Fly United Airlines… and understand true misery

I recently flew from Wellington to Cancun to attend a wedding in Playa del Carmen.  I bought the ticket a bit last minute, but found a good deal from United that was about $500 cheaper than the next option.

Maybe I have been spoiled by living in New Zealand where they don’t take your shoes away and forbid you bringing water on a flight, or force you to pose nude in submission to “federal regulations”, but I had forgotten how hellish an experience flying can be in North America.

The 30 hours each-way trip certainly reminded me.

I understand that the TSA are just doing their job.  There are literally thousands of people passing like sheep through sensors and detectors, and those people probably get really fucking annoying after a few hours of shuttling the masses around, but do the TSA need to be so goddamn tetchy and dyspeptic?  You can just see the misery brewing beneath their eyes.

Flying United was truly awful.  The last few trans-Pacific flights I have done were on Air New Zealand.  Air New Zealand tries to make the 13 hours Auckland-LA flight as painless as possible, the flight attends smile and they give you free decent beer, nice NZ wine, and edible meals.

When I first boarded the United flight from Sydney to LA they started out by showing us a video about how United has “top industry expert chefs”.

After I got my meal I couldn’t help but think the video must be some kind of cruel joke.  Are they delusional or just pathological liars?  The “food” they served us was more vile than the cold pet food available in refrigerated sections of New Zealand supermarkets.  Breakfast consisted of a roll that was rock hard and tasted of plastic, leathery potatoes and watery eggs.

With the new addition of the DirectTv service, United now forces you to watch hours of Lincoln commercials on domestic flights, unless you pay $7.99 (for flights over 2 hours) to access the range of “quality programming” available from DirectTV. You cannot access any flight information or other programming from the screen located approximately 8 inches from your face.  Nor can you turn it off, until after the plane has reached its cruising altitude and then, you may only do so by pressing the brightness “down” button several times until eventually the screen goes dark.  Not exactly intuitive.  United is essentially forcing people to be bombarded by advertising on a flight they have already spent hundreds ($2,200 in my case) on.  I found that irritating beyond end.

Have you ever seen a United flight attendant smile?  I don’t think so.  All they can do is growl in your direction and throw soft drinks at you.

If only O’Hare wasn’t the airport closest to my mum’s house, I could swear off United forever.

I really hope they realise how awful their service is make some changes.  It makes me feel inhuman to fly United.

However I did get to see Chichen Itza, and go to a beautiful wedding.

Autumn in New Zealand’s South Island

After living in Wellington for over a year, I had left this town exactly 3 times – once to go back to North America, once to go to Auckland for 2 days, and once to go to Paraparaumu for an afternoon (a town about 1 hour away by train).  I also went to my supervisor’s house in the Hutt valley once or twice, but I wouldn’t exactly say that’s getting out of town (though the Hutt river and views of Wellington Harbour from Petone are quite lovely).

So, when my mom decided to come visit, and I decided to officially take a post-proposal holiday, I didn’t actually consult her before planning our foray into New Zealand’s South Island.  I spoke to a number of kiwis for advice on where to travel in New Zealand, and independently they all unanimously suggested 3 places – the South Island’s West Coast, Central Otago/Arrowtown, and Fjordland.  Such consensus would be unlikely if asking an American “What are the best places to visit in the USA?”.  So, I planned a week of ferries, buses, boats and planes, and we did a full-circle tour of the lovely and wild South Island the 2nd week in May.

May is the perfect time to visit the South Island of New Zealand.  The majestic and magnificent Southern Alps boasted a fresh sprinkling of the season’s first snow.  The tourist hoards of high season (December – April) had vanished, and the weather was mild and surprisingly dry.  This is New Zealand, not new England, and the native flora is generally evergreen, so don’t expect fulgent autumnal colours.   In fact, if you do see yellow and red leaves falling from a tree (like the poplars lining the hills around Arrowtown), you can bet they are an introduced species.  However, the South Pacific climate has produced some extremely unique ecosystems and stunning scenery.  This country is the size of the UK, but has 1/10th the population.  That means there are lots of wide open, rugged, wild places.  And lots of sheep.

The first day we left Wellington at some ungodly hour and were waiting for the number 11 bus in Newtown before the sun was even properly up.  We got off the bus at the railway station, and walked over to the BlueBridge ferry terminal, where we boarded a gigantic vessel that had formerly carried passengers around the islands of Denmark or Finland.  The boat still bore signs in a language that used the “Ø” character.

The ferry that crosses the Cook Strait from Wellington to Picton takes about 3 hours.  The Cook Strait is known for its rough seas and wild weather.  On the day we took it, it was cold, and raining, but according to a fellow passenger who regularly took the ferry, it was “a very calm crossing”.  We encountered 3 meter swells which made me and mum a little queasy, but no seasickness!  However, the BlueBridge staff do provide seasickness bags in case you make the crossing on a particularly rough day.  Warning – never ever go out drinking the night before you are going to take the ferry.  This is not the kind of trip you want to make hungover.

Here are some pictures mom & I took on the ferry:

The brave antarctic explorer

The trip takes so long, even though the distance is not great, because the ferry has to navigate the Marlborough Sounds on the North end of the South Island.

This is a beautiful area, parts of which make up the Abel Tasman national park, and from what I hear, also very well worth visiting.

After arriving in Picton, we hopped on a bus to Nelson, about 2 hours away.

The sun shines briefly in Nelson

Nelson is a cute town and we would have liked to have stayed longer than one night, but unfortunately the bus schedules were against us, so after one evening in Nelson, we boarded a bus to Franz Josef Glacier.

This bus took us all along the West Coast of the South Island, and it is truly wild and beautiful.  The waves from the Southern Ocean pound against the rocky beaches and miles go by without a sign of civilization.  Rainforest covered mountains on one side meet the wild ocean on the other side, in one of the rainiest places in the world.  The area around Franz Josef gets 5 meters or rain a year, as clouds collect moisture over the ocean, are blown East, and hit the Southern Alps, releasing their rain on the coastal forests.

Our bus stopped at Pancake Rocks and gave us some time to take pictures in the rain.

After the stop we continued on to Franz Josef village, arriving just before sunset, and checked into the YHA before heading out for a romantic Mother’s day dinner.   The food was unimpressive and overpriced, but the company was excellent.

The following morning was rainy and wet, but the sun came out for a brief second and we decided to take the next shuttle to the face of the glacier while the weather looked promising.  Upon arriving at the glacier car park, it started pouring rain again, but, about 100 meters into our walk, the sun actually came out, and a sparkling blue sky appeared over the glacier.

This is before the sun properly cleared away the fog around the glacier.

I could write an entire post about glacier moraines and how the nevé forms blue ice… but I won’t.  I’ll just say the Franz Josef glacier is pretty spectacular, and one of the few places in the world you can get up close to a glacier and even go tramping around on it (if you can afford it!).

About 1 hour later, it promptly started raining again.

We spent another night in Franz Josef, and visited the glacier hot pools, which were very nice, though pretty expensive.  I splurged for it as I felt the lady who gave birth to me 31 years ago deserved a Mother’s day treat.

We headed to Queenstown from Franz Josef the following day.

This route took us through the Haast pass, which was also lovely.  There were beautiful mountains on every side, pristine kettle lakes (formed by glaciers) every few miles, and lots of cute little lambs and cows frolicking around. The road into Queenstown is winding and slow, but presents spectacular views.

We arrived just in time to stop at the Salvation Army and do a bit of browsing before we headed to our hostel by the lake to relax and prepare some kind of meal.  The following morning we were up at 6 to meet the bus that would take us to Milford Sound, leaving town at 6:45 am in complete darkness.

We pulled out of the Queenstown just as the sun was rising over the Remarkables, turning the clouds into golden strawberry cotton candy!

The bus passed through Te Anau and stopped at Mirror Lake, before arriving at Milford Sound.  We had a 90 minute cruise on the sound, before heading back to Queenstown and finally arriving at around 7 pm, a very long day.

However, well worth it, as the sound was lovely, and we got to see some cute little seals!

Milford Sound

seals amongst the rocksSo, after an exhausting 13 hour day trip to Milford Sound, we arrived back in Queenstown under the cover of darkness, and promptly went to sleep.  We may have eaten something beforehand but I can’t remember where or what.

The following day was literally our first “take it easy” day since the start of the trip – no early morning start, no buses to catch.  But, I didn’t get much of a lie-in as mom woke me up at 7 am demanding coffee and breakfast.  I tried to make some oatmeal, but due to the ambiguity of the dials on the stove, ended up burning it so badly I think I ruined the backpacker’s pot (Sorry!)  I did try to clean it, but it was no use.  I left it on the bench to “soak”, but when I came back a few hours later it had mysteriously disappeared.  Anyway, my second batch of oatmeal with dried apricots and a bit of milk & sugar turned out lovely and we relaxed in front of the backpacker’s giant window looking out over Lake Wakatipu.  Then we headed out to visit the Queenstown Salvation Army, in the midst of a 1/2 off sale.  I thought I took a long time in 2nd hand shops, judging by Ticker’s complaints, but whoa, my mom really takes the cake.  Approximately 4 hours after entering the tiny shop we finally left, mom having scored a number of really fantastic Merino jerseys, and me with a nice black Merino turtle-neck that only strangles me slightly.

After our shopping trip we rode the gondola up to the top of a mountain beside Queenstown.  It was spectacularly sunny and beautiful.

By then, we had had enough of Queenstown’s “party!” atmosphere and the onslaught of bungie jumping/hang gliding/jet boating/other extreme sport advertising, as I think most of the blog audience knows how I feel about extreme sports.  We decided, upon excellent advice, to head to Arrowtown for the remainer or our trip.

Arrowtown is only a 30 minute bus ride from Queenstown but feels like a million miles away.  It’s quiet and cute, in a middle of lovely hills planted with poplars turning yellow and gold in the autumnal air, with the Arrow River running alongside the 2 street downtown.

It’s full of amazing restaurants & bars, an awesome movie theatre, and a wonderful museum of the Lakes district.  I highly recommend skipping Queenstown entirely and spending your holiday in Arrowton.  There is a very reasonable priced backpackers right in the centre of town with a great kitchen and homey atmosphere.  This was by far my mom’s favourite place we visited and stayed; possibly mine as well.

During those 2 days we panned for gold in the Arrow River (but didn’t strike it rich unfortunately), went on a few lovely walks, visiting the museum, and discovered Provisions – the most delicious sticky buns I have ever tasted, mushrooms on toast, and eggs benedict.  DAMN!  Their food is good.

After our delightful two days in Arrowtown we got on a bus to the Queenstown airport, and in a plane that took us to Christchurch and then Wellington, and safely home.  Mom had 2 more days in Wellington and then flew back to Chicago and the springtime.  I miss her already, but know she’ll be back soon…

I took over 700 photos during the trip, but have selected about 200 that I posted on Picasa.

Tham Kong Lo / Kong Lor Cave in Khammuan Province, Lao PDR

Last Thursday I realized I would have a 4 day weekend, so I decided to take a trip and see some other parts of Laos besides Vientiane.

On Saturay after I finished working, I took a bus to the Southern Bus Station, and then got on another bus going to Thakeak, about 6 hours south of Vientiane, on the Mekong river.  I arrived around 10 pm, and took a tuk-tuk to the guest house where I had made a reservation.  I hadn’t eaten dinner, so I went in search of some noodle soup.  It was about 11 pm, but the entire city was completely silent.  I saw some guys sitting around a table at a beershop and I said “Do you have food?”, and they said “Eat beer!” and tried to offer me a glass.  I said thanks and kept walking.  I came across a group of girls sitting on front of a house.   “Where can you get food around here?” I asked in Lao.  They discussed between themselves.  “Ok, I’ll show you.” one said, and then got on her motorbike.  I said “Somewhere within walking distance?”.  Again they consulted between themselves.  “No.  Come on, let’s go!” she said.  I said “Ok.” and got on the bike.  She drove me about 5 minutes away to the only shop in town still serving food.  I got a bowl of noodle soup and we had a halting conversation in my shitty Lao.  I discovered that she was 20 years old, and studying in the environmental science department at Dong Dok, and was home on holiday.  I tried to offer to buy her some soup but she said she had eaten already.  After I finished the soup she took me back to my guest house, and again I thanked her, and tried to give her some money for driving me around town, but she wouldn’t accept it.  It was a very lovely evening and it felt good to be on my own in an unfamiliar place and able to get by with my knowledge of Lao, in a situation where I’d put myself somewhere between tourist and local.

I woke up really early the next morning and some very tan guy in the bed next to mine was doing pilates.  I was so totally bewildered and confused about where I was for a few moments I had no idea what was happening.  Then I fell back asleep and when I woke up again, everyone was gone except me, even though it was only 8 am.  I went for a walk into town, and tried to stop at the tourist information centre to book a 2-day trek into the Phu Hin Boun National Protected Area, but after walking 20 minutes, I arrived at the centre to find it closed.  Not wanting to spend another day in not very interesting Thakeak, I decided to get back on a bus, go north about 1 hour to Vieng Kham, get off the bus, take another bus to Ban Na Hin (another hour west of Vieng Kham) and then the following day, go to Tham Kong Lo.

Tham Kong Lo is a cave (Tham) about 8 kms long with a river running through it, underground.  I had heard a lot about Tham Kong Lo from other people who had been there, all of whom told me how amazing it was.  I also knew that a 2-day trek from Thaekak would cost me about $100, so I ended up saving myself some money and getting to meet a lot of interesting people along the way, including randomly running into a guy I know from Vientiane on the bus to Vieng Kham.

Ban Na Hin is stunningly beautiful, completely quiet and peaceful, and full of lovely, friendly people.

lovely ban na hin, surrounded by mountains
lovely ban na hin, surrounded by mountains

I felt like I was a million miles away from the motorbikes and noise of Vientiane. Children even grown on trees there!

The next morning I went to the market to catch a bus to Kong Lor Cave, a 8 km underground river that goes through a mountain.  The bus was supposed to leave at 8, but didn’t go anywhere until 10.  Along the way we picked up a few more “falang” passengers, and eventually arrived at the boat dock around 11:30 am, and for about $12, hired a boat for 3 people to take us into the cave and then back to the bus.  We got into the boat, and took off down the river.  The bright sunshine and birdsong quickly became total darkness.  I was completely terrified.

It was unbelievable.

It was like something straight out of Harry Potter and I expected some evil zombies to come up out of the river at any moment, but some how I made it through and then back out alive.

It was really amazing and I highly recommend going, though be warned – it’s really quite far off the beaten path, and you need to be patient, flexible, and open-minded to enjoy such a trip!  Like anything in Laos… bor pen nyang!

Here’s a website about the cave:

the mouth of kong lor cave
the mouth of kong lor cave

south east asia on a shoestring


Well, I am back in Vientiane after a whirlwind trip.  It feels like I haven’t slept in years.

Quickly, this was my itinerary:

Ho Chi Minh City to My Tho, Vietnam, by AUNILO bus

My Tho to Chau Doc Vietnam by Vietnamese van, 7 hours of HELL, including a ferry crossing of the Mekong and going through Sadec, formerly the hometown of Margeurite Duras.

Chau Doc to Phnom Penh Cambodia by Boat

Phnom Penh to Siem Reap by bus

Angkor Wat by Bicycle and tuk-tuk

Siem Reap to Vientiane, Laos, by airplane.

Then I cam back friday, taught a class, went to a wedding, and have been going non-stop since.  Back to work today!


More pictures coming soon!

more about luang prabang

Some years ago the entire town of Luang Prabang was declared  a“UNESCO World Heritage site”.  I’m not really sure why this is the case.  There are lots of wats, and some interesting colonial architecture, but I’m not sure about it’s status as a world heritage site.  Everywhere you go in the city there are “no smoking” signs that say “Smoke Free World Heritage”.  I wish I had been able to take a picture of one but my camera wasn’t working.

However, I recently read an article in the Vientiane Times saying that UNESCO had sent a committee to Luang Prabang in the past month to evaluate it’s status as a “World Heritage” site, because apparently since it was granted this status about 10 years ago, tourism has grown incredibly, and the city has begun growing also at a fast pace.  A lot of new developments, mostly hotels and guesthouses and other tourist infrastructre, has been built or is being planned.  UNESCO basically said that all that needs to stop or they will un-declare Luang Prabang a world heritage site.  They also mentioned that several wetland areas were about to be developed into hotels or something, and one of the provisions of UNESCO re-granting world heritage status was that the wetlands had to be restored and the city had to work towards conserving the historical aspects of the city.

Here is the full text of the article from the Vientiane Times (re-produced without permission!!  shhh! ):
The government will crackdown on violations of UNESCO rules to ensure Luang Prabang does not lose its status as a world heritage listed city.

Past violations related to construction of new buildings had put the city’s status at risk, Standing Deputy Prime Minister Somsavat Lengsavad told the National Assembly on Friday.

The only solution was to strictly enforce UNESCO rules from now on, he said.

“If we don’t solve the problem, Luang Prabang will be out of the list of world heritage sites,” Mr Somsavat said.

Last year UNESCO requested the government report on how Luang Prabang has changed since being listed as a world heritage site in 1995. UNESCO officials also inspected the city and asked the government to respond on 15 points.

One of these relates to road construction approved by the Department of Public Works and Transport without agreement from UNESCO, when UNESCO should have made the final decision, he said.

Mr Somsavat said some people knowingly constructed new buildings which breached UNESCO rules, while others sold their houses to entrepreneurs and moved away.

One troubling sign of this development was a reducing number people giving alms to monks in the morning, he said. Not only does this indicate a move away from tradition, the decline could also negatively impact tourism, because this tradition is one of Luang Prabang’s major drawcards.

“World heritage is still new for us and our biggest challenge is making local people understand the need to preserve cultural heritage and how this impacts on development,” Mr Somsavat said.

“Some people ask why we should preserve heritage if it means we cannot develop. But I don’t think heritage preservation delays our development. On the contrary it encourages development.”

UNESCO officials have asked the government to make an updated map of the city and encourage cooperation between UNESCO and the Ministry of Public Works and Transport.

The Standing Deputy PM said coordination must be improved between relevant sectors, and local people needed to be educated about the importance of Luang Prabang’s world heritage status.

Luang Prabang’s popularity as a tourist destination has increased since the city was listed as a world heritage site in 1995.

Mr Somsavat said the influx of visitors helped local people generate more income and improve their living standards.

“Now we have two world heritage listed sites: Luang Prabang and Vat Phou Champassak in Champassak province. But we won’t propose any more sites to UNESCO until we improve the existing ones,” he said.

“We will assess what we have done and try to address challenges. We have many sites to be proposed to UNESCO, but we want to study them carefully first.”

By Somsack Pongkhao

ending radio silence

I just got back from a 4 days trip to Luang Prabang, and I have lots of news!

Firstly, I went to Luang Prabang to celebrate my 29th birthday.  Just thinking about it makes me feel old but I had a lovely time in the former royal capital.  I took a bus Saturday morning from Vientiane, and the route took us through the mountains and jungles of central Laos for 12 hours, around twisty curving narrow roads and through tiny villages.  Despite being extremely remote, I actually saw a full-sized drum kit through the doorway of one of these wooden shacks perched on the top of a mountain somewhere between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang.

My impression of Luang Prabang: the contemporary city, is that it exists solely as a tourist destination.  It is now “Low season”, yet the town was absolutely crawling with tourists.  The overwhelming majority of them were dirty, smelly, loud, obnoxious, drunk young europeans and americans.

Maybe I’m just getting old, and jaded, but I felt extremely disdainful of all the half naked tourists walking around Luang Prabang.  Visiting there made me really remember why I was never all that interested in visiting Asia in the first place – I find the whole “Backpacking around South East Asia” thing to be just a big cliché, involving little more than drunkenness and sleazyness in most cases.  I’ll admit that I did meet a few nice people who were doing everything in their power not to perpetuate that stereotype of the dirty, smelly, drunk, ignorant, culturally insensitive tourist, and I really like those people.  But I’m still really worried about the overall impression Lao people must have of all these tourists, and therefore their respective countries, considering some of the behaviour I witnessed.

Sunday was my birthday. Thanks for all the kind birthday greetings from everybody!

This day I climbed to the top of Phu Si, gazed out over the Mekong river valley in the rain, and discovered that my camera was not working.  I spent the rest of the day at the spa, and then ate a huge and delicious and extremely expensive dinner.  The family sitting next to me was also celebrating their son’s 8th birthday, so then they even let me share their chocolate mousse cake with them!

While in Luang Prabang I also visited a few Wats and took a boat to some caves.  It was mostly rainy the whole time I was there.  The Mekong kept rising higher and higher each day.  On Tuesday I participated in a cooking class at Tamarind Cafe, which I would highly highly recommend.  Our group included two really funny guys from Britain, a young British lady doctor who had been traveling around India for the past thee months, and a couple from Philly.  We learned to make Mok Pa, fished steamed in banana leaves; Buffalo Bile Laap (yum!); Luang prabang stew; lemongrass stuffed with chicken; sticky rice; jeow; and probably some other stuff I am forgetting.  It was really fun. I made plans to spend some time with the British folks when the pass back through Vientiane.

I took the night bus back, 12 hours which where mostly horrific, and sleep was nearly impossible.  I woke up from a strange dream about being in a bicycle shop where there were millions and millions of bicycles arranged by colour; like a rainbow of bicycles; to find I was back in Vientiane.  And it was still raining.

Other than that, Luang Prabang was quite lovely.  It certainly has a lot more charm and is much more attractive than Vientiane.  However I don’t think I would want to live there.  It’s very tiny and bursting with 19 year olds in thai pants and beerlao wife-beaters.

However, before I left for my jaunt up to Luang Prabang, the folks at the library threw a little birthday party for me.

We had lunch on the 2nd floor, and the ladies brought out a huge feast, including Lao Lao and Laap and sticky rice ball salad, and some of my other favorites.  I baked a cake, and everybody said it was “sep lae”, which means “very delicious”.

most of the library staff, and me!
most of the library staff, and me!

To the left of me is Mr. Chansy, the library director.  In bright orange is Sisavanh, one of my best pals.  Mrs. Bounsalome is on the very right, poking her head out.  She is my Lao teacher.  Next to me on the right is Mr. Vay, the only person at the library around my age.  He speaks almost flawless English and is going to Australia next year to study Information Science.

ucl staff singing happy birthday
ucl staff singing happy birthday

They all sang me happy birthday in english and then I blew out some imaginary candles.

me and my library ladies
me and my library ladies

It was a lovely lovely day.  I don’t know who that tall guy is though.

The big news of the moment is that the Mekong is on the verge of flooding the entire Vientiane area!  The library has created some kind emergency-action plan that involved shovels and sandbags and I also volunteered to help if needed.  If the river continues to rise… it will be bad news.  My house is about 200m from the Mekong so I will probably be in a lot of trouble if there is a massive flood.