Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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Hole In The Donut now available on your Kindle

Hole In The Donut now available on your Kindle

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Though I resisted the idea of climbing out of my cloud-soft king size bed and leaving Luang Say Lodge, my boat beckoned for a second day of my Mekong River cruise in Laos. As the captain expertly piloted our white yacht through rippling rapids encased by jagged rocks, I swayed with the gentle motion of the boat and made my way to a cushy leather captain’s chairs in the bow. By 7 a.m., a searing sun was burning off mists clinging to the liquid mud flowing past our hull, gradually transforming the surrounding landscape from sepia to a vivid palette of greens and golds.

Mists rise from Mekong River at dawn

Mists rise from Mekong River at dawn

I savored my morning Lao tea, brewed from local ginger root wrapped in gauze balls and pondered the notion that if ginger is an Ayurvedic cure for high blood pressure, the combination of Lao ginger tea and the Luang Say Cruise with Mekong Cruises must surely be the cure for any stress-related malady. From my backpack I pulled a dog-eared paperback book and flipped to my bookmark, but the soothing sway of the boat lulled me as it had the previous day; my chin drooped and I was soon fast asleep.

Excited chatter snapped me back to consciousness. I peered over the side of the boat just in time to see hill tribe fishermen pull up to the side of our vessel. Our eagle-eyed captain had spotted a large catfish in their flat-bottomed wooden boat and wanted it for his dinner. He drove a hard bargain, buying the fish for 30 Thai Baht, about one US dollar. Still groggy, I shook my head. We were no longer in Thailand, so how could I understand what was being said? Sensing my confusion, our guide magically appeared at my elbow and explained, “Thailand and Laos are the only two countries in the world that need no interpreter to understand each other because our spoken language is so similar. Plus, Lao children watch Thai TV, so most of them understand Thai. And of course, Thai Baht are accepted almost everywhere in Laos.” A surprising side benefit of many years spent traveling around Thailand was that I could understand much of what was being said in Lao.

Lao ginger tea balls

Lao ginger tea balls

With his dinner secured, the captain turned our boat toward the shore and placed its nose onto a glittering white sand beach, where we disembarked for a visit to the hill tribe village of Ban Baw. For over 600 years the village has been inhabited by three different ethnicities: Lao Loum (the majority in Laos), Tai Lue and Shan. The 180 residents live together in harmony as family, communicating in Lao rather that their native tongues. Over the years they have developed similar customs, wearing indistinguishable clothing and celebrating events such as weddings in the same fashion.

While this ethnic diversity is interesting, the village’s real claims to fame are the products produced by its residents. At the top of the hill, hand-loomed textiles were displayed on blankets lining both sides of the main dirt road. Woven from locally grown cotton and silk thread purchased in Luang Prabang, scarves and shawls were interlaced with gold lame thread that highlighted their intricate designs. I wandered between the women, looking for a more muted option among the brilliant reds, oranges and golds. Finally an ochre scarf with gold thread and brown fringe caught my eye, a perfect complement for my mostly khaki traveling wardrobe and only $5 US.

Hand woven textiles of silk and cotton in Ban Baw hill tribe village

Hand woven textiles of silk and cotton in Ban Baw hill tribe village

While the women riffled through scarves the men had congregated around the still to sample Ban Baw’s other famous product, Lao Lao whiskey. Husked rice is soaked in water overnight, after which it is steamed, rinsed with clean water, then mixed with powdered steamed rice flour and the leaves of the sang bong tree. The mixture is placed in a large clay jar and left to ferment for about ten days. Finally, the stored rice mixture is boiled in a large pot where the steam rises and is caught on the pots lid. As it condenses and cools, the liquid drips out of a spout and into a waiting jar. While I did not sample, I was assured by those who did that it had quite a kick, as well it should have, given its alcohol level of 45-55% proof. Read More

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Mekong River Cruise, Laos
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Over the years I’d heard all the horror stories about crossing from northern Thailand into Laos and taking a slow boat to Luang Prabang. Each day hundreds of travelers cross the Mekong River and join the crush at Lao Immigration, where they wait to be stamped into the country. Once approved, they’re herded like cattle aboard flimsy boats where overcrowding is so serious that some passengers are forced to sit on the floor for two days. One man even told me his luggage had been stored on the deck over the engine and by the end of the day his vinyl bag had melted into an unspeakable mess from the heat of the engine. Each time I heard another tale of woe I nodded sympathetically, thankful that I would be sailing on the luxurious Luang Say Cruise offered by Mekong Cruises.

Rather than fighting crowds, I was met by a representative of the company in Chiang Khong on the Thai side of the border, who showed me to the longtail boat for the short ride across the river. On the other side, a second employee greeted me as I stepped off the boat and escorted me to the offices of Mekong Cruises, located conveniently next door to the Lao PDR Immigration office. As my luggage was spirited away, I filled out paperwork in the relative calm of the office while sipping tea and munching on sweet bananas, after which I was artfully inserted at the front of the crowd waiting for the Immigration office to open. Soon, officers stepped to the windows and began collecting passports from outstretched hands, stacking them into an impossibly high pile that had me wondering how we would ever make our departure time. Miraculously, after a few minutes of jostling and jockeying, passports belonging to those of us traveling with Mekong Cruises were the first to be passed back through the thick glass windows, duly stamped and authorized. A short tuk tuk ride later I stepped aboard the white yacht that would be my home for the next two days.

Chess match on the roof of our boat

Chess match on the roof of our boat

Crew members threw off our lines and we motored into the swift current of the mighty Mekong. The powerful barritone engine thrummed through the soles of my shoes as I stuck my nose in every nook and cranny, investigating my choice of seating. Aft, thick upholstered benches formed a semi-circle around a large built-in table while the recessed main cabin offered individual upholstered captain’s chairs, but I opted for the roof. As minor rapids set the boat swaying gently to and fro, I languidly stretched and settled back onto one of the thick cushions strewn across the upper deck with camera in hand.

My fellow passengers settled in as well. Some pulled out novels or flipped through magazines. One man broke out a miniature chess board and challenged his son to a match. Within minutes, several passengers were snoozing. “They’re missing it! How can they possibly sleep?” I wondered, as I snapped photos every few seconds, excited that my first ever cruise should be on the storied Mekong.

A short while later the river bowed eastward and Thailand slipped away for good, along with the developed world. No telephone poles, no roads, no airplanes; just dense jungle vegetation marching down to mica-flecked white sand beaches that glittered in the midday sun, backed by waves of hazy green humpback mountains. Gradually, signs of life emerged. Palm and thatch huts peeked out from forests and naked children posed on cliffs, waving delightedly as we passed. Fishermen in flat bottom boats dipped nets tied to long pieces of bamboo into the muddy waters, crossing the bamboo branches like enormous chopsticks on the down stroke and uncrossing as they scooped upward. In the searing heat, our captain maneuvered the boat toward shore for a visit to a Hmong village, perched high atop a ridge overlooking the river.

Hmong hill tribe children gather on shore to meet our boat

Hmong hill tribe children gather on shore to meet our boat

Children from the village ran headlong down the hot sands to meet our boat, competing for a chance to sell trinkets: bracelets woven of colored yarn, felt purses, and Lao silk scarves interwoven with gold and silver thread. The young girls turned their big eyes on me, imploring, and before I could protest a pink and purple bracelet had been tied around my wrist. Whether or not their sad faces were cultivated for effect, I couldn’t refuse; I dug in my pocket and handed one of the girls a U.S. dollar, accepted throughout Laos as are Thai Bhat. Read More

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Some years ago an elfin man approached me as I walked along a boulevard in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. He could see I was puzzled and wanted to help. What did I need? Holding out my handfull of trash, I pantomimed dumping it, then shrugged my shoulders and swept my hand in a semicircle to indicate my search for a trash bin. He pointed to the street pavement. No! I shook my head. Yes! he replied with a nod. Springing forward, he grabbed the trash from my hand and threw it on top of a pile at the curb then, flashing a huge grin, turned on his heel and ambled away unconcernedly. Had it not been tossed upon a fetid, stinking garbage heap I would have picked it back up.

Trash on the street in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

Trash on the street in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

Later that same afternoon I came back to the same neighborhood after a day of traipsing around old Saigon and noticed a woman clad in a green smock and conical straw hat pushing a two-wheeled cart. Every few feet she stopped and bent to the asphalt with her hand broom of twigs to sweep up piles of trash and deposit them in her bin. The pile that had horrified me earlier in the day was long gone, and I suddenly realized that my trash was her job security.

Flash forward to 2010 and my four months of travel around Mexico. A beach bum from way back, I was stunned by the dazzling white sands and crystalline turquoise waters of the Yucatan. The beaches of Tulum and Playa del Carmen are among the most magnificent in the world. As I traveled further south to a largely undeveloped part of the peninsula, mile after mile of exquisite beaches stretched as far as I could see. Unfortunately, so did piles of rubbish. Shampoo bottles, shoes, needles, plastic containers of all kinds had washed up just above the high tide mark; where there were no houses or resorts there were no efforts to clean it up and in places the trash was a foot deep. At the southernmost point of the Yucatan I rolled into Xcalak, a sleepy town best known for its diving and deep sea fishing, and put down roots for a few days.

I brought up the subject of litter with the managers of Casa de Suenos Resort, who insisted that it did not originate in Mexico. Although some claim it comes from cruise ships that dump their trash at sea, current regulations for the cruise ship industry require weighing of the trash when ships return to port. Using available data about the average number of pounds of trash generated per person at sea, a formula is applied according to how many passengers were aboard. If the load is light, the cruise line is subject to severe financial penalties. The more commonly accepted explanation is that currents wash trash up from Central and South America and as evidence that the theory is sound, the resort manager produced a yellow hard hat he had picked up on the beach. Scrawled across the front were the words “Panama Canal.”

Trash on beach in southern Yucatan, Mexico

Trash on beach in southern Yucatan, Mexico

More trash on beaches in Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico

More trash on beaches in Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico

For the past several months I have been back in Asia, where the problem is as severe as anywhere in the world. To a large degree I have learned to look past the garbage; though I still cringe each time someone leans across me to toss their trash out of a bus window, I find myself reasoning that even the plate is made from biodegradable palm leaves. Rather than being appalled, I am Read More

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I’ve passed through my fair share of border towns over the years. Many are shabby, filthy encampments that exist on either side of a barren no man’s land where immigration officials with steely gazes extract their pound of flesh. Some, like Poipet at the border between Cambodia and Thailand, feel downright dangerous. As I gradually made my way toward the northeast corner of Thailand to cross over into Laos, I didn’t know what to expect, but I was prepared for the worst. My bus from Chiang Mai dropped me in Chiang Khong, Thailand, just across the river from Laos late in the afternoon, so I dumped my pack at the hostel and headed out to explore the town, since I would be leaving early the next morning.

Food vendors line the streets in Chiang Khong, Thailand

Food vendors line the streets in Chiang Khong, Thailand

Piles of glistening vegetables, like these multi-colored hot peppers

Piles of glistening vegetables, like these multi-colored hot peppers

As I followed the main street along the Mekong River I was initially surprised by the lack of trash on the streets; indeed Chiang Khong was the cleanest town I had ever visited in Thailand. Children waved and greeted me with “hello,” then giggled and hid behind their mothers, having exhausted the the only word they knew in English. I replied in Thai, asking their name or how old Read More

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On the day I departed from The Sanctuary Resort on Koh Pha Ngan, the seas were again too heavy for the Koh Samui ferry to pick guests up from the beach, so we climbed into an inflatable rubber boat for the short ride to the larger boat, waiting out in the bay. As if serving up a crowning indignity on a visit that had been disappointing at best, the boat timed the swell poorly and dove through a wave, drenching passengers and luggage. Exasperation turned to laughter all around and soon I was comparing notes with Patricia and Martin Bourbonnais, who had spent the previous week at the resort.

They had chosen the Sanctuary for its famous detox and fasting program and were now bound for Koh Samui for a few days of relaxation at Zazen Boutique Resort & Spa. I  had wavered between spending time on Koh Pha Ngan or Koh Samui but eventually settled on the former because it was reputed to have lovely beaches and its remote location meant it would be less touristy and crowded. But the extra effort required to reach Koh Pha Ngan, which is accessible only by boat, hadn’t deterred visitors, who arrived in droves to party hearty at the famous full moon parties held every Friday. I admitted that even the beaches had fallen short of my expectations; the soft, powdery sand that I prefer was non-existent on Haad Tien Bay.

Aerial view of Zazen Resort and Spa

Aerial view of Zazen Resort and Spa

Pool and restaurant at Zazen Resort

Pool and restaurant at Zazen Resort

Deluxe Garden Bungalow at Zazen Resort and Spa, Koh Samui, Thailand

Deluxe Garden Bungalow at Zazen Resort and Spa, Koh Samui, Thailand

Perhaps sensing my disappointment, when they learned my plane didn’t leave until later that evening, Martin and Patricia suggested I join them for lunch at Zazen and relax on the beach rather than spending hours waiting around an airport. I gratefully accepted, delighted to have an opportunity to check out what Koh Samui had to offer. Despite my disheveled and still soggy appearance, the Resident Manager of Zazen, Diego Pignatelli, graciously welcomed me and provided a changing room where I could shower and store my luggage for the day. Refreshed, I joined my friends and dug into a mouth watering vegetarian coconut curry over rice at the resort’s open-air Zazen Restaurant while drinking in the view – a perfectly manicured beach and shimmering seafoam green ocean that stretched to the horizon. After lunch my friends headed out to do some shopping while Diego stepped in and showed me around. Read More