Travel


Anybody flying to Rio de Janeiro in February must be either ill-advised or coming for Carnival. I’m in the latter category, but when I step from the plane into a 99-degree blast furnace — and realize it’s only 7:30 in the morning — I figure I probably qualify for the former group as well.

My second revelation comes during the 30-minute bus ride into town when I discover Rio isn’t all the scenic jewel it’s cracked up to be. The route winds through an urban squalor of rancid-smelling mills, smoke-belching warehouses, and dreary dockyards. Everywhere steep hills and volcanic bluffs jut abruptly from the earth, with grimy streets and alleys snaking into their desolate contours. The roads, I’m told, lead to samba country.

As our tourist bus approaches the heart of downtown, I catch a glimpse of Mount Corcovado — the most celebrated hunchback this side of Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame — and the majestic Christ the Redeemer that crowns it. From its lofty position 2,300 feet above Rio, the 125-foot-high statue is visible from anywhere in the city.

Before I can savor the effect, however, Rio’s other famous landmark, Sugarloaf, pops into view. The football-shaped hulk looms peacefully above the myriad pleasure boats anchored at its feet in Botafogo Bay, and a tiny aerial cable car inches across the sky toward its summit.

There’s one more spectacle to come. Suddenly we’re whisked into a tunnel decorated inside and out with colorful Carnival streamers, then shoot out into a hedonistic panorama that evokes a gasp from the passengers — Copacabana Beach.

A vast carpet of gold powder sweeps across my view like a LeRoy Neiman brushstroke, then disappears into a hazy horizon. Great hotel columns of granite, steel, and glass pierce the sand and wall off the oasis from the rest of the city. Brown bodies pepper the sandscape, kept at bay by monstrous waves that pound the shore sensuously.

At 8 a.m., Copacabana is hustling. It may be a beach community, but it’s far from laid back. Serious-looking joggers sweat by, definitely not “Have a nice day” types. Beach vendors selling ice-cold drinks trudge through the hot sand, already weary from their early-morning routes (the first of Rio’s beachgoers arrive at dawn). Wiry Adonises put on a Muscle Beach-style show for the tourists with weights, bars, and rings, and a bevy of shapely tanga-stringed young women skip across the street, provoking a chorus of horns and whistles from passing cars.

It’s just another day in Rio, where having fun and looking good is serious business.

Our passenger dropoffs begin with the Meridien, a skyscrapter of glass and marble that looks more like it belongs in Manhattan. Next is the Rio Palace, complete with its own shopping center. Then comes the Nacional, a cylinder of glass at the far end of Barra de Tijuca that was the first major hotel built outside Copacabana’s tourist mecca. Next is the Ouro Verde, a tranquil Swiss-run hostelry that many consider one of the world’s finest small hotels. And for those who prefer a historical landmark — one that’s been de rigueur for the international social set since the ’20s — there’s the grand Copacabana Palace.

I’ve opted for the modest Excelsior next door to the Palace because it’s a bargain. Upon arrival, though, I see why it’s so inexpensive. The lobby is small and chaotic, the desk clerks are forever dim and confused, and my promised “ocean view” is of the hotel next door. (Actually, to be fair, I can see the ocean if I lean out far enough from my balcony.)

Following check-in and a quick change, I’m ready for the beach. “Get a tan fast so you don’t stand out,” advised my travel agent. I don’t mind exposing my paleness; what I hate is exposing so much of it. In Rio, American droopy swim trunks are verboten. Here the rule is tangas (micro-string bikinis) for women and Speedos for men.

As I dart swiftly across the street (partly due to modesty, partly due to the fear of being run over by overzealous cabbies), I head for the sand and join a legion of similarly clad beachgoers, none of whom seem nearly as self-conscious as I.

The celebrated flesh parade on Rio’s Copacabana and Ipanema beaches isn’t hype. Body talk is the only language spoken; look good and show it off are the only rules. So be forewarned: If you’re offended by such exhibitionism, stay clear of these two R-rated strands.

But don’t worry. Rio boasts more beaches than you could visit in a month, and others are more like home (dress-wise). The previously mentioned praia at Botafogo Bay, plus the neighboring Flamengo, back up to a gorgeous emerald-green park — perfect for a pre-Carnival picnic. Past Ipanema are the outlying South Zone beaches, well blessed with gentle breezes blowing in from the Tijuca Forest. At one of them, Pepino, you’re sure to spot colorful “birdmen” hang-gliding from majestic Gávea Rock above it. Farther on is the 11-mile stretch of Barra de Tijuca, which resembles California’s elite Malibu coastline. Finally, if you’re a stargazer, you can mingle among the celebrities and super-rich at the St. Tropez-like resorts of Cabo Frio and Búzios two hours away by car.

Getting around Rio is quick and easy. Taxis are cheap (if you make sure the driver uses a meter) and plentiful, and most everything worth seeing is close to everything else. Avoid the buses, however; their routes are difficult to fathom and are a favorite milieu for pickpockets.

After a two-hour bake on the sand, I cool off at a sidewalk cafe with a caipirinha, the potent elixir made from cachaça (sugar-cane liquor), green lemon, and sugar. It tastes like sweetened tequila and goes down like lighter fluid — the perfect cure for jet lag. As I relax under my table’s umbrella shade, I surrender to a warm Atlantic breeze and listen to the drumbeat of a distant samba. In Rio, especially close to Carnival, the samba is heard everywhere, a constant reminder of the celebration to come.

An immense potbelly with a man attached thrusts a hairy arm at me; on it perch two baby monkeys the size of tennis balls. They’re for sale, but the man makes no sales pitch; his creatures’ watery eyes do that for him. When I express only mild curiosity, he moves to the next table.

He’s followed almost immediately by a mini-parade of characters that’s almost as bizarre as the real parade that climaxes Carnival week: a legless beggar on a pushcart, a vendor selling fluorescent yo-yos, a transvestite pushing another in a baby carriage, three ladies of the evening working the day shift, and a boy who tosses a handful of peanuts on each table, then disappears.

“They’re samples,” says a voice beside me. “You don’t have to buy.”

I turn to see a middle-aged man at the next table. Sporting a polo shirt, white Bermudas, and a trace of sunburn on his nose, he looks American. But his accent confirms he’s Brazilian. When I offer him some peanuts, he waves them off. “Nao obrigado, they’re old,” he says. “He’ll come back with fresh ones. Those you buy.”

His name is Pasqual and he’s up from São Paulo for the big parade. “You’re going, aren’t you?” he asks hesitantly, fearful I may have overlooked it. I assure him I am.

He’s a loan officer for Citibank, and he chuckles when he learns I’m from Los Angeles. “Here it is the same, no? The sun, the beach…the women.” Then he frowns and shakes his head. “I work in São Paulo — all work, no play.”

Sensing a little jealousy, I ask if there’s much love lost between Rio and São Paulo. He grins slyly. “No more than between L.A. and New York, no?”

Our conversation is interrupted by shrill whistles and a deep rumble of drums. Like an enormous Chinese dragon, a column of T-shirted and bikinied revelers sways around the corner, waving banners and dancing to the same incessant beat I’ve been hearing all day.

“Samba school,” Pasqual shrugs matter-of-factly. “Small one.”

Small one? It fills the street and stretches as far as I can see. Café patrons break out in song, hands pound on tabletops, bystanders stand up and dance. Traffic stops to let the promenade cross the narrow intersection (it’s the only thing traffic stops for in Rio). The procession, gaining new recruits, heads for the beach.

“Samba fever has begun,” Pasqual nods. “It is nearly time.”

For first-time visitors to Rio, Carnival — the annual four-day frolic that precedes Lent — may appear to be staged for tourists and TV cameras. But its real audience, and its participants, come from high atop the humpbacked peaks where the city’s poor, its heart and soul, reside in vast clapboard eyesores called favelas — matchstick shantytowns that harbor a virtual no-man’s-land of poverty, crime, and passion. This is where the samba was born. Where Carnival began. Where Rio carved its name.

By evening I’m ravenous. Changing into a sport shirt and cotton slacks (standard Rio supper attire for men; women wear light cotton dresses), I leave the hotel. In the street, small boys wearing Halloween masks and holding balloons on long strings chase girls through the teeming crowd, slamming the balloons on the pavement with loud pops. Outrageous transvestites, always a hit at Carnival, prance boldly down the alley showing off their fantasias, or costumes. Elderly American tourists in polyester slacks and Hawaiian shirts fill the Avenida Atlântica and take in the show — unaware that for many, they are the show.

I ask an English couple waiting for a tour bus where I can sample Brazil’s legendary beef. Mariu’s they both exclaim, surprised I don’t already know. They’re on their way to the “Rio By Night” tour (one guidebook says it’s “so bad you’ll leave early”). I head for dinner hoping their choice of restaurants is better.

I’m fortunate. They know their beef. Mariu’s, a two-story establishment overlooking the beach, is one of Rio’s famous barbecue steakhouses called churrascarias that are inexpensive and as prevalent as McDonald’s. But there the similarity ends.

Crisp-coated waiters with enormous skewers glide among the tables continuously slicing an endless array of charcoal-broiled meats: filet mignon, pork, sausage, chicken, roast beef, ribs, lamb, etc. onto your plate. Along with all that you get hors d’ouvres, rolls, vegetables, rice topped with spicy tomatoes and onions, and cold chopp, Brazil’s excellent draft beer.

There’s more to Rio dining than barbecue, of course. The city also boasts five-star international restaurants featuring everything from French to Russian to Vietnamese to Italian cuisines. Brazilian fare, however, is the main event. One specialty on everyone’s list should be feijoada, the traditional soup of black beans, jerked meats, sausages, farofa with cracklings, sliced oranges, and kale. Beware, though: After indulging, don’t plan to do anything else the rest of the day because it induces a blissful stupor that lasts for hours.

All these superb eateries notwithstanding, my favorites are Avenida Atlântic’s sidewalk cafés. A sudden squall one day sends me scurrying inside one for cover and, having nothing else to do, I ask for a menu. It features one of the best selections of pizzas I’ve ever seen. Not only are the pizza and accompanying Brazilian wine delicious but the peach melba with raspberry sauce draws me back four more times.

Arriving this close to the Carnival parade is like going to London during Wimbledon week: Nothing else is on anyone’s mind or lips. Understand, the parade is no mere annual march down a boulevard; it’s the Super Bowl, the World Series, and the World Cup rolled into one — with Fellini as the commissioner. The drawback, I’d been told, is that everything stops during this period — shops, services, the works. Not true. In fact, I use the time to take in the city’s other renowned attractions.

I take the cog railway to the top of Corcovado (once during the day for the view; once at sunset for the lights). If you’re a camera buff, you’ll be hardpressed to find a more spectacular vista anywhere in the world. I haggle for bargains along Ipanema’s sidewalk arts-and-crafts fair (every Sunday). Brazil’s leather goods are superb, and good wallets can be had for a steal. Of course, the nation that produces 65 percent of the world’s colored gemstones offers myriad bargains in that area. I find a carving of a toucan for $20. One shopping caveat: locally made clothing features magnificent handiwork, but the materials used to put them together are often inferior.

I shop for a ball costume downtown. For many, these lavish parties are the only attraction during Carnival week, with tickets ranging from $100 and up. But after talking to a few tourists who’ve been to one, I decide to pass. The idea of being squeezed like a sardine all night in a giant sauna-like warehouse isn’t too appealing. Too bad no soccer games are on tap this week. At Maracaña, the world’s largest stadium (180,000 capacity), the notoriously rabid fans have to be separated from the players by a nine-foot moat.

I ferry to lovely Paquetá Island thirty minutes away, rent a bike, and sample some of the island’s warm-water coves. At dusk I hop a horse-drawn surrey and clip-clop along the cobblestones. Later, back in Rio, I splurge for the Plataforma I showgirl nightclub. You won’t leave early from this one, I guarantee you.

I stroll through Old Rio downtown, admiring its baroque and belle époque architecture, its many churches and museums. I hire a car and follow the winding road through the Tijuca rainforest, stopping to chase turquoise butterflies the size of small birds. I take a hike and watch sloths hanging from trees and a secret macumba voodoo-like ceremony at the foot of a waterfall.

But all this is just a prelude to the three-day binge of parades that start Carnival off with a bang each year — and make any other procession you’ve witnessed look like a kazoo band.

Actually, there are three official parades during Carnival. The first highlights the smaller, Class 1-B samba schools (the “schools” are actually social clubs) and isn’t all that great. Either of the final two parades, however, is a must. Each pits eight giant Class 1-A schools against each other in a “can you top this” marathon that runs all day and night. After 48 hours of this, an overall champion emerges. Schools are judged in nine categories: theme, song, floats, choreography, band, etc.

Viewing sites range from unreserved seats on hot concrete (sit where you can and stay put or lose your place) costing less than $100 to posh VIP lounges that can set you back several thousand. (Don’t buy your tickets back home before your trip; there are plenty of outlets in Rio whose prices are much lower than a U.S. travel agent’s.)

At 6 p.m. on the final day, I buy the cheapest ticket available and head for the mammoth Sambadrome downtown. I arrive 90 minutes before the first school is to start and immediately wish I’d come sooner. It’s party time! Long lines wait to get in but nobody seems to mind. Music is playing, people are dancing, and everyone’s wearing the colors or insignia of their favorite school.

No great festival begins without a traditional prelude to rev up the participants and spectators. The Indy 500’s “Gentlemen, start your engines!” is like a shot of 100-proof adrenaline. The playing of “My Old Kentucky Home” induces as many goosebumps as the Kentucky Derby that follows it. And, of course, the whole world feels the electricity when the giant torch is ignited to open the Olympic Games.

Such a moment is when Carnival spectators spy the first samba school at the head of the runway, when the lead float is wheeled into position, when the waves of colorful dancers stand poised like lathered Thoroughbreds, and when the first boom of the drums sets them off. To paraphrase author Albert Goldman: It’s the one chance every participant has to grab the brass ring, to rise above his or her dreary world, and — by virtue of a fancy step, a gorgeous costume, or a fabulous body — to become Cinderella for one glorious night. “You have 45 minutes to cut your name in asphalt.”

A tunnel of floodlights illuminates the pavement. A riot of streamers, flags, and banners bearing all the schools’ colors line the grandstands. At the far end of the runway, a three-story castle is pushed into starting position. Parade marshals dart about like worker ants, exhorting everyone and ensuring each line is in order. A wave of green headdresses bobs behind the float followed by a field of yellow capes, a sea of pink feathers, a sweep of blue topcoats.

For one eerie instant the entire ensemble freezes in place. The crowd hushes. I blink and look around me. Am I imagining this surreal moment? Then just as abruptly, a toe-tapping samba crackles from a hundred loudspeakers, the rainbow horizon shudders to life, and the audience rises as one. The contest has begun.

Fifteen hours later, I’m still in my seat. Only five of the eight schools have passed me. I’ve watched the sun set and rise. My eyes feel like burst glass, my back’s a gnarled knot, my head’s the inside of a drum. But there’s something about Carnival that makes you want to endure the ordeal along with the exhausted and sweat-soaked participants.

The next school, São Clemente, is upon me. The floats that depict its theme (the difficulty of owning a home in Brazil) look like a Hollywood set designer’s dream: gigantic Disneyesque turtles, winking snails, and robotic crabs (that carry their homes with them) scuttle toward us accompanied by dancing fairies and marsh maidens. Courtesans wave from iron-lacework-balconied brothels, inmates frolic around prison tower maypoles, raggedy bums samba with garbage cans, and gypsies dance alone (they have no homes). Then come Cavemen and Indians and Sailors and Conquistadors and Richfolk. And Caves and Treehouses and Bars and Ships and Wedding Cakes. My head is exploding. Finally, a solitary old man enters his final home, a huge casket, followed by a depiction of heaven and hell that would put most Las Vegas revues to shame.

It’s hard to notice individuals, the mass is so overwhelming, but one lone female dancer exemplifies what Carnival is all about. Drenched with sweat and wearing nothing but a sequined G-string, she shimmies past in a sort of drunken stumble, nearly delirious from heat and fatigue, her face a glistening testament to gutty perseverance. A TV cameraman beckons her over. Exhausted, she serves away, wanting no more demanding lenses. Then, as if remembering where she is and what she’s there to do, she veers back toward him, stops, and gives one last bump-and-grind. Pandemonium! A new heroine has been consecrated.

Unfortunately, the commotion draws the attention of the school’s marshal who rushes over, pushes the dancer roughly back inline, and admonishes her for risking a point deduction. The crowd explodes with wrath, booing and cursing the man. This is Carnival! Who cares about awards if there’s no art, no glory, no passion!

Next is São Clemente’s grand finale, its bateria, the 300-man percussion band that’s the heartbeat of every samba school. Legends tell of drummers so swept away during their 45-minute stomp that afterward their hands and instruments are bloodstained.

I believe it. These jack-hammer drill teams are maestros of clatter, conductors of racket, virtuosos of LOUD. How loud? Like the heart of an enormous beast, the pounding, gyrating, palpitating ensemble pumps its way down the street — faintly at first, intensifying as the parade advances, and then overwhelming everything in its path.

As the clanking, scraping tin monster thumps past, the spectators jump and pound with it, surging from their seats in a frenzy of rapture, thrusting their arms upward and shouting the ultimate accolade: “Ja ganhou!” (“You’ve got it won!”) The band passes, the thunder recedes, and I collapse. Two more schools or no, I’m going to my hotel and sleep for a week. Besides, no other club could beat this one if it paraded on its hands.

I’m wrong. São Clemente, competing in the Class 1-A category for the first time, finishes well out of the money. I miss the winner, which followed. Next time, I’m staying to the end, no matter what.

Most professions, with the possible exception of selling aluminum siding, have their glamour niche. If you’re a doctor, it could be alternative medicine. If you’re a computer programmer, it’s games. And if you’re a writer, it’s a travel assignment.

But not every writer can master the travel genre. You have to have an eye for it. A good travel writer, like a professional photographer, finds stories in the details, in the shadows, in the mundane. Marcel Proust said it best: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” In this article, I will show you 10 ways to zoom in all of your senses so you’ll return from every trip brimming with travel-story ideas.

1. Foreigners say the darndest things.
Every journey will bring you in contact with a blizzard of waiters, taxi drivers, hotel clerks, shopkeepers, etc. Most of us ignore these individuals because they’re commonplace. Big mistake. Often, such people are the story.

While on a boat trip into the Mekong Delta in Vietnam a few years ago, our tour guide approached me during a quiet moment. I already knew what he was going to ask me (“Are you married?”) because my guidebook said that the very family-oriented Vietnamese always this question first.

Unfortunately, I was divorced, which to the Vietnamese is scandalous. “You’d be better off claiming your former spouse died,” the manual advised. So, rather than offend the man, I killed off my ex-wife. I was asked this question everywhere I went. By the end of the trip, I couldn’t wait return and tell my ex all the things I’d done to her.

But instead of dismissing these conversations, I wrote an amusing story about them, which became my most successful travel article ever. It appeared in the Sunday travel sections of The Washington Post, Newsday, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (with the first two waging a bidding contest for the rights to run it first) and was chosen as the lead piece in Not So Funny When It Happened: The Best of Travel Humor and Misadventure (Travelers’ Tales, 2000).

2. Trouble happens.
If you ever get into trouble while traveling (and who doesn’t?), don’t grumble about it. You just made a sale.

I was strolling down a tree-lined promenade in Havana a few years ago when I struck up a conversation with four kids playing soccer. A Cuban policeman, thinking we were talking politics, asked for my passport and visa. “They’re at my hotel,” I said. This was not the correct answer.

Within minutes, two squad cars arrived with a half-dozen more patrolmen. The kids and I were taken downtown to the infamous police headquarters where former dictator Fulgencio Batista used to greet visitors like us with fingernail clamps and testicle squeezers.

Although the thought crossed my mind that it wouldn’t take much for some prison guard having a really bad day to suddenly have a Batista flashback, I wasn’t scared. In fact, I was ecstatic. I was in trouble and had a story. The kids and I were released an hour later, and the instant I returned home, I asked the travel editor of The Washington Post if she’d be interested in my tale. Was she ever! She’d just put her annual Caribbean issue to bed, but because the story was so timely, she tore up the entire section to make room for it. So, you got troubles? Don’t get even; get a byline instead.

3. Custom-made stories.
Knowing local history can be priceless to a travel writer. The more regional color you can weave into your stories, the more editors will want them.

I once won a free trip to the Big Island of Hawaii. I planned to just relax, not write a travel story — until a golf partner made an offhand remark that changed my mind. The main hazards on the course were rocklike lava formations, which he said were the domain of Madam Pele, the island’s volcano goddess. “If Pele likes you, she’ll kick your ball back onto the fairway,” he said. “If she doesn’t, she’ll keep it.”

What bunk, I thought. But just to be safe, I bought an extra half-dozen golf balls. On the first tee, I joked that I hoped the goddess’s brother, the Brazilian soccer star, was doing well in retirement. Hey, she either had a sense of humor or she didn’t.

By the time I finally staggered off the first green, my partner had birdied, I had sextuple-bogeyed, and I had only one golf ball left in my bag. Madam Pele does not have a sense of humor.

The good news was, I had a story. “Golfing with Madam Pele” was sold to a sports and fitness website. Thank goodness its editor had a sense of humor.

4. Accidental discoveries.
Never underestimate the importance of happenstance. Taking the wrong fork in the road will always reward an alert travel writer.

On a trip to Bangkok, my travel partner and I signed up for the famous floating market tour. When we showed up for the popular tourist attraction, the dock was deserted except for a lone boatman. “You want to go on river…today?” he said, aghast. “This is first day of Songkran — Thai New Year!”

We looked at each other and shrugged. “Cool, no problem.” The boatman pleaded with us to reconsider, but we told him it was our only free day. Within minutes after shoving off, we discovered why the man had been so reluctant. During Songkran, the entire country turns into a perpetual water fight. So far the next two hours, a joyous mob of sadists bombarded our boat from the riverbanks with water balloons, fire hoses, and buckets. It was the most exciting calamity I have ever experienced — and a unique travel yarn that was sold to the Los Angeles Times for its annual special section devoted to travel disasters.

5. Journeys to the heart.
Editors and readers love stories that tug at their emotions. Life happens all around us, and it’s our job as journalists to find emotional moments and turn them into unforgettable stories.

The first time I visited Hong Kong, I took a ferry to nearby Lantau, a tranquil island of monasteries and walking trails. I had read somewhere that the sunsets from the hilltops facing the South China Sea were so spectacular that many people buried their loved ones there so their souls would face the view for all eternity.

As the ferry unloaded, everyone stepped around a seriously injured dog on the pier that appeared to be dying. I couldn’t get the poor thing out of my mind the rest of the day as I trekked across the island toward the fabled hills. I approached one summit just as the sun was setting and noticed something lying across the trail.

It was the dog.

Wheezing in tiny yelps of pain, it was gazing at the brilliant sunset. I was dumbstruck. How had it gotten there? How had it beaten me there? And most important, had it gone there because it wanted that inspiring view to be the last thing it saw, too? I’ve been noodling with this tale for years and haven’t gotten it right yet. But I know when I finally do, it’s gonna make people weep.

6. When in Wales.
After you’ve made a few sales, tourist boards may call you with enticing offers. But before you grab that free trip and run, make sure the story idea is right for you or you may find it difficult to sell when you get back.

Several years ago, the Wales Tourist Board invited me to attend a literary festival. I politely declined. “I’m a travel humor writer, not a reporter,” I told them. “But if you come up with something that might elicit some laughs, I’d be glad to go.”

They called back a week later. “OK, how’d you like to be a Welshman for a week — sing in a male-voice choir, spend a day in a coal mine, take a Welsh lesson, go bog snorkeling, herd sheep with a sheepdog, that sort of thing?”

The idea was so brilliant, I could not only see the article, I could see the book. The three-week adventure garnered my biggest sales to date: a $4,000 check from National Geographic Traveler (which changed format shortly afterward and never ran it) and after that a $3,000 check from Islands (whose editor left shortly afterward and never ran it either). I’m currently shopping for a third publication — and check.

7. Ordinary people.
Need I say it? Observing people when you travel is Rule No. 1. Watch how the locals cross the street, smoke a cigarette, order food, sell their wares. You never know when a gem will fall into your lap.

While taking a ferry across the Mekong River in Vietnam, I witnessed the most effective begging technique I have ever seen in my life — from a 7-year-old girl. With the tenacity of a pit bull, she withstood all attempts — physical and otherwise — from the tourists on the boat to get her to cease her incessant, monotoned, broken-record “You give  me money” demand.

That was enough for a story right there. But what made the incident especially noteworthy was that she met her match that day from an elderly Swiss woman who resisted with such herculean resolve that their 30-minute duel became a classic.

It’s too bad that no one else saw it. Everyone was minding their own business. I, on the other hand, was taking notes. Guess who’ll get the story?

8. Trading places.
Most travel writing is about places: cities, hotels, restaurants, clubs, etc. Publications constantly need new info on the hottest tapas bar in Hamburg, the sexiest spa in Cabo, the hippest shop in Buenos Aires. The best way is to ask locals and expats about their secret hideaways. The operative word is secret. You’re looking for places that aren’t touristy yet — but will be.

Years ago, when I was stationed in Tokyo in the Army, I was taken to an underground club called Dracula that only a few people knew about. It was like no other place I have ever seen. It was a combination restaurant/haunted house/fraternity party where literally every object in the place — walls, ceilings, tables, chairs, drinks, food, waiters — was a jack-in-the-box trap.

You didn’t go there to eat; you went there to lose your cookies. Unfortunately, I wasn’t a writer then, and the club no longer exists. So I lost out on that opportunity. But that’s the kind of place travel publications will pay dearly to discover for their readers — with your help, of course.

9. Beyond the predictable.
What do you do if nothing out of the ordinary happens? You try and try to find a story but just come up empty? Sometimes, despite using all the tips above, a trip will stymie you.

That happened to me on an African safari. Everything I saw was a cliche: lions sleeping, elephants walking, Masai warriors jumping. No editor wants a standard safari experience. Then I remembered something I’d told a fellow traveler on our first day. I’d said, “I hope something semi-dangerous happens to us.” She and the others in our van had replied politely, no offense, but we do not want something semi-dangerous to happen to us.

The phrase became the running joke for the rest of the trip because semi-dangerous things began happening to us at a fairly rapid clip after that. Elephants and a cape buffalo charged us, hyenas peered into our tents at night, a leopard attacked a baboon in the middle of our camp.

What ultimately sold my piece was our running joke, which I made the spine of my story. The resulting $1,000 sale to The Washington Post was entitled “Game Plan: He wanted a different kind of safari. He got it.”

10. The wrong place at the write time.
The joy of travel writing is that you get to work in exotic locales. And if you’re lucky, the setting and circumstances can turn a fabulous story into the stuff of legend.

The year: 1969. The place: the lobby of the Manila Hotel. A Filipino man introduces himself and asks if I’m a GI. Yes. I have a job for you. What kind of job? Meet me tomorrow night at Malacanang Palace (the official residence of President Ferdinand Marcos and Imelda Marcos).

The next night I show up at the mansion, am escorted to a dressing room, and am told to change into one of the mock blood-stained World War II uniforms hanging on a rack. I’m given a plastic rifle and led to a stage set up to look like the Battle of Bataan, complete with barbed wire, machine gun nests, sand, and coconut trees. Other GIs and Filipinos mill around, similarly dressed. A curtain separates us from a ballroom filled with hundreds of dignitaries.

The Filipino man reappears and carefully positions each of us (I’m instructed to stand and point my rifle toward the audience). We will be the backdrop during the playing of the national anthems of both countries. We are not to move. Moments before the program begins, a Secret Service agent comes backstage and checks each of our weapons to ensure we haven’t switched our plastic guns for the real thing.

As the opening notes of The Star-Spangled Banner are heard and the curtain opens, my knees buckle. It’s not because of the anthem but because my rifle is aimed at the forehead of the person being feted that evening: President Richard M. Nixon.

Now that’s a story. And no one’s ever going to have it but me. And it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t taken a shot at an adventure. So what happened to the story? I’m saving that for my memoir.

The Writer (June 2003)

From entrepreneurs looking for deals to veterans seeking closure to travelers discovering the next new paradise, everyone’s heading back to ‘Nam these days.

With its mountain tribes and misty bays, its pristine beaches, its verdant countryside, its rivers and deltas teeming with commerce and romance, and its cities and towns alive with culture and electricity, Vietnam is colonial France wrapped around an American flag atop an Asian dragon inside the pages of a Graham Greene novel.

Contributor John Wood served in the Army there during the Vietnam conflict. He returned recently to answer this question for us: How can a visitor best get the full Vietnam experience? “It’s not in a cramped bus, a rickety train, or a wheezing Russian plane,” he says. “Get around the way the locals do: by cyclo, boat, raft, bike, and foot.”

Cyclo Confessions
One of the best ways to mingle with the people — among the most gregarious in the world — is to hop on a cyclo (pronounced “seek-low”), a three-wheeled rickshaw attached to the front of a bicycle. Because the vehicles move slowly, you can observe the people and street life in much greater detail than if whizzing by in a taxi. In addition, many cyclo drivers are former South Vietnamese soldiers who speak English, so you’ll be deluged with questions about America.

Water Wanderings
To visit Hanoi and not take the obligatory side trip to explore the eighth wonder of the world, Halong Bay, would be like going to Las Vegas and not setting foot inside a casino. The crystal-clear gulf contains literally thousands of skyscraper-sized limestone caves, islands, and karst sculptures that look like they were carved by Wes Craven.

Or you can hire a boat and tour the pagodas and Royal Mausoleums along the Perfume River in Hue. While you’re inspecting one of the temples, your boatman will buy chicken, fish, and vegetables in town, cook them on your boat, and serve them as you re-board. At night, don’t forget to return to the waterfront for a moonlight cruise where beautiful Vietnamese girls will serenade you with ancient love ballads.

In Saigon, rise at dawn, take a cyclo to Kim Café, down a hearty breakfast of strawberry French toast, bacon, and hot chocolate, and sign up for a two-day floating tour of the Mekong Delta.

When you reach the bustling river hub of Can Tho, board a long boat for a glide into its exotic world of floating markets and stunning vistas. One moment you’re in Tahiti; the next, Africa; the next, the Amazon.

And everyone on or along the river will wave and smile. “Many people, upon seeing us, would scramble around shouting and rush down underneath to the hull of their boats, bring up an infant, and wave one of the baby’s hands at us,” John said. “Along the river banks, children would scream ‘Hellooo!’ and run after us until they could not run another step, waving all the time. And they wouldn’t stop waving until we were out of sight. We stopped a couple of times to visit people’s homes, and tiny tots would just come up, take our hands, and walk with us. And people wonder why I live Vietnam so.”

Rafting Rapture
Two vivid rafting memories: About 70 miles south of Hanoi near the town of Hoa Lu, beetlenut-chewing mama-sans will scissor-oar you in tiny skiffs down Hoang Long River, one of the most jaw-dropping waterways in the world because you meander through neon-green rice paddies and caves among the same limestone outcrops that distinguish Halong Bay.

And in Can Tho one evening, John and a German foursome were walking along the waterfront when a swarm of female sampan owners beckoned them for a river ride. They didn’t see the point since the night was pitch black. But they eventually agreed on a half-hour trip (75 cents each).

“It was one of those marvelous moments you least expect,” John said. “We lay back against the side of the boat, lost in our own thoughts, and swayed to the strokes of the oars. A cool breeze wafted over us. It was so dark and quiet that every star and sound was amplified. Dogs barked at one another from opposite sides of the river. A karaoke tune echoed from some distant bar. Kids did cannonballs into the river somewhere far back in the jungle. Fishermen floated by silently laying their nets. And the Big Dipper popped out the of sky as brightly as if someone had switched it on.”

Bicycle Bravado
“Excuse me, sir.”

John braked his bike and turned around. Poised on a bicycle on the dirt road a few feet away was a silhouette so stunning, he didn’t believe it at first: a lovely young woman in jeans, T-shirt, and long hair below her waist that snapped in the breeze like a horse’s tail.

“Where are you from?” she asked.

“America.”

“Oh joy! I was wondering, could I ride with you? I would enjoy an opportunity to practice my English.”

John had heard that the women of Hue are the prettiest and friendliest in Vietnam, but he didn’t think it would take less than an hour after arriving to confirm it.

Another ideal place to bike is Hanoi because of its many lakes and shady, tree-lined boulevards. The social heart of the city is Hoan Kiem Lake, where residents practice tai chi in the foggy mornings and play badminton in the cool afternoons.

But the best spot in Vietnam to bike is through the historic waterfront of Hoi An, a composite of Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, French, and Portuguese influence that will have you gaping at every pastel-colored building, funky art gallery, and postcard-framed alleyway.

Walking Wonderland
Saigon is a walker’s dream. If you want to relive history, head down fabled Dong Khoi Street. Known as Rue Catinat during the French colonial period, it was the Champs Élysées of its day, sporting the latest French fashions. In the ’60s it was renamed Tu Do street and became one of the most infamous red light districts in Asia. Today it’s a great place to window shop and eat.

Another great stroll is along the harbor. John ambled along the waterfront one afternoon and came upon two women adorned in ao dais, the traditional Vietnamese dress. They posed for a picture, a conversation ensued, and within moments, a crowd had formed. One young boy offered to translate, cyclo drivers rushed over from their pedicabs to ask questions, and elderly couples looked on in amusement. Eventually the entire throng moved across the street to take over a restaurant for an afternoon of animated conversation.

His most memorable saunter, however, took place inside the mammoth Ben Thanh Market. The main action is in the market’s rear, or “wet” portion, where every imaginable food is offered — especially if you like it live and wriggling.

“As I passed through, I noticed a gaggle of women having a rip-roaring time chopping off fish heads,” John said. “I’d never associated chopping off fish heads with a rip-roaring time before, but these women were having one.”

He  said hello in Vietnamese, and that was all it took to make him the subject of a howling tug-of-war that soon encompassed the entire fish market.

“I vaguely remember somebody dragging a middle-aged woman from the crowd and introducing her to me at some point,” John recalled. “But I was having such a grand time, nodding yes to whatever they were saying and causing cries of delight each time, that I didn’t realize until it was too late that the conversation had become more urgent and strident. And that all of a sudden they were really, really trying to communicate something very, very important to me.”

Two women finally got up, linked each other’s arms, and pointed to John and the middle-aged woman. When John finally realized what was happening, he bowed gracefully, mimicked taking a ring out of his pocket, took the woman’s left hand in his, and pretended to place the ring on her finger. The place erupted.

“I blew her a kiss, waved them all goodbye,” John said, “then hightailed it down the nearest labyrinth of stalls to a hail of laughter.”

Lesson: Always wear a wedding ring while shopping at Ben Thanh lest you be lassoed into an arranged marriage.

*     *     *

Rudy Maxa’s Traveler (February 2001)

It’s a little past seven in the morning, and I’m awakened by the familiar screech of an exotic bird in the back house and by beeps from the first motorbikes on the street outside my second-floor apartment window.

Before I shuffle down the hall to make tea, I open the shutter windows to let in the breeze and the crackling sounds and steaming aromas of the neighborhood street stalls as their owners prepare for the morning breakfast rush hour.

I spy Bich across the street sweeping the sidewalk in front of her noodle shop, and she waves to me as she has every morning since my arrival. Mr. Phuc, the senile owner of the apartment, who always beckons me over with the same query — “Do you speak French?” — is already sitting on the sidewalk watching the city go by. I’ve been in Hanoi only four days, but I feel as if I’ve been a resident for years. If you want to live like Graham Greene, this is the way to do it.

It all began when I heard about a unique travel company called Untours that immerses you in local cultures in apartments instead of transporting you from hotel to hotel and from site to site on a tour bus. Here are a few vignettes from my diary on how I lived like a local for two weeks in the quiet, tranquil city of Hanoi and the wild, wild East metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City while saving beaucoup bucks in the bargain.

Day 1
I’m greeted at Hanoi’s airport by Markus, my Untours co-host, and we weave through a swirling current of bicycles and motorbike traffic and pull up in front of a two-story French colonial building that opens onto a bustling hive of street activity. Inside is my other host, a smiling dynamo named Ky, who presents me with a welcome bouquet of flowers.

A quick tour of my unit reveals a spacious, two-bedroom apartment with high ceilings, wrought-iron windows with wooden shutters, dark bamboo furniture, and ceiling fans (or optional air-conditioning for those who are romantically challenged and have never seen the movie The Lover).

Pluses are a refrigerator stocked with bottled water and colas, maid service, a mosquito net, a bicycle, a safe, a bowl of bizarre-looking fruits that look like props from Star Wars, and your own mobile phone with preprogrammed numbers of your hosts and local services. Minuses are weak shower-water pressure with intermittent hot water, a washing machine but no dryer, and a hot-plate instead of an oven (although, to be fair, the tour company never felt travelers would do much cooking because cheap and delicious food is available literally outside the door).

After unpacking, I check out the neighborhood. Within a block are two pho stalls (which serve hearty beef noodle soup for about 50 cents), three com stalls (which serve rice; a meat, fish, or fowl dish; a vegetable; and tea for the same price), two cafés, an ice cream and soda shop, a karaoke restaurant, two liquor stores, two laundry/dry cleaners, a film processing lab, and a market.

Day 2
I have many options. Do I want to do the Ho Chi Minh Museum, Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, or Ho Chi Minh’s house? Do I want to bike along the tree-lined boulevards and admire the architecture of the French Quarter? Do I want to take a wistful walk around one of the city’s many lakes?

Day 3
My mobile phone rings. It’s Markus. “John, a bunch of us are meeting for dinner tonight. Wanna tag along?” I end up spending a captivating evening with expats from Cuba, Canada, and the U.K. on the rooftop of a seafood restaurant overlooking the Red River, and later migrate to the popular R&R Tavern. I’m beginning to like “living” here. Who needs a hotel concierge when your apartment comes with hosts, friends, neighbors, and adventures?

Day 4
I chill out at the apartment today, and in the evening take in the surprisingly delightful show at the Municipal Water Puppet Theater (tickets are a ridiculous $2, or $4 if you want a cassette of the accompanying traditional folk music, which you do).

Days 5 & 6
Road trip! It’s time to get out of Hanoi for a couple of days and see the countryside. I opt for a $22 two-day trip to Mai Chau, where I hike knee-deep through soggy rice paddies with the workers in the fields during the day and eat and sleep in a traditional stilt house with ethnic Thai people at night.

Day 7
On my last day in Hanoi I cruise the Old Quarter for bargains. I pick out a handsome hand-carved pipe for $6, a water puppet for $5, and a handwoven fabric from a northern hill tribe for $10. Then Ky invites me to his home for a farewell dinner, and we crown the evening at Hanoi’s hottest place, Highway 4, which lets you sample up to 33 traditional rice and fruit liquors in its opium den-like room.

Day 8
After a two-hour flight to Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon, as everyone in the South still calls it), I’m greeted at the airport by Bach, my host, and am transported into town. Our taxi pulls into a tiny ally/driveway across the street from a lovely tree-shaded park. My Saigon accommodation is one-story and more contemporary in style and facilities than in Hanoi. Double doors open into sizable living/dining rooms decorated with luscious lacquer murals that you can purchase if you want. Pluses: The TV comes with cable, and the bathrooms sport brand-new toilets and showers. Minuses: None.

Unlike the street-life environment of Hanoi, these units are more secluded. And yet I’m actually closer to everything here. Within a block of the gate are three of Saigon’s premier tourist attractions: the Reunification Palace, the Notre Dame Cathedral, and the stunning French colonial General Post Office.

There’s a knock on the door, and I meet Paul and Elizabeth, my next-door neighbors who’ve taken an Untours trip before to Europe. They give thumbs-up to the apartments and host support here. In Europe, Untours travelers sometimes stay in guest cottages with live-in hosts. Their most pleasant surprises so far, and mine too, are how proudly and fiercely capitalistic this Communist nation is and how low the crime rate is.

Day 9
I skip my cereal and baguette this morning and hop on a 70-cent motorbike to one of the tourist cafés in the expat section of town. At Kim Café I splurge on banana pancakes, a Spanish omelette, and hot chocolate for $2.50, then shop along Dong Khoi Street, the city’s bargain mecca. I don’t find many deals, though. I nix two overpriced $25 silk shirts from Khaisilk (horrors, a store that won’t haggle!), reject a pricey Buddha painting a few doors down, then finally get lucky at Nguyen Hue Street’s Thieves Market by walking off with seven bootleg CDs for 70 cents apiece.

Day 10
I’m introduced to Mrs. Khanh, the charming co-owner of the apartment complex, who invites me and Mr. Giao, the artist whose paintings and murals grace the apartments, and his wife Thuy, a legendary writer/reporter, to dinner at Rex Hotel where they tell me their startling life stories, which they politely request afterward that I not reveal for political reasons. If you meet them, which you should, listen to their tales; they would make an HBO miniseries.

Days 11 & 12
It’s out of the city again for a languid two-day bus and boat trip deep into the Mekong Delta, an exotic world of floating markets, river traffic, and drop-dead scenery — one of the world’s great marvels at $20.

Day 13
On my next-to-last day I meet Ed, a 62-year-old American expat, fish exporter, ex-con, and a character right out of The Sopranos, who offers to show me Saigon at night. “But only if you can hang with me; not too many people can.” We start at the classy Saigon Saigon Bar atop the Caravelle Hotel, get down and funky at Apocalypse Now, swing over to the Speed disco, and wind up at my favorite, Vasco’s, a classy two-story garden bar with a band and an upscale mix of expats, tourists, and locals. As the last watering hole closes down, Ed slaps me on the back, says I’m all right, and makes me promise to look him up the next time I’m in town.

I amble down the street as a light mist tears my eyes and wake up a cyclo driver under a lamppost. On the slow ride back to my apartment, my mood is bittersweet. Just as I was starting to feel at home here, it’s time to leave. I’m going to miss this magical land of smiling faces. Nowhere in the world, with the exception of the Philippines, have I been embraced so sincerely as an American, which is unfathomable considering our tumultuous past. I make a resolution. Many veterans are returning for closure. I’ve come back to open my heart. There are friends I made who are too dear not to see again and magnanimity bestowed that was too bountiful not to give back in kind.

*     *     *

Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel (March/April 2002)

We’re looking forward to Bangkok. Thailand is noted for its silk, and B.J. wants to buy his girlfriend lots of it. We’d originally planned to venture north to Chiang Mai, see the elephants, and trek through the hill tribes, but we’ve run out of time.

We take an overnight bus from Vientiane, Laos, to Bangkok. Even though the bus is an enormous double-decker, we’re crammed inside.

B.J. and I share a bus compartment with eight others. The space features eight comfortable seats in the front, two tables in the center, and bench seats in the rear. Six young German males sit together in one corner, all sporting bushy Viking beards. A quiet Austrian couple dozes in the back. A Finnish woman who looks just like tennis pro Maria Sharapova sits next to B.J. I stretch out on the bench next to an elderly Brit who within seconds becomes the Most Hated Man in the Room.

Drunk, arrogant, and disshelved in a ratty T-shirt, bathing suit, flip-flops, and Einstein finger-in-the-socket hair, he proclaims in a booming voice what the world is coming to and how we’re all responsible and demands that we debate him. Some do, and he haughtily belittles each one who deigns to disagree with him. Gratefully, we stop an hour later at the border crossing, and everyone gets out to get our visas processed. When he finally staggers out of the room, everyone in the compartment lets out a collective sigh of relief and a flood of “OMGs!”

After our visas are stamped, we return to the compartment. This time we ignore the Englishman. Thankfully, he gets the message and remains silent for the rest of the 12-hour trip. A couple of times I feel sorry for him and consider bringing him into a conversation, but I fear the other passengers would toss me out of the moving vehicle.

We arrive in the capital early the next morning and take a taxi to Wendy House, located down a long, narrow alley. The staff is very friendly and lets us check into our room hours before the normal check-in time. We chose the guesthouse because it’s in the heart of downtown near all the shops, skyscrapers, Skytrain, and Metro.

After washing up, we hit the big malls. The kingdom of Thailand isn’t close to being a third-world country anymore, and Bangkok has become one of the world’s international hubs. Big, modern, clean, and sophisticated, it boasts nonpareil cuisine, hip fashions, renowned massage, temples on steroids, exotic boroughs, neon, noise, and lots of skin. Bangkok ain’t shy.

We find no silk in the first two mega malls we hit, which is like saying we found no water in the first two oceans we sailed across. But I don’t care. The women are stunningly beautiful, and the current fashion trend is microskirts.

When we return to our guesthouse at the end of the day, I’m wiped out and decide to treat myself to a Thai massage at the small spa across the street. Unlike the common Swedish massage, which uses oil and is more soothing and gentle, Thai massage incorporates stretching, bending, and cracking, with elbows and knees pressing against places you didn’t think you had. It isn’t painful; on the contrary, it’s remarkably relaxing. Afterward, I feel like a hundred bucks.

It doesn’t hurt that my masseuse is cute, playful, and flirtatious. It’s near closing time at the spa, and there are no more customers in the place, so I hang around a while and banter with her and the rest of the girls, who are a ton of fun. It seems they all want to go out. They ask if I like to dance. Do I like to dance? Does Ethel Kennedy own a black dress? 

They all squeal and change into their street clothes, and we hop into a cab and head downtown. To my amazement, they take me to the Nana Hotel, which used to be one of the most notorious establishments in all of Bangkok, and lead me into an intimate nightclub at the end of the lobby.

We’re practically the only ones there and take over a banquette facing the stage where a live band is singing “Money, Money, Money.” Poon, my masseuse, can’t speak English, doesn’t drink, and is too shy to dance, and all of the other girls suddenly decide they don’t want to dance either, so not much happens. Our main entertainment is gawking at two exhibitionists who for the next hour proceed to do on the dance floor what most people would reserve for the bedroom. I’m not in Laos anymore. 

The girls are hungry, but they don’t want me to spend any more money, so we grab some food from a street vendor outside. They drop me off at Wendy House, and I crawl into bed at 2 a.m.

The next day B.J. and I head for the Chao Phraya River, the city’s most glorious and breathtaking landmark. Once called the “Venice of the East,” the river and its endless network of canals was a superhighway of goods and people, and its residents were known as water lords. We begin our day at the National Museum of Royal Barges.

Thailand’s fabled Royal Barges, which transport royalty during significant cultural and religious events, have been a hallmark of Thai culture and history for nearly 700 years. At the National Museum, eight important barges, including all four Royal Barges, are displayed. I’ve seen pictures of these mammoth floating dragon boats and want to see them close up.

The problem is getting to the museum. It proves to be one of the most confounding  tourist wild goose chases I’ve ever come across. We’re told to walk to a particular intersection, turn right, and “look for the sign,” then cross the bridge. We see no sign and no bridge and begin asking shopowners.

“That way,” they point.

We keep walking and at each intersection are told to keep going. But the only thing in front of us is a highway ramp rising far above us. The sun is beating down cruelly. We grumble and slog up the hill. At the top we look down and see water but no structure large enough to hold the Royal Barges. We walk all the way down the other side of the ramp to the bottom and cross the road there. We ask again. They point down a dark alley.

We peer down the narrow pathway. It’s a garbage-strewn crevice in the back of someone’s house. Scrawled on a tiny sign at the far end is “Royal Barge Museum” and an arrow. This has to be a joke. We follow the arrow, which leads us down another endless dirt walkway. We pass people eating lunch, watching TV, washing clothes, burning trash. We’re invading their homes. Scrawny dogs and chickens dart about. Kids with no pants stare up at us.

Another sign directs us down through more rubbish heaps and more backyards. For 30 minutes we follow a half dozen other rabbit holes. All the time the neighbors just smile as if tourists invading their space happens all the time. It’s unfathomable that this is the only way to get to the famous National Museum of Royal Barges. It’s like making tourists traipse through the back alleys of the worst area of Washington, D.C., to reach the Washington Monument.

All of a sudden, we turn a corner and there it is. We pay an admission fee (more if we want to take pictures). That’s when I lose it. We have to pay more if we want to take pictures? This has now ascended into Monty Pythonesque territory.

The barges themselves are spectacular, intricately carved, gilded in gold leaf, massive in size, and each as long as a football field. After I’ve seen my fill, I purposely linger because I dread having to make our way out of this maze again.

We somehow retrace our steps back to the river and buy an all-day pass, which allows us to hop on and off any watercraft along the Chao Phraya River. Free river travel guides highlight what can be found at each pier stop (Chinatown, Little India, garment district, wat temples, etc.). 

The river is broad, brown, and surging with activity. Tugboats pull barges laden with timber. Gilded wats and stupas soar above the trees, their orange and green roof tiles, mosaic pillars, and marble piments gleaming in the sunlight. Orange-robed monks clamor aboard next to us, and we head down the river.

We get off at Chinatown and explore its inner denizens for silk bargains (no luck). The chaos is loud and frantic. We have to watch where we’re going because things come at us from every direction. Merchants stream back and forth lugging carts, unloading boxes, stacking shoeboxes, delivering snakes, hauling clothing racks, shouting, haggling, laughing. Motorbikes scoot through the crowds with inches to spare. I inhale the history. I have no doubt this tiny spot is virtually unchanged from what it was like a thousand years ago, sans motorbikes.

After Chinatown, we mosey a few blocks and enter Little India, where a palette of vivid colors assaults our senses. This is Fabric Land, with shop after shop selling every imaginable cloth and color and price of fabrics. I ask one man if he sells silk shirts off the rack, and the turbaned proprietor glares at me as if I called his wife ugly.  

After dinner at an Indian restaurant, we jump back on the next boat plying the river and step off at the next pier. A short walk and we’re greeted by tuxedoed bellmen at the Oriental Hotel, whose guestbook boasts Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maughn, and too many world leaders to count. We head outside to one of my favorite spots in all of Asia, the Riverside Terrace. I order a Hemingway daiquiri, B.J. gets a mai tai, and we watch the river go by as an apricot sun settles over a wat temple in the distance.

 

We return to our guesthouse, take a nap, and pack for our trip home. It’s hard to believe our whirlwind trip is over. It seems like we’ve been here for months yet it also feels like it flew by. We take the Skytrain to the airport, avoiding the hellacious Bangkok traffic, and board our 1 a.m plane. Just as we’re about to take off, the pilot informs us that the preflight inspection discovered that the front wheel was cut during the previous landing and must be replaced before we can take off.

Thirty minutes later he comes on again and tells us there has been difficulty finding a tire at this early hour, so we have to deplane and return to the gate area. I curse. That means I’m probably going to miss my connecting flight from Manila to Dumaguete.

Two hours later we board the aircraft again and finally take off. We arrive 30 minutes before my connecting flight is due to depart. I race to the baggage area, wait for my bag, say a hurried goodbye to B.J., and sprint across the airport to the check-in counters. I’m told there’s no chance of getting on board. I must rebook my flight.

Tired and exhausted, I tromp over to the rebooking area and am told the next available flight to Dumaguete is 3 p.m. It’s now 7:20 in the morning. I groan. Rebooking will also cost me 4,500 pesos, the clerk informs me. 

“I don’t think so,” I say as politely as I can under the circumstances. “I missed my flight due to a wheel that had to be replaced. It was the airline’s fault, not mine.”

She disappears and comes back 30 minutes later. “We apologize for the misunderstanding, sir. You’re now booked on the 10:45 flight. No charge. Would you like window or aisle?”

I order waffles at the airport Pancake House, and as I bite into my first spoonful, my temporary tooth falls out again. Well, at least it didn’t happen on the first day of our trip.

When I reach the gate for my morning flight, the entire wing of the airport is crammed with passengers. On the intercom, continual messages announce such-and-such a flight has been delayed. My flight is one of them. I don’t finally board my 10:45 flight until 3.

When I finally arrive home, the Philippines humidity, which wasn’t present in any of the countries we visited, hits me like a Pacquiao right cross. I go to bed at the ungodly hour of 8 and sleep 12 hours. When I wake up, I’m very ill, with every Peace Corps malady hitting me at once. It passes momentarily, and I try to play tennis. I get through one set before I have to go home. On the way, I crumple and vomit in the street.

I don’t feel right the next day, the day after, or the following week, but no one thing is severe enough to warrant calling PCMO or going to the hospital. I keep thinking it’s just temporary, my body’s acclimating back to Philippines weather and food, and it will go away, but it doesn’t.

What happens in the next couple of weeks will evolve into the most serious crisis I will face to date as a Peace Corps volunteer.

LUANG PRABANG
April 12-13, 2012
Laos
The Siem Reap airport is a tiny design gem with beautiful shops and decor and sunlight. Our flight to Luang Prabang in northern Laos is very efficient and quick, with a stunning approach over steep mountains and muddy rivers that coil through the emerald countryside like serpents.  

The visa formalities, unlike in Vietnam, are a snap, taking no more than five minutes. All the officials laugh and smile at everyone. When I misplace my passport photo for my visa, the customs officer smiles. “We will just scan it.” Laos is a Communist country, and B.J. and I were apprehensive about how strict the officials would be. No worries.

Laos, one of the poorest nations on earth, is a land of saffron-robed monks, misty valleys, stunning karst ridges, ethnic tribes, and too many elephants to count. We can’t wait.

The Kinnaly House in Luang Prabang, two blocks from the riverfront, was rated tops on the Internet, but it’s the least impressive of anyplace on our trip, both in terms of accommodations and service. Still, we can’t complain about the price: $18 a night.

We unload our bags and stroll into town. Luang Prabang, a UNESCO-protected peninsula of golden-sheened wats, crumbling French villas, and Scandinavian cafes, was once inaccessible. Today it’s been called everything from a Shangri La to the Pearl of the Orient to “the most beguiling ancient city in Southeast Asia.”

We stroll along the sleepy main drag, which follows a U-shape bounded by the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers below us. Crayon-colored longtail boats plow the river. Shops and outdoor cafes line the road, affording stunning views.

A view from a cafe in Luang Prabang.

  

An idyllic moment to paint or meditate.

We stop and order a drink and watch a tangerine sun descend between two towering peaks in the distance as fisherman float across the water. This is a storybook land come to life. We cross the street and have dinner at Tamarind, which boasts a “Mod-Lao” cuisine. I order water buffalo steak, sticky rice, greens, and dipping sauces. We share a sampling platter of bamboo dip, stuffed lemongrass, herbs, and chilli pastes. I’m still thinking about it. Our best meal of the trip.

The next day B.J. gets up early and strolls the town while I sleep late. I rise, have mango pancakes on the riverfront, and rent a bike. I follow a long procession of people heading toward a stadium and carnival area. It’s the start of the Lao New Year, and the fun is about to start. How little do I realize just how much fun it will be.

Lao New Year is the most widely celebrated festival in Laos. It happens in mid-April, the hottest time of the year and the start of the monsoon season, lasting three days. Houses and villages are cleaned on the first day, and perfume, water, and flowers are prepared. The second day of the festival is the “day of no day,” a day that falls in neither the old year or the new year. The last day marks the start of the new year.

Water is used for washing homes, Buddha images, monks, and soaking friends and passers-by, with emphasis on the latter. The rituals actually serve an important role in Laotian culture — they aren’t only wishing a long and healthy life for themselves but wishing the same for others.

When I get back, B.J. is back in the room, and we watch with trepidation from the lobby what’s happening in the street. An endless line of cars, trucks, and motorcycles inch their way down the path while  hundreds of people with hoses, buckets, and water guns assault them.

I look at B.J. Our shopping and sightseeing plans for the day just evaporated. “If you can’t beat ’em…” We go upstairs, change into our bathing trunks, and wade into the chaos.

We’re drenched to the bone within seconds. In the stifling heat, it’s actually welcome. It’s hard not to throw yourself into the melee, and we do. We hook up with a rowdy group holding fort on one corner. Across the street an even more malevolent group charges us continually and we repel them back as best we can. It doesn’t matter who’s winning or losing; it’s a ton of fun. When huge open-bed trucks filled with party-goers approach, our teams forget our mutual rivalry and turn our attention to the intruders, descending on them with vengeance.

“Do you feel lucky…punk? Well, do ya?” A soaked B.J. gives a soggy Eastwood impression.

 The melee continues until well after dark. When it finally subsides and we feel safe enough to venture out with dry clothes, we head for the Night Market along the main street. Hundreds of Hmong women have set up stalls beneath tents lit by bulbs that glow magically like strings of red lanterns. It’s the best selection of handmade souvenirs we find during our trip.

VANG VIENG
April 14, 2012
Laos
We say farewell to lovely Luang Prabang and take a bus six hours south to the riverside village of Vang Vieng along the Nam Song River. We’ve come here because of the fabled mist-shrouded karst mountains.

The road takes us high, high, and higher into enormous mountain forests, dolloped with dirty, dusty wooden towns that look like Wild West throwbacks. Even way up here, our bus is pelted by kids with water guns and buckets. They remind us that we have two more days of this to look forward to.

Vang Vieng is in the midst of a water holocaust when we arrive, and it looks like the revelry has destroyed the place. Only later do we discover that that’s the way it looks all the time.

The city was first settled in 1353 as a staging post between Luang Prabang and the capital Vientiane. The town expanded during the Vietnam War when the U.S. developed an Air Force base and runway that was used by Air America.

We read that the town has lost much of its original charm due to drunken tourists, unsafe water sports, and happy mushroom shakes. The New Zealand Herald wrote, “If teenagers ruled the world, it might resemble Vang Vieng.” Last year, 22 tourists died on the river while inner tubing. Inner tubing? Good grief.

When we venture out, we’re confronted by a dirty, seedy, crumbling street inhabited by a melange of what look like Rastafarians, Jesus impersonators, expats, backpackers, mercenaries, and escaped criminals. And all are armed — with Rambo-size water cannons. I hope that’s all they’re packing.

We avoid the mayhem and slip down to the water. There we behold why Vang Vieng is such a stunning place — after you evict all the tourists. A rickety wooden footbridge, barely erect on wobbly heron-thin poles, spans the Nam Song River puttering with fishermen and kayaks.

A quiet moment in Vang Vieng.

Above the glassy water, multihued balloons silently float over us. Across the water is a limestone karst mountain range that must have been transplanted from Jurassic Park, its layers of towering ridges eroded over millions of years into fantastic shapes. A Chinese water color.

If you treasure sunsets, come to Laos.

VIENTIANE
April 15, 2012
Laos
We decide to head for the capital the next day. Over the years, Vientiane has been occupied by the Vietnamese, Burmese, Siamese, and Khmers. In the 19th century, the French colonized the country and turned the city into one of Indochina’s grand metropolises. In the early 1960s it teemed with CIA agents and Russian spies. 

Eleven of us jam into a van for the four-hour drive to the capital. It’s one of the worst rides of my life. The first three hours are hell, as the road is nothing but potholes and rocks. We’re slammed and bumped and rocked nonstop. I keep expecting our vehicle to break down, but it miraculously holds together. During the last hour, as we near the capital, the road is semi-passable. We arrive in the afternoon to, surprise, water fights. In the capital, the frenzy seems to be ramped up tenfold with seemingly every block a war zone.

Our guesthouse, Mali Namphu, is wonderful, with a large room, a stunning garden courtyard, and impeccable service. B.J. is beat and takes a nap, not wishing to get wet again. I throw on my bathing trunks and head down to the riverfront. 

I find the Mekong, but the water level is so low that it looks like a dry riverbed. And nothing is built along the riverbank. No hotels, cafes, shops. No trees or shade. Nobody’s strolling. The sun is bearing down fiercely, so I hurry away to where music is blaring.

A concert is in progress. A live band is in full swing, sprinklers on the stage are soaking the crowd, and everyone’s jumping and dancing. I join in and dance myself ragged for an hour, then stagger away. The water fights are much wilder here than in the provinces.

I come across an off-the-wall group dancing atop trucks, atop trash cans, rolling and spinning in the puddles like street acrobats. It looks like an audition for Step Up 4. These kids are smoking. I join them, and we rock and splash the street for the next three hours. Soon people are leaping off their trucks to join us. We grow in size until we’ve morphed into a Soul Train street party, Laotian style.

It’s a fitting end to a wet and wild Laotian holiday. We enjoy our short glimpse of this mysterious country. Its beauty is unrivaled but unfortunately so is its poverty. It’s doing better these days due to its burgeoning tourist industry, but the resulting influx of foreigners has begun to erode many of its charms. No telling what the future holds for this tiny nation of 7 million.

Next and final stop: Thailand.

PHNOM PENH
April 6-7, 2012
Cambodia

Approaching the harbor of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, by boat is impressive to say the least. An Angkor Wat-like structure greets visitors atop a massive ramp and sprawling riverfront boulevard. The closer you get, the more imposing the effect becomes. We’ve arrived at a magical, mythical place.

B.J. and I grab a tuk-tuk, which I will go on the record and say is the most luxurious, most spacious, most attractive, and most comfortable mode of cheap transportation in all of Asia. Why don’t other Southeast Asia countries throw out their ugly rusty metal farting exhaustmobiles and invest in these charming vehicles?

Note the anti-bagsnatching net!

The one we get looks like a combination stagecoach, Cinderella carriage, buggy, and surry with with a fringe on top with a motorcycle pulling it instead of a horse. Sparkling clean with leather seats, intricate chrome grillwork along the sides, polished wood armrests, expansive interior, high ceiling, lace curtains, and pockets for passengers’ water bottles or maps. Filipino trikes look absolutely Neantherthal compared to these models.

The condition of our tuk-tuk, we discover, is not the exception. Every tuk-tuk we see during our next six days in Cambodia is as immaculate as this one. And not one is the same. Each one is lovingly cared for. Whoever’s in charge of Cambodian tourism should get a medal. I love the place already, and I’ve only been here five minutes.

On the way to our hotel, we weave through the heart of downtown. We pass parks, statues, plazas, wide boulevards, museums, outdoor cafes, clubs, boutique shops. Everything’s clean, people smile, music is playing, and it’s all happening along the riverfront that seems to stretch forever.

We check into the Boddhi Tree guesthouse, nap, take showers, and eat at the guesthouse’s restaurant, which was rated among the best in the entire city. It’s better than advertised. After dinner, B.J. rests while I head downtown. I step into the Riverfront Bistro, take a seat at the enormous round bar, and marvel at the funky decor, a potpourri of Khmer art, neon, Angkor images, posters, sculptures, sexy waitresses, and mysterious expats. A live band plays in a rear alcove among pool tables. What a town. It will become my favorite watering hole in Asia.

The next day B.J. and I stroll around town, shopping for bargains. A polite man introduces himself to me at the riverfront and asks if I can help him and his wife fill out a U.S. immigration application form. I do so, and they thank me profusely and buy me a bottle of water.

We try to see some of the city’s landmarks but they’re all closed. Seems a conference of Southeast Asian leaders, including Philippines’s president, is in Phnom Penh, and the dignitaries are out and about touring the city. All the museums and places of interest are off limits to the general public.

BATTAMBANG
April 8, 2012
Cambodia

Our travel guidebook recommends a stopover here on the way to Siem Reap because of its quaint setting along the river, its French Colonial architecture, and the idyllic boat trip from there to Siem Reap.

The bus ride into Battambang is long and tiring, and when we arrive, I am not impressed. The town boasts a sleepy river, but its designers must have fallen asleep at the switch. All the establishments along the riverfront are industrial (cellphone shops, tire repair, electronics, hardware, etc.). All the town’s hotels, bars, and restaurants are tucked into small side streets and alleys with no views of the river. What were the city leaders thinking?

But B.J. loves the place. He didn’t care much for Phnom Penh because it was overrun by tourists and expats. Here there are fewer, the place is quieter, and the cafes seem more intimate. We have a nice dinner and are told by our hotel not to take the slow boat trip Siem Reap as we’d planned because the water level is down now. “That means the boat will go even slower than normal to get there,” the woman at the desk tells us. “At least ten hours. Better to take a bus. You’ll get there in four.” We buy our bus tickets and retire for the night.

SIEM REAP
April 9, 2012
Cambodia

The bus to Siem Reap, the launching point to the famed temples of Angkor Wat, takes only three-and-a-half hours. Our guesthouse, the Villa Siem Reap, lives up to its ratings in Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor. We’re greeted effusively by a half dozen staff members and given welcome drinks.

After lunch in their garden cafe, we arrange for an all-day guide ($35) and tuk-tuk driver ($15) to take us to the temples tomorrow. The rest of the day we shop downtown. Cambodia accepts only U.S. dollars except for small purchases where the local currency is okay; ATMs dispense dollars. Hooray.

Downtown Siem Reap is flooded with tourists, which makes B.J. grumpy. But I like the action. If you want a how-to guide on how to promote tourism in your town, come to Siem Reap. Every hotel and guesthouse has free booklets on nightlife, restaurants, tours, side trips with detailed maps. The streets and neighborhoods are clearly marked with neon gates: “Pub Street” is where all the bars and restaurants are. “The Alley” is where Cambodian food and shops are located. “The Night Market” is where you can find handicrafts, silks, and souvenirs. The vendors’ booths stretch endlessly, and I mean endlessly.

I shop for hours, picking up handwoven purses and cellphone holders for my female coteachers and cool Angkor Wat keychains (each with nail cutter and can opener) for my male coteachers and tennis barkadas

Siem Reap has everything, from 8-hand massages to fish massages. The latter is a trip. You take off your shoes, sit on the edge of a large fish tank, and dangle your feet in the water for 30 minutes ($3). The fish all converge on your feet and nibble off the dead skin. It tickles, the fish get full, your dead skin is removed, and you have something with which to amaze and disgust your coworkers. Win-win!

ANGKOR WAT
April 10, 2012
Cambodia
Angkor Wat, the largest religious structure in the world, is the heart and soul and pride of the country. Its image is on Cambodia’s currency, national flag, and practically every place you look.

One of the first Western visitors to the temple was António da Madalena, a Portuguese monk who visited in 1586. He said: “It is of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of.”

Later, in the mid-19th century, French explorer Henri Mouhot wrote: “One of these temples—a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michelangelo—might take an honourable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome.”

The next morning we meet our guide, Seak, who’s dressed in khaki and an orange and yellow Khmer scarf and a winning smile. He speaks fluent English, and seems raring to go. With him is a tuk-tuk driver who will transport us from temple to temple during the day.

 We set off. The drive to the temples takes us through a beautiful tree-shrouded lane and flower-scented pathways. The road is full of bicycles and tuk-tuks, all heading the same way. Some are coming back, having gone early to catch the temple at sunrise.

The first indication that we’re getting close is a mammoth lake on our right side. It seems as wide as the Mekong. Seak chuckles when I ask what lake it is.

“This is not a lake, sir. It is the moat surrounding Angkor Wat.” Good Lord. How big can this thing be?

The moat surrounding Angkor Wat.

We reach the corner of the moat, and peer down the length of the next side. There, halfway across, running down the middle of the moat, is a bridge stretching hundreds of yards. It ‘s filled with people. All are shuffling toward the eighth wonder of the world, a charcoal black edifice of towering magnificence.  

The temple layout represents Mount Meru, the mythical home of the gods. The central towers symbolize the five peaks of the mountain, and the walls and moat symbolize the surrounding mountain ranges and ocean.

Built by King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century as his state temple and capital city, the monument is constructed out of more than 5 million tons of sandstone, as much as Khafre’s pyramid in Egypt. One modern engineer estimated it would take 300 years to complete Angkor Wat today. In truth, the entire complex was finished in 40.

Angkor Wat

The next few hours are a blur of head-shaking bewilderment at the vastness of the grounds and tunnels, the size of the walls and towers, the maze-like labyrinth of passageways and stairwells, the detailed carvings of statues and bas-relief friezes that stretch up and down and across seemingly every square inch of this endless architectural marvel.

One breathtaking panorama after another.

By lunchtime, our heads are spinning from information and sensory overload. Seak is a superlative guide, explaining every detail and sprinkling his data with anecdotes and personal political views. Cambodians fear the Vietnamese, he confides to us, because they’re “powerful and aggressive.” Cambodians hate the Thais, he says, because of all the wars between the two in the past. Siem Reap means “defeated Siam” (the previous name for Thailand), which I don’t imagine makes Thai tourists very comfortable.

TA PROHM
April 10, 2012
Cambodia
After lunch we head for Ta Prohm, the temple complex I’m salivating to behold, the one I have a serious Indiana Jones for.You’ve seen it on the cover of National Geographic. You’ve seen it in Tomb Raider. Looking probably the way most Angkor temples did when the first European explorers laid eyes on them, the monument has been almost completely overrun by the jungle.

Mother Nature always has home-court advantage.

When we approach the temple,  however, it looks nothing like I imagined. First of all, there’s no jungle. It’s more like a quiet forest glade. Few trees. No thick foliage. No howling birds. No swinging monkeys. And what “overruns” the place are just a few scattered trees, albeit gargantuan, whose bleached white roots, as thick as Nile alligators and as long as a Peace Corps tapeworm, wrap around and through every orifice of the structure like tentacles, literally bursting it apart in a thousand places, leaving ancient rubble strewn around as if from an explosion.

I lean down and pick one up. “Don’t even think of taking that antiquity home with you,” Seak winks. “They will check every inch of your bags at the airport. They know exactly what these stones look like.” I put it back.   

Seak says that experts disagree on which trees they are. The larger roots are either from the silk-cotton tree or thitpok; the smaller roots are from the strangler fig or Gold Apple.

B.J. whispers to me, “Root canals.” Funny.

This bas-relief figure refuses to disappear.

When I ask Seak why the authorities let nature run wild here and not at the other temples. He says that after the fall of the Khmer empire in the 15th century, this one was abandoned and neglected for centuries. When efforts to conserve and restore the Angkor temples began in the early 20th century, it was decided to leave Ta Prohm as it was as a “concession to the general taste for the picturesque.”

According to Angkor scholar Maurice Glaize, Ta Prohm was singled out because it was “one of the most imposing [temples] and the one which had best merged with the jungle, but not yet to the point of becoming a part of it.”

That said, a lot of work has been done to stabilize the ruins, to permit access, and to maintain its “condition of apparent neglect.”

We see plenty of that. All around us, crews are gathering and labeling the broken sandstone blocks that have crumbled from the jungle’s onslaught. Cranes are in place, areas are cordoned off. It looks like a construction site, not an islolated “temple of doom” springing out of a thick jungle as I’d hoped. Oh well.

ANGKOR THOM — BAYON
April 10, 2012
Cambodia
Seak has saved the best for last, he tells us: the massive Angkor Thom fortified city, ten times the size of Angkor Wat.

“Gee, I’ve always wanted to see Angkor Tom’s Cabin,” B.J. says sotto voice.

“What’s that?” Seak asks.

“Uh, nothing, sir,” I say, digging an elbow into B.J.’s ribs. 

At its height, this city boasted one million people (compared to London’s 50,000 at the time). It has five spectacular entrance gates, each 20 meters high, atop which loom the massive face of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.

One of the entrance gates leading into Angkor Thom.

Within the gates are several temples, but the one Seak is leading us to is the Bayon, an eerie homage to Cambodia’s legendary king, Jayavarman VII. Its 54 towers are festooned with 216 enormous stone faces of Avalokiteshvara that coincidentally resemble the king himself, who glares down on us from every conceivable angle. Eek, let me outta here.

“Whew,” the head face sculptor said. “One Avalokiteshvara down. Only 215 to go!”

Our guide knew just where to pose me.

For camera buffs, Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, and the Bayon are the Big Three in terms of photogenic opportunities and OMG moments. Despite the tourists, though B.J. and I continually marvel at how often we seem to have the places solely to ourselves, allowing us to get clear, unobstructed views of anything we want.

SIEM REAP
April 11, 2012
Cambodia
B.J. takes a Cambodian cooking class the next morning while I buy our plane tickets to Laos and shop. In the afternoon, we return to finish up what we didn’t see at Angkor Thom, but the remaining ruins — the Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King — don’t have the wow factor of the first day.

To me, Cambodia is my favorite country on the trip so far. But we have two more to go. And both of us feel that Laos may be the sleeper of the bunch. Neither of us have been there before, and we’re eagerly looking forward to what we’ve heard is jaw-dropping landscapes rivaling that of Ha Long Bay in Vietnam and Guilin in China.

Next stop: Laos.

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