Up early. Yesterday we arranged with a Tuk-Tuk driver to take us to Tad-Sae falls today. When we met the driver at 8:30am, he informed us that we could ride the elephants for less money if we bought the tickets directly at the elephant camp instead of from a travel guide in town. #2, 3, 4 were excited to do this. #5 wanted to ride a pterodactyl to the moon. I guess we’re riding elephants today.
I had heard about the elephant camp and the different activities people could do with the elephants—ride them through the forest, sit on top of them as they bathe and feed them. I was concerned about the conditions for the elephants. Were they treated humanely? Shouldn’t they be left in the wild?
I read that Lao use be called, Pathetlao Lanexang, which means “the land of a million elephants.” Today there are between 200-500 domesticated elephants in Laos. There is no official count on how many elephants remain in the wild. By all unverified reports the number may be as low as 1,000. The irony of the situation is that the domesticated elephants are mostly used for logging, which further reduces the habitat of the elephants in the wild.
So I was apprehensive about climbing on an elephant but was told the elephants at the camp were rescued and rehabilitated, so I decided to take a brief ride.
#3 & 4 sat on a small bench attached to one elephant. #2 and I climbed on top of another elephant. So what was it like riding an elephant? Clomp, per clomp, per clomp, PAUSE, per clomp, clomp. They do have faster speeds but we only experienced that briefly when the elephants were heading back to their pen. That says something, doesn’t it?
The second part of the adventure was still in the elephant camp; we walked a short distance and came upon TAD-SAE falls. They spread about 50 yards across and are actually made up of many falls—the tallest with a 5 foot drop. The falls spread across and above creating multiple layers to explore. In addition to the visual beauty of the falls are the seemingly endless possibilities for exploration and play: one can sit and let the water from a fall massage your head, jump or flip into murky aqua-marine pools, scurry up rock faces as the water from the falls gently splashes your body, laze on a giant rock slab, explore deeper into the forest and swim against the current of the river. I did all of it.
TAD-SAE falls is definitely on the tourist attraction map. There were people there from many different nationalities. But even with people milling about the falls still felt like a wilderness experience.
As my brother in law Bill would say, “double plus good.”
From the falls at TAD SAE
the Falyn Family Five
We arrived in Hanoi from Hong Kong on Thursday night. A car from the place we stayed was sent to pick us up. Fasten your seat-belts it’s going to be a bumpy ride; or should I say the ride produced a body full of goose bumps? I had heard that driving in Vietnam was a wild adventure and the country leads the world in traffic accidents and fatalities. Now I know why.
As the driver drove to the hotel I sat stunned, mouth agape as I watched the chaos outside the car window. Cars, vans, motorbikes and bicycles performed a bizarre dance like two lovers about to embrace each other and then swerve away at the last moment. Vehicles entered the flow of traffic from all directions—some might say there isn’t a flow of traffic--and honked, flashed lights and crossed over whatever lines necessary to proceed. There seems to be an unspoken understanding between users of the road—proceed any way possible and try not to slam into anyone.
There are very few traffic lights on the road and often they’re ignored by the drivers. Three times I saw a motorcycle ride through a red light into heavy cross traffic. No one seemed to care. The cross traffic just wiggled around the obstacle.
Pedestrians have to fend for themselves as well. My Uncle told me that traffic doesn’t stop for pedestrians. The only way to cross the street is to be bold, step off the street and EXPECT traffic to swerve around you.
We made our first attempt at street crossing in the morning. We walked around the block in the Old Quarter as the street vendors set up their stalls. Unless we wanted to walk around the block again, The Falyn Family Five would have to cross the street. Traffic was moderately heavy but there were occasional gaps. We stood at the crosswalk and took our first step. Was it our first step toward death or toward the other side of the street? Well obviously since I’m writing this entry we made it to the other side of the street but it was close; # 5 almost didn’t make it.
At 12:30pm we were on another plane that propelled us (literally) toward Luang Prabang in Laos. The immigration officers were stern and officious in their faded green and red uniforms. They could have been extras in a movie where westerners are interrogated by the Communist military looking for any reason to lock up Westerners..
Fortunately, the Falyn Family Five had a secret weapon--#4. She flashed her 10 year old smile at one of the officers and for a moment—just a moment—I saw him crack a smile back.
It took about ten minutes to travel from the airport to our lodging. The guest house was down a narrow alley. The taxi couldn’t traverse it. We hoisted and wheeled our bags the last bit of the journey and arrived at the Thony Guest House where we would stay for the next seven days. But first things first, sleep. I was ready. After three days of travel-- we left Tuesday night from SF and arrived in Laos at 2:00pm on Friday afternoon—I was done, kaput, ready for sleep. I leaned toward the bed and gravity did the rest. Sleep came quickly at 3pm and I finally stirred back to consciousness Saturday morning at 9am.
In Luang Prabang for 10 days,
The Falyn Family Five
A Rough Start
Ragged from the long hours of travel, we landed in Hanoi with extreme excitement, none the less. A driver from the Lucky Guesthouse received us with #2’s name written neatly on a sheet of paper, along with a horde of other drivers and their sheets of named paper.
We innocently snapped our seat belts and lurched headlong, honking into the throngs of innovative drivers. Like mad dogs on wheels, motor bikes whipped around us, heedless of their chances for survival. #3 gasped “Oh no! Look at that little kid!” I imagined an abandoned kid by the side of the road, but no, a toddler sat in front of his dad on a motorbike as they zipped recklessly through traffic without head gear. We soon realized this family practice was the norm.
The chaos both hypnotized and spiked my adrenaline. So this is what happens on the roads when all rules are tossed out the window. And we were streaming in the middle of it. I have to say, I imagined various friends and family back home, and what their various reactions might be.
After baring the whites of our eyes for a half an hour, we slapped the curb in front of “Lucky Guest House #2”. Made sense – I get it now. “Lucky to arrive alive” kind of Lucky Guest house. Inside we were informed that they had switched our room from Lucky Guest house #1 to #2 – but of course they explained, it’s an upgrade. I looked at #1 and smiled sheepishly. #1 seemed to take it all in stride. But next they explained that the room wouldn’t be ready for about an hour. It bust out of me. I didn’t have control. I just said. “No. That’s not OK. No, No, No, No…” - the word kept coming out like a stutter.
Lucky Guest house receptionist shortened the wait time to 15 minutes, and our bedraggled family collapsed on various perches at the plastic table cloth covered table. In numb anticipation, we grunted in 4 part harmony up the 3 flights of stuffy stairs into a stale, wet, hot room. The economical bathroom had a toilet, and next to it a shower head installed from the wall. I guess a one size fits all sort of bathroom. But the water was cool in the shower (who needs hot water when it’s 100 degrees plus humidity?) and I stumbled just far enough to land wet on a bed. I figured that if I dozed and got hot, I could just get up and take a cold shower, then sleep a couple more hours.
Then the squeal. #4 had noticed a friend, and she was freaked out. I don’t know why it’s usually my job to remove unwanted insects form our habitat, but it’s always been that way. I got up and ushered the spider with a 6 inch leg-span out the front door with the infallible weapon of my dirty, stinky travel clothes. It works every time – so long as they don’t run up the sleeve so fast that they land on bare flesh. Spider banished, I trust-dropped back into my bed.
Then this AMAZING thing happened. #1 returned from a trip to reception with a remote in his hand. Click and Whir!!!! An AC unit started churning some cooler air into the room. AAAAHHHH! Things were looking up.
Yay! We landed in Hong Kong after a 14 hour flight. The plane ride was so long!! After getting off the plane, we took the bullet train into Kowloon, a city right near Hong Kong. From there we took the Star Ferry to Hong Kong. When we got to the city it was very noisy and so, so hot and humid We were all sweating.
After a while, we looked for a place to eat breakfast. We found a good place. A local recommended it. Old women came by with trays of food and mumbled “want, want?”, we said yes to all of them at first, then we started saying “no.” I guess you don’t order food in Hong Kong. It was the most strange thing that happened to me so far.
LUNCH IN HONG KONG
We had an 8 hour layover in Hong Kong so we took a bullet train from the airport to Kowloon. From Kowloon, the star ferry boat took us to Hong Kong. When I arrived in Hong Kong it was around 7am just in time for breakfast. There was one problem, because it was so early not many places were open. We asked around, and finally heard about a little Chinese place not far from the mall we were in.
When I got to the door of the restaurant a man ran out and held up 4 fingers asking if we needed a table for 4. We nodded. As we headed for the front door the man opened a side door and motioned for us to go up. After being ushered up three flights of stairs, we were seated at table. There was no one else in the room but as soon as we sat down, a old man came out from the kitchen. He set a pink paper down on the table.
Immediately after that, as if on cue, a woman came out of the kitchen with a tray of bamboo containers with different foods. Then another person with bamboo containers. And another. And another. They just kept coming. At first we said yes to all the dishes that were brought to us, but after a few minutes we had to say no because we simply couldn’t eat any more!
I’m not really sure what I ate, because none of them spoke clear English to explain what we were getting. It was a funny experience because we didn’t actually order anything it was all just brought to us. I liked pretty much everything that was brought to the table-but the one dish I really didn’t like was a purplish/blackish brownie looking thing. I heard it was a dessert so I thought it would be sweet. When I tried it, it was not at all sweet and tasted nothing like a brownie. I quickly ate some other food to get the yucky taste out of my mouth. By the time we were ready to leave the place had filled up a bit more, so we were no longer the only people in the room. Just before we left I was brought a damp hot towel to wash my hands. I have to say I like the warm feeling of the hot towel better than paper towels.
At the end of the 13 hour plane ride from San Francisco we arrived in Hong Kong at 5am, August 20th. I know #3 mentioned the flight took 14 hours but when you’re up in the clouds that long what’s the difference?
Hong Kong? What’s the deal with Hong Kong? Is it part of China and if so why are the regulations to different there? My handy-dandy traveling encyclopedia—wikipedia, informed me that Great Britain use to control Hong Kong but in the mid 80’s it made a deal with China to take control but allow Hong Kong special autonomy. China sees Hong Kong as “part of one country with two systems.”
After clearing immigration and customs it was 7am. Out plane to Vietnam didn’t leave for another 7 hours. What to do? What to do? We boarded a fast train that felt like the monorail ride at Disneyland. The train was clean, smooth and computerized. I didn’t see any employees or workers on the train. A women’s voice that fell sharply from the speakers above informed us of upcoming stops in two languages—Chines and English.
We exited at the Kowloon station and got on a bus that took us to a ferry that then deposited us at a large mall and financial center. We were engulfed in a towering building of concrete and glass. Now you tell me, does that sound like a place the Falyn Family Five wants to hang out at?
But we were hungry—breakfast time. Surprisingly, the concrete and glass structure offered two choices for food: sandwiches in plastic and hard bagels from a coffee bar. We sashed over to a woman at an information booth and said, pardner, we am new to these parts, any good places for grub outside this box? She looked at us with her very polite Chinese features and said, “I’m sorry. I do not understand.” Then, sheepishly #2 said, is there any good breakfast restaurants outside the mall? She told us that most places wouldn’t be open yet but there was a Dim Sum restaurant. But they didn’t speak any English there.
Let’s do it, was #2’s boisterous reply.
A block away from the structure of concrete and glass the streets narrowed, street vendors appeared setting up for the day amongst huge cranes and platforms. Apparently more structures of concrete and glass were scheduled. If this continued would the street vendors one day become extinct? It already felt as if they were huddled and cowering amongst the giants.
The sign above the door was written in Chinese. There was no English translation. But as we peered in the door we saw Chinese men eating from large white bowls with chopsticks. This must be the place. The front door was opened, Chinese was spoken and then the side door was opened and a man waved us forward.
We followed the man up three flights of stairs. As we passed each floor we saw mostly Chinese men circled around large tables eating Dim Sum. Some of the men wore sunglasses as they ate. Were we stepping into a Chinese version of an Italian restaurant with the Italian Mafia planning their next business activity?
On the third floor we were seated by an old Chinese man who looked like he’d been working at the restaurant for forty years. He reminded me of the old waiters at Musso & Frank’s in Hollywood. When I ate there in the 80’s, some of the waiters use to tell stories of waiting on Clark Gable in the forties.
The old Chinese waiter placed one single-sided pink menu on the table. It was written in Cantonese with English translations. Before we even had a chance to look at the menu, food started to appear. One by one servers—male, female, old, young—all Chinese brought Dim Sum in bamboo containers to our table. The servers told us what was in the Dim Sum but they told us in Cantonese. Fortunately, the old man came to our rescue. He didn’t speak much English but he knew enough to point to the English translations. Fish maw. Ok, I don’t really know what that is but we’ll try it.
At first I felt it would be rude to refuse what the servers offered as if refusing their would would somehow be refusing them—but very quickly I got over that. We were all getting full.
At the end of the meal, #3 said, “that was the most unusual meal I’ve ever had.”
Well said #3. Well said!
Did I mention that Hong Kong is one of the most expensive cities I’be ever been to?
Life on the road with,
The Falyn Family Five
I'm #2, and I'm in the mood to share a little ditty.
Honk Kong / Kowloon Ditty
I’m just a dim-sum dog on a bullet train
I got a Hong Kong Sweat, then I’m skipping in rain.
The tombstone bathrooms with slick marble walls
In the belly of the city where buildings grow tall
Trains and buses in Kowloon
Gads of people at high noon
Let’s glide, on the water, let’s glide
Take a ride, on the water, take a ride
The Star Fairy wends 'cross the bay
Time of Monsoon, time for rain
Grandmas serve dim-sum on the 3rd floor
Touristas come in by the side door
Fish mash and shrimp, an old man’s wink
Our day in this city, gone in a blink
We walk away with fool’s gold rings
And little black books to write these things
Let’s glide, on the water, let’s glide
Take a ride, on the water, take a ride
This plane ride is very long but there's a TV on the back of the seat in front of me. I sat next to #2 and the movie I watched was CINDERELLA—not the animated one. When then movie was over #2 said “go to bed and no more movies!”
And so I looked out the window and thought about the car ride to the airport. John Dawkins drove us to the airport. Elise was also in the car. Elise and #3 talked about…I don’t know what they talked about. #2 talked on the phone with her friends Jessica and Darla, while #1 talked to Johnny.
I looked out the window and sang a little song I made up on the spot. It was fun. When we got to the airport John and Elise said goodbye and the Falyn Family Five went to check in for the plane ride.
As we walked through the security line I saw a little girl and her mom. The little girl was crying “Papa Papa” and then I looked over to the place she was looking and saw a man crying on the other side of the security glass. Was he the little girl’s Dad? The mom and the little girl moved further away from the man as they went through the line.
I was very confused and I felt bad for the girl. I wondered what was going on as we went through security and walked to the plane.