouraging vendors to make their own edible gifts with rice and natural ingredients to sell rather than peddling the junk food which will undoubtedly cause more harm than good. Many of the monks have been throwing it out or giving it back to the vendors for them to sell again. The proposal is a good one but could be difficult considering all the people involved. At least it’s a start in the right direction which hopefully will have an outcome that will continue to honour this age-old custom.

Physically the character of the city hasn’t changed a great deal. The wats I have seen so far haven’t been altered and are as beautiful as ever. 

The old shop houses lining the main street and the riverside streets are still there looking better than ever. Being a UNESCO city has forced this issue which the local authorities and property owners are adhering to. To accommodate the growing tourist trade, many of the buildings have been renovated into lovely boutique inns and more upscale restaurants. The Three Nagas where we enjoyed a gourmet meal in 2009 is still there but the prices have more than doubled. The cost of food has risen substantially every where, but good prices and good food can still be found beyond the centre and at the Night Market. An authentic Lao dish can be found on the street, especially side streets, for 15,000 kip which translates to about $2.50 Cdn. I can easily keep my daily food expenses under $20 which includes a delicious Lao coffee with a baked goodie at one of the many cool cafes. Also, Sysomphone Guest House where I am staying helps my budget by providing a decent breakfast as part of my accommodation costs. 

So far I have not discerned any tremendous changes to the environment in and around Luang Prabang. Having two rivers running through it is definitely a plus for this city. How fortunate that the mighty Mekong River and its smaller tributary, the Nam Kham, should meet right in the centre and that they have maintained their beauty with no over development. The streets running along side of each of them are lined with quaint hotels, oodles of restaurants, and numerous spas and massage parlours. Furthermore, it’s all kept relatively clean making them a joy for tourists to stroll along either night or day.

The mighty Mekong River

This type of boat is a common site on the Mekong used by tourists and locals.

With rivers there have to be some bridges. The one which has garnered the most tourist attention is the old Bamboo Bridge spanning the Nam Kham. Every year it has to be replaced after the high water levels produced by the wet season have washed it out. On the other hand, it does provide a safe walkway for the locals living on the other side and for the tourists who want to go over to observe how they live. Most of them are small farmers just eeking out a living who have no qualms to having visitors come over to see how simple their life is. For us it gives us a closer view of how the majority of people in this poor country still live. Only in Laos is it so common to see how the two can exist so closely together.

Bamboo Bridge for walking crossing the Nam Kham River.

I am not only impressed with how the city has maintained its true natural character but equally amazed at how the people have accepted all its visitors. They are generally friendly and try to be helpful. Furthermore, their English skills are pretty darn good for which we can thank the monks. Many young boys who would never have had the chance to learn English in the public schools have received their schooling with English as the main subject from the monks. Seizing the opportunity to better their circumstances, they are choosing to enter the thriving tourist sector. For now, this is a win-win situation for tourists and locals alike. I wonder and so does the guide I had for a tour to a Hmong village yesterday about what the future holds for them.

Waiting for a passenger – the Lao version of a ‘tuk tuk’.

One of the city’s lovely tree-shaded streets.

A Day For Learning and Fun at a Thai Hill Tribe Village

Last week I had the good fortune to visit a Hill Tribe village in Northern Thailand. This trip was not arranged by a tour agency, but by an industrious Thai family who want to help the Hill Tribe people to adjust to our changing world so they won’t be left behind. An opportunity surfaced when Nui, the brother of my friend, Toi, came up with the brilliant idea to organize a cooking class with sticky rice as its star and his sister, a creative cook, to direct the show.

Every February the Karen, Lisu, Arka, and Lahu tribes in the Mai Suai district have a Sticky Rice Festival to celebrate their culture and to make a little bit of merit. It’s no surprise that food becomes the main draw with the help of sticky rice, a staple in this part of Thailand. To add more excitement to their celebration, they hold a contest to determine which village can produce the most creative use for sticky rice.

Now the thing is – sticky rice, by itself, is almost tasteless, and truth be told looks like a ball of glue! Commonly known as sweet or glutenous rice…with no gluten in it….it is mostly used as a staple to every meal or added to other foods to make yummy desserts such as, mango sticky rice; as a vegetable mixed with beans or taro and wrapped in banana leaf; or an ingredient in wine. The challenge for Toi was to introduce a new way to use the sticky rice making it tasty as well as eye appealing…and help this village to win the coveted distinction of producing the most innovative way to use it.

When we arrived at the village, the ladies were all decked out in their finest clothing. Some were wearing their traditional dress which I was glad to see because like most Thai, even those in the more remote areas, they are adopting our Western form of dress. Some of the girls are into recycling old clothing creating their own clothes and shoes as shown in the picture below.

Then, there was this pair of two year old twins who were especially cute with their mother who is dressed in a traditional Karen outfit.

The first step to creating new ways for using the sticky rice was to take the already cooked rice (often leftover rice is used) and pound it to a pulp.

Aided by a heavy bamboo stake, we all took our turn which we discovered was the most tiring part of the process.

This also explained why we had some males in the class.

Once the rice was ready, the large sticky balls were cut up into small portions with a long piece of bamboo leaf. This was the perfect tool as the rice couldn’t stick to it as it would have with a knife.

Step two was to take the small rice balls and roll them out with a glass beer bottle. We discovered that the village didn’t know what a rolling-pin was so they had to improvise with the bottles. We decided then and there we would have to get them some rolling pins. Nevertheless and to our amazement, the finished patties or pancakes looked just like a tortilla.

Step three was to use the various ingredients provided by Toi, such as seasonal fruit, black beans, taro, pumpkin, pork, and mayonnaise… which the ladies weren’t familiar with but absolutely loved…. to create a filling for the patties. At first a they were a tad hesitant, but eventually caught on to the potential of what they could do with the food displayed before them and began to immerse themselves into the wonderful act of creating something new.

By this time the laughter and fun had drawn a considerable crowd of curious onlookers waiting to have a sample of their creations. Someone decided to take the finished product one more step so set up a wok, filled it with oil, and began to deep fry some of the wraps. They were delicious and gobbled up immediately!

At the end of the demonstration, we were treated to a typical Hill Tribe meal of… your guessed it!… sticky rice and various dishes consisting of  copious amounts of green vegetables, some spicy and some not so.

The ladies who prepared our meal in their kitchen.

The appreciation of the participants was still evident as we packed up and said our ‘good byes’. Everyone felt it had been a success which was confirmed not only by Nui, but also his assistant who was there representing the local Municipal District Council.

Bringing together the four tribes of women…and some men …. to learn something new and to have fun doing it with the thought that maybe they would be the winner of the contest was a beginning. However, Nui would like to see them take the idea and use it as a possible money-maker for the area. He has his finger in a few other money-making projects it appears, so this could be one more if they are interested. Up to this point the women and men have been making beautiful crafts to sell which has served them well, but it would be remiss if they didn’t get in on the growing interest that tourists are developing for eating local foods that are different and also tasty. He sees an opportunity for them to enter this flourishing market niche with sticky rice as the leader. Wraps could very well be just the beginning.

I think he and Toi are on the right track as the Thai government is recognising the need to alleviate  the poverty that exists in the North by not only promoting more tourism there, but also providing more incentives for learning new skills. However, the most important thing here will be the follow-up to this wonderful day of fun and learning. The seed has been planted, but now the local ‘powers that be’ will have to continue to work with those who are eager to try something new. They will need more education and close supervision as to how to access information and enforce the laws regarding safe food preparation.

Change won’t be easy for them, but with encouragement they could easily learn the skills required for such a project to help them become a more sustainable village. In the meantime, we can wish them well in winning the prize for the most innovative sticky rice product at the upcoming Sticky Rice Festival.

Chiang Mai’s Race For Tourist Dollars

Chiang Mai’s Race For Tourist Dollars

“What is old is new again.”

Some noteworthy person must have said this somewhere or at some time so I can’t take the credit for coining this. However, whatever its origin, the words aptly fit my impressions of what is happening in Chiang Mai right now.

This Northern Thai city is undergoing a restoration and building boom, at least in the inner city which is that part surrounded by a moat. If you want further information on the moat and the remains of the wall that defines the character of this ancient city, then do refer to the blog I posted three years ago: click on  A Precious Gift

A past picture of the moat with fountains on.

Where are the fountains this year?

The first sign of the changes occurring in the inner city, the most touristy part, surfaced as I walked down Phrapokktao Rd. and spotted a few wats undergoing huge renovations. Wat Jedlan captured my interest so I decided to take a closer look at it. I wasn’t disappointed and wondered how I had managed to miss in on all my previous visits. The grounds are spacious and beautifully manicured. However, the buildings are old and in need of repair so, hence, the restoration.

Massive construction going on here.

The next day as I headed to the Sunday Street Market, I noticed that Prah Singh, Chiang Mai’s largest and wealthiest wat, was sporting a glamorous new outfit in gilded gold.

Looking good.

There is definitely a sense of competition going on between the numerous wats in this fair city. They are unabashedly out to get the tourists’ dollars not just with visitor donations but lately by charging them fees to enter. Chedi Luang, the second most sacred and grandiose wat in Chiang Mai, is one of those doing that. The lineup of people waiting to enter reminded me of those horrendous lineups you have to contend with in cities like Rome or Paris. I hope it never gets to that, but then with the droves of Chinese tourists coming here, this could happen.

If a wat doesn’t charge entrance fees then they may resort to renting out some of their valuable land to vendors for selling their wares during the big Saturday and Sunday Night Walking Street Markets which grow larger every year. Click on Shopping the Markets in Chiang Mai

Prah Singh’s entrance to Sunday Market.

Another wat renting out a rest and eating area for market shoppers.

It’s not just wats that are getting a make over: it’s also the accommodations and restaurants in this city. Hearing that at least two of the guest houses I used to stay in…Pachkit House and Baan Nam Sai.. were now facing the wrecking ball, I made it my quest to check both of them out. Sure enough they are both receiving major new face lifts.

Destroying the old Pachkit house for the new.

What’s left of the original.

How can this be happening? In most cases, it’s about money from China which is enticing to family owned businesses who want to retire and leave the hard work to those who have the money and plans for the future. Thailand faces the same problems as all developed countries these days…an aging population along with earlier retirement. China on the other hand which also faces an aging population, but also a thriving younger middle class and a much larger population, is looking for other places to visit where it’s cheaper and exciting. Thailand and in fact all SE Asia is one of their first places to go to before they hit Europe. Those entrepreneurs who have the money see Thailand and its neighbours as great places to invest in since all of them are still bringing in huge amounts of tourist dollars from the West.

What all this change means for us flashpackers…what older backpackers have been dubbed… is less inexpensive accommodations at our disposal. The little family run guest houses are being converted to what is commonly known now as boutique hotels which are smaller and less expensive than the 5 stars but still far more than the traditional guest house.

One of the flourishing boutique hotels.

For backpackers who are younger with a minimal budget, there are the hostels where they must share a room with others in a more communal setting. Still entrenched in my old ways, I avoid these and look for the small guest houses. When I first started coming to Chiang Mai it was easy to rent a room on a monthly or a weekly basis but not so now. If I want to stay in the centre, I will most likely have to pay by the night. Those places offering monthly rates are more likely to be found out in the suburbs and even those should be booked early because they are snatched up quickly. Here you can find a condo or house to rent, but as I discovered last year has its disadvantages. Transportation is the biggest drawback unless you are the adventurous sort and rent a motor bike to get around. My post from last year titled “Is Chiang Mai Losing Its Allure” will give you a better idea of the pros and cons. Click here Is Chiang Mai Losing It’s Allure?

My condo apartment out near the airport from last year.

Like most people when I first saw the construction and heard the jack hammers, I was a bit disgusted. How could Chiang Mai yield so willingly to the tearing down of their storied past for the new opulence of the future? On second thought, I realised it’s simply their way of surviving. If they don’t join the wave of the future where there is literally a tsunami of Chinese tourists descending upon them, then they stand to lose a big chunk of their economy, and like all countries they can’t afford to do that. Sure all this change will just lead to other problems but somehow they will find a solution for them and so on it goes. What would CM or any of us do if we never had problems to solve? Now here is some food for thought….

A typical Thai building still standing.

Let’s hope it doesn’t meet a similar fate.

Making way for the new.

 

Travel in 2018: Fulfilling a Dream

I recently wrote about the challenges I face as a senior traveller in my post entitled How Our Changing World is Affecting Our Travel. This left some of my readers wondering if I was going to give it all up and stay at home for our Nova Scotian winters.

My answer is, “No, not yet.” There are still places to see. Travel is in my blood and my desire out weighs any challenges I will face.

In fact, my travel plans for 2018 are my most ambitious yet for I will be heading “down under” to Australia to fulfil a life-long dream.

This dream surfaced some time around fifth grade when I was introduced to this fascinating country in my geography classes. Who wouldn’t have been intrigued with the strange animals and plants of this vast country which had English-speaking people reportedly to be much like us Canadians? To top it off Australia has or did have a warm climate, gorgeous beaches, and the Great Barrier Reef. What did it not have, I wondered?

In 1970 my first husband and I seriously considered migrating there, to the city of Perth. He was an avid sailor and thought this would be the perfect place for him. I wasn’t a sailor but it was Australia so I wanted to go…no question. The problem was timing. I had just returned from a year-long back packing trip to Europe… broke! I needed to get back to my teaching and make some money. Moreover, we found out just how difficult it was for us to get accepted into this vast country. If I recall correctly, I don’t think teachers were on their needs’ list, and neither were sail boat enthusiasts. Thus, that dream quietly faded away….for awhile.

As the years passed, however, the dream was revived each time I taught geography to my students as a grade six teacher, or by a TV show filmed there. Does anyone remember “MacLeod’s Daughters”? Then there was “Crocodile Dundee” and the popular detective series “Dr. Blake Mysteries”. Moreover, I was constantly running into Aussies on my travels to Thailand which only served to whet my appetite to visit there even more.

The spark that finally did it for me was the threatening eruption of Mt. Agang in Bali. I had already booked a flight to Singapore for mid March of 2018 when the first eruption occurred in September. After consulting a map, I realised that Singapore was just a hop, skip, and jump away from Australia. Here was the perfect opportunity knocking at my door. There could no longer be such excuses as how expensive this country is for a budget traveller like me. Something told me I had to do it now.

The result of all this is I have just finished making a reservation for March 16 to fly from Singapore to Melbourne. The rest of my itinerary is up for grabs. All I know at this point is that I will have a month to see as much of this vast and varied country (or continent) as money and time will allow.

As I write about fulfilling this travel dream, my endurance is being tested by the extreme cold weather and snow that has been engulfing the Ottawa/Toronto area this past week. By now I should be in the sky wending my way over to Bangkok, but I am not. My flight which was scheduled to leave at 1:40 this morning was cancelled. Thanks to the caring West Jet staff I am now re-booked to take off the same time tomorrow morning. At this time of the year it could have been much worse. I was given a voucher to take a taxi back to my daughter’s house for the night. Today has been sunny here in Ottawa…still cold at -30 degrees…but not cold enough to keep us housebound. What it did was give us that extra ‘mother and daughter’ time that we needed after a very hectic week to simply enjoy a delicious and nutritious lunch at a nearby organic restaurant and do some store snooping on Wellington Street, Ottawa’s trendy shopping area.

As we leave behind 2017 for whatever is in store for us in 2018, I can’t help but see how my last 24 hours are probably a fore taste of what is in store for my travels this coming year. There will be the inevitable challenges to face which will test me to the limit only to be followed by those good times where my faith and joy in travelling are renewed. This is my hope for the world and for everyone who reads this post. Deal with your challenges knowing that they will be followed by the good times.

Happy New Year everyone!

A typical Ottawa winter

 

With snow shovelling

 

…..and lots of fun!

 

But I’ll take this lovely beach in Thailand.

Dalat “Le Petit Paris”

Dalat “Le Petit Paris”

My latest post “A Wonderful Welcome to Viet Nam” mentioned three reasons for returning to this country. It should have been four.

Returning to Dalat is the fourth for me and a good reason for anyone visiting this country for the first time. If you like anything that is reminiscent of Paris or anything French, such as fresh baquettes, colonial architecture, an Eiffel Tower look- alike which happens to be the city’s radio tower, wide, tree-lined boulevards, and just plain old charm, then take a side trip up to Dalat.

Dalat's Eiffel Tower

Dalat’s Eiffel Tower

Discovered and built primarily by the French when they occupied the country in 1912, it was an answer to their search for a retreat to escape the heat of Saigon. Dalat’s location at 4,900 feet above sea level offers a temperate climate where the yearly temperatures hover at 15 to 25 degrees C. It’s no surprise that over the years it has earned another appropriate title…”the city of eternal spring”. If you don’t like this title, then how about “city of a thousand pines”? The city has so many tall pines that you can actually smell them. If it weren’t for the usual traffic woes, I would have a hard time believing I was in Viet Nam.

A nice pine-scented view.

A nice pine-scented view.

My first visit to Dalat was five years ago. The city, I am happy to report, hasn’t lost its charm, and there are little if any signs of climate change. The one and only complaint I have is the constant traffic which is chaotic and noisy as it seems to be no matter where you are in Viet Nam. It’s just the way they drive here, and we either adapt or end up as toast.

There is a motor bike under there.

There is a motor bike under there.

Dalat’s temperate climate in the Lang Biang Mountains has created an ideal place to grow things making it literally the ‘bread basket’ of Viet Nam. All kinds of vegetables, fruits, and flowers can be found growing year round. Their speciality is strawberries, black currants, and artichokes in the produce department, and when it comes to flowers, it has to be hydrangea and roses found just about everywhere throughout the city… lining the boulevards and hanging from lamp posts.

One of the best places to see what grows here is the Dalat City Park located near the Xuan Huong Lake. This lake was created after the construction of one of the area’s many dams resulting in one of the city’s main attractions. If you are one for walking, it’s a 7 km trek all the way around. I got marvellous views of the city from all angles because of the lake’s configuration which resembles a banana.

Looking across the lake to one of Dalat's churches.

Looking across the lake to one of Dalat’s churches.

A view from the other side of the lake.

A view from the other side of the lake.

To some, the Park borders on the kitschy with its ceramic animals placed strategically amongst the flower beds, and the gaudily adorned horse-drawn carriages readily available to transport weary visitors. Nevertheless, the gardens themselves with their variety of flowers and shrubs are absolutely beautiful on a perfectly clear, sunny day such as I had.

Dalat Park entrance.

Dalat Park entrance.

mui-ne-and-dalat-075

Inside the park.

Inside the park.

Coffee is another rapidly growing industry here putting Viet Nam in second place on the list of the world’s coffee producers. Their focus has been the Robusta type used primarily in instant coffee like Nescafe, but since its lofty position as number two coffee producer, the farmers are beginning to move over to the Arabica type and gaining recognition there. Coffee cafes are on every street corner, but most don’t serve Italian or American coffee – just Viet Namese which is very strong and sweetened with condensed milk. I find it ironic that most locals still prefer to drink tea.

Wine production is becoming a serious concern of late. It started with the French in the ’50’s and has now morphed into a viable industry. Dalat wines can be found throughout Viet Nam and Japan and other SE Asian countries are now importing it to good reviews.

Advertising Dalat wine at the Park.

Advertising Dalat wine at the Park.

Dalat, like all cities and towns of a certain size, has a market as one of its central attractions. Nestled between two hills in a tiny valley, it’s a beehive of activity any time of the day or night. Smack in the middle of the city, it’s close to a host of small hotels and hostels and great places to eat. My hotel was probably a ten minute walk away as ‘straight as the crow flies’, but in order to get to it, I had to go down one hill and up the other making my trip much longer. The city is very hilly so walking can be difficult as the streets seem to meander up and down and around. Walking around in circles can be frustrating for those of us who are directionally challenged.

Looking down on the market at night.

Looking down on the market at night.

Every kind of fruit imaginable.

Every kind of fruit imaginable.

In spite of the heavy traffic, Dalat’s air is clean which was a real treat for me. Certainly its lofty location contributes to this, but another reason is because other than growing food, the only industries are in education and scientific research. Many schools were started by the French so Dalat quickly became a learning base for all Indochina. Today there is a large training school for teachers and a thriving university. Tourism is growing, too, as travellers and locals seek a respite from the heat in the south and the cold in the north especially at this time of the year. For the adventurous tourist, there is trekking, canyoning, and mountain biking. There are numerous minority villages to visit for handicrafts, silk farms, six good-sized waterfalls, pagodas, and lastly the number one attraction right now…the Crazy House.

Is it the name or is it the fact that the weird architecture of this house reminds tourists of Gaudi’s creation in Barcelona? Whatever it is, it’s become a ‘must see’ for anyone who visits Dalat. I have to admit I didn’t go to see it this time around because I toured it five years. My husband and I joined in the fun of exploring its maze of tunnels, climbing its ladders, and being constantly surprised by what lay ahead…spiderwebs, mushrooms, strange animals, with everything seemingly sprouting from the trees. A Mrs. Dang Viet Nga, daughter of the successor to Ho Chi Minh as Prime Minister of Viet Nam, received her Ph.D in architecture from Moscow. Her objective was to build a house which would bring people back to nature so she began with a giant banyan tree. It’s absolutely amazing what she has accomplished over the years. She is still alive and her creation has garnered the reputation as one of the world’s most bizarre buildings.

Outside of the Crazy House.

Outside of the Crazy House.

Inside the house.

Inside the house.

Yes, Dalat has much to offer tourists who come here, as well as the people of Viet Nam who are beginning to tour their diverse country now that they have the means to do so. The Viet Namese are romantics at heart so Dalat provides them with the perfect setting for their wedding pictures or a honeymoon. Roses, flower gardens, a beautiful lake setting, and hotels that cater to them, is this not enough? Apparently not, as not only locals, but bus loads of tourists will include a trip to the Valley of Love for even more love theme kitsch. As a mature, solo traveller I might have felt a little out of place so didn’t make the effort.

Dalat does have more serious attractions for visitors, however. The French left behind a noticeable legacy with their catholic churches exemplifying their gothic architecture. They are lovely to look at from the outside but, unfortunately, aren’t open for viewing.

Lovely gothic style church.

A more modern church.

A more modern church.

However, there are numerous elaborate pagodas to visit reflecting the Chinese architecture. They are open for viewing. My choice was to check out the Truc Lam Pagoda. This zen monastery sits on top of a mountain to the south of the city and is easily accessible by cable car. After a hair-raising motor bike ride out to the lift, I was then treated to my own cable car for a 15 minute ride through the lush greenery of the pine forest. I instantly felt at peace and totally safe. What a fantastic view of the city and its environs! The grounds of the monastery were almost as peaceful save for some bus loads of Russian tourists who arrived. This wasn’t a problem for me as the grounds are so spread out and beautifully designed, providing many secluded spaces with tables and benches for sitting and meditating or just getting away from people.

Entrance to the pagoda.

Entrance to the pagoda.

A temple with huge bell.

A temple with huge bell.

Hollyhocks.

Hollyhocks.

These are for real. Not sure what they were.

These are for real. Not sure what they were.

A quiet spot for some meditation.

A quiet spot for some meditation.

Zen affiliates from around the world have donated benches. This is from Canada.

Zen affiliates from around the world have donated benches. This is from Canada.

Descending down a tree-lined path, I came upon Tuyen Lam Lake, another man made lake.

I was surprised to find stalls selling souvenirs and one in particular caught my buyer’s eye. Taking a chance and wandering in, I found some money belts handcrafted by a minority village in the area. They were a decent price so I bought some.  Over to the left, at the end of the lake, I spied some signs advertising food and coffee. Hot and weary, I decided to check them out. I didn’t see anything that whet my appetite until a restaurant advertising classic cars and ‘weasel’ coffee grabbed my interest. In case you don’t know, ‘weasel’ or civet coffee is made from this animal’s poop… and it’s expensive….way too expensive for my budget! However, since I hadn’t had my coffee fix for the day, I decided my caffeine treat would be a mocha latte…made with regular coffee. Yum! I thought this was an appropriate way to end my visit before heading back to the city.

My mocha latte.

Would I return for a third visit? Without a doubt should the occasion arise. Dalat may not have the history and culture of other hot spots, such as Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi Han, Hue, or Hanoi, but it does have a comfortable climate and enough things to see and do to keep visitors there for at least a few days. Like the French over a century ago, we tourists are searching for a place that not only offers a relief from the sweltering heat, but also some of that irresistible French charm they left behind.

Travelling Solo or Not?

Travelling Solo or Not?

We have finished another delicious dinner in the city of Hue in Viet Nam. We have paid our bill and thanked our waiters with a smile and a tip. I am leading the way out, making my exit on to the busy street cautiously merging into the chaotic pedestrian and motorbike traffic. I look behind to see how he is doing but see no sign of him. Thinking he got caught up in the crowd, I wait for him to catch up to me. Minutes pass but still no sight of him so I retrace my steps back to the restaurant. He couldn’t still be in there talking to someone after our agreement to leave and head back to our guest house, could he? Oh yes he could! There he is talking to a young couple totally oblivious that I am not anywhere around. Normally I would have joined in and participated in the usual conversation that travellers have when they meet for the first time. However, after a tiring day of sight-seeing, I had just wanted to climb into bed and have some time to myself, a desire I thought he had understood. Any patience I had left quickly evaporated once I got out the door for the second time because by now I was on the verge of committing murder or getting a divorce!

Three years have passed since this incident and fortunately Hubby and I are still alive and still married to each other. However, this restaurant episode served as a good learning experience for us when travelling together. Our independent natures often clash when we are together for a long periods of time especially when dealing with the challenges posed by visiting a foreign country. To keep them to a minimum, we have learned to put more time into communicating just what is or isn’t important to each of us which sometimes results in us going our separate ways for a while. Then, he can talk to all the people he wants, dispense with his map and rely on the locals for instructions on how to get from A to B, and go wherever he wants. I can wander freely looking in shops and out-of-the-way places and take lots of pictures.We both agree that temporary separation has been a good solution. When we come together again, we are more willing to compromise on any further contentious issues that might crop up.

The restaurant incident illustrates one of the so-called “bones of contention” we have had when travelling together. He gets great enjoyment out of engaging just about anyone who “looks interesting” (his words) in conversation, whereas I just want to keep focused on getting to our destination or to eat our meal without the usual preamble that takes place when meeting fellow travellers. On the other hand, one of the difficulties I have had when travelling alone was not feeling comfortable with striking up conversations with strangers. Oddly enough, I now find it much easier and often (but not always) rather rewarding to engage in conversations when I am on my own and sometimes even when we are together. We have learned from each other and have found a fairly comfortable balance on this issue.

There are benefits to both ways of travel but the more personally transforming has been my solo travel. Here are the three most important reasons for saying this:

  • Freedom – This has to be the best bonus to travelling alone especially as a married woman. I get to do whatever I want. This may sound selfish to some, but I have learned that until I take care of my needs first, I can’t be of any real use to others. Travelling solo has helped me realize this. For five months out of a year, I can happily relinquish my duties as chief cook and bottle washer, cleaning lady, and yard maintenance woman. I can choose to eat when, where, and what I want. No matter what I do I have only myself to answer to. Fortunately, Hubby feels the same way about this so has no problem letting me go off to do ‘my thing’ while he does ‘his thing’ in Florence, Italy. He feels very at home in Florence having spent a significant part of his early years there enhancing his singing career and immersing himself in the Italian culture which he loves. For the winter months I prefer and feel totally comfortable in the warm climate of Thailand and other SE Asian countries so have headed in that direction. This pattern has evolved over these past eight years and seems to suit our independent personalities for now.
  • Self Growth – Like so many women of my generation, who have struggled with the fear of doing something different which is more in tune with our true nature and not what others or society thinks we should do, I have solo travel to thank for helping me the most. Although a daunting venture at first when I made my first solo trip to India and Nepal three years ago, it was thee I had to overcome my fear. When I look back on this trip it was certainly the most stressful one I have ever taken but probably the one where I learned the most. While there, for some inexplicable reason, I felt a protective presence around me reassuring me that I was not alone. My posts “Incredible India” and “Adventures in Nepal” can fill you in on the details of that trip. Always interested in self-growth, I have participated in many workshops and seminars, as well as teaching courses on the topic, but none of this succeeded in increasing my confidence to the level that travelling solo has done. When on my own, all my focus is on being responsible to myself and not my classmates, students, or my husband. What better way is there to conquer fear and become more confident than by simply taking the plunge and doing it.? It’s much like learning to swim!
  • Doing what I love – My love for travel was sparked in my pre-teen years while reading the Vicki Barr books (Vicki was an airline stewardess) and the smattering of geography I received in school. In my early 20’s, I back packed to Europe for nearly a year with a few girlfriends. At that time, I would never have dreamed of doing it on my own as so many young women are doing today. Now in my senior years, I have rediscovered not only my love of travel and all the personal benefits that come with it, but also the enjoyment I receive from writing about it all. Travelling solo got me started in earnest with the writing and now allows me to do more than if I were with Hubby.

Of course, there are some cons for solo travel and they are

  • Loneliness – The battle of learning how to deal with loneliness which most likely will appear at the end of the day when you go out for dinner or come back to your room wanting to share your day with someone. At first, I experienced many days in succession living like this, but with my increased confidence in ‘breaking the ice’ and starting up conversations with fellow travellers and locals, the problem is waning. For me, it’s been a challenge to ask for help not only because I don’t speak the same language, but also in simply overcoming any feelings of pride and admitting I need the help. While travelling with Hubby in Morocco, I really began to appreciate his ease at speaking French which is widely spoken throughout the country and his asking directions which can be annoying but also helpful – at times!
  • Expense – As you would expect, it can be more expensive to travel solo especially for accommodations and moving around. In most countries a single person will pay the same rate for a decent size room as a couple. Some places will have a small single sized room or you can opt for a dormitory style guest house, but if you are looking for something for a long-term stay as I do when in Thailand, there is no choice except for a double room at double the price. In most cities, I have to pay full fare for taxis, tuk tuks, or whatever mode of transportation is offered. The one exception is the songtao in Chiang Mai which operates like a bus with one fare per person.

I have discovered that the pros for travelling with a spouse are actually the cons for travelling alone. They are

  • Banishes loneliness – Having Hubby with me certainly eliminates any kind of loneliness. I always have a dinner companion and someone to bounce ideas off when making decisions on where to go and arranging transportation to get from one place to another. Two heads are sometimes better than one! It’s also somewhat comforting to be able to pass the reins of responsibility over  to him so I can have a break from having to do it all myself.
  • Easier – There are some countries which are more stressful for female travellers than others. Thailand and SE Asia, for example, are relatively safe and easy. There certainly is little hassle from the male population. India and Morocco, on the other hand, can be somewhat problematic for women if they aren’t prepared for it. I was certainly stressed out once I had finished travelling to Delhi and the Taj Mahal in India, and probably would have found Morocco more challenging if I hadn’t had Hubby to speak French to the pushy cab drivers.
  • Less expensive – More choice and less cost for accommodations is definitely a plus when sharing a room with someone. Also as I mentioned above, you can cut your taxi fares in half, and sometimes reduce your food costs if you can agree on sharing certain dishes which would be far too large for one person. Unfortunately, Hubby and I have never been able to agree on this one. Not liking the idea of sharing, he would rather eat the whole thing whether he needs it or not.
  • Meet more people – Yes, I have to admit when I am with Hubby I do meet more people and especially young Europeans and locals. We met many from both groups while in Morocco this year – all were wise beyond their years and absolutely refreshing to talk to. It amazes me that they even want to spend time with us older folk but they do. Perhaps it’s because we both tend to be younger of heart and so can relate to them sometimes better than the older travellers.

Finally, the cons for travelling with Hubby are almost opposite to the pros for solo travel, and they are

  • Less freedom – Naturally, I don’t have the same kind of freedom I have when on my own. To achieve a little space from each other, we will often take a day to go off on our own to pursue our individual interests. This gives us a much-needed break so that when we get back together again, we are more open to compromising with each other.
  • Learn less – Because I don’t have to do all the planning or organizing or deal with other minor nuisances that come with travel in foreign countries, I tend to leave much up to him when we get together. As I already stated, although I have a nice break from these responsibilities, somehow I don’t feel as connected or learn as much as I do when on my own. I admit I become complacent!
  • Need for patience – Travelling with someone else also calls for oodles of patience and flexibility. As we get older, we are getting better at it. I am conscious of being more patient with him when he stops to talk, or when he takes forever to prepare for a day’s outing, or when simply walking along the street. He calls me the ‘energizer bunny’ but I think he goes too slow. Not surprising there has to be lots of ‘give and take’ around this. In all honesty, can I actually call this a con when it has helped me to be more patient and flexible, the two qualities of which I’ve not been overly endowed?  Yes, there can be growth of a different kind when travelling with someone like Hubby.

I have concluded that for me it’s almost a draw when it comes to determining which mode of travel is better. There are definitely pluses and minuses for both. Of course, it helps when the person you are travelling with is your spouse because really who else do you know so well? A best friend can work if you know each other’s needs and personality quirks. I happen to like both modes of travel, but if for long periods of time or in more challenging countries, I would definitely prefer to have someone with me. That said, I do feel that I have been very lucky to have both ways at my disposal for as long as we can both travel. The question that remains is whether I could handle travelling completely on my own if ever circumstances should put me into such a dilemma?

 

This gallery of pictures is of our trip three years ago to Viet Nam where we mostly travelled together but did take a two-day break from each other. We were in Hanoi where I had visited the previous year on my own so he wanted time to explore and test out the new opera house there. I wanted to go further north to visit the Hilltribe village of Sapa. So we separated and joined up for a final trip together to Halong Bay.