Laung Prabang, Laos – Day 2

On the second day in Luang Prabang, I decided to get out of the city and explore the countryside a little bit, and one of the big attractions out there is the Kuang Si Waterfall. It is a series of waterfall over pristine lakes that brings in tons of tourists to enjoy its beauty and to cool off in the water of the pools. It is about a forty-five minute drive from Luang Prabang, but there are many ways to make it out there. My wife and I rented a van to drive us out there for about the cost of six U.S. dollars. It was totally worth it too, because we just got to relax in the car and enjoy the scenery instead of feeling the pressure of driving in a foreign country and not really being accustomed to the rules of the road that the locals follow. Even though we took the easy way, there were still a bunch of other tourists who rented bikes and made their own way out there, or found tuk tuk to take them.

Entry into the park costs 20,000 kip which is just over a couple of dollars, and it includes entry into the Tak Kuang Si Bear Rescue Center. There are many people who live in this region, mainly Chinese I am told, who believe that the bile from the sun bears has healing properties, so they will trap these bears, keep them in small cages, and extract their bile from them for their own use. It was nice to see that there was a group in Laos dedicated to protecting them, and they had created large environments for the bears to roam around so they no longer felt the pressure of having to live in the cage.

The same people did an amazing job of keeping the water of the waterfalls pristine. I couldn’t believe the frosty blue that shimmered in the pools collected by the water trickling down the hill. And even though there were some crowds in the place, I was still able to find a private spot where I could enjoy the water. It wasn’t as cold as I was expecting it to be either. It was quite comfortable and if the weather was warmer, I would have stayed in longer.

Other people there found place where they could jump into the water and enjoy the crowd a little bit more. It was the perfect place to find the amount of people you wanted to contend with, and when you found that level you were free to enjoy yourself.

Of course the hike up the waterfalls had the big payoff at the end. The huge waterfall cascaded down a series of rocks and there were many places you could go to click the perfect picture. Granted the crowds got a little bigger here than some of the other places on the hike, but it was still never so bad where I felt like I had to fight through the elbows in order to enjoy the serenity that the spot had to offer.

We were also more adventuresome than some of the other people there. There was a small path on the left of the waterfall that we took to reach the top of it. The path was kind of steep and there were a couple spots where it was really slippery because you needed to walk through the side of the waterfall itself, but we made it too the top. The pools were not as pretty up there, but the views of the countryside was worth the trek.

It wasn’t only about the waterfall either. There was some amazing trees out there and every once in a while we came across an explosion of flowers. It was during the dry season as well, so I couldn’t even begin to imagine what this place would look like if it got enough rain to really explode.

For the most part, the hike was really worth it. It was the perfect blend of nature and man made structures to support it but not take away from the natural charm of the area.

It is a must stop for anybody who finds themselves in Luang Prabang, and I am glad we made it out there. After a couple of hours enjoying the area we made it back to the parking lot where our driver was happy to take us back into town.

Luang Prabang, Laos – Day 1

Luang Prabang is a small town situated in the heart of Laos. It is an obvious tourist destination but it does not attract the younger crowds looking for a night of crazy partying mixed with days spent around the pool. Yes, you can still have a few drinks at night and then spend the day sitting around a pool, but that is not the real attraction of this place. Instead it is a blend of a couple of things that really come together in a surprising way that makes people wonder what part of the world they really in. Laos used to be under the control of the French and you can still see that influence out here around every corner. It sometimes makes me feel as if I am in some small European town, but then there is also the fact that it is in the middle of Asia, and the place also holds on to the charms of the long rich heritage that has been here a lot longer than a few invading European forces could crush with their imperialism.

I could see it when I looked at the lush landscapes around the place. It is situated between two rivers, the bigger Mekong river, and the smaller Nam Khan River. When I looked at the banks flowing down to the river, I saw the power of nature as it took over the land with its jungle landscape.

But then, walking through the town, there are many places where the foliage has obviously been landscaped to look pretty and perfect, making the simple alleyways in town tempting little places to explore. The nice thing is that they are fun to explore because the town is so small that I am never worried about losing my bearings and getting lost in a dangerous part of town. I don’t think there is a dangerous part of town.

Unless I count the foot bridge that takes people across the Nam Khan River. I couldn’t believe it when I saw it. It looked like something out of an Indiana Jones movie, and would be ready to collapse at any moment. It just meant that this would have to be something I would have to cross some time while I am out here. I did not do it on my first day because it costs a dollar to get across and I wanted to explore the main part of the town first, but it is definitely on the list of things to do while I am out here.

Apparently the people of Luang Prabang rebuild it every year during the dry season. When the rains come, the river gets really high and takes out the bridge. This just gives me another reason that I have to cross it because it is there and this version of the bridge will only be there for a limited amount of time.

I guess the rest of the year when the bridge is not up, they use ferry boats to get across the river. It would be fun to take one of these as well, but not as much fun as that bridge has to be. But I do need to make my way to the other side of the river while I am out here because there is a whole different part of the town over there. This is probably where most of the people who work out here live, and they do need a way to get across.

It goes back to that mixture that I saw on my first day out here. There is a healthy amount of fishing that takes place on the river, and it is probably the main source of food for the people out here. The river looked huge in my mind when I watched fisherman throw out their nets, and I am sure that they could bring it a big haul everyday, and this was still the dry season. I could not imagine how crazy this river gets during the wet season. It has to be huge, but then again I come from Colorado where we think that the trickle we call the Platte River has earned the title of river. When I see the Mekong during its low period, I learn that Coloradoans need to rethink their position on rivers.

Beyond the river is the town itself with its many features. There is the old palace that used to house the king of Laos that you can tour around. It is absolutely beautiful inside and even though the presentation chambers are decadent, it is surprising to see the humble quarters where they lived. Granted the bed room is probably close to the size of my whole apartment back in Seoul, but it is its simple decoration and practical living styles that remind me that I am looking at the living space of an Asian king. There are also many Buddhist temples out here, and their intricate design and peaceful atmosphere make them a wonderful place to visit and tour.

But as soon as I leave the grounds of these tourist spots, I find myself back into the French influence of the country. There are numerous bars that spill out to the sidewalks at night and people sit in their chairs sipping on their cocktails as they watch the various people pass them by. They serve food that is a blend of Asian spices and French cuisine. It makes the choices of food amazing. Laotian food is very similar to Thai food with its spicy deliciousness, but I can still find a nice Western style meal if I want to. Eating will be one of the things I will enjoy a lot while I am out here, and it makes me excited for what other adventures await me on this trip.

It’s Now About the Destination

Yes, we have all heard it before, the comedian standing up on the stage complaining about how horrible airports are. We have even experienced the moment. There are mixed emotions that we go through every time we are forced to make our way to the airport. On one hand, we are going some place great to enjoy a wonderful vacation, but on the other hand, you have to deal with an airport and airplane travel.

Yes, these places are awful. You get packed into places with large groups of people so they can shuffle you off from one place to another. They just become nameless faces among thousands. You get to sit on hard seats. You get to have the seat in front of you lean back so they can crush your knees. You get to smell really bad airline food because there is no way that you would ever want to eat it. And you get stuck in terminals during layovers because if you leave, it would mean that you would have to stand in line all over again to back to the place you never wanted to be in the first place.

Even though the mere thought of it makes my back shrivel up in dread, it wasn’t until today that I really understood why I truly hate airplane travel. It is not all the uncomfortable positions I get placed in because if I am driving across America, I get those same pains from being stuck in a car all day. It isn’t from the bad food because if we are being honest, the fast food that you find off of any highway in America is just as bad. No, I think the real reason I hate it so bad is because it takes away from me one of my fundamental beliefs.

Life is not about the destination. It is the all about the journey. It is about the things that you get to experience along the way. Don’t get me wrong; the destination is awesome when you are going on vacation, but so is the journey. Some of my favorite stories come from traveling on a train, or hanging with my new friends on a bus, or some of the crazy things I have seen from being on the road. But traveling by plane is all about how fast you can get from one place to another. There is a little hole you feel within your existence because you no longer get to talk about the stories that you would have collected along the way.

Now, a lot of airports will have great pieces of artwork up that reflects the nature of the little corner of the world where they find themselves in, but most of the time they are remakes of some original that could only be found outside of the airport. They are still neat to look at, but you still didn’t have to make the trek to go and see it. Instead it is right there off of the airplane for you to admire.

Most airports try to fill in the void that you experience from not having the journey with shopping. It is crazy the kinds of things you can find for sale at airports too. Incheon International Airport is probably one of the worst. They expect you to spend your money on Tiffany’s jewelry, or Gucci bags. They do not even have a place where you can pick up a small snack to enjoy on the plane, or a book or magazine to read to make the flight go by quicker. And even worse, they have Duty Free shops to fill in that void even more. If buying expensive things doesn’t make you feel better, than get yourself some cheap booze and cigarettes to pass away the time. The sad thing is you will only wake up from that with a bigger void you wish to fill.

In fact the only time you feel like you have completed anything that feels like a journey is when you first arrive at the place where you will stay. This is the first time that what you will see that looks like it has the adventure that we crave as human beings. The only problem is that it is found at the destination, the place that was meant to be our reward for going through the adventures in the first place. Think about every great epic story that you know. It is not about them being at the place, but instead it is about the adventure they have to get there. And I long for the same thing in my life.

The only problem is that after all the exhaustion that is experienced on the voyage to get to your destination, the only thing you look forward to is the bed so you can rest up to take on the next day. Yes, the next day will be filled with adventure, and it will be worth the long travel to get there, but you are still missing out on something because of the airplane travel. Now don’t get me wrong. In this busy world that we live in, I will still take that flight so I can enjoy places like Laos on the spur of the moment, but there is still a part of me that wishes that I could experience it the old way where I would take the long, slow route, so I have something to talk about when I get there.

This way the drink and company I share when I arrive will even be more enjoyable.

Pyeongchang Olympics – Day 5

Yes, I have had an amazing time at the Winter Olympics. It has been a lot of fun and it is something I will never forget, but there is an ugly side to the Winter Olympics that I have not addressed yet. Large crowds descend on an area of the world that was not meant to have these large crowds, and after everything is said and done the community that hosted the Olympics is left with a bunch of stadiums, and features that the small community will never be able to support financially. I would go as far as to say that in the long run, it is bad for the community economically and leads to destroying the landscape for the chance to host the world for a couple of weeks. This goes for both of the Winter and Summer Olympics. I saw a report the other day that said the fabled Bird’s Nest in Beijing is now being used as a place where people can take tours around the track on a Segway. But I think it is even worse for places hosting the Winter Olympics. Pyeongchang is a series of towns with the largest one being about 200,000 people. It is situated in the mountainous area of South Korea, and there are not a lot of roads going between the locations where events are taking place. This means that there are insane traffic jams taking place as people try to make it to their events on time. The last event I saw took me just over three hours to get to and I only traveled 30 miles. These places cannot handle the crowds that come there. I am looking to you Colorado, because if you think I-70 is a mess now, imagine what it would be like if you added another million cars to the road.

This means that sometimes at the start of events the crowds are not up to capacity because it is just too hard to get there or people are still trying to make their way through the traffic. If you take an event like the ski jump that only takes a little over an hour to complete then people wonder why they should even bother with it.

And this goes back to the costs of hosting the Winter Olympics. This beautiful structure was not here a couple of years ago. It was built specifically for the Winter Olympics. What is going to happen to this thing after the crowds go away? Are there going to be enough people who want to come out here to try their hand at ski jumping? Or will Koreans start to take up the sport and during the next couple of Winter Olympics will we start to see them being a huge impact in this sport? Think about the five stadiums clustered together back in the Olympic Village. Is a town of 200,000 people ever going to have a use for one large stadium, let alone five, one of which was designed to house curling? Now I have been told that Pyeongchang took this into account, and they designed all of the structures so they could be torn down and transported anyplace that might have a need for such structures, like the next Winter Olympics, but it still comes at quite the cost that there is no way that they will ever see a profit with this event.

And think about the impact that the crowds and traffic has on the environment. Korea already has a problem with air quality. Do you think it is going to help things to have a bunch of idling cars spitting out exhaust? Where does all the trash and garbage go in a country that is not that large to begin with? What are they going to do with those large parking lots that they had to construct just to handle the amount of people that arrived? The Winter Olympics are definitely going to leave their footprint on Pyeongchang that is a lot bigger than a few memorials left behind that showed what life was like for the two weeks when the games were here.

But on the other hand, there is some positive that comes from all of this. For a couple of weeks, all eyes turn to see what a great place South Korea is. It is all about the people and the optimism that they put out due to their resolve and hard work. It shows the world a place that is usually associated with bad news can be about. It is not about some cartoon character to the north trading insults with another cartoon character across the sea. It is about the world coming together in harmony to show that they can be competitive and still get along with each.

It is about marveling at the athleticism of those that have a passion for the sport because this is the only time that they will be able to shine. It is about every country finding their hero, whether it is some insane mane who wants to see how far he can fly on a pair of skis or if it is a group of bobsledders showing a country in Africa that they too can compete in the Olympic games. It is not necessarily about winning. It is about just being there for that moment in time.

I have enjoyed my time at the Winter Olympics, and even though I have traveled to over thirty different countries in the world, it has showed me more about this rock I live on more so than all the travel I have ever done. Should the Winter Olympics continue? Definitely, but they need to figure out a way where it does not destroy the community it goes to while maintaining the spirit it had created.

Pyeongchang Olympics – Day 4

I will admit that I had booked for my fourth day at the Winter Olympics was the one I was looking the least forward to, figure skating. It is not that I do not think of these people as athletes. I am amazed at what they are able to accomplish on the ice, and I can see that they is a lot of preparation that they have to go through to make sure it goes off flawlessly. My problem with it has always been that it is way too subjective. Instead of having set goals that prove that one team has scored more than the other, there are a set of judges sitting on the sidelines voting for who they thought was the best and using some crazy rubric that decides how they came to that decision. It is almost like being an English teacher.

The one thing I did like about it was that it was during the day this time. I didn’t have to wait around until the late hours of the night to watch the event start, and afterwards I would be able to wander around the town at my own pace seeing the sights that have been put up to celebrate the fact that the games were here. What I was not expecting was the influx of crowds that came in this day as well. What was a ghost town of Monday had turned into a thriving community. Lines became long, food ran out again, and there was even traffic coming in from my pension. It was as if Korea started to wake up and take notice that the games were going on in their backyard. It could also be because Lunar New Year was the next day, and a lot of people had the time off to go and watch the games, so this might have been the busiest time of the whole games.

It could also have been the extra attraction of the North Korean cheerleading squad was also going to be in the area. They have been the golden goose that everybody has wanted to catch a glimpse of. I was hoping to see them to see if the reports that I have heard about how repressed the people of North Korea are is true. But the mere fact that they are so hard to see made me think that it might be true. They get shuttled around the area, and they are always separated from the crowd by a handler. They were even given their own section at the ice skating arena to watch the performance of the only two truly North Korean competitors, Ju Sik Kim and Tae Ok Ryom. They were almost as much fun to watch as the ice skaters were. They sat quietly through everybody else’s performances, and when their team was announced they got up and did a synchronized dance to show their support. Kim and Ryom gave a good performance, and after the judges scored them, they were in third place with eight more teams left to compete. This is when the North Korean got up and left. I wonder if they went back to their hotels thinking that North Korea had earned a bronze medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics. A friend of mine who was also at the event happened to be in the bathroom when they all came in to use it. She told me that a guard sectioned off the bathroom from the rest of the cheerleaders and would not let them mingle with anybody else. It is this kind of display that makes me realize that all the news reports I have heard about North Korea are true.

Besides the North Korean circus, I also got to witness figure skating. I have to say that my trepidation going into the event was unfounded. Figure skating is really amazing to watch live. I hated it growing up because that is all they seemed to show when they aired the Winter Olympics, and I wanted to see things like hockey, ski jumping, and the bobsled. But after I have been to one of these competitions, I start to understand the power of it. These people are spectacular athletes and they can do things that I would never imagine possible in my mind. The loud music just adds to the experience making it such an amazing thing to see. I would highly recommend that if you ever get a chance to go see figure skating live you should do it because it is worth the experience. After every performance people throw stuffed animals and flowers out to the competitors to show their appreciation for what they had just witnessed, and it was fun to watch the young Korean girls skate out on the ice to collect all the accolades. It is also great to see such a huge representation of all the cultures of the world present at this even that it makes it the real sport that represents the Winter Olympic games.

And as for it being subjective, I can say with confidence that the way it panned out for who was first, second and third would have been exactly how I picked it. The Germans who won the gold medal put on a powerful performance that will stick with me for the rest of my life. They were graceful, yet they showed enough strength that they would be able to compete with the brute force of a hockey player. It was fun to even see the award ceremony at the end of the competition. It wasn’t the official medal ceremony, but each competitor that made it up to the stands received a stuffed version of Soohorang that they could hold up as it is was a medal.

I can also say that the team we are supposed to pretend isn’t from Russia also did not medal again. I think I am their bad luck charm because I keep on seeing a huge amount of Russians coming to the events in the hopes that they win, and they keep going away empty handed. And it wasn’t because they deserved to win, but the judges had something against them. They were ranked number one going into the competition, but because they fell twice it put them in fourth place.

All in all, as the crowds get bigger, the events get greater and it seems as each day beats the previous one out here. The Winter Olympics are a great event, and I wish I had more than just one more day to enjoy them.

Pyeongchang Olympics – Day 3

Welcome back from Pyeongchang, and my third day out here at the Winter Olympics. Things have started to pick up. The cluster, which was completely empty on my first day, has really seen in influx of traffic. There are more people running around, taking pictures of the sights, and getting ready for various events.

South Korea has taken advantage of the opportunity too to show the world what it is capable of. There are a lot of little corners all over the place that show off the culture of this proud nation. I have started to feel the spirit of the games grow as well. There is more excitement in the air. At first I couldn’t figure out why it took a few days for this excitement to get built up, but I believe it has to do with the level of competition. On the first days of competition, there is not a lot of medals handed out because most events are in the preliminary stage. Now that things have been going on for a few days, things have started to be figured out, and the bigger medals are being decided. This is what the people came for, and this is the real reason why the crowds have started to grow. There is still not a ton of people, but I suspect by the end of the games, the place will be packed.

I had another hockey game to attend, and this time it was at the hockey rink in the cluster. I wasn’t as excited about it even though there would be hits in this one because it was a men’s game. This match-up was billed as more of a blowout though. Slovakia was playing the team we are not supposed to call Russia, and that juggernaut would surely take over this small nation that was still trying to find its identity now that it was no longer under the shadow of the iron curtain. Even though, I was not excited about the match-up, I was excited for the event. I didn’t have a choice when I put in for the tickets because who was playing had not been decided yet, and if I had a choice I would have watched the other blowout planned for the night, U.S. versus Slovenia.

Despite the disappointment, I went into the game holding on to the small belief that Slovakia could somehow pull out the upset. It was only five minutes into the game before I realized that this was probably not going to happen. Slovakia was down 2 to nothing with only one shot one goal. This looked like it was going to be a bigger blowout than the women’s matchup I witnessed the night before. But the Slovakian did not give up, despite the crowd’s support for the opposite team.

It didn’t take long before the whole feel of the game changed. Slovakia patiently waited until the right moment, and ended up with two breakaways where they scored two goals, tying up the game before the end of the first period. This is when the Slovakian started to show their faces. There were pockets of them all around the stadium screaming in support of their team. The fans from the other side still cheered for the team, but you could feel their trepidation that things were not going well for them.

The rest of the game played out as a tense tie until the middle of the third period where Slovakia was able to squeak out another goal. You could feel that it was going to happen too, because they had three strong chances during power play opportunities from the team who likes to say they are from Russia. Slovakia was able to hold on to end up winning the game. It was one of the more exciting hockey games that I have ever seen, and I am glad that I was able to see it. By the way, the other game that I wished I had gone to also had an upset as well as Slovenia took down the mighty U.S., so it looks like I had the tickets to the better event after all. It makes me excited to know that each event has the potential to be great and makes me excited about the next two days out in Pyeongchang.

Pyeongchang Olympics – Day 2

Welcome back from Pyeongchang, not Pyeongyang, which I am finding out is a completely different place without so many happy cartoon characters walking around. From what I understand, it still has cartoon characters; they just aren’t that happy. And I need to start off this day by apologizing about the name of the cartoon characters around here. Yesterday, I called the white tiger by the name, Bandabi, and this is not correct. His name is Soohorang, which comes from the word, Sooho, which means protection. He is the official mascot of the 2018 Winter Games as I have been told due to my mistake yesterday. Bandabi is the name of the bear, and he is the official mascot of the 2018 Para-Olympic Games which will take place in two weeks at the same locations. I don’t know what his name means, but I am sure that as I am posting this, somebody will explain it to me tomorrow.

For those who don’t know, the tiger is a very important symbol in Korea. Its image is all over the place, much like Soohorang is all over Pyeongchang. Many Koreans believe that Korea started from a tiger, and if you look closely at the shape of Korea, you can see the shape of a tiger. I can imagine a lot of you googling the map of Korea right now to see if this is the case, and it might be hard to see. I have actually had to have my students draw it out for me before I was able to see it.

When I wasn’t thinking about tigers during my second day out at the Winter Olympics, I was going to a different location than where I was on the first day to attend a women’s hockey game, and this time, one of the teams was the team I was the most excited to see, the U.S.A. They were playing the team that we are supposed to pretend is not Russia, and I was super excited about this moment. I had watched Miracle a couple of weeks ago and this was reminding me of that historic game, except for the fact that it was women playing this time, and that it wasn’t really much of a competition. In fact, the U.S.A. killed those people without a country from Russia. The final ended up being 5 to 0, and the really indication how lopsided this game was happened when I looked at the shots on goal. The U.S. had over 51 shots on goal, compared to that other team who was wearing red and usually lived in the country known as Russia who only had 11. In fact the puck was hardly ever over on the United States side of the ice.

Even though the game was a blowout, it didn’t mean that I still couldn’t have fun at it. First off, it is always nice when your team wins. But there was enough entertainment going on to make the game just as fun. A band from the Netherlands showed up to play a few tunes. Apparently this same band has played at the Winter Olympics for the past thirty years, and they really got the audience pumped up before the action.

Also being at a sporting event in Korea means that there has to be cheerleaders. They also worked hard at pumping up the crowd while remaining neutral to the events taking place on the ice. I know there are a couple of teams in the NHL that also employ cheerleaders, but it is just weird to see them at a hockey game. But then again while I have been living in Korea, I have seen them at baseball games which is even weirder.

And it is not like if they weren’t there that I still wouldn’t have seen strange people wandering the crowd. This is probably the best part of the Olympics. People from all over the world come together to watch sporting events decked out in gear that shows what country they are from. I have never seen so many people wearing the American flag, and they weren’t the only ones here like it. I saw people dressed in Swiss gear, Canadian gear, and waving the unification flag for Korea out here. I even saw people wearing the Russian flag which I don’t understand why because they aren’t even at these Olympics.