Archive for October, 2007

Thailand’s Tip Top

Monday, October 29th, 2007

We spent a fun three days in Chiang Mai, a four hour drive from Chiang Rai.  This part of Thailand is quite beautiful, so the drive was interesting, and the end destination well worth it.

Chiang Mai 020 We made a few quicker visits to local attractions in the Chiang Mai area, including an orchid farm.  The flowers were beautiful, and Elizabeth was mesmerized by the varieties and colors.  And we learned a fair amount about how they grow these beautiful flowers.  Orchids are so commonplace in Thailand that a gift of orchids is a bit like a gift of dandelions in the U.S.  I say, “Bring ‘em on!”

Chiang Mai 036 No trip to a country could be considered complete by our family without a trip to the local snake farm.  Elizabeth and I aren’t quite sure where our kids developed this fascination, but they are very excited by reptiles and amphibians, with special interest in snakes.  And we got an unexpected treat when a long-time family friend, J.D. Willson, sent us his advice on all aspects of snake investigation.  J.D. is getting his Ph.D. at the University of Georgia in Herpetology, and has a great website, which our kids spend considerable time exploring.

Chiang Mai 046 As you know, it’s a very slippery slope leading from interest to addition.  In the spirit of complete honesty and disclosure, our family is dealing with such a vicious problem.  Our nine-year-old daughter has developed a debilitating addition to snake handling :-) , which is getting worse by the country.  It was bad when it was a Children’s Python in Australia, but it’s now escalated to Burmese Pythons here in Thailand (photo above or brief video).  If anyone out there has any charms or antidotes we could use to help her control these urges, send them our way!!

Chiang Mai 126 One highlight of our stay in Chiang Mai was our hotel, the Mandarin Oriental.  It was remarkably beautiful, with great food and terrific surroundings.  At times, we had to remind ourselves that it was recently built, and not hundreds of years old.  The staff was very nice, and the pool was also great.  And there was lots of room to run around and explore.  It was consistent with our impression of the general area, lots of well-kept and attractive buildings, lots of natural beauty, and really nice people. 

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Chiang Mai 072 And, it was ideal for watching the last two games of the World Series, including the deciding Game #4.  Go, Red Sox!!  The final game ended with about fifteen minutes to spare for us to depart for our flight to Phuket, so it couldn’t have worked out better.  And our nine and eleven year olds could watch the games to completion here, since they end around 11:00 a.m.  And in 2004, I attended Game #2 of the World Series, and witnessed the famous “Bloody Sock” game pitched by Curt Schilling.  To bring extra good luck to the Red Sox, I managed to cut my left ankle and have my own bloody sock, undoubtedly the key to the Red Sox win in Game #3.

Chiang Mai 074 We spent a day touring one of Thailand’s National Parks, Doi Ithanan, and made it to Thailand’s highest spot.  The park is beautiful, and we got in a couple of great hikes.  We saw some very interesting birds, including two species of Sunbird, but they flit around so quickly I couldn’t get a picture.  But it’s a spectacular park, and great to see a country in this part of the world protecting it..

Click here to see our Chiang Mai photos.

Elephant Camp!

Sunday, October 28th, 2007

Chiang Rai 327 We flew from Bangkok north to Chiang Rai, Thailand, for a few days highlighted by elephant camp. Elephant Camp?!?! Well, we stayed at a great spot, the Anantara, which has a great facility and a family of some fifteen elephants, complete with skilled Mahouts, or trainers. And there were lots of other great things to do in the area.

Chiang Rai 052 We learned a ton (well, 2-3 tons, the weight of an adult elephant) about Asian elephants during our stay in Chiang Rai. They are smart animals, with remarkable agility. Just watching their trunks was an experience in itself. They had so much dexterity in their trunk, and feeding them bananas or sugar cane was fascinating to observe.

Chiang Rai 259 Elizabeth, Gibson, and Sterling not only rode the elephants, they learned how to command, wash, and train them. I, meanwhile, opted to be the family photographer, since I’m not sure my legs and back would ever be the same after trying to ride one of these beasts! But the kids loved every minute with the elephants, and Elizabeth showed remarkable agility in getting on and off of them.

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At the end of one trek, all riders and elephants also went swimming, an unexpected (or, to see Elizabeth’s face, shocking) development at the end of one trek. The elephants often disappeared beneath the surface of the water, leaving the rider soaked up to the neck, and hoping the water wasn’t too deep!

Chiang Rai 298 While our time with the elephants was the highlight of Chiang Rai, we did other great things there, and loved our stay in this beautiful area of Thailand. The area is called the Golden Triangle, because it’s where three countries — Thailand, Laos, and Burma — adjoin. One morning, we managed to spend time in all three countries, including making our way through immigration to and from Burma (no easy matter these days!). We were struck by how different the people are in each country despite the clear proximity.

Chiang Rai 287 While in Chiang Rai, we visited a great non-profit focusing on children at risk due to the child slave market in Thailand. All too often, parents or guardians will sell young children to unscrupulous parties, either for slave labor or sex trade. These “caretakers,” either through ignorance, desperate poverty, and unfathomable greed, will sell children to perfect strangers, sentencing these kids to a life miserable beyond words. The non-profit we visited identifies family situations where, for all sorts of reasons, have children likely to be victimized. They have a great school for these kids, educate them, give them great life skills, and take pride that many return to their communities to become leaders. It was a ray of hope in a very dark side of life in this part of the world.

Chiang Rai 335 The Golden Triangle historically has been a center of opium production. The government here has been successful in getting many farmers to switch from poppy to other crops. And they built an amazing, but perplexing, museum here called the Opium Museum. We visited it, found it educational, architecturally gorgeous, and . . . deserted. We were almost the only people there, for a museum that was larger than Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. But if you’re in this area with kids, and you want an effective way to educate them about the dangers of addictive drugs, this is a must stop.

Chiang Rai 317 One morning, we went on a great nature hike, covering a couple of great spots in the Chiang Rai area. We saw 53 different bird species in a morning, including the elusive Hoopoe (a truly bizarre bird) and a Coppersmith’s Barbet. The kids continued their quest for finding snake’s in the wild, and again came up empty-handed (a mixed blessing!).

With some sadness, we left Chiang Rai to move to Chiang Mai, also in northern Thailand. But this area is really a great place to visit. The air is crystal clear, it has beautiful plant and animal life, mountains, and the people are so nice. Thailand is a great destination, and we’re thrilled that we are still spending another week and one-half here!

Check out our Thailand photos and videos on Thailand, including some great elephant videos. For instance, you can see an elephant’s amazing trunk, Elizabeth mounting this beast from the side and the front (my favorite!), Gibson climbing aboard including the side mount, Sterling climbing aboard, and the one video not to be missed — the afternoon swimming party!!

The Venice of Asia

Friday, October 26th, 2007

Bangkok 467 We had a great time in Bangkok, and it rates as one of our favorite destinations on the trip. We stayed right on the Bangkok River and got a real chance to see why the city is called the Venice of Asia. And we did a number of fun things away from the river as well. We found Bangkok, our first stop in Thailand, to be a total delight, and a place we’d highly recommend to anyone visiting this part of the world.. We agree with one hotel staff member’s view — Hat’s Off To Bangkok!

Bangkok 155 For starters, I found the people in Thailand to be wonderful. I didn’t sense the same pace of economic development here as in China or Vietnam, but the country seems to be moving forward. Bangkok, with a population of 10 million, is the capital of Thailand. Some 95% of the population is Buddhist, and signs of the Buddhist religion are prevalent.

Bangkok 212 A must visit in Bangkok is the Grand Palace, the royal palace of the kings of the Chakri Dynasty. founded in 1782 and the current ruling house. The royal family no longer resides there, but it is still used for state functions. The current king of Thailand seems very popular, but is quite ill. He has four children (one son and three daughters) and the succession possibilities sounded quite complicated and challenging. Stay tuned!

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We had a most interesting evening in Bangkok, which started with a trip to a street-side flower market. I would never — in a million years — have guessed that I would be fascinated and energized by a flower market! It was so alive, though, with trucks pulling up full of amazing flowers from the farmlands. Vendors were selling all sorts of flowers. To give you an idea of prices, the bouquet of orchidsBangkok 353 above cost less than $1 U.S. Apparently, they’re so cheap that it’s not appropriate as a nice present. I’ve never seen so many amazing flowers. Elizabeth, who is totally into flowers, was in seventh heaven in this market. But all of us were astounded to see the variety and beauty in this energetic market.

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Bangkok 377 Well, talk about contrasts! We left the flower market and went to a Thai Kick Boxing Match. We’re not exactly the “boxing” types, but we thought it would be worth seeing while we were in Bangkok. We may have set the record for shortest stay, although we did make it through one match. From what we could tell, almost nothing was illegal. They punch each other, they kick each other, they knee each other, and they hip check each other. Honestly, it was almost as ruthless and fierce as the Boston venture capital market! To get a real feel for a match, take a look at the video at http://dintersmith.phanfare.com/album/454924/637612#imageID=29640418.

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The next morning, we visited a hidden gem of Bangkok, the Prasart Museum. Mr. Prasart, whom we met, is my kind of guy. He has little formal education, and grew up in a very poor family. At age 10, he began collecting art, primarily to make money. Early in his career, he also bought and sold real estate (and still does, at his current age of 64), quite successfully. But over the past twenty Bangkok 301 years, he’s focused on his own art work and his foundation. He does the most amazing work in ceramics, enamel, water colors. And his foundation is focused on improving education for children in rural Thailand. The grounds are so serene and lovely, and the art work is superb.

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As we readied to leave Bangkok, we stopped to think about how quickly our kids are growing up. At the start, they were so young, and now they have become much older and wiser. We never dreamed we’d be buying a razor and shaving cream for Gibson to take off sprouting facial hair :-) !

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Baseball in Bangkok 114 We loved Bangkok! The food was terrific, it was easy to get around, and we even managed to squeeze in another Baseball Ambassador programs, with 125 children who practice for three hours Saturdays and Sundays all year round. Very impressive. The day we played with them was “cool” by Bangkok standards, but Gibson was still worn out a couple of days later after working quite hard withBangkok 272 their team. After all the running he did, he was starting to look a bit like this hyper fellow we encountered at the hotel’s pool :-) . As I said earlier, they sure grow up fast!!

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For our photos on Bangkok, go to

http://dintersmith.phanfare.com/album/454924/637612#imageID=29640296.

Family Life On The Road

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2007

 

IMG_1663 Well, exactly two months ago, we left Jamestown, Rhode Island on our 10+ month trip with eight suitcases.  Now, we’re two months into the trip, and I thought it would be useful to summarize how it’s going for us.  When we left, I don’t think any of us really knew what we were getting ourselves into, but we now have a good feel for what this experience is all about.  I’ll start with a few lists, and then add some color commentary.

Positive Surprises

It’s been easy to move from place to place, and we’ve enjoyed being “on the go.”  We’ve stayed in 24 places in two months, and — somewhat incredibly – that pace has worked well for us

Everyone, and I mean everyone, has been remarkably nice to us

We’ve had no real challenges with language barriers

Home-schooling is fun and highly-productive (most days :-)

The Far East has been incredibly interesting, but it’s from learning how people live and their history — not looking at sights

Visiting people who face extraordinary daily challenges has had a dramatic impact on us

This trip is more of an intense educational year instead of a vacation, and we’re working hard (especially the kids)

This trip will change our family forever

 

What We Miss The Most

Friends and relatives

Sharing home-cooked meals with friends

Organized sports, especially Fenway Park in October

A night out at a movie theatre with popcorn

Regular, frequent exercise (thankfully, the scales show kilograms!)

Watching Desperate Housewives on Sunday nights

 

What’s Surreal

Always being a half day ahead of East Coast time

Generally having no idea what day of the week it is, and often losing track of what month it is

Having almost no possessions, daily “chores,” or routine (other than schoolwork for our kids)

Never knowing where the bathroom is in the middle of the night

Being the only Caucasians in most of the places we’ve been

Watching a Sunday night baseball game on Monday morning — live!

 

Biggest Hassles

Charging batteries, lugging chargers, and internet access

Not being able to order stuff, especially books, on-line

Too many smokers

Finding the on/off switches for lights in hotel rooms

Finding a grassy area (or even some asphalt) to play baseball in

 

Prior to departure, my biggest concern was an itinerary that called for moving often from place IMG_1659 to place — generally every 2-4 days.  It’s turned out that, for our family, this hasn’t been an issue in the slightest.  We can pack now in less than fifteen minutes, we generally make good use of our time  to/from airports, and air transportation in Asia has been a welcome change from the U.S.   We rarely leave somewhere wishing for a longer stay, and are always excited about the next place.  There’s just been no wear and tear to date from the moving around we’re doing (despite being in 24 different locations in two months).  We have been relying on Small World Travel in Austin, Texas, to help us plan this trip, and they’ve consistently come up with great agendas for each country we visit.

Hanoi 180 Another surprise is how incredibly friendly people are.  I suspect it helps to travel with kids.  But almost without exception, the people we meet couldn’t be nicer.  It’s really made an impression on all of us, and it’s inspiring to interact with so many kind people in the countries we’ve visited.  Maybe I spent too much time in a highly-competitive business field, but I’ve been deeply impressed with the kindness and thoughtfulness of perfect strangers we encounter.  It also has underscored for us our responsibility to be a great ambassadors for the U.S. as we travel abroad.

IMG_0157 Another positive development has been the home-schooling we’re doing with our children.  We’re covering tons of material, and we can see the weekly improvement in our children’s command of the subjects.  We spend about three hours a day, seven days a week, on core topics, and have been — thanks to Elizabeth — very disciplined in our approach.  Also, since she and I are teaching the core subjects, we can reinforce those lessons throughout the rest of the day.  The kids seem happy with how it’s going, and both Elizabeth and I enjoy the time we spend teaching them.   I believe we’ll be better parents in the future since we’re really understanding how our kids learn.  We’ll have finished a full year of math, vocabulary, and geography by Christmas, so our next challenge is what to focus on come January.

Tasmania 020 Coming into the trip, we had high hopes for what we’d be seeing and experiencing.  But so far, we’ve been blown away by the trip and how educational and fun it’s been.  Even now, two months into it, we will often talk at meals about things we experienced on the trip.  Our kids are at the perfect age for this (ages 11 and 9), and Elizabeth and I are also young enough to have lots of energy for the travel.  This trip will be a part of our family fabric for the rest of our lives.

Tibet 242 In putting together our itinerary, we wanted to make the trip as educational as possible, and to make sure we all learn about life in very different countries and circumstances.  We’ve visited schools, orphanages, families living in acute poverty, a school for abandoned blind children, and facilities dealing with young children debilitated by the genetic consequences of Agent Orange.  I think our view of the world has changed dramatically as a result of these experiences.

Bullo River 135 Probably the best thing about the trip so far is the impact it’s having on our family.  We were fortunate over the past few years to have been able to spend a lot of time together, but nothing like this.  Our two children are with each other 24/7, and we were concerned prior to departure that they’d be at each others’ throats by now.  Our experience, though, has been the opposite.  The two children are having a great time with each other (most of the time :-) ), and we love being together each day. 

One striking thing about the trip has been how few possessions we need.  Everything I have fits in about 1 1/2 suitcases.  I use my iPod almost every day (usually listening to morning news podcasts as I do my exercises).  I have a limited set of clothes  (nothing dressy, and I spend most of my time in shorts), a few books to read, my laptop, and not much of anything else.  I don’t really miss any of the stuff I left behind (although I’ll occasionally visualize a great golf shot, which is the ONLY way I ever experience anything great in golf).  And, as we visit places and families who have so little, it’s reinforcing our view of how much any family really needs, and showing all of us what real poverty and hardship can be for so many people around the globe.

Adelaide Baseball 028 We’re a very sports-oriented family, and a year of travel poses challenges.  Golf and tennis, my two favorites, aren’t on the calendar for eleven months.  We’ve been following the Red Sox religiously, and it’s actually worked out well for our kids.  In the U.S. (east coast), young kids really can’t watch play-off games that start at 8:30 p.m.  But here, the games start early in the morning (7:30 a.m.), so we canBeijing 385 watch them easily.  And our little “Baseball Ambassadors” program has been great.  We’ve played with teams in Adelaide, Beijing, Shanghai,  and Bangkok.  It’s been a great way to meet kids in different countries, play some baseball, and do our best to put our country and the sport in a good light abroad.

 

It’s been great to share our experiences through our website and blogs, and we thank those of you who take the time to keep track of us.  It’s hard not having friends around, and the internet is a poor substitute for personal interaction, but it’s been a great way to keep in touch with people.  And it’s always a treat to hear from you, even a short note or quick question!

Baseball in Bangkok!

Sunday, October 21st, 2007

Baseball in Bangkok 112 We had a doubly great baseball day today in Bangkok, Thailand. For starters, we got up early and watched the first part of a Red Sox blow-out win against Cleveland. On to game #7 tomorrow! And then we drove out to a set of fields in the suburbs of Bangkok for an extraordinary morning of baseball.

Baseball in Bangkok 022 Through the great stateside assistance of Kristie Jochmann, along with help from the Red Sox and the Little League is identifying teams, we contacted a group in Bangkok, Thailand, that plays baseball. The last thing I expected, though, was to find about 125 players at an “off season” practice on a Sunday morning, from 9:00 a.m. to noon. The team holds its practices at fields at the site of a Japanese-based company, Minebea, that has a big facility in Thailand. Minebea, which makes electronic components and ball bearings, sponsors the team, which includes several very qualified coaches (Isao Aoyama, Koichi Suzuki, and Sugie Masatoshi) and a large number of talented and enthusiastic young boys and girls, from age 7-18. They compete in the Little League and take their baseball seriously.

The teams include both children from Thailand and Japanese children in Thailand in conjunction with the company Minebea. The coach indicated that about 1/3rd of the kids playing were Japanese, and the other 2/3rds were Thai. The mix was interesting to observe, and we found that the Japanese players were particularly tuned into professional baseball, and knew a fair amount about Major League Baseball.

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Baseball in Bangkok 026 They play on a huge field, and divided up into the four corners, with different ages playing in groups. The oldest kids played on a field with three parallel batting cages, all used concurrently! We didn’t play with this group, but my sense is that they were quite good. I chatted with one of their players over lunch (who spoke perfect English), who said most of them have been playing together for several years.

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Since this was an off-season practice, the coaches focused on conditioning. So the kids ran — a lot. Gibson said he’s never run so much in his life. And they did all sorts of stretching and other physical exercises. It was a hot morning (Bangkok is in the tropics), and the kids all played pretty much non-stop for three hours.

Baseball in Bangkok 067 At the end of the practice, we said a big thank you to the coaches and players for letting us play with them and learn about their program. And we gave them all Red Sox hats — over 100 in all! The kids were incredibly polite and thankful, and they looked like dream kids to coach. And many of them were aware of the Red Sox, especially Daisuke Matsuzaka. So we asked them to root for the Red Sox and Dice-K the next day in Game #7 against Cleveland. Let’s hope Thailand can send the Red Sox a little added kharma!!

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We then joined the team for lunch after the practice. Several parents were there, and they (and it looked like Minebea may have made personnel available to help with lunch) prepared a great meal for a large group. We also got a chance to spend some more time with the players and their families, which was really fun. It was impressive to see so much interest in baseball here in Thailand, as well as a major corporation like Minebea doing so much to help the program!

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For our photos from this fun day, go to:

http://dintersmith.phanfare.com/album/454924/633526

Dis-Orient Express

Saturday, October 20th, 2007

Singapore 076 When we planned our Asia leg for our trip, we thought it would be fun to spend a couple of days and nights on the Orient Express (or, the Eastern and Oriental Express, to be precise). Well, it was, in all senses, a once in a lifetime experience, mostly because we’d never do it again! It had it’s interesting aspects, but it won’t skyrocket to the top of our list of trip highlights, that’s for sure!

Singapore 047 We flew from Cambodia to Singapore, where we spent almost no time. We got in late on a Wednesday night, and were on the train departing at 11:00 a.m. the next morning. We did have time for a quick walk around a very impressive Singapore. The city, just one degree of latitude north of the equator, shimmers.

Singapore 152 We then hopped on the train for a 60 hour, 1,260 mile trip from Singapore, through Malaysia and Thailand, terminating in Bangkok. They claim the train’s maximum speed is 35 mph, but they’re being modest. I’m sure it goes twice that velocity in rocking side to side! But the cabins were cozy, and we all slept really well, despite the motion.

Singapore 140 On our way up, we stopped briefly in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysis, which looked big and interesting. I did my best to get a picture of the towers there (two identical, and beautiful, buildings), but the best I could come up with was of one. You’ll have to trust me that another lies right behind it. But, having heard the name “Kuala Lumpur” for years on NPR, it was fun to actually be there. And it looked beautiful at night.

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Singapore 167The next day we stopped for a couple of hours to explore a place called Panang, Malaysia. Well, Panang makes just about anywhere look like a fabulous tourist destination by comparison. Honestly, the picture at the right was by far the most interesting I took of Panang, and I know it’s boring. It’s just one of those places. It’s tag line is “It’s a City … It’s an Island.” To which I’d add “It’s a Bore.”

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Singapore 126 That night, though, we got a great treat when our kids put on a shadow puppet show for us. Shadow puppets are big in Cambodia. We didn’t get to see any shows there, but we did buy a few of the puppets. Our kids wrote a story and acted it out for us in our train cabin, while we chugged our way north through Malaysia. .

Singapore 226 On our last day on the train, we made a morning stop at the town where the famous Bridge on the River Kwai is located (a film made about it garnered seven Academy Awards). They had a “Death River” Museum, and we went on a brief river tour. This visit was more interesting than the stop in Panang, which says nothing. The bridge itself is not all that interesting, but the museum,and the World War II history it relates, was fascinating. We then visited a cemetery across the street with graves of thousands of Singapore 231 Allied troops who died as prisoners who were driven beyond belief to build a 250 mile railway in eighteen months. In all, some 12,000 captured troops and 100,000 conscripted Asians died, but the railway linking Rangoon, Burma, with Bangkok was finished on schedule. We read the inscriptions on many of the tombstones, and it was so sad to see the emotional messages from the families who lost their sons (most in their 20′s).

We then dragged ourselves back onto the train, where we met our restaurant point person (below, left), who we nicknamed “Dr. No.” And we recalled fondly the Thai dancer on the train, who without a doubt was the clumsiest dancer we’d ever seen perform in front of a group. When the train pulled into the Bangkok station, we were thrilled to arrive. .

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The train ride wouldn’t be something we’d recommend, but we actually had a great time on the train, despite the challenges (including no hot water for a morning shower in a stall the size of a shoe box, rocking back and forth!). And, for us, it was one of those “You only go around once” experiences, which will give us lots to talk about for the rest of the trip. And seeing the sacrifices of the troops in World War II put it all in perspective for us, underscoring how lucky we all are that so many brave people fought in such an important cause.

Phnomenal, At Times

Saturday, October 20th, 2007

We flew from Saigon to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Phnom Penh is the hardest capital to spell of all the world’s countries, so coming here should be helpful down the road in spelling bees. Our stay in Cambodia was short (five days), with a day in Phnom Penh and then four days in Siem Reap, home of Angkor Wat. Maybe it was our hotel situation, maybe it was our guides, maybe it was the Red Sox losing three straight to Cleveland, but we somehow never got super-charged about our time here, despite some really interesting things to see.

Phnom Penh 363 We spent a couple of hours at the Royal Palace of Phnom Penh, which was spectacular. For most of its recent history, Cambodia has been ruled by a king, and the palace is the king’s residence. The country is so poor, and the palace so opulent, that you wonder about priorities. But it has many buildings that were just beautiful in architecture and workmanship.

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While in Phnom Penh, we also took in the National Museum (moderately interesting) and drove around the city. At any point, you could see a new building, a run down building, and an ancient Buddhist Temple all next to each other. We also learned a fair amount about the hardship Cambodia went through in the 1970′s (rent the movie “The Killing Fields” if you’re interested).

Phnom Penh 469 The next morning we flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia, the location of the amazing Angkor Wat. Built in the 11th Century, this is best described by going to our slide gallery and taking in the vastness and beauty of it. At its peak, the enclosed city had a population of 1 million, larger at the time than any city in Europe. The city was protected by an eight-meter high wall and a moat well stocked with crocodiles.

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As we walked around these areas, we could only imagine what it was like it its glory days. The entire compound, once one of the largest and most impressive cities in the world, fell into complete disrepair. It was overrun with fichus trees and other plants, which not only hid it, but destroyed much of the stonework. We got the sense that considerable progress has been Siem Reap 023 made in stopping the rate of deterioration, but there is still so much to be done to try to recover what this temple used to be like. And if the photo setting on the left looks familiar, it played a prominent role in the Angelina Jolie movie “Tomb Raider.” The cast at left is unlikely to be hitting Hollywood anytime soon.

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As we walked through the ruins, the walls literally told a story. Many of them were covered with extensive story-boards, relating some interesting aspect of the history of Angkor Wat and the civilization that built and occupied it. And as religious wars took place over the past millenium, various “edits” have taken place, from eliminating all buddhas to covering parts with red paint (courtesy of the Khmer Rouge).

Phnom Penh 421 While touring the Angkor Wat complex, we had lots of encounters with wildlife. The area is full of long-tailed macaques (monkeys), and they bordered on being pests (although our kids never felt that way about them!). And we took a great ride around the temple on an unusual All-Terrain Vehicle — an elephant. It was hard to believe our kids are now old enough to drive (an elephant, anyway). The whole time we were all just laughing at how we’re actually on an elephant in Cambodia!

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Siem Reap 211 On our last day of touring Siem Reap, we went out and explored a local fishing village, which ended up being quite different from what we expected. We saw so many tiny shacks along the water’s edge, or houseboats, all inhabited by large families with almost no resources. These families all depend on the Tonle Sab lake for their livelihood, which is fed by the Mekong River. And the Mekong, the world’s eleventh longest river, has its source inSiem Reap 187 China, where it is being dammed for hydro power. The downstream impact on the fish in the lake and river, and indirectly on these families, has been huge. As the couple on the right are doing, we saw many fishing nets come out of the water empty while we were boating on these waters.

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Siem Reap 160 Unlike China and Vietnam, where the economies are booming and lots of development is underway, Cambodia is still struggling to determine how to move forward. The people seemed very nice (except for the staff at our hotel, Raffles, not one we’d recommend), but it’s still very much a third world country, with no sign of hitting its stride.

For our photos, go to:

http://dintersmith.phanfare.com/album/448839/624262#imageID=28956879

http://dintersmith.phanfare.com/album/448839/624703#imageID=29160547

Vietnam: Lessons Learned

Tuesday, October 16th, 2007

[Note:  This posting is more political in nature than any of my other postings.  Some readers may not wish to read it, especially if you're supportive of our current policy in Iraq.]

While I didn’t fight in the Vietnam War, I’m of the age when people my age were drafted (or volunteered) and did.  And my high school and college years were colored with intensity and conflict over the War, complete with protest marches and a fierce debate about the strategic urgency for the U.S. to battle Communism in Vietnam and prevent the “dominoes” from falling.

Well, we fought, we lost (some 58,000 U.S. lives and the war, to boot), and the “dominoes” did fall.  So thirty years later something catastrophic must have happened in Southeast Asia that damaged our country to the core.  Right? 

Today, Vietnam has an awful lot going for it.  The people seem industrious, productive and happy.  Their economy is based on good old free market capitalism, with lower tax rates than in the U.S.  And the economy is growing rapidly.  And, despite a one-party Communist government, we didn’t have the impression that the Vietnamese are looking over their shoulders, worried about the heavy hand of “Big Brother.”

When we came here, I expected to encounter occasionally someone who would shout, “American, go home!” or at least shoot us a nasty look.  I was surprised that the people here seem to harbor no ill will towards Americans.  The North Vietnamese we talked to generally expressed a view on the U.S. involvement in the War along the lines of, “Your government was wrong to interfere in our affairs, you created a bad situation here, and we are proud that we defeated you.  But we have no hard feelings toward the American people, since it was your government that did it, not you.”  The South Vietnamese view tended to be, “You encouraged and even pushed us into a major war, escalated the fighting, and then pulled out.  You left the Vietnamese with ties to the U.S. to face horrible consequences once you left.  It would have been better if you had never started something you weren’t prepared to finish.” 

While Vietnam has largely put the War behind it, we saw many Agent Orange victims — young and old — as we toured the country.  Until recently, the U.S. has insisted that the millions of liters (some 74 million, by one estimate) of Agent Orange dropped on Vietnamese jungles had minimal impact on the Vietnamese population, while the Vietnamese claim some 3 million of its people currently suffer from Agent Orange-related troubles.  I’m in no position to offer a definitive point of view on this, but we saw many badly-deformed adults and children everywhere we went in Vietnam. 

So are there lessons learned from Vietnam relevant to our current foreign policy fiasco in Iraq?  There’s the obvious set of insights about how difficult it is to fight a war in some remote country where you’re never sure who is on your side and who is against you, but that’s something we should have focused on in 2002.  Going forward, there are both near-term and long-term issues.  

In the near term, I suspect there have been some (not as many as we’d like) Iraqi’s working in a committed way with the U.S.  When we ultimately pull out, we shouldn’t repeat what we did in Vietnam and leave them high and dry.  They’ve been our friends, and we need to protect them from the retaliation that will be directed at them after we leave.  And I just hope that, years from now, the Iraqi’s can be as gracious and forgiving as the Vietnamese we met.

I think the long-term implications of what’s going on in Vietnam (and China, as well) are all about capitalism.  It’s been amazing for us to see this blend of a Communist state implementing policies that foster education and capitalism, complete with low marginal tax rates, in these countries.  Successful entrepreneurial economies bring all sorts of benefits, not the least of which is raising the country’s standard of living.   Educated people who see a way to get ahead through personal initiative are our best ally going forward.  If we want to help developing countries (even ones with repressive regimes), we should be figuring out ways to work with the government in power to improve the country’s educational and entrepreneurial infrastructure.  Lots of good things will then follow —  for a lot less than $1 trillion and many, many lost lives.

(We) Miss Saigon

Tuesday, October 16th, 2007

We completed our stay in Vietnam with a couple day visit to Saigon. The highlight of this visit was a Friday night dinner with Mr. Trung Ha and his great family. Sheila Marcelo, founder and CEO of Care.com in the Boston area, was kind enough to make an e-mail introduction for us with Mr. Ha. Amazingly, our first e-mail exchange was on Thursday morning and we were having dinner together on Thursday night!

Mr. Ha and his family were not only kind hosts, but incredibly interesting. In the 1960′s and 1970′s, Mr. Ha was Minister of Finance for South Vietnam, the youngest Minister in the history of the country. Meanwhile, his wife and her two sisters (all three were at our dinner) started a pharmaceutical company in the 1950′s, called OVP Pharmaceuticals, and grew it to a successful market position by the mid 1970′s. Then, the bottom fell out for them and many, many others in South Vietnam as the U.S. withdrew and North Vietnam took control of the south.

Mr. Ha and his family were fortunate to be able to leave South Vietnam (many weren’t) and come to the U.S. They (including his wife’s two sisters) spent three months in a stopover camp at Camp Pendleton, California. It was hard for me to imagine this educated, refined, and kind family going through this experience. They lived in the U.S. for twenty years, living in Newton, Massachusetts. He went to the Kennedy School at Harvard, then got his M.B.A. at Harvard Business School. He and his wife had several children there (and one of their sons joined us for dinner).

In 1995, they were approached by the government of Vietnam and asked to return, which they did. The sisters — Mrs. Nguyen Cao Thang, Mrs. Ha Truong Bich Tuy, and Mrs. Truong Bich Diep — started a new pharmaceutical company, also called OPV Pharmaceutical (www.opv.com.vn), which has now grown to about 700 employees!! You can read about the history of this fascinating company at http://www.opv.com.vn/eng/index.php?page=about_5. And Mr. Ha serves as an advisor to many companies, including OVP, as well as managing private investments. It was so interesting to hear their perspective on their time in Vietnam and the U.S., and their views of Vietnam’s potential in the future. It was inspiring to hear of a family that in many ways started three times (Vietnam, then the U.S., then back to Vietnam), and have done so well, so consistently. And it was impressive to hear about three sisters who’ve worked closely and productively together for fifty years!!

Saigon 270 After our dinner with the Ha extended family, the rest of our stay in Saigon was destined to be a bit of a letdown. We did go out to the Cu Chi tunnels, about an hour and fifteen minute drive from downtown. The drive is far from memorable, but it’s fascinating to see how the Viet Cong (South Vietnamese rebels who fought against U.S./South Vietnam side) were so effective. There is a vast system of Saigon 288 underground tunnels, not one of which big enough for me to navigate. Our nine and eleven year old could make it through, with difficulty, and Elizabeth barely survived her experience. And the Viet Cong would spend all daylight hours in these tunnels, for month after month.

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Saigon 272

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The engineering behind these tunnels was ingenious. They had work spaces near the surface, and areas to retreat to further below. They had longer tunnels that led to the river for access to boats and supplies. They did their best to cover every entry point to avoid detection. They were booby-trapped throughout with nasty spring traps (see video at http://dintersmith.phanfare.com/album/440303/619697#imageID=28699927), almost all made from the residual of U.S. weaponry (for instance, the metal from a shell was turned into barbs in a spring trap). The entry points were disguised (see video http://dintersmith.phanfare.com/album/440303/619697#imageID=28699927), and even the chimneys were structured so that the emitted smoke was dampened and clung to the ground. As we walked through the surroundings, I could only imagine how unnerving it must have been for the U.S. soldiers responsible for patrolling the area and searching for the enemy.

Saigon 314 During our stay in Saigon, we also went to the War Remnant Museum, which was a very emotional experience. The displays were much less propaganda-ized than I expected. And many of the visitors were in tears as they walked through the museum. One interesting statistics (I haven’t verified it) is that the U.S. dropped about 2x the number of tons of explosive in Vietnam as it did in WWII and the Korean War combined.

Saigon 256 We did a few other sight-seeing things in Saigon (a visit to the Post Office and the Cathedral of Notre Dame). And we met with representatives of C.A.R.E. who were helping support a volunteer group focused on AIDS education and prevention. They were very dedicated, and helping considerably in the battle against AIDS. And, like everywhere we have gone on the trip, we were shocked at how kind and thoughtful people are. At the end of our visit to this non-profit (which is working miracles on no budget whatsoever), they gave us a very nice present for visiting!

My take on Saigon is that it’s a very energetic, up-and-coming city. For Americans, particularly those with any interest in the Vietnam War and its aftermath, it’s worth visiting Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City. If you have little interest in the Vietnam War or the economic future of Vietnam, though, you might not find the attractions of Saigon worth the trip there.

For our photo gallery on Saigon, go to

http://dintersmith.phanfare.com/album/440303/619697#imageID=28699567

Hoi An??

Saturday, October 13th, 2007

Prior to our trip, I’d never heard of Hoi An, Vietnam.  Never.  Maybe I’m just clueless, but this town wasn’t on my radar screen.  So if you had asked me the likelihood that the most amazing beach location we’d ever stay in would be in Hoi An, I would have responded with something a bit stronger than “No way.”

Hue and Hoi An 046 We flew from Hanoi to Hue, about a two hour drive from Hoi An.  Hue was a nice place to visit, although an alternative is to fly to Danang, and have a fairly short drive to Hoi An.  While in Hue, we saw a beautiful pagoda, and an interesting fortress called the Citadel.  We only spent fifteen minutes at the pagoda, since we were pressed for time, not wanting to make a long drive to Hoi An after dark (which happened anyway).  The Imperial Citadel was first built in 1804, and it’s an interesting structure.  It has an outer wall and an inner wall, with some 3,000 residences lying between the outer and inner walls.  Anyway, not much to add about this place, which was fineHue and Hoi An 039 to visit but not worth going out of the way for.  I don’t think years from now we’ll look back and say, “Wow!  Are we ever glad we went to Hue.”  Admittedly, we breezed through, and there may be more there than we took in (for instance, we missed Tu Duc’s Mausoleum).  But it wasn’t a lifetime memory, that’s for sure.

 

Saigon 250 We arrived at our lodging in Hoi An well after dark, and that night had no idea what kind of place we were staying in.  But we sure found out in the morning.  We were in this fabulous complex, Nam Hai, right on the Pacific Ocean — China Bay to be exact.  The water temperature was ideal, and we stayed in this terrific cluster of buildings with its own swimming pool.Hue and Hoi An 088  Given that we had just had a few weeks of fairly packed travel, often staying in fine, but not particularly large, rooms, it was great to have room to spread out and time to just relax.   While we were there just three days, it felt like a month, and really gave us a great respite on our trip.

 

Saigon 246 All I can say is that the cost of construction in Vietnam must be quite reasonable, because this was an awesome place, and very few people were there.  They have developed the complex, and then sold off most/all of the units (none to us, although it’s tempting!).   Anyway, it was great to be right on the ocean, and to see lots of things from the Vietnamese fishing economy.

Hue and Hoi An 113 At left, one of the many fishing boats off the coast of Hoi An, which are often used as houseboats, as well as means to earn one’s livelihood.  Also, boats such as these were used in the 1980′s to take refugees (about 100 or so might cram onto a boat this size) to other countries as the Communist government took over.

Hue and Hoi An 213 We went out on the local river, and observed lots of interesting things.  In this picture, we saw a couple of women out on a fishing boat, and here we “captured” them casting their net.  At the markets along the shore, you could smell the fresh fish, including crab, that was being sold by the local fisherpeople.

Hue and Hoi An 126 We did lots of great things while in Hoi An — seeing local craftsmen at work at a marble quarry, watching women make silk — from A to Z (baby silkworms through beautiful finished items), observing women sifting through the sand on a beach to get and bag shells for sale to the local concrete company, visiting a local orphanage and seeing all the children born with severe deformities from Agent Orange, or hunting for frogs in the grasses around our villa.  But mostly we played in the pool and on the beach, and caught up on our laundry!  If you’re ever in this part of the world, make this place a can’t-miss destination.  We could have spent a week here and had a great time.

For our photo gallery on Hoi An, go to

http://dintersmith.phanfare.com/album/440303