A Travellerspoint blog

Staying at Home in La Paz


View 2020 on mrb430's travel map.

It's been almost a month now of being under "stay at home" orders here in La Paz, Baja California Sur. Along with the rest of the world, we are watching and waiting for the end of this craziness and making the best of things.
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IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS

Like all of you, our world has been reduced to what's inside the gates of our little apartment building. Except for trips to the store, we are staying at home. In a way, Scott and I have been practicing "social distancing" for two years. It's just been us on the road and we've gotten very good at spending countless hours together passing the time in our own ways. We often spend days in "our house", just going out for a meal or a beer. So I don't think the isolation part of this is hitting us as hard as others. It's nothing new to us to use FaceTime to keep in touch with friends and family! And we're fortunate to be in a small building of six units where we do get some interaction with others - whether it's saying hi as they walk by to go out or meeting up on the roof deck for a cocktail at sunset - at appropriate social distance of course! These little interactions are priceless and make us feel less alone.

And our good friend James has been a great distraction. He's like family so we feel okay about bending the rules and having him over sometimes. We've had some fun times and good meals together.
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Of course, we can't wait to be able to go to the beach and go on some of our favorite drives but that will have to wait for now.

So we spend countless hours sitting in front of our unit watching the world go by.
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We are so thankful to have this outdoor space and our roof deck. When you slow down, you notice the little things. In the morning and the afternoons, there is an amazing aerial war that goes on in and around our little courtyard between the sparrows and the butterflies. The sparrows dive and twirl trying to catch the butterflies who dart here and there in an effort to escape. I can watch this display for hours. And the little Costa's Hummingbirds come to the tree and clean their beaks and flit around. There is the gecko that sounds off every night about 8:30. Sounding off just once but always at about the same time like he's saying "Ok bugs, I'm here! Get ready!" On the roof we watch the Magnificent Frigatebirds and Turkey Vultures cruise on the currents, get annoyed at the incessant chatter of the Gila Woodpeckers, and get excited to see a Crested Caracara outside of the desert or an Osprey carrying a fish home for dinner.

Some people say every day feels the same or that they all blend together but for us noticing these little things, planning small social interactions, and celebrating the daily routines of cleaning the house, going shopping, doing the laundry, hanging sheets on the roof deck to dry, cooking a meal, stopping for a fish taco or tamale to-go, these small things separate the days and make each one unique. And we've picked up our yoga practice again (Scott doesn't have any excuses left not to do it with me haha!), which helps with focus and feeling good.

OUR PLAN FORWARD

As I've related before, as a virgo, it's very hard for me to exist without a plan - at least a notional plan. As we started to settle in here, I started to get frustrated with the uncertainty of all of this and the not knowing. When would be able to travel again? Where would we be able to go? It was hard to get up everyday and not be consumed with a feeling of being in limbo. I am so thankful for Scott, my partner in this crazy adventure, for listening to me when I said "I NEED A PLAN!" and helping us to figure out a way to make a plan when plan-making is unrealistic.

We decided to stay in Mexico for the next six months, no matter what course the virus takes. We rented a house at Playa Posada and signed a six month lease.
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It's just outside of our usual neighborhood of Centro but only about five minutes away. It's a residential area on the beach. It's quieter and seems a bit more relaxed. We are really looking forward to having a house again! It's much bigger than we need but only $100 more than our current apartment. At $900 a month for a three bedroom house with three decks (one of which has a view of the water) and a huge back courtyard, we won't complain! The owner is from an old Guadalajara family with their own Tequila brand so that seemed a good omen, too. Ha! I can't wait to buy some plants to take care of and we may even foster a dog from a local dog rescue where I am starting to volunteer.

And we bought a Jeep!
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Being in Baja without wheels is just not doable. And serendipity struck again in that the owner of our apartment, who lives above us, was selling a 2000 Jeep Cherokee in great condition. Easy peasy! An interesting side note - we are registering it in South Dakota. Small Clay County SD has the easiest vehicle registration process for non-residents. It's all done through the mail and the internet. We should have our new SD tags this week! I have always loved the older Cherokees and really wanted to own one back in the 90's. Of course I couldn't afford them then but now we can - twenty years later!

So we're all set to settle in and just live life here. Someday, we'll get back to planning what's next after this but for now we will be content with the amazing Baja sunsets. When life gives you limes, drink Tequila!
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We send our best wishes to all of you. Take pleasure in the little things, make the best plans you can, be patient, and STAY HOME!

Posted by mrb430 09:37 Archived in Mexico Comments (3)

Where Would You Go?


View 2020 on mrb430's travel map.

Alas, it was not to be. We did our overnight trip over to Koh Samui to visit the immigration office and try to work things out but it was a non-starter so I am writing this from half-way around the world in La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico.
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But more on that in a minute. First, before we left Samui, Scott indulged me in a visit to the Elephant Sanctuary.
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So much of our Asia bucket list remains empty but this was one item we could check off and we did. Along with an amazing "last meal" at Boudoir, an sanctuary of French Food on Samui.
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SAMUI ELEPHANT SANCTUARY

Thailand has a long history of using elephants as beasts of burden. I am always torn in these situations, whether it's the horses in Nicaragua or the donkeys in Morocco or Thailand's elephants, between the urge to apply Western standards and the need to understand local norms, traditions, and needs. In any case, it was nice to see that some of the ideas about animal abuse we regard as second-nature are taking root. This sanctuary rescues elephants from work and exploitation and gives them health care and a home. To pay for it, they let tourists come and interact with them. Koh Samui's sanctuary is very new and small compared to those in Chiang Mai and elsewhere so they only have four elephants right now but it was a special treat to get up close and personal with them.

We first said "hi".
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Then we made them food balls of potatoes, bananas, and a bunch of other stuff.
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We got to feed them - you have to put them right up in their mouth! They have HUGE tongues!
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Then we fed them some small bananas and cucumbers. It was hysterical. You put them in their trunks one at a time and they fire them into their mouth and are back for more in seconds. Check out this video of Scott doing the feeding.

After feeding, the real fun begins! Playing in the mud with them, washing them off, and then going swimming with them. Here's a video of me playing in the mud!

And some pics of the pool.
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It was an awesome experience and so glad we took a few hours to do it!

LEAVING KOH TAO

But back to the decision to leave. As we sat on our deck looking out at the water each morning, reading about the virus and its progression and watching the borders closing around us, we began to feel a sense of unease about staying on Koh Tao and in Asia generally. We were unable to extend our visas at the immigration office on Koh Samui because the US Embassy would not write us a letter to stay. When I called, they said "we don't have a policy on that". Ah bureaucracy at its finest. Our only choice was a border run and as all of the borders were closing that became less and less realistic. It's not expensive to overstay and there was an idea that they may forgive overstays but... In addition, Koh Tao, although they had no cases yet, has very limited health care facilities and the idea of being able to evacuate to Bangkok, if necessary, became less certain. Then the first case appeared on our neighboring island. We made the very difficult decision to leave. But to where?

We thought about the US but things were really getting crazy there and with our international health insurance we can only be in the US six of twelve months a year so we thought we better save that time for an emergency. We wanted to be closer to the US though, to my parents and our children, we wanted to have sun and sand and sea, and we wanted to be somewhere with not a lot of people. We have always thought we'd go back to Baja someday and, well, it seemed like that day had come.

Once we decided to leave, we debated staying through the end of our lease in early April but we felt like if we were going to "run" from this thing, we ought to run as fast as we could. Conditions were changing very quickly both in Asia and on the US-Mexican border. It's a good thing we did! We got a flight from Koh Samui to Singapore and on to LA on Singapore Airlines for the next day. Singapore was one of the last airports open to transit by US passport holders. We packed everything back up, leaving behind a pile of acquired items like yoga mats and coolers and dry bags and food that we had acquired thinking we were staying put for awhile and we hustled back to Samui to spend the night before our flight. Samui's airport, usually a bustling little area was deserted.
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We got to Singapore and had a layover there. For some reason this sign cracked us up and made us a little sad.
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Singapore closed to US transit the next day. Flights were cancelling in real time and there were long lines of people trying to figure out what to do. We felt incredibly lucky and incredibly thankful that we made the decision to get out when we did.

When we got to LA, we were amazed at the lack of infrastructure in place for the virus. In Singapore we got thermal scanned at least five times in the airport. At both Samui and Singapore, there were endless questions about where we had traveled and been - not one in LA. We did fill out a questionnaire on the plane but they never collected it. I have to be honest and say I can see why the US has overtaken everyone else in cases. The response is night and day in the US versus Asian countries. It makes us ruminate on the relative merits of more centralized governments and more compliant citizenry in times of crisis. Our independence is proving our undoing it seems.

In any case, even though the US-Mexico land border had closed the day before, our flight left on time. There were five people on our plane down but they said they were bringing 40 people home. Bad decision in our minds - we definitely felt like we were going the right way!

ADJUSTING TO LIFE IN LA PAZ

We arrived in La Paz and checked into our favorite hotel for the night. It's nice to come to a place you know and have that option. The next day was a whirlwind of looking at apartments, choosing one, renting a car, buying food, and unpacking. If I'm being honest, the next day it really hit us that we were really in Baja and not Thailand. And that we were starting all over. We had invested a lot of time in choosing SE Asia for our home for 2020. We had found Koh Tao and fallen in love. We had found the place we wanted to rent long-term and were making friends. We were getting yoga and diving and volunteering routines established. We had sat on the porch having cocktails imaging our future there. And life was good. We had found "home". And four days later we were halfway across the globe - trading tropics for desert, hot weather for pleasant (read cold at night, sunny and warm most days), daily swims in the sea for daily walks by it. We still have the sea and the sun and blue skies but the difference is - well - a world away.

And so we begin again. We feel extremely fortunate to have gotten here, to have a good friend to help us get settled, and to have the financial security to do it all. It's easy to settle back in and our favorite tacos stand, tamale lady, grocery store, restaurant...are all still here. We know our way around and we know how to live here. We love Baja and will be very happy here but it's just a really big adjustment and recalibration of the vision of our future.

COVID-19 IN BAJA

Baja is way behind the rest of the world on the "Covid-curve". It's just ramping up here with the first cases starting to be acknowledged. Social distancing is just going into place and masks are starting to appear as well as hand sanitizer. The streets are eerily empty now. But Scott did get one fishing trip in before it all shut down - something he never got to do last time we were here!

On his first time out, he caught a Rooster Fish. Considered a trophy fish and the holy grail of a lot of anglers down here (apparently some people fish their whole lives down here and never get one), it was one for the books and maybe a good omen of lots more awesome firsts to come!
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They also caught some Yellowtails - can you say Ceviche!
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And a Dorado.
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We have fish in the freezer so I guess we are real Bajaians now! And truly there is no where, other than maybe Spain, that I am happier shopping and cooking. The fresh produce is amazing and the hand-made tortillas delicious. I've made Pineapple-Mango salsa, Pork Chili Verde, Sashimi and Ceviche, Egg-Chorizo breakfast tortillas, Chicken tacos...We can't get enough! And don't get me started on our love of Tequila!

Of course the stores have social-distancing guides and we hand-sanitize in and out and wear our masks but there's no panic and no hoarding, which is a real relief.

La Paz has invested a lot of money since we were here last in their streets, parks, and the malecon - the walkway along the waterfront. It's just even more beautiful now and it's great to be able to get out of the house and go for a walk along the water. Since it's basically deserted, social-distancing is easy, though we still wear our masks. Heaven forbid we are the gringos that bring Covid to La Paz!
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For more on the public art in La Paz, check out this post.

We also got to celebrate Scott's birthday at one of our favorite restaurants, NIM. They closed today for lack of business and no wonder since we were the only table there for our two-hour dinner. Such a shame. Their food is awesome and they were going over and above on sanitization. They made us hand-sanitize on the way in. Sprayed and wiped our table in front of us - I assume with some sort of disinfectant, were wearing masks, etc.
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We even had a serene by a local musician. One of my favorite aspects of dining in La Paz. "Traveling" players come through and you pay them if you want a song.
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We're sure the virus will come to La Paz in bigger numbers but they seem to be taking the "flattening the curve" advice seriously - if not the test everyone advice. Testing here is next to impossible. Restaurants and stores are almost all shut down except for take away and for grocery stores and markets. People are staying home and with Semana Santa (their big Easter-based weeklong party) coming up, the military is being enlisted to keep people off the beaches and streets in big groups. For those that don't know, La Paz has a military post and also a marine military post so we have no shortage of military vehicles with men and automatic weapons cruising the streets even in normal times. Mostly it's reassuring, just kinda weird for us.

So not to worry about us, we have a roof deck for getting sun and watching sunsets without other people around.
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And the truth is, we're old hands at social distancing. We have spent two years mostly just us. We are used to long days doing nothing, to finding small outings to fill a space of time, to just being with each other. Of course we were hoping to expand our network in Koh Tao but life rarely goes according to plan. When we read about the angst and boredom and anxiety people are experiencing, we feel really lucky that we learned how to just chill out and be together a long time ago.

in short, when we look out over our new life in La Paz, the view is beautiful.
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Posted by mrb430 15:21 Archived in Mexico Comments (2)

Watching the World Go Crazy in Koh Tao


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It's been a month since my last post and there are a few reasons for that disturbance in the flow.

Perhaps the primary one is that lately we've been focused on a lot of mundane things like rebuilding our life and figuring out the future. Historically this blog has been about our travels. Sure there is a bit of what we're thinking or feeling thrown in but primarily it's about the places and the people and our reactions to it all. And I suppose that's what those of you that follow us or those who stumble upon us are looking for us to tell you about. But it's also for us to look back on and remember how it felt, what we were doing and thinking, and the challenges we faced. I often go back and read old entries and even just the tone of my writing clues me in to how we were feeling. And right now how we are feeling is changing daily so it's been hard to put into words.

The other, much more practical, issue is that our mornings are now more active and that was my writing time historically. I'm less fresh and more reflective in the evenings so I wasn't sure how much that would change the "tone" and if it would change it too much.

But here we are. If I don't just jump in again I many never and I'm not okay with that. So we'll see how this goes.

LOVELY ISLAND LIFE ON KOH TAO

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Of course it's great to lead with a sunset. It's wonderful to have a balcony and beach facing West again. But really I should lead with this one.

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Because what we love here is the simple, easy, island pace of life, including that the laundry across the street hangs our clothes out on lines by the beach to dry. It's just off the beach road, at the quiet end where we are, but there is zero worry that anyone will take anything and there's this special feeling about putting those clothes on - weird as it sounds. We've moved back to beach dresses for me and tank tops for Scott. We wear flip-flops or go barefoot, which is easier because you remove your shoes to enter every establishment anyway.

This is a typical "road". There are very few cars, mostly just scooters. And although the young backpackers can be a bit crazy the difference from Bangkok or Nha Trang is that of Manhattan cabbies to the backroads of the Eastern Shore. The traffic that is here may not always do the speed limit but there's so little of it!
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This is the view from our "front yard" in Mae Haad, which is a little private area of beach with loungers. Mae Haad is the "bigger" town with plenty of businesses and dive shops but it's also less popular with the backpacker crowd so it has less loud bars and many fewer goings on at night, which we like.
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We look out on the docks that bring and take tourists to and from the island and on the dive boats that go out each day. We can sit for hours watching the activity and have learned to tell time by the comings and goings of the different ferries. Our little one bedroom apartment is in a building of just eight units, most of which are empty on any given night, and although we have A/C in the bedroom we only use it at night. It's certainly hot and humid here but we've learned the rhythm of the day: activity before two, rest on the beach or under the fan in the afternoon, evenings on the deck or out for dinner and/or drinks. It's quiet at night and easy to sleep.

We've started walking again. Scott is even going on hikes with me!
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We've both started yoga again at a great studio that's not too far away. Just in the next beach town over, Sairee Beach (the party area), that you get to by walking the beach "road". Just a wide concrete path lined with shops, restaurants, and hotels.

Scott has been diving.
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There are more dive shops in Koh Tao than restaurants, or at least it seems like it. It's really popular with the backpacker crowd for inexpensive certification classes. It's also has some pretty good dive sites. The visibility here can change from great to murky within a few hours this time of year so it's always a bit of a crap shoot. For example, Scott dove the same site two days in a row and the first day the visibility was less than two meters and the next it was 12-15. The dives are cheap here so you just go with the flow and they have pretty good communication between all the divers on the sites that were poor in the morning so afternoon dives can be adjusted accordingly.

We've been snorkeling from our beach. The water is so clean and warm and there is a great reef that even has a sunken ship just at the other end of our cove.
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I've been having fun identifying fish and lizards in my iNaturalist App and birds for eBird. I've identified eight new birds for my life list here including the amazing White-bellied Sea Eagle that flies with the Ospreys in the skies out in front of us and Pacific Reef Herons that perch all along the waterfront on the boats and piers.

I've also been volunteering at an animal clinic with these sweet pups. Nothing glamorous. I help with laundry mostly - haha!
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We've made some friends, rediscovered the pleasure of rum, and play a lot more music. We have our local bar next door owned by a hard-drinking Aussie - who also becomes our DJ some nights when the mood strikes him and he cranks the speakers and runs through his extensive music library. There's a favorite Thai restaurant where a plate of Pad Thai, a dish of Penang Curry, and two watermelon juices is $7.50 and just steps down the road. Jun runs our favorite coffee shop and doubles as our entertainment director. There's live music in a few places. Just down the beach they have a nice band on weekends that we can hear from the deck and a place up the road has open mike nights that are good three nights a week. There's lots of good, cheap Western food, grocery stores and produce stands with recognizable brands and options, and a population that speaks enough English to make ourselves understood in pharmacies and stores. Koh Tao is checking all of our boxes and we are way under-burning our budget, which is frosting on this tasty cake!

THAILAND AS HOME DURING THE PANDEMIC

The Thais are a sweet, proud, and honorable people. Some of their government types rival some of ours on the speaking, and occasionally acting, before thinking front - but most of the government seems to us to be forthright and dignified. There is something very peaceful and reassuring about being here in the midst of the pandemic. Cases are very low still, even though they were one of the first countries infected, their focus on tracking, testing, and isolating those affected seems effective and reasonable, and they are actively planning for it to get worse if it should by identifying special hospitals to take the cases. Some foreigners complain about being targeted with border closings but the honest truth is it's foreigners bringing it to Thailand - there is no local spread here yet. And, so far, they are only closed to seriously affected countries - well and also some weird ones like Cyprus and Vanuatu - which honestly seems reasonable to us. We just hope they hold off on the US until we can get our visas settled!

We've spent long days contemplating what to do. Should we go back to the States? Our insurance only allows us to be in the States for 6 of 12 months a year so we need to save that option for an emergency - plus we're not too impressed with the US reaction to the problem, frankly. Should we be in a bigger place with better access to hospitals in case we get sick? We can get medical evacuation from here to Bangkok and, as I know first hand, their hospitals are awesome. At the end of the day, we feel pretty isolated here and are hopeful it may skip us as fewer and fewer other foreigners are let in. Tourism is waaaaayyyyy down here. Fewer and fewer people get off the ferries every day. Also it's an easy place to "self-isolate" if we had to do that and the local population of expats seem like fun people to ride out the storm with.

In short, we've found our home for awhile if they'll let us stay. They do have a retirement visa that we can meet the requirements of given time. We go tomorrow to the Immigration office over on Koh Samui to figure out what it will take. We're relatively confident we can figure it out even if we have to do a border run to Myanmar (Burma). So far that border is still open and Americans can still enter (as long as we haven't actually been in America!) If we are successful we should be able to stay for up to year if that's what it takes to ride out the storm. Wish us luck! We wish you all stay safe and healthy!

Posted by mrb430 05:11 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Goodbye Vietnam, Hello Bangkok


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We arrived in Bangkok on February 5th so I'm definitely due for an update!

But before we talk about Thailand, a few more thoughts and images from Nha Trang.

PONAGAR TOWER (Tháp Bà PoNagar)

On a granite promontory just across the Cai River from central Nha Trang, this Cham temple tower founded sometime before 781 A.D. is dedicated to Yan Po Nagar, the goddess of the country, who came to be identified with the Hindu goddesses Bhagavati and Mahishasuramardini. At this point just upriver from the ocean, the river is filled with colorful fishing boats.
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Built between the 7th and 12th centuries and originally Hindu, the towers are still actively used for worship by Cham, Chinese and Vietnamese Buddhists. Originally the complex had seven or eight towers, but only four remain. The independent Cham political states extended across the coast of what is today central and southern Vietnam from approximately the 2nd century A.D. before being absorbed and annexed by Vietnamese Emperor Minh Mạng in AD 1832. Cham peoples still exist in Vietnam though they are a small minority.

The temples are unlike any we have seen so far. Built of red brick, they have weathered and softened over time but are still incredibly beautiful.
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The whole area is surrounded by beautiful gardens and rock out crops and the views are awesome.large_96F81FFF-B2A5-4148-BF5F-6AEF7BFF5106_1_201_a.jpeglarge_B647F9ED-94D4-4B4A-99B3-00F0A76D7AF8_1_201_a.jpeglarge_IMG_4138.jpeglarge_IMG_4145.jpeglarge_IMG_4144.jpeg

SUPERBOWL LIV

In which my Kansas City Chiefs win it all! We watched with a group of friends we'd met over our weeks in Nha Trang. We did begin to establish friends and a small community, even in the short time we were there - a testament to the fact that anywhere can be home if you try. We wish we had liked Nha Trang better but...and yes those are VICTORY Duck Farts for those in the know. (One is for Scott who had to be photographer but he was celebrating, too!)
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LASTING IMAGES OF NHA TRANG

Of course there are the motor bikes but there are also a few other lasting impressions we will take with us from Vietnam. One of the most lasting images for us is the juxtaposition of old Nha Trang, the sleepy fishing village, with new Nha Trang, the tourist Mecca. These pictures capture that feeling.
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Vietnam is a coffee culture and having an ice coffee prepared at one of the many coffee shops was a favorite activity. Oddly, they serve you a glass of complimentary iced green tea with each cup.
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Vietnamese street food is cheap, safe, and delicious. It's also pretty easy because most vendors only sell one thing. Bánh Mì vendors sell Bánh Mì. Pho vendors sell Pho. And Banh Can vendors sell Banh Can, one of our favorites.
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The food is simple with easily identifiable ingredients. And it's generally not too spicy. We came to really like a lot of it, although we could see it getting a little boring over time.

Vietnam is really inexpensive. Compared to Thailand, it's cheap! We can see the appeal for expats on limited budgets.

The communist presence is limited as I discussed in my last post but the entry to the neighborhoods throughout the city remind you of that past.
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And unique to Nha Trang, at least for us, is the use of Bougainvillea as a street tree.
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Lastly, over the time we were in Vietnam as the Coronavirus spread, face masks because as ubiquitous as in Japan. Thanks to the many Chinese tourists (although by the time we left there were very few remaining and it was like a ghost town), the Vietnamese went a bit crazy. All of the staff in our hotel were wearing masks. The government had posters everywhere and were making public announcements in the street, and of course as a result finding face masks to purchase was next to impossible. That didn't stop us from finding them and they felt like a necessity, if only for our peace of mind, on our flight to Bangkok.
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As was wiping everything with disinfecting wipes, being maniacal about hand washing and hand sanitizer (though truthfully that obsession has been with us for awhile). Arriving in Thailand, the mood is much more relaxed, at least after leaving the airport, which is a relief.

BANGKOK, THAILAND

Our arrival to Bangkok was like going from rural America to NYC. Back in the big leagues! Almost from the moment we arrived and realized there weren't any cars or motorbikes parked on the sidewalks, we knew we would be happier here. It's just true that we are more comfortable with places able to provide a few more of the creature comforts we need to feel at home.
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Of course, it comes at a price. Housing is still very affordable, especially now that tourism is taking such a huge hit from the virus, and transportation is very inexpensive but food and clothing are only slightly cheaper than in the West.

Don't get me wrong, there are motorbikes and traffic here, too. But there are stoplights and crosswalks! And they make use of overpasses over the really big roads.
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And they have public transportation! The Sky Tram is an awesome elevated train and a great way to see the city.
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As a major international city, it has great food from all over the world. German, French, Italian, Indian, and of course Thai - one of our favorites! We've been eating really well! We haven't tried street food yet although it's supposed to be amazing. Unfortunately, unlike Vietnam it's hard to tell exactly what's on offer, the ingredients are unfamiliar, and it's usually really spicy. Maybe we'll do a food tour to get our feet wet.

SALA DAENG, SILOM - LUMPINI PARK - SUKHUMVIT

Our first place was in a small hotel in the neighborhood of Sala Daeng in the Silom district. It's mainly a business district so its quiet at night but has great coffee shops and cheap lunch spots. The best part is it's right across the street from Lumpini Park, the Central Park of Bangkok.
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It is closed to traffic and has great walking paths and bike lanes as well as ponds and tons of birds. In my first few days I recorded 16 new birds! It also has great views of all of the tall buildings of Bangkok's amazing skyline. There is some amazing architecture here and they spend extra to make their buildings unique.

We've moved now to an apartment in the Sukhumvit district. It's full of more upscale hotels, residences, and as the major shopping area, tons of huge, very nice malls. It's close to Nana, which is the big expat party district, and we've made a few forays over there. We're moving around exploring different parts of the city in case we do decide to settle here for awhile. Our last week here, we will move again. Not sure where yet. Have any suggestions?

BUDDHISM AND THE KING

If the primary imagery of Vietnam was the Communist Party, in Bangkok, Buddhism and the King share the spotlight. There are pictures of the King everywhere, on buildings, on banners along streets, and this huge one as you exit the highway from the airport. I don't know enough to comment on it really other to say it's different and interesting.
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And religion is a huge part of the culture here, too. Almost every building of any size be it a home, business, parking garage, etc., as a Buddhist shrine. These are maintained daily with fresh offerings of food and drink and flowers. It's really interesting and many are really beautiful.
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They call Thailand the land of smiles. Many people comment on this, both bad and good, but for us it's true. In our experience, Thai people are very warm, welcoming, and genuinely nice. It's a big piece of why we feel more comfortable here. It's a little strange to have them bow to us but we try to take it as it's meant and recognize it is a part of what makes their culture so deep and interesting.

So I know this is light on sights after three weeks in Bangkok but we've been catching up on some medical stuff while in the land of inexpensive, high quality healthcare, so we haven't seen or done too much yet. But stay tuned, that will change.

WHAT'S NEXT

Our plans change frequently as we discuss different options but for now we have decided to move on at the beginning of March to Koh Tao, a Thai island. Although we are flirting with staying in Bangkok, at the end of the day we want to be at the beach so we're gonna go try it out and see if it might work as a home base. We're working out our visas and continuing to take this year one day and one step at a time.

Posted by mrb430 18:23 Archived in Thailand Comments (1)

Nha Trang: Buddhas, Waterfalls, and Tết


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After a week or so of trying to be adventurous travelers in Vietnam - you know sightseeing, eating street food, walking the streets - we've settled into our normal routine of not doing much and just hanging out. Back to that "it's life not vacation" mantra! Because truly, at the end of the day, I feel like Nha Trang is really just more enjoyable as a beach town and if you don't ask it to be more than that, you won't be disappointed. And, spending a month in a beach town isn't all bad! Especially when beach chairs and an umbrella are $6.
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It took a few days by the pool, some country music, and some good cocktails at a rooftop bar (eight American-style cocktails for $35), but we've got our groove back.
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It isn't place to move and that's sort of disappointing but we're excited to keep searching out "home" in Asia.

BUDDHAS AND TEMPLES

When we first arrived we were going out for walks in the morning and we walked out to Chùa Long Sơn, a buddhist temple. We can see the 24 meter tall white concrete Buddha from our apartment so it was an obvious destination. As a bonus, there is also a reclining Buddha and a nice temple.
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Walking around is definitely an adventure here and not for the faint of heart. We've pretty much given it up except on the beach walk and in the tourist zone. The reality its that nobody walks anywhere here, except tourists. As a result, the sidewalks are filled with parked motor scooters, things for sale, tables, and food stalls. It is not a walk-friendly city (more on that in a minute). But if you get out you do get to see other temples and occasionally a really pretty sight like a courtyard filled with orchids.
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And as it's Tết, the sidewalks are filled with huge potted flowers and flowering trees for sale that are an integral part of household celebrations.
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One thing you don't see, as a visitor, is many real signs that you're in a communist country other than the ubiquitous hammer and sickle flags and the communist-style concrete architecture. There are other subtle things like the morning and evening broadcasts of the news over loud speakers throughout the city, which we assume include patriotic announcements and music, and the plethora of what appear to be government and party buildings. But really, it's not at all a thing as a tourist.

So about the walking thing. Anything you read about Vietnam will mention the motor scooters.
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What they don't really get across is that there are literally no traffic signals or stop signs. Traffic just "flows". Crossing the street consists of walking into traffic, keeping a steady pace so the scooters and cars can avoid you, and hoping for the best. It's total chaos. But as with everything, time breeds familiarity and if we still aren't comfortable with it, we can navigate it. The craziest thing we saw was a railroad crossing near the temple. You have to check out this video to see the reality of it all.

The other crazy thing about scooters is how many people ride on one. It is totally normal to see a family of four on a scooter together. (Not the best capture from video but can you make out the family in the bottom left?)
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One kid up front, the driver, second kid wedged in between the driver and the other parent on the back. I've wondered whether there is an inherent incentive not to have more than two kids as that's all they can fit on the scooter. And kids don't wear helmets. It's insane. The parents all do but maybe one in a hundred kids has a helmet.

WATERFALLS

From our balcony we see the hills surrounding Nha Trang and we wanted to get into them as there are supposed to be an assortment of waterfalls to see. Many have been taken over by tourist infrastructure with everything from gondolas to restaurants to spas. But luckily one day while lazing on the beach, we were approached by Lac and invited to take a tour with him. A local from Nha Trang, his wife has a sidewalk coffee cafe around the corner from us, he knew of an off the beaten path waterfall and included a visit to the market to buy our lunch, stops at local " craft villages", and a BBQ lunch at the falls.

CRAFT "VILLAGES"
So the idea of a village is different near the city. It's really impossible to tell where the city ends and a village begins. But even in the city there are small areas with entries and signs and flags denoting the entry to a specific "village". The first we stopped at, women were making rice paper. Really fascinating. They use the rice husks to burn for fuel, prepare the tapioca and rice mixture in huge vats, make the rice paper over the fire, and then lay them out to dry. Yep, right on the street. Yum! Seriously though, they were tasty.
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At the next one, women were weaving traditional sleeping mats. Beautiful but I can't imagine sleeping on one - not too comfy!
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THE MARKET
Chợ Đầm Market is a huge indoor/outdoor market selling everything under the sun. The food section, as always with market like this, is a sight to behold. Here, it was the fresh seafood that was stunning. The shrimp are alive and wiggling, their little "feet" going a mile a minute. And you can't ignore that the chicken still have their feet here! We bought chicken, prawns, and lobster for lunch!
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THE WATERFALL
The drive to the waterfall was both beautiful and unsettling. The rice fields and forest were beautiful but so much land is being "slashed and burned" to clearcut for bananas and mangos. It's really sad to see these open scars in the otherwise green and lush forest. Ah progress. But let's focus on the beautiful - it's what we try to do.
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The waterfall itself wasn't that impressive and after the waterfalls in Baja the water clarity and litter was a bit of a let down but it was a fun hike, a nice place to relax and swim, and a great picnic spot. Lac was a great chef!
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As a side note, the Vietnamese đồng is one of the least valuable currencies in the world. One dollar is 23,000 đồng. So spending a million đồng isn't that hard. Our tour, all in, was 1.16M đồng each ($100 total). You get used to it. My method is: divide by two, take off four digits, and subtract a bit! One benefit is there are no coins! Score!

Lunar New Year and Tết Nguyên Đán

Tét is the most important Vietnamese holiday. It is a combination of the Lunar New Year and the celebration that follows and reminds us a lot of how the US goes all out for Christmas with decorations and lights everywhere.
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The biggest symbol is the yellow flower of the Mai tree, a relative of the Apricot.
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So much so that there are cutouts of it pasted all over and even fake ones added to other shrubs and trees. Those red envelopes symbolize the money gifts given within a family but every tree everywhere has them, not just in homes.
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The celebration begins about a week before the actual New Year. In the week before, Vietnamese people clean up their kitchen and prepare food to offer in the farewell ceremony for the Kitchen Gods. As I understand it, it is said that Kitchen God’s task is to report to the King of Heaven about the family’s affairs throughout the year and to wish for a lucky and prosperous new year. In Nha Trang, many, many businesses do this, too, including our hotel and the bank next door. Some even have monks in to do a blessing. No idea what they do will all the food afterwards.
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Then it's New Year's and there is a huge fireworks show and concerts. The beach and streets are packed with people having fun - just like the 4th of July!
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And now, in Tết (the week after New Years), it seems like people are out in the streets just trying to make as much noise as possible using firecrackers, drums, bells, gongs, and anything they can think of to ward off evil spirits. This morning, beginning at 8:00 AM, a group of Lion Dancers (Lan) started up in the street below us. The Lan is an animal between a lion and a dragon, and is the symbol of strength in the Vietnamese culture that is used to scare away evil spirits.
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So a word about the Vietnamese people. Everyone says the Vietnamese are so very friendly. While we haven't found them unfriendly, we also wouldn't say they are over the top welcoming. Of course, we spend most of our time in the "tourist zone" where I'm sure it gets a little tiring to always be friendly to foreigners. Especially when most of them are Russians and Chinese - two peoples that are not well-liked by the Vietnamese for all kinds of historical and modern reasons. Usually, once they realize we're American, they become friendlier. Amazing but true. There aren't a lot of fluent English-speakers but most people have enough to communicate a little. When we get out of the tourist zone, people just seem to wonder why we're there and it feels kinda like they wish we'd just go back ha! I suppose if you lived here and they saw you day after day things would change but the language barrier is a significant hurdle and its seems most Westerners kind of stick together in a few places.

SCUBA DIVING

Scott did his first dive here!
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The dive company was very good though there were only two divers on the boat with a ton of snorkelers. The diving is nice but nothing special. Having Roatan, one of the best dive sites in the world, as your first experience gives other places a pretty high bar to live up to! But he enjoyed being in the water and rediscovering his skills and he's excited to do more as we travel on.

WHAT'S NEXT!

We booked travel to Bangkok for after the Super Bowl - we do have out priorities! We found a good sports bar here that either plays in real time or rebroadcasts the games so we've been following the playoffs! GO CHIEFS!! We will be watching the Super Bowl along with you, albeit at 6:30 am Monday morning. After Bangkok we're planning a side trip to Angkor Wat, the Hindu temple complex in Cambodia that is the largest religious monument in the world and so-called "8th Wonder of the World". Then it's on to the Thai and Malaysian islands for more scuba diving. You can check out our notional map here.

Posted by mrb430 21:33 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

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