Monday, December 31, 2007


We're enjoying so many things about this trip, but I think the best part is the learning. Sometimes it's myths being corrected, sometimes blanks filled in, and always a new appreciation and a lot of ohhh!'s. Vietnam is a good example. We'd heard about the Vietnam war, of course, but, well, let's see... no, that's pretty much it. Really shouldn't be telling you this, but we didn't know that the Chinese ruled Vietnam for a thousand years, or that the French ruled for a hundred, or even that the northern communists defeated the Americans and united the country. So you can understand our surprise at finding Vietnam to have European architecture and Chinese-sounding music. (Go ahead, this is where you tut.)

This is the Vietnam we expected: dirt paths, flooded rice paddies, and everyone on bicycles wearing conical hats.

Actually, the European and the Chinese influences surprised us for different reasons. First, the Europeans. Those French, eh, just went everywhere - and where they didn't go, the English went. It's amazing how far-reaching European architecture and bakeries have spread in the world. Traveling Asia is like visiting a museum about the Rise and Fall of the European Empire, and the remnants are like ghosts. Secondly, the Chinese. We knew that Vietnam had some kind of Chinese influence, as all the south-east asian countries do, being so close to China and all, but it seems to be more pronounced here than elsewhere. The conical hats, the colour red, the nasal music, the tonal language, the faces, the habit of doing (almost) everything on the sidewalks - even the Vietnam flag is like a close-up of the Chinese flag.
After landing in Hanoi, we left the next morning for Cuc Phuong National Park, some 3 hours from Hanoi. It was beautiful, clean, and quiet: just the way we like it. We birded our little hearts out and snuggled in thick duvets on our bungalow's porch, sipping hot tea that tasted like smoke. There was electricity only from 6-10 at night, and it was gloriously cool - cold even! We wore the same thing everyday, and loved every minute of it, because it was the first time since Tibet that we haven't been sweat-soaked from morning till night. The park is massive, and in it there were a few 1,000-year old trees that you can walk to. The forest around those trees seemed especially magical, and indeed in one we could hear Brown Hornbills calling 45 meters up. They sound like dinosaurs. Ancient birds in an ancient tree.And of course we did a lot of walking in the forest. Love those root-vines that grow like weeds: this one we could sit on like a swing. We learned that these root-vines are from the fig plant, whose airborne seeds land on branches of big trees and shoot their roots out towards the ground, winding themselves around the host tree until eventually the host is suffocated and dies. Parasites even in the 'peaceful' plant world. In a place so full of life, you're reminded of death all the time, as leaves fall to the ground, insects are devoured by birds, and parties of ground creatures take what the canopy has given them and turn it into dirt.

We grudgingly left the forest and headed back to Hanoi on New Year's Eve, where we were greeted with millions of motorcycles - and at least half of that number trying to coax us into accepting a motorcycle-taxi ride. We've seen all sorts of hawkers in our travels, but never have we met taxi-wallahs who just won't take 'no' for an answer like we have here in Vietnam. Not even the second time, or the fifth, or the time when you make direct eye contact, put your hand on his shoulder and utter the word 'no' in the 'I really mean it this time' way. It's amazing. They just keep asking. Like we're going to say 'no' 20 times, but on the 21st time, oh hey, yeah, now that you mention it, we really DO want to go on a motorcycle ride! Thanks for asking!
Once we got over our initial shock of city-life (again), we came to see the beauty of Hanoi. The 'Old Quarter' (cute European area with all the tourist comforts and souvenirs) is at the head of a lake (see the picture) and the air is clean and fresh. The roads in the rest of town remind us of those from China - red banners strung between trees lining the unpainted streets filled with bodies going various directions on various modes of transport all at once. At first, it all seems like chaos, and you fear for your life. But, with practice, you see that there is order to the chaos, and you can descend into it without fear, or at least with a little less fear. One week in Vietnam was not enough to see more than these two places, but at least it gave us an idea about this country - hopefully enough to build more knowledge upon in the future, maybe in concert with a trip down the 1,800 km coastline to the Mekong Delta in the south... so much to see in this world!

Next stop: Australia! Where we'll be for the month of January, so the rate of blogging will drop off significantly. Happy New Year to you all, wherever you are, and keep those emails coming:)


Packin' in the heat in Thailand.
Thailand was - you guessed it - a surprise. The people were lovely - smiles everywhere and really good at dealing with westerners - and it was much more expensive than we had anticipated. Another surprise was the chance to see mom and dad Styles there: our paths just happened to meet up on the island of Ko Pha-Ngan. ('Course all the pictures of the four of us are on their camera!)
Overlooking a tropical paradise on Ko Pha-Ngan on mom and dad Styles' balcony.

Of course some things about Thailand were not surprises, namely the gorgeous beaches. It was easy to understand why westerners flock here in droves: the beaches really are beautiful, and there are tons of them (beaches and westerners). It was the windy season while we were on Ko Pha-Ngan, so there was less beachfront and more clouds and rain than usual, but we got enough sun for our little white bodies.

The Classic Beach Shot.

Our time in Thailand was actually split into several parts:

first, we flew to Phuket and made our way to Ko Pha-Ngan to get our beaching in and see mom and dad Styles, stopping for a couple of days at a great beach just north of Phuket (Khao Lak / Bang Niang) and for one day at a national park to do some birding (Khao Sok);

then we boated and bussed to Bangkok and from there bussed to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat and our friends from Korea, Melissa and Tabitha;

then we bussed back to Bangkok and met our Thai friend Sirya, who took us to Khao Yai national park nearby where we watched his friends do 'mist-netting' (i.e. catching birds and measuring/ringing them for study purposes);

then back to Bangkok a third time to fly to Hanoi, Vietnam. Bangkok's tourist hub (Khao San Road) began to feel really familiar, and the really funny thing is we didn't take any pictures there!

Confused? Yes, we are a bit too. Many conversations lately start with 'So where were we when...?' or 'Was that before or after...?'

Watching the mist-netting experience was an experience of a lifetime, and then they let us try! Sirya's friends (who are doing master's/phd's in the park) set up the nets and extracted the birds, but they let us hold them, measure them (weight, wing/tail length) and put rings on their legs to mark when and where they were caught. Then we let them go. So neat to hold a living bird in your hand! Especially because we've seen these same species when birdwatching and so know their names and habits. Though they really act differently when caught; like seeing how people react in different situations, we now feel like we know those specific species a little more intimately. The ringing gives the team a good idea of movement of the birds, both local residents and long-distance migrants. For example, one species, the Dusky Warbler, was caught in this same net location last year. Since then, it has flown north perhaps as far as South Korea and back - to the same place for the winter. This helps conservationists learn their habits, learn what ecosystems and environments birds need to use (and so then protect) and also learn about life spans and DNA on tough-to-identify species like the Warblers, of whom we caught 4 different species. In all a wonderful experience - thanks to Siriya and the wonderful Thai team:)

Geoff's paradise.

Geoff holding a Large Scimitar Babbler. Cool bill, eh? This guy made a huge racket!

We enjoyed Thailand more than we had expected to, not least because we got to see mom and dad Styles and hold some birds! Next stop: Vietnam.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007


It is very interesting to see the difference between countries as one crosses borders by land. Usually the geography, weather and flora/fauna remain the same, so you're left to look for other differences to differentiate between the two. Between Mongolia and China, the only difference at first is the lack of gers in China, and the onset of the brick revolution that has swept that great country. Traveling overland from Singapore to Malaysia, the difference may be summed up as the differences between an ultra-organized compressed city and a semi-corrupt colonial country with a few less new BMWs driving around. Traveling from Thailand to Cambodia by land, however, provided many more reasons to believe you're in a new country.
So where does Cambodia begin and Thailand end? Cambodia begins where the pavement ceases. Where the Braham cow traces back to its Indian roots to once again become Waste Management Engineers, Grass Trimmer and Fertilizer Crews, Traffic Speed Control Troops and of course Planters of Natural Land Mines. Cambodia begins where the houses leave the ground to be propped up on rickety stilts, where dust billows from the unpaved roads and gas is sold out of used 2-litre pop bottles. The quick, friendly smile remains, the Southern-Chinese faces stay the same, and the language sounds equally beautiful yet unreachable, but all else takes on a whole new face.
Then you hit Siem Reap, and you feel like you've entered another country again. All at once, the pavement picks up, street signs and street lights shine at you from road sides, houses are firmly planted in the earth and you pass 5-star hotels on your left and right. Siem Reap, gateway to Angkor Wat, is everything a tourist hub should be. Western food and pubs, tourist trap shopping areas, quaint streets lined with people trying to drive you places and stores to find cheese, chocolate and wine. After traveling over 150 km of dirt road while taking 5 hours to do so, it felt like an oasis in the middle of the desert! We also lucked in on our trip, as Siem Reap held two more surprises for us - Tabitha and Melissa!! Our friends from Wonkwang University just happened to be on holiday here, and luckily they were there the same time as us! It was great to see them again and to share some of that cheese and wine mentioned earlier:) As Tabitha arrived a few days earlier than us, and Melissa a couple days later, we did not take in Siem Reap's main attraction with them. The main attraction being Angkor Wat.
Angkor Wat is spectacular. Not in the bright and linear lines of the Taj Mahal, though, nor in the ancient length and magnitude of the Great Wall. It is spectacular because it is unpretentious. It is old, but it has been allowed to age with dignity, unlike parts of the Great Wall, which have been rebuilt with a spirit only a plastic surgeon could appreciate. You are allowed to meander through Angkor Wat at your own pace and in your own direction, unlike the Taj Mahal, where you're herded some ways while being denied other paths. We loved Angkor Wat for these reasons and many more. The greenery around the area was peaceful, and seeing villagers going about their business is always rewarding. The sheer size of the area covered by Angkor and the other various Wats is absolutely stunning, and one is left in awe of what it must have looked like 300 years ago without the roads, cars and tourists. Check out our photos on Picasa, as words (at least mine) just don't do this place justice. The intricacy and refinement of the images carved into the solid stone are a marvel, and it struck us that the minds behind planning the various wats, all of which are different, are nothing short of genius. If you haven't seen this place yet, put it on your list, and somewhere near the top.
Although we only spent a few days in Cambodia, it was well worth it. In ancient Chinese tradition, there are 3 Great happinesses in life. One of them is seeing old friends in new places, and seeing Melissa and Tabitha in Siem Reap certainly met that criteria! Seeing Angkor Wat was one of the highlights of our trip so far, is a place we want to learn more about. Seeing a part of Cambodia was also extremely interesting, and we learned a lot by going overland - sights and sounds we would have missed had we skipped the 7-hour 150 km overland bus ride from the border of Thailand and flown instead. A great experience all around!
From here we're back to Thailand for a few days in Khao Yai National Park with Siriya - a Thai conservationist who joined us in South Korea last year to help count shorebirds during the SSMP (Saemangeum Shorebird Monitoring Program). From there its to Hanoi, Vietnam on Boxing Day and then Australia on January 2nd! We hope the holidays have treated you all well, and thank you to all of you who sent us well wishes for this holiday season! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas, everyone! Here's our Christmas poem, this year to the tune of 'Feliz Navidad' because it was the first time that we understood the upbeat-ness of this song as we gazed out at beaches and sweated in flipflops - for once it was the slow solemn Christmas songs that sounded out of place with our surroundings! Italics is for the 'feliz navidad' melody; regular font is for the 'I wanna wish you a merry christmas' melody.

Feliz Navidad
Zul Saryn Bolon [Mongolian]
Kung His Hsin Nien Bing [Mandarin]
Suksan Wan Christmas Lae Sawadee Pee Mai [Thai]

Before we left our home in Korea
Em wrote her thesis on Buddhist ideas
Geoff did bird counting and was head teacher
Both run ragged and mostly apart

Shubh Naya Baras [Hindi]
Selamat Hari Natal [Malay]
Krist Yesu Ko Shuva Janma Utsav Ko Upalaxhma Hardik Shuva [Nepali]

Since the summer we're traveling Asia
Mongolia first then with Styles in China
Tibet, Nepal, six weeks all through India
Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand.

We want to wish you a Merry Christmas
We're thinking how good it will be to see ya
Although we're far soon we will be nearer
We send our love wherever we are.

Monday, December 17, 2007


Returning to Malaysia always has the feel of coming home for us. When my parents traveled through here in 1973, they were picked up while hitchhiking by a warm family who quickly opened their hearts and homes to them. For the next 22 years, letters and pictures were exchanged until we went back as a family in 1995. By then, the young children from '73 were grown with kids of their own, and the connection continues to this day. They live just outside of Kuala Lumpur, the bright capital of Malaysia, and every time any of our family members or friends travel through Malaysia, we are invited into their homes and lives again. The Grandmother Savithri, her daughter Santhi and Santhi's husband Ganesan welcomed us, along with their three girls, Manjoo, Tharra and Urmila, who are growing up amazingly fast.
Santhi's brother Arunan lives with his wife Veronica and daughters Amara and Calista and new son Vernon only 20 minutes away. Not only do the two families give us a warm and comforatble home away from home, with great food and fantastic company, but they also give us a look into Malaysia that few foreigners are afforded. A tri-cultural country, Malaysia is for many countries a model for multi-culturalism in action. That model, however, isn't perfect, and indeed while we were there a demonstration was held downtown, complete with riot police, projectiles, and the finality of a road block in and out of the downtown area. This demonstration, however, was different from previous demonstrations, as it was the first time the Indian population spoke out against the government, accusing them of unfairness in their dealings with the three peoples of the country. The Malays, the ethnic majority but long-time economic minority, enjoy all kinds of rights and privileges that the other two races are beginning to tire of. Pro-rated university entrance numbers, obligatory partnernship with Malays for any business opened by the other two races, and monetary supplements for any number of life's tough spots all lead to an unfair level of treatment, so the Indians and Chinese say. It's not like Singapore, where there really are no ethnic peoples, as everyone basically moved there en masse through the past couple of centuries. It's these small insights that the family provides us that help us grasp what makes this country tick.

Apart from this, Malaysia is a burgeoning state, with lots going for it. One look at the downtown area, with its broad streets, clean roads, friendly faces and sky-scratching highrises, and you have to remind yourself that you're in Asia. Central Market and Chinatown bustle with shops and outdoor vendors selling all sorts can't-miss articles, while the KL City Center has the Petronas Towers, the KL Tower, and the business high rises that give the city its opulent feel. Walking the streets of KL, you feel like you're walking through the United Streets of Beneton, with clothes fashions from all over the world, not to mention face shapes and skin colours. The real attraction of Malaysia, however, is on the east coast - beaches. Unfortunately, these gems were under the monotonously wet attack of the monsoon season, so we were forced to avoid them, leaving our beach time for Thailand. We therefore headed to the hills, Fraser's Hill, to be exact.

Fraser's Hill sits 3 hours north of KL, sandwiched between Malaysia's other attractions - the tea estates of the Cameron Highlands, and the sweltering rainforest of Taman Negara National Park. We chose Fraser's Hill because it it less developed, actually only 30% developed and 70% undeveloped rainforest, which differs from the 80% developed Cameron Highlands. It had also been raining quite a bit, and we were a little tired of watching for leeches on our shoes when trying to bird, so the National Park, which is known for such creatures, was also out. What we found was wonderful. Quiet trails led through the forest, while birding from the one-way roads leading off the hill were very productive. We met the leader of the local NGO and had a great chat with him about the environmental scene in Malaysia, which, to our surprise, seems to be quite positive. No other country we've traveled in has had a rosy environmental picture, and we've interviewed people in all of them. The good will towards the environment, however, was only created through the disastrous 2004 tsunami, which devastated mangrove areas along the coast. The government learned to respect that force, and in turn has been actively working with local NGO groups to protect undeveloped areas while promoting environmentally-friendly development. A bit of a leap from tsunami destruction to environmental protection, but hey, the environment will take it any way it can!
After 4 days in the cool breezes of the old British hill station, we descended back on KL before heading out by plane to Thailand. Because of the way we've structured our trip - trying to see a lot of places in not a lot of time, we don't leave ourselves much time to breath in a country and its people. Singapore felt like a whirlwind, while we did India from top to bottom with only a couple of breathers in between. Although we only spent 10 days in Malaysia, we felt refreshed, like we had taken a break from the break-neck pace we've been on. Thanks to the family and some lovely time birding and hiking through quiet green spaces, we're ready to take SE Asia by storm! Well, we're ready for 10 days of beaching in southern Thailand anyway . . . Happy holidays to you all, and we wish you all the best in the New Year!

Sunday, December 16, 2007


Singapore was another surprise. We flew only 4 hours from Chennai (Madras), but we couldn't have found a country more opposite from India! To borrow a Konglish phrase, "Singapore is no": no garbage, no poo, no pollution, no noise, no chaos, no smell, no touts, no cows, no dogs, no beggars - in fact, no poverty, no untended plot, no unmanicured space, no unfinished corners. What Singapore is is orderly, clean, wealthy, organized, efficient, and sparkling. It gave us an idea of how a mother can love equally two children who are polar opposite: we loved the chaos of India, and we loved the control of Singapore. In fact, we suspect that we loved the orderliness of Singapore because we had just come from the overwhelmingness of India. We recommend visiting the two one after another (but India must be first!): they complement each other like sweet and sour. We were fascinated by the business-amusement-park feel of the clean and manicured streets of downtown Singapore. (Actually, Singapore reminded us a lot of Vancouver; we're curious now to visit Vancouver now to see if it too feels like an amusement park.) No messy life processes happening on these streets! All ugly scenes of life are effectively hidden from view - in fact, one might come to forget that sickness and death exist in Singapore. In India, this is impossible: homeless dogs with missing patches of fur, glazed eyes, and open sores roam the streets; small children and bent-backed elderly sell trinkets to make a living; unbelievable numbers of people have no shoes and no food; garbage and other unpleasants stay where they've been discharged. But in Singapore, everyone is well-dressed, well-fed, healthy, and of a moderate age; and there are no stray dogs at all. In India we felt like the prince Siddhartha viewing old age, sickness, and death on the streets and contemplating nirvana; in Singapore we drank sweet coffees at Starbucks and not once did death come into our thoughts. But as much as we were affected by these surroundings, the minds of local people are thoroughly shaped by them: in India the people moved slowly with a look of fatalistic resignation in their eyes; in Singapore they moved slowly with the confidence that they were not in the constant mortal peril of being hit by a moving object (car, motorcycle, cow, whatever) or stepping in anything unpleasant. The population of Singapore is made up of Chinese (about 70%), Indian (about 20%), and Malay (about 10%), but there is a difference in Singapore: the Chinese are plump, the Indians have shoes, and the Malays have to compete for jobs and university spots. Not generalizing, of course. Basing these sound opinions on two full days in Singapore - obviously you can disregard that grain of salt you've got. Isn't traveling great? You finally learn to let go of stereotypes and simplifications, and really see the intricacies of life in all their complexity. We passed our one hundredth day of travel while in Singapore and, chance would have it, we stumbled upon this "fromagerie", with real cheese, baguette, and wine, so that afternoon we enjoyed these luxuries and played a little chess. (Geoff's still winning every game, but it's just a matter of time, I tell him.) International places such as these are commonplace here, which shouldn't surprise the student of history. This city's fortunes have been won and lost on it's power as a port, a middle-man between countries. Today, 70% of the country's GDP is made through 'services' given to other countries. Banking, shipping, docking, refining, all of these things lead to places like Le Fromagerie. Singapore has grown internally stronger by welcoming external dollars and business, and will continue to flourish because of this.

The next day we took the metro and a bus out to a nature reserve. It was our first time in mangroves, and the closest we've been to monitor lizards. And some great birds, of course: fantails, tailorbirds, kingfishers, whimbrels, sandpipers, and an eagle. Being such an organized and wealthy place, Singapore has allocated money to places like this nature reserve, and we were impressed with how tastefully this preservation project was done. With all the growth this country has undergone since it's birth in 1965, it is refreshing to see that some areas have been fully protected and that development doesn't have to mean outright takeover of all natural areas of land. That being said, it is definitely an urban country, void of wild, unmanaged natural spaces.
We stayed with Chithra (below) - a cousin of Santhi's (the family in Malaysia) - her husband Ashok and nine-year-old daughter Nikita. We really enjoyed our short stay with them, and we were especially impressed with Nikki's confidence and composure in welcoming us to her home (we arrived while her parents were at work) and showing us around. We also enjoyed peppering Chithra and Ashok about life in Singapore, and the changes that they have seen in this city, which only became independent 42 years ago, but which has grown into one of Asia's Little Dragons. Add that to the myriad of 'National Campaigns' the government dreams up, and you've got one happenin' place. It's Singapore's size that really gives it an advantage over other countries. Take this example - a few years ago, APEC descended on Singapore, and organizers thought it would be nice if they were welcomed by the Singaporeans. So, EVERY Singaporean, all 4 million of them, had to send in their smiling picture via email, which were then posted online, on walls and at the airport to welcome the delegates. At the same time, locals were encouraged to smile and be helpful on the streets through the 'smile campaign' and 'help a foreigner campaign' to help make the meeting successful and the delegates happy. Where else would this happen, or more importantly, where else could it happen? Nowhere. That's another reason Singapore is unique.
A lovely place to visit, Singapore is, if you look at it as what it is - a city. As far as cities in the world go, however, it would be tough to beat this one. Next stop, Malaysia:)