Air v. ground in Laos

Steve and I like visiting capitol cities. We feel they offer important insights into any country. That's why we wanted to have at least a few hours in Vientiane in Laos. You can get to the Laotian capitol via a sleeper train from Bangkok. Thus we found ourselves pulling out of Hualamphong Station on the #69 Saturday night.

Somewhere deep within my psyche lies buried the delusion that night trains are romantic, which is why I keep taking them when I have a chance. At one point Sunday morning, in the Nong Khai station in Thailand, near the Laotion border, we actually saw such a train, incarnate. Elegantly labeled with raised golden letters, the Eastern & Oriental Express had dining car after dining car, and when they rolled by, we glimpsed tables set with linens and flowers. All the passengers looked to be plump and wealthy and Caucasian. I imagine their private compartments were plush and cozy.

The train we didn't take

The train we took, in contrast, had just one dining car, with six tables and battered plastic menus. The fluorescent lighting was blue-tinged and grim. A cheerful waiter served meals that were better than most of the fare we get on airlines (though those Eastern & Oriental Express passengers would have sneered at it). Steve and I also loved the fact that all the dining care windows were wide open, letting in the warm night breeze and giving us excellent views of the squalid conditions alongside the tracks that some of Bangkok's residents somehow endure.

The train wasn't the worst sleeper I've ever taken. It left precisely on time and arrived, 12 hours later, only about 20 minutes late. When the porter made up the bed in our car, the sheets looked reasonably clean, and the mattress wasn't too hard. Still the clatter of the wheels penetrated my earplugs, and I'd have to be truly deluded to call the motion rocking, rather than jarring. When I have to pee in the middle of the night, I'd rather not have to walk through a corridor to a bad smelling little compartment with liquid on the floor, but we did enjoy waking up to stare at the fields of rice and sugarcane flashing by in the early morning light. After we pulled into Nong Khai, transferred to the shuttle train that takes you on the 8-minute ride across the Friendship Bridge over the Mekong River (the border between Thailand and Laos), then took a taxi to our guesthouse in town, it was about 11 a.m. and we both felt a little weary.

Still, we were game for doing Vientiane. I'd had the good fortune to find and print out a September travel article published in the LA Times, so we had up to date recommendations for restaurants (which we hunted down and which proved to be 1) excellent (Xang Phoo for lunch) and 2) superb (Lao Kitchen for dinner)). That writer's 5 must-see sights were all within walking distance of our hotel and each other, and we found and enjoyed visiting them all. By dinner, we were passing our judgment: Vientiane (pop. about 250,000) feels sleepy and mellow by the standards of other world capitols. It's worthy of a 7-8 hour tour, but not two whole days.

So we were happy to climb aboard the “VIP bus” to Luang Prabang at 8 the next morning. We could have taken a plane (Lao Air, less than an hour and not expensive), but we'd read that the scenery seen from the bus was splendid, and we told ourselves: we enjoy the occasional bus ride. Once again, we were forgetting the qualifiers: IF it isn't 10 hours long and IF the bus has halfway decent shock absorbers and IF it doesn't break down or go over the precipice of one of a zillion hairpin turns. Steve and I usually enjoy that. Our ride avoided death AND disaster. The scenery for at least half the ride was indeed surreally beautiful. We saw details we would never have glimpsed on the plane: posses of three years olds running down the road with no adult anywhere in sight, tiny flooded rice fields, chiles drying on tin roofs, preteens hauling sticks in bags slung their foreheads, and more. But the last few hours felt grueling.

The town it took us to, Luang Prabang, in contrast has exceeded the good reputation that drew us here. It's one of those enchanted towns, a Brigadoon or Shangrila or at least a Santa Fe. The balcony of our guesthouse overlooks the Mekong, which even this far north is wider than the Colorado. Surrounding mountains are as comely as those features of classic Chinese paintings. The streets are filled with pretty restaurants serving great food, with glorious temples, with spas offering massage services so cheap that even massage-resistent Steve succumbed to the lure of a 60-minute Classic Lao session (and liked it!). Monks parade through the streets at dawn accepting crackers and balls of rice from tourists and locals alike, and an endless line of stalls set up along the main street every night selling wares that even shopping-averse Steve found beguiling.

Monks receiving alms at dawn

Typical Luang Prabang scene

We have another whole day here before we take off for our evening flight to Hanoi. We could easily do more strolling and grazing and body-pampering, with breaks for coffee or cocktails to people-watch. But one thing about that hellish bus ride: it gave us glimpses into lots of dense and mysterious and and misty mountainous jungle. It called to us, and as luck would have it, a small industry of folks in this town puts tourists on the backs of elephants who carry them into it. We've signed up and depart in just an hour for yet another adventure in ground transportion.




The mystery of the disappearing scammers

We left Manila early Sunday morning, landing at Bankgkok's glitzy airport a little before noon. Our night train to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, would be leaving at 8 p.m. from downtown Bangkok. What to do in the 6 hours in between?

Happily, I had earlier found a solution. I had emailed Sukanya, the manager of the guesthouse where we'd booked two nights at the very end of our trip (its memorable name: the Loobchoob Homestay). She replied that for about $30, we could reserve the use of their day room. We could nap in it, shower, lock up our suitcases and explore the neighborhood. I jumped on this and even managed to have our train tickets (which I bought online) delivered to the hotel for pickup when we arrived.

It all worked beautifully. We caught a metered taxi from the airport that for about $12 transported us to the Loogchoob. We collected the train tickets; approved of the clean, pleasant day room. Following the helpful map Sukanya gave us, we set out to the nearby market to eat duck and visit a couple of the local temples.

The duck and noodles and Thai beer (less than $8 for the two of us) were delicious. In high spirits, we followed our map in the direction of the first temple. We were chattering and taking in the sights when a clean-cut young man asked if we were heading to the temple. When we assented, he warned us that a large crowd of demonstrators was gathering in that area; it wasn't advisable to join them, he said. Seizing our map, he pointed out a couple of alternate temples not far from us. He added something about a special deal that could allow us to see both for just 30 baht (a bit less than a dollar)).

Now…. Steve and I have had a fair share of experience being approached by young men in foreign cities who want to take us under their wings and guide us, so our hackles lifted a bit. But this guy never suggested joining us. He just wished us well and sent us on our way. Changing course, we congratulated outselves on getting this friendly advice. Angry demonstrations have a way of becoming vortexes for violence that we'd just as soon avoid.

After a bit more walking, we found our way to one of the two temples recommended by our Samaritan. The grounds were huge, and we wandered past a Buddhist university; past monks with shaved heads wearing the iconic saffron robes. Eventually, we found the central compound, home to four giant golden Buddhas — sitting lotus, reclining, otherwise arranged. Not just the dazzling statuary but the structures sheltering them astounded me. I've seen a lot of churches and cathedrals and mosques and Japanese temples, but these flamboyant Bangkok creations rank with the most eye-catching anywhere. “See! Didn't I tell you?” Steve demanded. He had. (He and his folks visited Bangkok too on their round-the-world trip when he was 8, and his memory of those Thai religious centers has never faded.)

Our map told us that the second one we'd targeted should be only a few blocks away, so we started for it. But once again a young man accosted us, asking if we'd liked the temple. He added that we were extremely lucky to be in Bangkok just then. “It big Buddha day!' he told us excitedly. That's why so many Thai people were there, paying homage. Temples were open that day that normally were closed to the public.

The famous black Buddha was only open one day per year — this very day! If we hurried, we could still see it before it closed for the afternoon, he urged. Due to a special government promotion, the yellow tuk-tuks were taking people to five temples for only 20 baht! (about 60 cents).

Once again, this seemed suspicious. But just then a yellow tuk-tuk (one of the open, 3-wheeled taxis) approached. Samaritan #2 hailed it, asked the driver if he would indeed take us to at least 4 temples for 20 baht, and marked on our map the order in which we should see them. (The reason the tuk-tuk drivers would accept this ridiculously low price was because the government and petroleum dealers were subsidizing this special celebration day, he explained.)

Once again, Sam2 wasn't suggesting he should accompany us. I think that's why my skepticism melted away. A once in a year, heck, once in a lifetime chance (for when would we ever be back again on the very same lucky day?) to see the black Buddha (whoever HE was)??? Steve and I looked at each other, nodded assent, then jumped in the tuk-tuk and we zoomed off, careening through the city streets at top speed.

We seemed to be driving for a long, long time. But just before we might have begun to worry about being kidnapped, we arrived at the temple, parked, and our driver said he'd wait for us. The black Buddha was nowhere near as impressive as the golden ones, but he was indeed black. And a Thai guy who was praying in front of him, turned to us and declared that he worked at the Thai consulate in NYC and would be flying back in just a few hours but had felt compelled to fit in this visit. “This is only open once a year!” he exclaimed. “You're lucky!)

The black Buddha was small but supposedly quite special.

Short on time, we got back in the tuk-tuk and sped to the second destination — The Golden Mount. Yet another stunning complex, the central feature of this place seemed to be a huge building high on a hill. But we were worrying about the time, so we merely visited a ground floor Buddha, then returned to the street… where our tuk-tuk was nowhere to be found.

Two other drivers were at the curb. They spoke no English, but seemed to be clearly telling us our guy had abandoned us. We couldn't understand their explanation for what had happened; for why he'd gone off without even being paid his measly 60 cents. Consulting our map, we were relieved to discover that we were within walking distance of the Loobchoob. As the skies opened with the showers that had been threatening for a while, we opened our umbrellas and raced back through the downpour.

Sukanya greeted us; asked how we'd done. “Well,” we said laughing, “we had quite an adventure!' We launched into the details of what had happened, and as we did, she grimaced. “It was a scam.”

She pulled out the folder she gives all guests when they check in; opened to a page headlined, “The Top Ten Scams in Bangkok.” There was no Buddha Day, she gently disillusioned us. Though she wasn't familiar with the black Buddha, she didn't think it was open only today. And there had not been any major street protests since the military coup that took place in May. She continued that the scammers' usual ploy was to ensnare tourists with such tales and then direct them into shopping centers where they could be cajoled into buying overpriced goods. Even if you didn't get ripped off on the merch, the whole experience wasted your time.

But… but… we sputtered. We hadn't been asked to buy anything! We'd been driven to at least the two temples, had paid nothing to visit them, and hadn't even compensated the driver for the ride! What kind of scam was that?

Sukanya looked baffled. She couldn't even venture a guess at the explanation.

We wonder if the driver got shooed away by police, or called to a sudden emergency at home. But… were they all in cahoots? Sams 1 and 2? The tuk-tuk driver? Was that “consular employee” a plant? It seemed unimaginable.

The “consular employee” did tell us one thing I suspect was true. He said we were lucky that day. Maybe we were.



Manila, a Roots Journey

Truth be told, the main reason we went to Manila is because it was the cheapest destination from Southern California. But we could have just changed planes and blasted onward to Bangkok. Instead we ventured into town to seek whatever shreds of Wolfe family history remained.

Steve’s grandfather packed up his wife and baby daughter and journeyed to Manila in 1913. His mission (for he was an official missionary) was to convert the natives to the teachings of the fundamentalist Church of Christ. Steve’s grandmother birthed two more daughters and a son in the Philippines. Steve’s dad, the youngest, was born in 1919, departed for college in the States in 1937, then joined the Navy. But the elder Wolfes remained in Manila and were interned during the Japanese occupation. The patriarch (Leslie Edwin) survived the ordeal but just barely; he died just days after Los Banos prison camp was liberated. Carrie (Steve’s grandmother) remained in the Phillipines for several years, continuing to serve the church.

Steve and his parents visited her during the summer of 1958, when Steve was just shy of 9. He has some vague memories of staying at her compound — chasing chickens in her yard; playing with some other missionaries’ kid. But nothing beyond that. Both of us had the impression that today — more than a 100 years after the Wolfes arrived in Manila — little of their life there remained.

Still, we found some clues to where it had unfolded. Two of Steve’s aunts wrote memoirs that mentioned addresses for family dwelling places. More encouraging was our discovery that the church Leslie helped to build in 1930 still existed; indeed its website made it sound like it was thriving. Our hotel within Manila’s old walled city wasn’t far from these sites, and with the help of Google maps, I created a little walking tour.

When we set out a little before 8:30 a.m. Friday, the air was already hot and so full of moisture it clearly had the potential to drench us. But the thunderstorms my i-Phone had been predicting every single day for Manila for weeks weren’t actively storming. We left the walled city, found a route that took us to a bridge across the filthy-looking Pasaig River, and proceeded deep into the neighborhood of Quiapo.

I’d read comments online about the thuggish behavior one might encounter in this part of town, though the consensus seemed to be it was safe enough to walk through in the day. Our snap judgment was: very very poor but so jam-packed with people that the only likely threat was being pickpocketed. (Indeed, at least two locals warned us to beware of that.) Manila is more densely packed with people than Calcutta, and on that walk yesterday morning, it was easy to believe. We stepped around people sleeping in the street, passed naked children and hundreds of vendors selling thousands (millions?) of items. Not just the ground, but the very air seemed crammed, dense with smells and soot and diesel fumes and a furious level of noise — jackhammering diesel engines and squealing motorcycle brakes being the biggest component. Among the jostling vehicles, Manila’s jeepneys stand out. I’ve never seen anything quite like them anywhere. They made me think of a mutant cross between an ambulance and a fire engine. Passengers climb in and out through the open back doors. The sides and front are gaudily decorated and most flaunt names. I jotted down: Nazareno, Speed Bird, Ramboy!

It was all most diverting, and we didn’t feel so bad when we found no trace on Recto Street of the lovely two-story house where the Wolfes first lived. The stretch of Gastambide Street where Steve’s dad was born was quieter, and we lingered quite a while at the intersection near which the family must have lived. Indeed two of the four corners held old wrecks of buildings that may have been the ghost of the building we were seeking, but there was no way to confirm it in the short span of our visit.

Finally, we headed for the Church of Christ at Cruzada, where Leslie’s church has grown into an imposing complex that fills most of a block. A padlocked gate barred the massive front door, and we were resigning ourselves to leaving with only photos when a lady from the neighborhood approached and told use to try a side gate. Not only was it open, but several staff members were toiling in an air-conditioned office. When the youth minister learned who Steve was, he toured us all around the premises. “Brother Wolfe was very helpful to many Christian churches in preserving our religion and our freedom,” he said solemnly. Then he packed us off with bottles of water and a firm injunction to come for services the next time we were in town.

It was close to 11:30. My clothes were so soaked, I think I could have wrung drops of sweat out of them. Rather than slog back to the hotel, we hailed a “tricycle” — one of the class of vehicles that competes with the jeepneys for most atrocious road behavior. Some are powered by bicycles and some by motorcycles, but in each case, they’re welded to little sidecars that bear the passengers. Our ride (motorcycle-powered) was the closest I’ve come to experiencing a real-world version of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. The driver went the wrong way down streets, wove his way in and out of crazy vehicular thickets, then finally stopped and turned off the engine when he came to an intersection where he said the police were doing something that he didn’t understand. Disgusted, we disembarked, paid him a tenth of what we’d agree on, and got no argument from him.

We walked back to the hotel, showered, and ate some pizza in the cool, elegant hotel restaurant. Then we set out on our last Roots-related mission: a visit to Leslie’s grave.

The concierge helped us find a taxi driver who agreed to take us to the American Cemetery, wait while we visited the gravesite, then transport us back. His name was Bong and he muttered dark warnings about how awful the traffic was likely to be. It might take an hour or an hour and a half each way, he predicted. But he agreed to be our chauffeur for a little under $30.

Bong turned out to be a talkative and sociable fellow, which is why I can tell you that he’s 64, has had four wives and 13 children, used to play drums in a rock band, and thinks Ferdinand Marcos was the best president the Philippines has ever had. These and other tidbits entertained us on the drive through mile after traffic-choked mile. As things turned out, it only took only 45 minutes to reach the enormous expanse of land where the cemetery and memorial are located. It took less than a minute for the cheerful young women at the visitor’s center to find Leslie in her computer and direct us to his resting place.

Like Arlington National Cemetery and Ft. Rosecrans in San Diego, Manila’s American Cemetery contains simple unormented white crosses (and occasional stars of David). Leslie’s in row 192 of Section D, maybe 20 graves in. I’m not a huge fan of military death displays, but I have to admit this was beautiful — the gently rolling sea of green grass dotted with the grid of pure white points. A few massive trees looked beautiful and serene, contrasting with the beast of a city encircling the distant perimeters.

Most of all, I liked my sons’ great-grandfather’s headstone. It lists his name, the day he died, and it says simply: Civilian. Although I never met the guy (indeed Steve never met him), I feel like I know him a little better.