Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Hanoi – Mega-Long-Overdue Update

Sushi!CAN I just say how much my life doesn’t suck?

I know, it’s been forever.  I have a stack of real emails – you know, actual honest-to-god letters — that I owe responses to, and it’s been weeks since I’ve updated the blog, but I’ve been astoundingly busy.  And astoundingly happy.

AND — I can’t just upload some photos to Facebook as I’ve been doing recently, because Vietnam blocks Facebook.  Yeah.  Go figure that one.

Paragon MallJesus, I don’t even know how to tackle this post… so much has happened!

OK, first, let me say that Bangkok must be the crossroads of the world.  In the “It’s a small, small world” category, I recently shared an amazing meal at a Laotian restaurant (NOM!) with the most amazing beer (if you ever, ever see Beer Laos, buy it, and drink it, and be happy) with Sarah — who I’d met at PEP meetings in DC when she worked at Refugees International with Peter Gantz — and Rachel Gerber, who I knew from her work on atrocities prevention at the Stanley Foundation.  Both live in Bangkok now, illustrating either that the world is really, really small, or my network is just too big.

A study in contrasts

Cognitive dissonance: a Buddhhist shrine right next to an Isuzu racer, in front of a stage with the scantily-clad, “dancing” Thai girls.

I’ve connected with another couple of cool women through the Bangkok Photography Club on Meet Up — we’d planned to see a bunch of cool street art but the launch party was short on street art — just two guys very slowly spray-painting a wall from a cherry picker — and long on launch-event speechifying and break-dancing.  That day was such a study in contrasts: while killing time waiting for the group outside a couple of the big malls, there were all these other events — Izuzu was doing a big promo with one stage featuring awesome young dancers, and another featuring a few skinny, skimpily-clad girls who were all but pole dancing, and there was another launch of a music festival — while in the same

So there wasn't a lot of street art, but there was Hoegaarten, which makes everything better.

So there wasn’t a lot of street art, but there was Hoegaarten, which makes everything better.

space were heart-wrenching beggars (see previously posted crummy video) and Buddhist shrines and the everyday weekend traffic of Thais and tourists shopping their hearts out.   I also spent a lovely day with my friend Julie — who regular readers will remember was randomly visiting Puerto Rico with her partner Glenn in December when we were there — as she passed back through Bangkok again after her fabulous trip to Myanmar.  After a lovely massage, hit the pool at her hotel (see, life REALLY not sucking!) and met up with another small-world connection — Astara, who just happens to be the daughter of our friend Randy from CURACAO.  She’s also living in Bangkok.  Seriously. I think that this is the center of the known universe.

Random view of everyday life: neat lines to board the skytrain.

Random view of everyday life: neat lines to board the skytrain.

But it’s not just the random connections that are delighting me — I also have fantastic colleagues — Lena, Dominik, Dao and Mahesh all make me terribly happy to come to work every day, and I’m continually delighted by how awesome all the folks at UNICEF are!

Oh, no, wait, the gushing doesn’t stop here, because my job ROCKS.  Fundraising has never been my favorite thing (nor my least favorite, by any means), but this time, I’m LOVING it:  how cool is it to ask for money for KIDS??  And, even better, for not just service delivery, but systems change, really changing the way governments do business??  It’s fantastic.  Of course, I haven’t actually asked anyone for any actual real dollares yet, but, hey, I’m totally psyched about the idea of it.  I PROMISE I’ll write about my job soon, but so far the actual job has kinda take up the time I’d otherwise have spent writing about it on my long-neglected blog.

More random life: this dog is always sleeping right outside my local 7-11, arms akimbo, tongue lolling.  I've never seen him move, or eat -- just sleeping.  And, yes, he's still alive.  I checked.

More random life: this dog is always sleeping right outside my local 7-11, arms akimbo, tongue lolling. I’ve never seen him move, or eat — just sleeping. And, yes, he’s still alive. I checked.

Speaking of blogging, if you haven’t read Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny whazzername — The Blogess – go online and by it now.  It’s just about the funniest thing I’ve ever read, and her writing makes me wish I could ever be as random and funny as her. But I’m not.  I’m too earnest.  And as we well know, earnest isn’t funny.  But I try.  You’re welcome.

So after being a social butterfly and thereby contracting a cold from hell (the inevitable “switched continents” virus), I did a combo work trip/visa run to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Air Asia's weekend uniform: jeans!

Air Asia’s weekend uniform: jeans!

Flying into KL, there are old palm oil plantations as far as the eye can see.

Flying into KL, there are old palm oil plantations as far as the eye can see.

Petronis TowersI was totally psyched to go to Kuala Lumpur, because I’d seen Entrapment, and we all know how damn cool those buildings are.  And the Petronis towers ARE cool, awesome cool, but Kuala Lumpur… um, well, not so much.  If you like shopping, particularly mega-high-end malls and street markets with knock-offs of all the high-end mall designers, then ok. But I’d already gone though the OMG, WTF the f**K is this s**t in Bangkok and so was so. not. impressed.  I was super-excited about the “traditional crafts village,” which ended up being mostly empty (though I did share a lovely tea with two gentlemen, one of whom had a real thing for carving owls.  And noses.  Yes, noses.) except for the gift shop, which was well stocked.  The awesome Petronis towers?  You need to grab tickets early on to go up to the skybridge (go Asia and the sky-stuff!), so the only option was wandering around the mega-mall below.

Downtown KLOne of the nicest things about Kuala Lumpur was the chatty cabbies.  I love talking to cabbies; they’re some of the most interesting folks around.  In DC, you can always count on finding out that your cab driver was an Eastern European doctor who’s studying for the medical boards or an Ethopian or Eritrian anxious to tell you all about why the other side is wrong, and in New York, it’s a roll of the dice; they could be from any country on earth and have the most interesting stories.  In KL, they were all Malaysian, but all spoke excellent English (unlike in Thailand, where my daily cab rides to and from work are strikingly silent) and two of the four drivers I had were retired from interesting jobs, like running an orphanage, and just driving cabs to avoid retirement boredom.

The KL Tower

The KL Tower

KL ChintownKL’s Chinatown, despite the tackiness of its street market (seriously, I AM NOT INTERESTED IN FAKE JIMMY CHOOs AND FAKE CHANEL BAGS!), was fabulous.  I stumbled across a traditional lion dance — part of the ongoing Chinese New Year celebrations and had an amazing dinner of venison with ginger and spring onions accompanied by a delicious stir-fry of vegetables and a massive Tiger beer.  It’s funny eating other Asian cuisines after so much Thai food: it’s so delicate and there’s no need to ask for “little chilis” to avoid overwhelming the other flavors.  I also had Malay (also NOM!) food at just about every other meal, other than one *highly* disappointing Indian meal in Little India.  Which kinda sums up Kuala Lumpur: rather disappointing, despite the fantastic experience in Chinatown and the super-chatty, very interesting cabbies.

Chinese Lion Dance

Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire

Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire

KL Chintown

Stephen Colbert needs a new word: heatiness.  Keep it away!

Stephen Colbert needs a new word: heatiness. Keep it away!

Veggie market in Little India

Veggie market in Little India

Little India

Little India at night.

Little India at night.

Little India FountainBut that’s OK, because in-between my evening trips to Little India and Chinatown, I did manage to get a lot of work done during the day, and even managed to get my Thai non-immigrant visa.  Of course, that was a bit of a mess, as the KL Thai embassy used to issue multi-entry visas, but has recently switched over to only issuing single-entry visas with the requirement of adjusting them to multi-entry once you return to BKK and get the work permit.  Which takes three weeks.  While they have your visa. Which is a BIT of a problem when you’re scheduled to leave for Ha Noi the next Monday. Yikes!  So I wrote to the UN visa people, who told me not to show the longer-term visa to immigration and just ask for a tourist visa.

Now, let me say that after 12 countries in 15 months, Philip and I learned the hard way that IT’S NOT A GOOD IDEA TO TRY TO DECEIVE IMMIGRATION.  It backfires.  So when I came back into Thailand, I told the nice, young Thai woman that I needed a tourist visa because blah, blah, blah.  She heard the tourist visa blah blah blah, stamped my passport with a tourist visa, and called over her supervisor, whom I think spoke better English, because when I explained the situation to her — that I had a non-immigrant visa but had asked for a tourist visa because I was leaving for Ha Noi the next week — she started to take my passport back to her colleague, and when I said, “No, this is what I wanted, I just wanted to make sure that it was all by the rules,” she looked again at my passport, sorta rolled her eyes, then looked at me and smiled that beautiful Thai smile and handed me my passport.  Score one for honesty!  And the fact that no bureaucrat wants to un-do their colleague’s mistake when the customer is happy!

So…  I was back in Bangkok for 4 days, during which time my boss told me that he didn’t want me to do “case studies” in three countries, but instead visit ALL of the countries in the region and create a proposal for each.  (Insert here: INFORMATION THAT WOULD HAVE BEEN USEFUL YESTERDAY!!!!) So then I’m contacting all the country offices and trying to arrange visits to them before May 15, when my contract ostensibly ends — unless it’s extended as we hope — which is totally crazy, and impossible, because I have to get my Thai work permit/visa AND it takes up to a week for each other country for which I have to get a visa, during which times my passport is MIA… so that’s an ongoing snarl we’re trying to sort out.  Thank God for our research assistant Kuhn Dao is so amazing; I can’t imagine figuring this all out without her!

I also had a fantastic weekend of bar hopping (I am totally too old for that shit.  I’m not kidding.), brunches (crepes and Lebanese!) and pampering (TWO HOUR massage for $13!! Yoga!!), and another small-world connection: turns out that Anna, a friend of my friend Maegon, whom I knew in ’90-91 in Belgium when we were exchange students, is also friends with Sarah, the woman I mentioned above whom I knew in DC… and who two different DC friends told me to get in touch with.  The web gets smaller…

ha noi architectureAnyway, my weekend of pampering and wonderful Skype conversations with Val and Philip, I was both exhausted and refreshed (if that’s even possible) when I set off for Ha Noi this morning  . . . at 5:45 AM.  (OMG. Longest post ever.  Three pages to get to TODAY.)  Due to a dead battery in the cab and a longer-than-expected train ride, I barely made my flight (SERIOUSLY. When someone is sprinting through the airport, yelling, “Scuse me, ‘scuse me please!” at the top of her lungs, STOP SASHAYING and looking at the Hermes/Chanel/booze and get the hell out of the way!!)  Amazingly, I made the flight and got to Ha Noi, where it was drizzy and cold — sixty degrees!  I know, all y’all in the frigid U.S. are like, F-U!  But I haven’t been in anything under 70 on a regular basis for years, and I don’t have any warm clothes!!)  It’s nice, though, under my 100+ layers of long-sleeve T-shirts, to wander around in the mist, enjoying the spring.

afternoon snack of snot, anyone?(At some point during the afternoon in the hotel, my work was interrupted by a wee knock at the door, which I opened to find nice woman offering me a box.  With lots of writing in Vietnamese.  I surmised I should take it. When I opened it up, I found a plastic-wrapped, acid-green mass that looked a lot like that stuff we had as kids, you know, the goop you throw up against the wall and it oozes down dramatically? Yeah, that stuff.  I surmised it might be food, so I opened it up, sniffed it and took a bite.

Now, I know you’re thinking that it must have been some sort of soap or something, but it turned out to be a sweet, a VERY ODD, acid-green, goo-looking sweet that tasted like marshmallows but had the consistency of tapioca pudding mixed with very strong jello.   Um.  Ok.  Suffice to say it’s still sitting on my side-table.)

After spending the afternoon at the UNICEF office interviewing staff, and then back at the hotel sorting out travel and reading background docs, I figured 10+ hours of work was enough and headed out to see Ha Noi.

tea timeHa Noi is amazing — I wandered the 1km or so from the hotel along long avenues strung with bright paper lanterns; past countless tea- and coffee-stalls where people young and old sat on tiny stools, sometimes puffing on long, bamboo water pipes or playing games; and by a couple of charming lakes bordered by shining temples and old people doing Tai Chi into the Old City.  On the way, I was nearly killed by the crazy traffic at least a dozen times, as motorcyclists and cars alike ignored traffic signals and whizzed through intersections with little regard for pedestrian life, or other vehicles for that matter, honking wildly.  Apparently, Ha Noians really, really like honking.

may 1 squareflowers more ha noi architecture birdie random soviet era art cafe culture crazy traffic lotus lanterns lanterns pretty! lake and temple tai chi by the lake

art galleryWhile the guidebook promises loads of lanes lined by 18th century merchant’s houses, I got distracted by a couple of art galleries and the need to eat before I made it to the cool sections.


awesome grandather clock

A new take on a grandfather clock…

Ha Noi cathedral baskets and hats lamp store playing gamesLa SalsaOh, and dinner. Dinner was the most, ahem, orgasmic food experience I’ve had in years.  I had been recommended to try out a tapas place, which sounded lovely after a month of mostly Asian food, but when I arrived I found a genuine little French cafe, complete with chalk-board menus and a French owner, with whom I rhapsodized about our dream to live in Southern France one day.  I had two adequate, but well-matched, glasses of Malbec with my French onion soup (half-pureed, with cheese only on the toasts — perfect) and duck with cassis sauce (a point, seared on the outside, rare on the inside, and absolutely divine), all accompanied by slices of the best baguette I’ve had outside France with creamy, salty butter.  I was swooning.  Literally.  Oh, and the bill: no swooning.  Though looking shocking at 480,000 dong, It was less than $25.

Duck breast in cassis sauce French onion soupPretty toesies!I stumbled over to the Spa I’d scoped out on the way up for a much-needed pedicure.  Now, before you get all bitchy and say, wait, massage on Saturday, pedicure on Monday, may I remind you that this is the second pedicure of my entire life, and after two years of running around barefoot on teak decks then transitioning to wearing shoes again, I had calluses literally peeling off my feet. OK, yuck, but the slight wine buzz and heavy food buzz, combined with the pampering left me swooning with contentment.   Of course, after the pedicurist finished painting my toes a shocking shade of red, she absolutely forbid me to put my shoes on and provided me with a complimentary pair of acid-green, disposable flip-flops . . . all for less than $5.  (Yeah, my life sucks. Didn’t I start this post saying MY LIFE DOESN’T SUCK???)

So, I waddled back to the hotel in my flippie floppies, full with dinner and the amazing adventures, where I found Downton Abbey on cable.  Can life get any better???  Only if Philip were here with me, that’s for sure!